Television is a powerful socializer of children and adults. This was confirmed, once again, in a report released in late 1993 by the American Psychological Association Commission on Violence and Youth: "For the last 20 years, there has been one overriding finding... the mass media are significant contributors to the aggressive behavior and aggression-related attitudes of many children, adolescents, and adults."
Despite the seriousness of the situation, however, North American broadcasters have been almost entirely unresponsive to the problem, especially as it relates to children's programming. For instance, the hugely popular and violent Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was replaced with an equally violent program, Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, which an NBC executive recently described as "gratuitous violence in search of a plot." Reports of children imitating the Power Rangers' kicking and fighting moves on friends in the schoolyard mean nothing to the television stations. While the kids get detentions, the broadcasters laugh all the way to the bank.
Rogers Cable TV in Toronto recently produced a one-hour special called Who's Minding the Set? which was supposed to assist parents in understanding the issue of television and violence. After airing comments from three youngsters about how watching the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers made their siblings behave violently, Rogers managed to find one psychologist, Jonathan Freedman, who said this behavior was merely imitative, and not indicative of real aggression. (What Rogers neglected to mention during the program is that they hold a large interest in YTV, a Toronto station which broadcasts Power Rangers.)
So, not only does Rogers TV broadcast a program which makes children behave violently, but in response to criticism, they used their considerable financial resources to produce a documentary telling parents that violence produced by the program isn't a problem. That is their idea of behaving as responsible corporate citizens!
Meanwhile, the "tough" new guidelines on violence put together by Canadian broadcasters took effect January 1, 1994. To date, in the area of southern Ontario where I live (greater Metro Toronto) the overall result has been that the violence has actually increased; activists in Quebec are reporting similar results. This situation has been disheartening for those who write letter after letter of protest to regulators and television stations as things are getting worse.
Recently, however, activists in the Toronto area discovered a different, and potentially much more effective, way to approach the problem-by contacting advertisers directly. The situation came about when a Toronto television station, CITY TV, announced their intention to air an O.J. Simpson film festival on July 15 to mark the one-month anniversary of the so-called chase through the freeways of L.A. which ended when Simpson was arrested on suspicion of murdering two people. In promoting the film festival, the station's publicist stated that since they hadn't actually covered the car chase, this was their "tongue-in-cheek" way of catching up. With two people lying in graves, and children left permanently scarred by their mother's brutal murder and their father's arrest for that murder, there seemed very little to celebrate with a tongue-in-cheek film festival.
The station was severely criticized by activists, politicians, anti-violence groups, and other media. The Toronto Star gave them a "dart" for exploitation, while The Globe and Mail's television critic commented that their programmers must have "parked their brains on Mars," and the Hamilton Spectator gave them the "tackiness award of the month." The story was picked up by Reuters News Service and went international, which resulted in CITY TV bragging during a news broadcast that they were getting requests for interviews "from the U.S., Europe, and Canada."
When the story first broke, a representative of CITY TV said during an interview on CBC radio that their advertisers supported the planned Simpson film festival. Watching this station bask in the glare of negative publicity on an international scale made me wonder if their advertisers shared the same callous attitude. Did they really want to share in the tackiness of the month award?
As it turned out, CITY had been less than truthful in reporting advertiser support for the Simpson festival. Shortly before the festival was to run the station's Director of Promotion (who had already met with anti-violence groups) assured me that all their advertisers had been told about the "sensitive" nature of the festival. After CITY refused to supply a list of advertisers scheduled to run during the festival, a co-worker from the Coalition for Responsible Television (CRTV) and I started contacting companies who advertised on CITY regularly: Government of Ontario, Ontario Lottery Corporation, Molsons Breweries, Labatts Breweries, Bell Canada, Nissan Canada, Shoppers Drug Mart, Oshawa Foods (IGA food stores), McDonalds Restaurants and Brita Water Filters. The result? Every company we called took immediate action to make sure their advertisements did not run during the Simpson festival. There was no hesitation and no argument. It was quite an education.
The fact is that companies like these purchase large blocks of advertising spots, usually through their ad agency or a media buying service, and then have no idea which programs their advertisements are supporting. The situation would be different with special events like The Grey Cup, Stanley Cup, and Superbowl, where certain advertisers would actively seek to have their ads in those time slots, but basically companies seldom appear to know.
This situation has to change. Anti-social television programs do not exist without advertisers. For example, a Toronto station aired the Rush Limbaugh Show for a while but canceled it recently, not because of complaints from the public (which they were getting), but because they couldn't find companies willing to advertise during the show. The television station was fully prepared to insult a very large proportion of their viewing audience by airing the rantings of a racist, sexist, homophobic blowhard, but fortunately advertisers were not. Similarly, CITY TV was prepared to insult a great many of their viewers with their grossly insensitive Simpson film festival, but the advertisers we contacted were not.
The most encouraging and educational aspect of this experience was the way these huge companies responded immediately and without hesitation to public concern. The results of a few phone calls were gratifying. For instance, the time period covered by the film festival was prime time for advertisers, a Friday night Great Movie time slot (starting at 8:00 p.m.). The entire six-and-a-half hours ran on a Friday night without one beer commercial. Not one. When you consider the history of beer advertising, it's not one distinguished for being sensitive to women, but beer companies reacted positively in this case.
For me, as a media activist, this means a complete change of strategy. Broadcasters have shown themselves to be immune to censure. Fortunately, however, companies that sell products to the public can't afford to be similarly callous. It is these companies that now have to be made aware that they will be held responsible for the programming their ad dollars put on the air. They are going to have start paying attention.
As consumers, we can shop according to a company's record of supporting pro-social or anti-social programming. Two large companies that each ran several ads during the O.J. Film Festival were Sprint Canada and Proctor & Gamble (P&G).
After the broadcast, I contacted Sprint and P&G to find out if they had been warned by CITY. P&G said CITY had contacted the company's buying service, who made the decision to go ahead with their advertising. P&G stated that if they had known about the Simpson festival, they would not have advertised, and have instituted a policy that, where questions of taste are involved, the buying service should contact them to make the decision. Sprint too said CITY had contacted their buying service, but only told them that Sprint ads were scheduled to run during a Great Movie. No mention was made about "sensitive" programming or controversy. Sprint would not state, however, that, if warned, they would have pulled their ads.
The situation with CITY TV and their Simpson film festival was unique, but it did provide valuable insight into just how sensitive companies can be, and should be, to consumer concern. Companies cannot insult a viewer and then expect that viewer to buy their products, and that's what they have to be made to understand.
Obviously, advertisers will be more responsive to large groups of people than to an individual. Currently in Canada a national television watchdog group is forming. Called the Coalition for Responsible Television (CRTV), it arose out of a meeting called by the Canadian Radio Telecommunications Commission and held with activists last January in Ottawa. Already, at this early stage of organizing, the Coalition has as members the Canadian Teachers' Federation, Girl Guides of Canada (Ontario Council), several Ontario women teachers' associations, Atlantic Baptist Fellowship, Conseil Syndical de la Region de Quebec, Community Working Group on Family Violence (B.C.), London Family Court Clinic, Nipissing Transition House, and media watchdog groups from Ontario, Quebec, and the Maritimes. In addition, the CRTV is endorsed by such groups as the Canadian Medical Association, Canadian Association of Principals, Toronto Board of Education, Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, and the Ontario Separate School Trustees' Associations.
Every individual voice counts, but an organization like the CRTV representing hundreds of thousands of Canadians will be heard, especially by advertisers. If you would like more information on the CRTV, please send a stamped, self-addressed envelope to P.O. Box 24040, Bullfrog Mall, Guelph, Ontario, N1E 6V8.
Valerie Smith is a Brampton-based activist and co-founder of the Coalition for the Safety of Our Daughters, a media action and information group. The Coalition can be reached at the CRTV address above.