On January 1, a new code of television violence came into effect that was produced by the Canadian Association of Broadcasters (CAB) and approved by the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC). Keith Spicer, chair of the Commission, has asked other segments of the industry to prepare their own codes.
While the new rules on children's programming are fairly well grounded in the research findings, we know from past experience that classification systems and parental advisories on late evening programming have little value as preventive measures. Once a program, video, game, or film is on the market, everyone-including children-usually ends up with access to it. Young people are getting a distorted picture of "adult entertainment."
There is a glaring loophole for ads. Representing the Canadian Coalition Against Violence in Entertainment, I was interviewed by the news programs of both CBCTV and Much Music about the violent new interactive video game called "Mortal Kombat." Only hours later, both stations ran advertisements for the game. In the case of Much Music, the ad actually followed a public service announcement warning teens that alcohol abuse is bad for their health! (Should they amuse themselves to death with video games instead?) Sega argues that they are being "extremely responsible" by noting that the game is unsuitable for those under the age of twelve. Nintendo feigns corporate responsibility because the blood spatters in their game are "optional." Yet violence is integral to the plot of this game, and after 9:00 p.m. broadcasters will be free to advertise it. This weakness in the code could add to the problem of violence in video games.
The public must monitor the CRTC to assure that they do the job. The new code is to be administered by the Canadian Broadcasting Standards Council. In the experience of some community organizations who have complained about violent programming, the council has been difficult to approach and has tended to sympathize with the broadcasters. The industry-based National Action Group is developing a classification system, but it is not clear that they are bothering to examine research on the harmful effects of media violence. The International Coalition on Violence in Entertainment already has developed a rating system that takessocial costs into account; it deserves attention.
The code will certainly be criticized as "censorship" while the unbridled profit motives involved will not be criticized at all. In the debate on media violence, distinctions need to be introduced between individual freedom of expression and corporate freedom of enterprise. The problem of cultural pollution is beginning to reach crisis proportions, as we can see from the growing incidence of violence in schools.
Fortunately, prominent researchers have declared that the debate is over as to whether media violence harms society. The debate has now turned to policy: How are we going to deal with the problem? At conferences, we keep hearing the same old recommendations: better parental supervision, blocking devices for home use on television sets, media literacy in school, advisory warnings for extremely violent programming, boycotts from concerned citizens, letters of complaint to TV stations, producers and advertisers. Then there is that hardy perennial, "industry self-regulation," which has never worked well. Given the nature of the communications industry today, we simply have to pin our hopes on it anyway. For this reason, the new CAB code must be seen as an important step in our collective challenge to stem the proliferation of violence.
Unfortunately, at Toronto's City Hall, the Film Liaison Office is still preoccupied with creating a "Hollywood of the North," despite the social costs. Mayor June Rowlands declared September 8 "David Cronenberg Day" to honor the guru of morbid horror films. That recognition does not encourage young film producers to select more pro-social themes for their work.
Toronto has streamlined the film location permit process, and the revenues from shooting here has reached an all-time high. The new Robocop series will be produced in Toronto, with expected expenditures of $36.5 willion by July alone. In Top Cops and Kung Fu, the good guys will be chasing bad guys around Chinatown and Casa Loma.
Does any code of ethics guide the issuing of film permits? According to Robert Millward, City Commissioner,
It is generally agreed that federal and provincial bodies are responsible for reviewing and rating the suitability of programming for public distribution and that it would be inappropriate and impractical for any government body to set regulations that prejudged program content before suchmaterial was assembled into a finished form.
In the summer of 1992, the Toronto Transit Commission had banned a Los Angeles film crew from using the subway system. The script was violent and contradicted TTC policy to make the system safer and more attractive to riders, especially women. The outraged producer protested, and the TTC reversed their policy-but only after the script was revised to delete the unacceptable violence. According to TTC general manager A.F. Leach, script changes will be required prior to filming to prevent affecting the image of public transit adversely.
We congratulate the TTC for this demonstration of corporate responsibility. We urge the City of Toronto and Metro Council to catch up.
The CRTC decision to improve the code on violence was a response to a petition signed by one in twenty Canadians started by Quebec teenager Virginie Larivere, whose younger sister was murdered. Before the election, the Conservative Government amended the Criminal Code to make production, distribution, and possession of child pornography illegal. It is now time to ban slasher and snuff films, violent video games, and serial killer trading cards. Will the Liberal Government keep its election promise to address the problem of pornography and media violence with appropriate legislation?
Rose Dyson is chair, Canadians Concerned about Violent Entertainment.