Gun Debate Puts TV Industry In An Awkward Position

There has been a lot of talk lately about violence and society. Entertainment industry representatives insist violent entertainment does not make people violent. But television critic Eric Deggans points out: The TV industry is based on commercials, which is based on the idea that at least some people will do what their TV shows tell them to do.

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Americans are talking about gun control in a way they have not in years. Which is awkward for the entertainment industry. Here's TV critic Eric Deggans.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Want to see a TV executive squirm? Ask if real-life violence can be inspired by the fake shootouts packing some popular television shows.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHOOTING)

DEGGANS: Cool-looking TV gunfights don't influence anyone to pick up an assault rifle, these executives would say. But those same executives earn billions of dollars a year pushing you to buy things with messages like this.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMMERCIALS)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Call right now and I'll triple the offer.

Then grab your keys and get to Macy's.

Call 1-800-Jenny20 and hurry, before they all disappear.

DEGGANS: The whole TV industry is based on the idea that commercials can convince you to buy stuff. But many executives insist the same thing doesn't happen when a hero shoots a villain on "CSI" or "Law and Order". As the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary spark a nationwide effort to grapple with violence, the questions have only gotten tougher for the entertainment industry.

Which makes this a really awkward time to debut a TV drama which luxuriates in violence. It just happens to center on a serial killer who inspires others to become murderers, in the same way commercials can convince you to buy a box of Tide.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE FOLLOWING")

KEVIN BACON: (As Ryan Hardy) He's inspiring people (unintelligible) followers.

DEGGANS: Kevin Bacon's "The Following" plays a bit like "Silence of the Lambs" for television, featuring a stalwart FBI agent caught in a cat-and-mouse game with a brilliant killer.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE FOLLOWING")

BACON: (as Ryan Hardy) Joe Carroll. He didn't just kill 14 female students. He was making art.

DEGGANS: The series debuts days after President Obama released a series of sweeping proposals to curb gun violence in America, including a call to study any possible links between media images, violent video games and shootings. But there's one other problem here we don't often discuss: Sometimes, watching violence can be really entertaining. I'll admit enjoying this stuff.

I'm a fan of Clint Eastwood and Quentin Tarantino. Consider the words of Tarantino himself on WHYY's Fresh Air. He's explaining the different kinds of violence in his latest hit, the Western saga "Django Unchained."

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "FRESH AIR")

QUENTIN TARANTINO: There's two types of violences in this film. There is the brutal reality of the violence that slaves lived under. And then there's the violence of Django's retribution. And that's movie violence. And that's fun and that's cool.

DEGGANS: Tarantino is the ultimate showman, making his argument with an honesty few others in Hollywood can manage. Yes, some violence in media is fun to watch, he says, and there's no harm in admitting that. But with conflicting information from academics and advocates, we don't really know if he's right - no matter how much we want to believe it.

Perhaps the more honest answer, is that we are still so enthralled by entertaining violence, we're not willing to give it up, regardless of the cost. At least, not yet.

INSKEEP: Eric Deggans, TV and media critic for the Tampa Bay Times.

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