In a scene in a post-apocalyptic future, a bandit pins down a former Marine Corps sergeant. He's poised to kill him, until the sergeant grasps at a sword in the grass. In one motion, the sergeant slits the bandit's throat. Blood spatters, the man makes a grotesque dying gasp, and falls.
So went a scene that aired on a Wednesday at 8 p.m. in September on NBC's TV drama "Revolution," which debuted in 2012 in the 10 p.m. slot but has since been moved to 8. The show is rated TV-14, appropriate for children aged 14 and above.
And new research suggests such televised throat-slitting may be becoming more common at the dinner hour. A study by the Parents Television Council, a media watchdog group, found scenes of graphic violence and gore are increasing in TV dramas –and particularly on NBC.
The data showed that eight of the nine dramas NBC has on air or is soon to debut – all of which are rated TV-14 – contain what the group considers graphic violence and gore, at what it says are unprecedented levels. NBC's three returning dramas, "Revolution," "Chicago Fire" and "Law & Order: SVU," together had far more scenes of violence this season than last season, with violent scenes in "Law & Order: SVU" more than doubling from 10 to 24 scenes of violence this year.
NBC declined to comment on the findings, but has previously defended its violent programming. After the shooting at Newtown, Conn., in December, NBC Entertainment Chairman Robert Greenblatt insisted there was no clear link between shows about violent behavior, such as NBC's "Hannibal," about a serial killer, and incidences of violence in the country. In April, however, NBC pulled an episode of "Hannibal" out of respect to the victims of the Boston bombings.
Brad Bushman, a professor of communication and psychology at Ohio State University, and an expert on violence in the media, says the shift toward more violent programming in TV, movies and video games is driven in part by changes in technology. "As technology is increasing, it's easier to make things more graphic and more realistic. Technologies are being created to create a sense of immersion, of presence, so that you forget you are in a mediated world." The more realistic the violence, he says –citing research OSU has not yet released –the greater the effect of that violence on the viewer.
But the debate regarding violent programming is not new, and in part that's because there has never been real regulation of violence on TV. The Federal Communications Commission, which has rules to regulate language and sex on TV, has no such guidelines for violence, and parameters are left up to the networks. (In 2007 the FCC failed to get Congress to enact legislation that would allow it to regulate violence on television during the hours when children might be watching, between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m.)
During the past several seasons, networks have taken advantage of their free rein to release a barrage of violent shows – many of them to astounding success. AMC's "The Walking Dead," about a violent, post-apocalyptic zombie wasteland, has set several ratings records, including this Sunday when it opened its fourth season with 16.1 million same-day viewers, a series best. "Breaking Bad," a crime drama centering on a chemistry teacher-turned-meth maker, drew 10.3 million viewers in its series finale, the show's biggest showing ever. Repeat murderers also seem to be in vogue: Showtime's "Dexter," about a serial killer, CBS' "Criminal Minds," which profiles criminals, including serial killers, and Fox's"The Following," about an FBI agent chasing a serial killer, have all been hits.
Parents Television Council President Tim Winter, who worked at NBC for 15 years before joining the watchdog group, blames the rash of violent programming on a "lemming-like mentality" of networks "trying to outperform the others with the same negative programming, as opposed to positive programming."
Winter argues that what audiences want is not more violence, but better storytelling, though he acknowledges a show like "Breaking Bad," which had an entire episode in 2012 about the murder of a child, has also been praised for its master storytelling. "There has been violence in entertainment for thousands of years," he says, "but the issue is now it is going into homes at the time of day when children are watching."