Violent Reruns

The fault lies not in our TV stars but in ourselves.

Remember the rotten '70s TV series The Incredible Hulk? Based on a Marvel comic, it followed the bathetic journey to the end of night of one David Bruce Banner, who famously got belted by gamma rays and thereafter turned into a musclebound, green-skinned rageaholic whenever he had to stand behind shoppers with too many items in the express checkout line, renew his driver's license, or sit through another Jimmy Carter sermonette on thermostat settings.

According to the latest research on television and violent behavior -- a genre of the social sciences that is the rough equivalent of the seemingly unkillable permutations of Scooby-Doo cartoons -- it turns out that we're all Incredible Hulks now, especially if we watch more than three hours of the boob tube a day.

This we know thanks to the persistent efforts Dr. Jeffrey G. Johnson of Columbia University and the New York State Psychiatric Institute (presumably, he's on the staff). Johnson and his fellow researchers tracked around 700 kids in two upstate New York counties over 17 years and found that those who watched a lot of television were more likely to be aggressive as they got older.

Over one eight-year period, say the researchers, only 5.7 percent of the participants who watched less than an hour of TV a day committed a "violent act." The figure was 18.4 percent for those who watched one to three hours a day and 25.3 percent for the ostensible couch potatoes planted in front of the green-eyed monster for more than three hours a day. Even more striking: The study found that watching any sort of programming is enough to unleash the Hulk within. We probably knew this all along, but apparently 7th Heaven enrages us every bit as much as South Park.

Sounding more like a mad scientist than a real one -- and brushing aside his own work's catholic condemnation of small-screen spectacle -- Johnson told The New York Times, "By decreasing exposure to media violence, we may be able to prevent millions of Americans from being raped and murdered."

This latest study is, of course, the same claptrap that we've heard ever since TVs became a common household appliance; it participates in the venerable, centuries-old tradition of vilifying mass culture ranging from novels to comic books to movies to popular music. As such, it tells us precious little about its apparent subject. As psychologist Jonathan Freedman, author of the new comprehensive analysis Media Violence As a Scapegoat: Scientific Evidence of Its Effect on Aggression (University of Toronto), pointed out to The Washington Post, Johnson's study "has nothing to do with TV -- it has to do with lifestyle.... People who watch more than three hours of TV are different than those who watch less than an hour."

Indeed, the new study is far less remarkable for its conclusions than for its ho-hum reception. Just a few years ago, precisely this sort of thing gave rise to White House "summits" on the need for a V-chip in every pot, censorious warnings from the U.S. attorney general that Hollywood had better clean up its act pronto (or else!), and congressional hearings featuring self-appointed morals czar Bill Bennett doing his own Hulk impersonation while decrying the lack of outrage. This time around, though, the "provocative new study" (in the Post's phrase) generated about as much sustained interest as a sitcom featuring a former Seinfeld cast member.

What explains the glorious lack of panic? Maybe Americans have finally lost interest in reruns, whether they're of old TV shows or old complaints about TV shows. Maybe we're too busy watching the season's best new show, MTV's The Osbournes, which features rocker Ozzy Osbourne -- himself accused of fomenting death and destruction back when heavy metal was understood to be the leading cause of social decline -- as the most bizarre, lovable, and dysfunctional TV patriarch since Herman Munster. Or maybe after years of increasingly lurid entertainment and declining violent crime rates, we're simply willing to acknowledge that our faults lie not in our TV stars but in ourselves.

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