Broadcast television dramas are catching up to the level of violence often found on their cable counterparts, a Parents Television Council study released Monday finds, and are often not given the Mature Audience only rating that cable's most violent dramas typically bear.
The PTC examined the seven most violent shows on network television – determined by the tracking it does of all the content aired on broadcast – and compared it to what it deemed the seven most violent cable shows, looking at a show's first month of episodes in either the 2012 or 2013 fall season. It found that there was only a 6 percent increase in violent content among the cable shows, which included "American Horror Story," "The Walking Dead" and "Breaking Bad," compared to the network dramas in the study, like "Revolution," "The Blacklist," and "Criminal Minds."
Furthermore, all seven of the network shows are rated TV-14, which according to the parental guidelines make them unsuitable for children under 14 years of age. Five out of the seven cable shows were rated TV-MA ,meaning they may be unsuitable for those under the age of 17. (While the "Walking Dead" episodes including in the study were rated TV-14, more recent episodes have been upped to TV-Mature.) Such ratings are determined by the channels themselves.
The study's findings run counter to the general presumption that the most violent shows on cable dramas tend to be far more graphic than those on network television. PTC Public Policy Director Dan Isett says the study's findings that broadcast dramas have weaker ratings than their counterparts on cable reflects a failure on the part of network executives to properly communicate to parents the amount of violence on their programming.
"They want people to believe that everything is fine – that they're committed to helping parents make decisions– when they're simply not," he says. For instance, the study found that NBC's TV-14-rated "Revolution" had more violent content than five of the TV-MA-rated cable television shows in the study.
Making this trend more troublesome, he says, is the rise in broadcast-only TV homes, so called "cord-cutting," particularly in minority and lower income homes, with financial reasons being the most cited motivation to do so.
Concern about the parental ratings systems has become an industrywide problem for Hollywood, as other recent studies have examined the failure of ratings systems to distinguish among violence in movies. A November study found that the level of gun violence in top-grossing PG-13 movies had actually surpassed that in R movies. A similar study also released Monday revealed that violence in films is often coupled with other risky behaviors like drinking, smoking and sex, at similar levels in both PG-13 and R movies.
Since the Sandy Hook Elementary school shooting nearly a year ago, the role violence in media plays in spurring such massacres has been a point of intense discussion. Legislative and constitutional hurdles make straight-up censorship of violent entertainment more or less impossible. "Failing that as a solution, what we have to have is an open, transparent ratings system," Isett says.