Sex and Violence Revisited
Topics that interest the leaders and critics in our society are often merely fads. One is the current uproar over the prevalence of sex and violence on TV. Ever since Congress seized the electromagnetic spectrum in 1927, our political "representatives" could freely fret about and tinker with broadcasting. No doubt they would be doing the same about sex and violence on film and stage if they had a legal excuse for doing so. But they do possess the legal justification for dictating a good deal that goes on in the TV industry, programming not excluded.
Television is a legally maintained oligopolistic business. Three networks, with a few independent companies as their only serious competition, have a virtual lock on the broadcasting business. The Federal Communications Commission, with Congressional mandate, makes sure of their safety and security, for which they must pay by heeding political pressure and control. Anyone wishing to crack the field must pass the test of the FCC, which involves, for example, the requirement that new stations not deprive existing ones of their "audience share." Just think. A prospective broadcaster must prove to the FCC that his new station will not compete successfully, in order to be allowed to compete!
The three networks form a cartel that serves millions of viewers. It is not quite like most European and socialist bloc broadcasting, where government operates the airwaves directly, but it comes close enough; the FCC supervises, with frequent threatening moves from Congress to extend the control should broadcasters not heed vociferous critics in Congress and the body politic.
To sustain this artificial, frequently bizarre arrangement, some lowest common denominator in the "public taste," reminiscent of the content of political campaigns in any welfare state, must be found. This allows but a modicum of variety in program style, content, and quality, compared to the free market of the American book, magazine, and newspaper publishing business. (The Chinese and Russians, among others, have experience with these businesses similar to ours in broadcasting.) That it does not have to be this way has long been proven—e.g., the alleged absolute scarcity of television frequencies is just that, purely alleged, with no foundation in science and economics.
This situation and some acquaintance with the perennial themes of literature—poetry, drama, novels, and even opera—should indicate what the mainstream of broadcast entertainment must be: fiat, fourth-rate, shallow renditions of the important themes of human imagination. For what does it mean to charge the industry—the writers, producers, actors, and directors of television entertainment—with offering a preponderance of sex and violence?
In one clear sense there is nothing unusual about such entertainment. There is hardly a worthwhile novel, play, poem, song, opera, or other artistic creation that fails to dwell on love and moral conflict. Sexuality is simply the correlate of the topic of romantic love, a theme surely not neglected by Aristophanes, Plato, Dante, Shakespeare, Hugo, Ibsen, Mann, O'Neil, and the hundreds of other great writers who have attended to the human situation. Of course, some have emphasized love's physical aspects in preference to its spiritual side—e.g. D.H. Lawrence. Others, like Plato, Dostoyevsky, and Ibsen, dwelt more on the spiritual dimensions of the subject. The same may be said of violence. Direct combat is frequent in the novel, the great plays of Shakespeare, and the numerous operas that have interfused moral and political conflict with their fiction.
No doubt I am in deep trouble for even mentioning these greats in connection with the sex and violence on television. But am I? What about the dime novels, the musicals, the comic operas and operettas and plays written by the less noted figures of human literary history? And is it not the case that with the greater and greater participation of the general public in the arts, there would develop, even without oligopolistic television broadcasting, a greater supply of simple, uncomplicated, even shallow treatments of the major themes of literature? Catering to the masses, as they say, is harmful only if it excludes the possibility of greatness. And what has prevented the development of commercially feasible, special-market-oriented quality television entertainment? Clearly the artificial centralization of the broadcast industry. (The illusion that Great Britain is superior in its overall television broadcast quality should by now have been destroyed. And what little quality programming has been imported from England shows clearly that sex and violence can be offered with the Queen's English, in which case foes of American commercial television prove to be snobs, not bona fide critics at all.)
Our politicians are clever, though. First they nationalize—forcibly seize—the spectrum and make it a carrier of grey, virtually uniform entertainment fare. While this suits a great number of people, the verbalists (at universities and at magazine and newspaper editorial offices) are squawking. So to please them, and to obtain even firmer control over the medium, they introduce public broadcasting, thereby forcing the already cheated taxpayer to fund the exclusive entertainment fare of the highfalutin among us. Not a bad trick!
The main point is this: Let's quit picking on commercial television's preoccupation with sex and violence. What there is of that on the air really isn't really different from what there has always been of it around the unsophisticated people of the world. Without TV the raw sex and brute violence that fascinates those not tutored in fine artistic renditions would be obtained in bawdy songs, humor, gossip, fantasy, dime novels, and all the other means by which human beings have managed to entertain themselves before television and before the current swarm of sociologists were let loose—at taxpayer's expense—to study and propose clever curatives for what ails us now and has ailed us always, simple and complex, noble and base imagination. Children, too, will find sex and violence anywhere.
Anyway, sex is good; it is just that it can be treated well or ill, which in its simplistic ways television manages to do in about equal proportions. Violence itself is a mere outcome of severe conflict among human beings, made more or less meaningful, given better or worse expression and slant in all the art forms, including television's shallow version. I am convinced that there is far more to complain about concerning the verbal violence of all current drama, the moral relativism of the rest of the literary forms, and the socialization of morality (whereby our scriptwriters can think only one kind of evil, hurting others, and one kind of good, helping others, never mind one's own soul and the quality of those to whom one may extend help).
But never mind. Even if one chooses to beef about the prevalence of sex and violence in the entertainment and literary worlds, perhaps the best remedy is to write a good book, or, better even, a television screenplay, and put it on the air. But to do this one needs to break up the government maintained oligopoly, which is what makes diversity—one essential condition of the creation of excellence—impossible in today's television.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Sex and Violence Revisited".