Blood Without Pain: Should Networks Remove TV Episodes in the Wake of Real-Life Violence?
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Blood Without Pain: Should Networks Remove TV Episodes in the Wake of Real-Life Violence?

By Mike Roorda | Think Pieces | May 10, 2013 | Comments ()


Last month, while at work on a sunny spring morning, a co-worker stood up and somewhat haltingly announced there had been at least one explosion at a marathon that was going on downtown. Instinctively a few of us went to Twitter to search for any additional news. The pictures that we found online in the first ten minutes after the initial reports of explosions were far more gruesome than most horror movies or television shows available.

In the days and weeks after the blasts we all processed it as best we could, employing coping skills dusty with disuse. The news ran around the same facts over and over. Slogans were invented. Charities were established. The President made a speech. Then, in the middle of it all, a few television shows decided against airing their planned weekly content "out of respect." "Hannibal" ended up not airing their episode at all, despite making it available on iTunes. (I'm pretty sure it was about kids who had been brainwashed to become mini terminators for a serial killer's casual use. I haven't researched it fully, because I'm behind, and don't want to accidentally spoil anything for myself.) "Castle" showed a rerun, but then ran the episode this week with a warning preceding it stating that it might be disturbing for some. (A guy was blown up in his car by a bomb, or a drone or something else with 'splodey powers. The government was involved.) The bottom line was, someone somewhere at the network thought we were too fragile to handle their violent make believe stories.

That bothered me. Not the content or the casual death being portrayed, but the fact that TV execs suddenly felt the need to shield us from it. In my mind, you can't have it both ways. Either the content of your show should be acceptable for viewing, or it isn't. Proximity to actual violence shouldn't matter. Why is it OK to make entertainment out of violent acts and gore normally, but then the same is somehow inappropriate following real life examples that hit close to home? Shows like "CSI" and "Law and Order" regularly dive into the deep end of the horror pool and reliably contain imagery of violent acts rendered in glorious HD. "Criminal Minds" is a poor man's primer for the many deviant ways you can snuff out a life. Yet, when confronted with the reality of similar actions in a way that touches us personally, the artificial depictions make us uncomfortable and uneasy. If such content isn't acceptable viewing material during the moments following a crisis, should it be a part of our regular entertainment diet at all?

It could be that the pretend violence is easier to separate ourselves from. It doesn't happen to real people in real places that we've actually been. A nameless starlet laying filleted open on an autopsy table we can forget about at night. People in real pain, and suffering real anguish is much more visceral and will keep us awake into the wee hours. They're different, but similar enough that when we hold the two too close together the overlap of fantasy and reality is jarring. In that sense, I can understand the logic in holding off on airing a particularly violent episode or one where a fireball takes a life too close in time to its real life analogue. When people are trying to heal from a trauma it may not be the brightest idea to casually tell stories about similar violence and in doing so, pick an emotional scab off a wound that still smarts. But is that actually the right thing, the healthy thing to do?

Stephen King once described viewing horror and violent media as "lifting a trap door
in the civilized forebrain and throwing a basket of raw meat to the hungry alligators swimming around in that subterranean river beneath." King is of the opinion that while disturbing, the violent media we consume can actually be cathartic. That, while not socially acceptable, we all have homicidal tendencies. It's only the degree to which we can subjugate these desires that keeps us from ending up in jail or on the funny farm. Violent or disturbing entertainment gives those negative feelings a chance to stretch their legs and walk around without affecting your every day life. It's letting pressure off an emotional valve that we all have, but are ashamed to show in public. In that sense, the folks at NBC and ABC may have actually done us a disservice by withholding those particular episodes. It may have actually been a help to see a bad guy blow up something, unravel his motivations for doing so and then watch him suffer the long arm of the law. Not only would it scratch a dark communal itch, but it would reinforce the notion that those who do travel too far down that dark path eventually find punishment and retribution waiting for them.

All of this discussion is pointless however, if we don't believe that the media we absorb affects us in a real and tangible way. My opinion on this particular point has been informed more by my experiences than any academic arguments.

Once upon a time I was employed by a local news station as a reporter and video editor. When your job occasionally requires you to more or less race first responders to scenes of violence or people in peril, at some point you're going to win that race and see something graphic. I have a vivid memory of standing around in the newsroom during a break one evening and listening to the other more seasoned reporters and anchors all tell their "first time I saw brains" stories in the same tones one might use to describe a particularly distasteful meal. A few months later I responded to a shots fired report in an apartment complex a few blocks from the studio. As I pulled up, it occurred to me that while there was a single police cruiser on scene already, neither officer was actually doing anything. I climbed out of my news vehicle and walked around the cruiser toward the open door of a ground floor apartment. As I rounded the rear of the car I became aware of a large amount of blood in the doorway. Then I saw the slumped figure, the gun and the result of a life of depression and helplessness ended in a final act of desperation. Later that night, as I poured an adult beverage to unwind after work, I was struck not by the memory of a life spilled unceremoniously across a dilapidated doorway but by the lack of emotional response that it registered with me. I should be traumatized, disturbed by the fragility of life and shaken by the very real violence. Right?

I called a good friend. He was someone I trusted, and also an EMT. Is this normal? Was something wrong with me? Is it possible I could be a sociopath? He assured me that, no, I was likely not a psycho-in-waiting and he had gone through the same thing the first time he had to deal with the messy end to what had previously been a life. But why didn't it bother me? It should right? His answer stuck with me.

"I'm not comfortable saying this, because it aligns me with people like Tipper Gore, and I'm not entirely OK with that but ... I think what we watch and the violence we find in video games and movies really does wear something down inside of us. It should be more shocking, but it isn't."
When Tipper argued in front of Congress that violent music could beget violent acts, was she right? I think not. There's a large gap between seeing or hearing something depicted and going out to try it for yourself. At the same time, I do think shows like "Dexter" and "Hannibal" probably serve to dull some our initial revulsion to violence and tragedy. I remember thinking as I surveyed the scene at the apartment complex, "You know what? The movies and games mostly got it right." It looked very much like something I could stumble across while channel surfing on a lazy afternoon. Would I have had a stronger reaction if I hadn't seen similar scenes on "The Sopranos" and "The Wire?" I don't know. Is watching death and destruction damaging to our cumulative sensitivity to the rest of humanity, or an escapist release? I don't know. I know I enjoy programming that would probably traumatize my parents. I know artistically, there are times that carnage can serve a storytelling purpose. And I know that when confronting it in my real life, "that looks like a movie" was one of the first thoughts in my head.

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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not

  • the other courtney

    I think it's a matter of the viewing public accepting the portrayal of violence as entertainment when a real violent act has occurred. CSI is OK no matter what, because it's displayed under the guise of a realistic narrative - their "ripped right from the headlines" is the caveat that forgives insensitivity. You take a show that is strictly tickling your boredom belly-button with explosions and gore, seemingly creating extraordinary circumstances for the sake of ratings, then all of a sudden those circumstances happen... it can make you question your perception of what you find entertaining.

    I have never been able to watch scary movies or torture (Theon Greyjoy notwithstanding) easily. I'm that chick that covers her ears and squeezes her eyes shut. I'm OK with that. I don't ever want to be unimpressed by suffering.

  • .

    I'm not sure how it fits in, but reading this:

    Is watching death and destruction damaging to our cumulative sensitivity
    to the rest of humanity, or an escapist release? I don’t know.

    Reminded me that sometimes we think of this as a modern invention (death and destruction as popular entertainment), when IIRC at the start of the Civil War people would make a day of loading a picnic basket into a carriage and riding out to watch the fighting. Until, I guess, being around the splodey artillery and the flying lead got a little too dicey.

    Public hangings used to draw quite the crowds too, not to mention Christians vs. lions and gladiatorial combat and the like.

    If there's a point to this, I guess it would be that violence and death have always been popular entertainment, it's only more available now through the ubiquity of media. Also that if we're fucked up as a human race because we like to watch violence and are perhaps desensitized by it, then we've been fucked up for a long, long time.

  • ,

    Just for one instance:

  • You guys should watch this, partly because this guy is awesome, but also because it makes a relevant point.

    One thing he mentions is the effect of media. He puts it like this: media is terrible at making us do things, pretty good at making us think about doing things, and excellent at telling us how to think about doing things.

    His example is voting: media is terrible at getting us to vote, pretty good at making us think about voting, and excellent at making us think voting is a generally good thing. Compare the "Rock The Vote"-type campaigns vs. something like The West Wing. I bet you dollars to donuts more people will say that the latter got them interested in politics than the former.

    When it comes to violence, media certainly can't make a sane person (or a not-so-sane person) become a murderer. But it can re-contextualize violence in a more acceptable, less shocking form. Take for example the uproar about torture circling around 24.

    Sorry, got cut off before I finished. POINT OF THIS: The influence of violent media is present, although not in the direct ways most moral guardians cry about. We use fiction to help conceptualize and contextualize reality. That is where the Campbell monomyth, fairy tales, and Aesop's fables come from: telling truths about reality through fiction. Such attempts to avoid tough topics like this are commendable in a "sensitive to the issue" way, but we need fiction to process it in a way that makes it acceptable, after a fashion. The violence is not the issue; it is the context in which it is presented. And the networks do the audiences a disservice by removing such material without any consideration for the context involved. It may be the very cathartic thing needed at the time.

    I am kinda sleepy, I have no idea if I'm making sense.

  • Blake

    Blood Without Pain: Should Networks Remove TV Episodes in the Wake of Real-Life Violence?"


  • See, I don't think NBC was trying to shield us from anything. I think they used it as an experiment to see how many people they could drive to the pay for viewing format, and as a source of publicity. I heard more conversation about Hannibal in regards to this single episode than I have before or since.

    Am I that paranoid? Why, yes. I find that I am.

  • F'mal DeHyde

    The local NBC affiliate has stopped airing Hannibal completely because of several complaints about the gore and blood shown. I watch TV online or I'd be completely livid over their censorship due to a few whiners. As it is? I live in Utah, what do I expect?

  • Sara_Tonin00

    That might suck, but I don't think it's censorship. It's a commercial entity opting not to give you a commercial product for no charge to you. They aren't changing the product in any way, though, and you can still access it in other ways.

  • F'mal DeHyde

    Would you say that if libraries removed certain books you were still able to access through

  • ,

    All libraries can't stock all books, or they'd all be the size of the cities they occupy. They have to make decisions. Ditto networks, since air time is limited, though online time (theoretically) is not.

    Just thought I'd point out that one man's "censored" is another man's "where the fuck do you expect me to PUT all this?"

  • Sara_Tonin00

    Don't confuse networks with libraries - one is for profit, and the other is not. And you are correct - I don't think of it as censorship if material is still available. I think it is a shame in some cases - and I would complain to my library if it removed To Kill a Mockingbird, and it would be important that voices be raised to counter those who think it should be removed.

    There is so much information, art, literature out there - it cannot all be available for free through public resources. It must be curated in some way. I don't have a problem if my library opts not to stock Playboy or the works of the Marquis de Sade (in fact, I personally rather hope it doesn't).

    But the network or library removing something you happen to want isn't editing that material - not scratching out words, not deleting scenes. It's not been made impossible for you to own it, read it, talk about it. Bleeping a swear word is censorship. Choosing not to air a tv show isn't.

  • I would. If the media in question is still easily acquired through easily accessed and commonly available avenues, it's not being censored.

  • bleujayone

    "Should networks remove TV episodes in the wake of real life violence?"

    -Short Answer: Nope.

    -Long Answer: It's impossible to shelter the world from real-life horrors by hiding, censoring, delaying or otherwise obliterating the fictitious ones. Banning sad songs won't prevent depression, shelving slasher movies won't prevent serial murderers, burning books won't make the streets safer at night and trying to protect the collective by trying to hide all the made up things with bad vibes won't make anyone any better.

    Reality can offer up some very troubling events sometimes. That's life. If you don't want the world of make-believe to remind you the world outside can be unpleasant, you can take personal steps to avoid encountering it. But this material isn't real and whether you do indulge in it or not will mean very little in the grand scheme of things. Reality won't go away just because someone sanitizes the world of fantasy.

    I don't want other people deciding what to "shield" me from. They are welcome to warn me ahead of time the nature of the content if they like. I wear big boy pants now, I can decided for myself if this is something I wish to partake in. Today they are doing so because the timing with current news headlines might be uncomfortable, tomorrow it might actually be because someone in charge has decided to take it upon themselves to decide what personally offends them as the deciding factor- if they haven't already.

  • Sara_Tonin00

    (psst: btw, fact-checking for first sentence - the bombing happened in the afternoon, not the morning)

  • MikeRoorda

    You're absolutely correct. It was around 3pm I think. I usually don't get fully caffeinated until after lunch, so it may have been "morning" in my head, but middle of the day for everyone else.

  • Sara_Tonin00

    It stood out to me, because "it was a beautiful sunny morning..." is how every 9/11 recollection story begins.

  • Cazadora

    "Instinctively a few of us went to Twitter to search for any additional news"

    Brave new world...just 10 years ago that sentence would have been "a few of us went to CNN..."

  • Also, stop doing that. You want news, go to an actual news organization, not a social media app with a 140 character limit.

  • Sara_Tonin00

    I don't have a Twitter account, but I have found that in some instances it is useful - last year I came out of the subway at Herald Square to find police cars, swat teams, and yellow tape. It wasn't on the news anywhere - and it didn't end up on the news - but by checking #HeraldSquare on Twitter I was able to find there had a been a bomb threat called in on one of the buildings (which turned out to be safe). Somes 140 characters worth of information is all that's out there, and the news organizations try to fill their time by guessing, assuming, or creating details they don't have.

  • News organizations generally have some sort of oversight though. All Twitter has is bored 14 year olds and celebrities, two groups not heretofore known for their ability to accurately recount events.

  • Nadine

    I agree audiences don't need to be shielded. We're adults, a fair warning at th beginning of an episode is enough. These days producers are so afraid of even a single complaint, it's pathetic.
    I think it depends on the episode. The Hannibal that was pulled shouldn't have been, in my opinion. There was very little on screen violence, very little on screen anything-to-be-concerned-about. I was able to watch it and it was already very carefully handled with very little violence or images of children handling or being threatened by guns.

    Doing what was done just damaged a new shows ratings and chance to gain ground with audiences.

    The one that aired had far more blood and gore, for fucks sake it had FLAYED BACKS. FLAYED. Or is it skinned? What ever it was, it was incredibly disturbing.

    Occasionally an episode of a show may well be so similar to a tragic, violent event, the coincidence of their timing so uncanny, that sure, yeah, an episode perhaps shouldn't go to air THAT WEEK. If it's REALLY similar then maybe giving it an extra seven days might be something to consider.

    That said, producers should consider whether or not we take refuge in the fake violence. Sometimes the insane violence and gore on TV is what we can sit and zombie out in front of when the news becomes so overwhelming that we can't function any more.

  • To answer your question: flaying and skinning are pretty much the same thing; flaying is just somewhat of a more archaic/less used term.

  • googergieger

    If you do show something to close to something, people are going to talk about your show instead of the real issues. I mean Fox News is going to say your show is in poor taste and demand it be taken off the air and is the real issue here. Not to mention it won't be judged in context of the show by a good chunk of people. Don't know, most people are really emotional, so they think with them. This show that has absolutely nothing to do with what happened that was filmed weeks if not months before has something kind of sort of similar to what happened somewhere else, therefore I'm going to be angry about it because I think I should feel angry about it, therefore I do feel angry about it.

  • Sara_Tonin00

    This is cynical, but: perhaps the networks say they are removing the episodes out of sensitivity, but actually do not want the pretend-violence of their shows too closely emotionally aligned with real-violence.

    Actually, that involves more strategy than I think network heads are capable of handling quickly. What they respond to is the knowledge that people will raise a cry about showing it - and they defer to the more sensitive out there (even though those sensitive can opt not to watch). That's not an incorrect reaction. When you know someone who's just miscarried, or had a parent die - it's appropriate for you to avoid casually telling stories about those things.

    Yes, I do think the majority of violence out there for media consumption is too casual. But since people want to consume it, and I don't think you can prove a damage to our souls, I don't think there's a justifiable reason for blocking it.

    I will say that though I am a little squeamish about violence in movies, (avoiding worthwhile flicks like Saving Private Ryan, for instance) I do have a reaction to pictures of real violence. I was shocked and disturbed when the NY Times posted a picture of the shooting outside of the Empire State Building last year, and one of the pictures showed the hands of the victim flopped on the ground, and a stream - had to be a least 10 feet long - of his blood streaming from him on the sidewalk into the street. A very cinematic image, but I was shaken to see it from a real person.

  • BWeaves

    I'm not sure they're shielding us from the gore by not running certain episodes. I think it's more of a case of "too soon." Many viewers would just feel that airing an episode similar to a recent catastrophe is, oh what's the word? Callous, tacky, inappropriate, etc. etc. I'm not sure those are the right words, but you know what I mean, right? If they really wanted to shield us, they wouldn't have filmed the episode to start with. Plus, they'll just run the episode the following week or two later.

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