CANADIAN ASSOCIATION OF MEDIA EDUCATION ORGANIZATIONS

 

 


PRESENTATION TO CRTC CONSULTATIONS: TELEVISION VIOLENCE

 

September 28, 1995

Moncton, New Brunswick
Association for Media Literacy of Nova Scotia
Represented by Patricia Kipping

Introduction

Thank you for the opportunity to make this submission on behalf of Association for Media Literacy of Nova Scotia. AML-NS was founded in 1992 and today has a membership of 115 educators, parents, media professionals and media consumers who are concerned about the impact of media on modern life, culture and education. We are a member of CAMEO, the Canadian Association of Media Education Organizations.

My name is Pat Kipping and I was the founding president of AML-NS. I am currently employed by AML-NS and the Literacy Section of the Nova Scotia Department of Education to develop a project called Resources for Everyday Thinking, a media literacy resource collection and workshop manual for use with adult learners in literacy and upgrading programs. This project is funded by the National Literacy Secretariat.

My professional background includes film and magazine production, five years as the film and sound archivist for the Public Archives of Nova Scotia as well as research and administrative position in various media, political and community service organizations.

My personal interest in this topic arises from the fact that I am the mother of two children - a thirteen year old girl and a ten year old boy. I have been a member of Canada's oldest peace group, the Voice of Women for 16 years.

Last April, when Mr. Spicer announced these hearings, he said, "Most Canadians....want something practical done for their kids. They want us to get serious." I intend to devote most of my presentations to making practical recommendations to deal effectively with the serious problem of television violence. But first I would like to re-state the principles which were provided in the preparatory documents for these sessions to better reflect the perspective of the Association for Media Literacy - Nova Scotia.

1. The primary focus should be to provide children and parents with information and experience to navigate their media environment while creating a healthy, diversified, child-respecting television industry. Media literacy is the best navigational tool in existence for dealing with the complex media environment we find ourselves in as we move into the 21st century. It is my personal position and that of the Association for Media Literacy of Nova Scotia, that it is the only effective means to deal with that environment, including the treacherous water of violence on all screens - television, movies, computers. We will not be doing our children any favours if we pretend they can avoid those metaphorical treacherous waters. The best help we can give them is knowledge about where the most dangerous parts are, how to identify and evaluate them and manoeuvre their way around or through them.

Many media literacy advocates believe that the development of a media literate viewing public will eventually result in a net decrease in the amount of gratuitous, glamourized violence produced for television and other screens. At the very least, it will minimize the damage caused by the effects of watching television violence.

2. Measures taken to reduce the negative effects of television violence should serve the best interests of the Canadian public, particularly children. Voluntary co-operation by the television industry in these efforts is preferable, but in the event that agreement cannot be reached, the CRTC should act in the best interests of the Canadian public, particularly future generations, using the regulatory authority vested in it by the people of Canada.

3. Rules established to deal with the negative effects of television violence should not only apply to all members of the television industry but to all members of related industries including motion picture, video game, computer and toy industries.

Recommendations

Of the three approaches proposed by the CRTC in the documents you provided in advance of these consultations, the Association for Media Literacy of Nova Scotia believes that media literacy warrants the most attention. We therefore make the following three recommendations.

Recommendation # 1 :Abandon the v-chip.

Relying on a technological gadget to deal with such a complex social issue is at best a waste of time and money, at worst a diversion, preventing real changes from taking place. We believe that the US President and Senate have seized on this technology because they are desperate to be seen to be doing something about this issue. But they are pulling the wool over the eyes of Americans because they are not making it clear that v-chip technology will only be able to do what it promises IF a classification system can be put into place. It is highly unlikely that such a system will ever be accepted by the US television industry.

The v-chip is based on two faulty assumptions: 1/ That violence on television is something you can quantify in numbers. Violent television content is not something that can be measured and described in numbers like blood alcohol levels. The effects of television violence depend on context: the context in which it is presented in the program and the context in which the viewer watches it.

For example, a gruesome, bloody decapitation might be the appropriate and logical consequence of an irresponsible high speed car chase. But a similar bloody decapitation as a ending to a high school prom scene has a completely different effect. The school age child snuggled in the arms of a supportive, communicative parent may be able to handle that scene without any harmful effects. But an insecure teenage girl watching alone may experience genuine trauma.

It is appalling that the v-chip would be programmed to block out specific words or scenes regardless of the context in which those scenes occurred. The cost and complexity of programming each scene and each word of each program on every channel every day of the year is staggering to think about. The chances of anyone, industry, government, viewers, agreeing to cover the cost is highly unlikely.

In the unlikely event that such programming happened, it wouldn't be long before people got so fed up with scenes and words being blanked out of their favourite programs, that they either stopped using the v-chip altogether or used it so sporadically that it's purpose was defeated.

Imagine this: You've programmed out the word "gun" to deal with your adolescent's use of it in a rapper context. You do it to make a point about his music videos. But when you're watching the news, you hear Peter Mansbridge talking about the debate about "Justice Minister Alan Rock's Blank Control Laws."

2/ The second faulty assumption is that even if it is possible to develop a simple numerical classification system, it will be able to be encoded in violent programs originating in the US. At this time, the US television industry is vigorously resisting any attempts to impose a classification system.. In light of the Canadian Supreme Court's recent acceptance of the free speech argument to lift the ban on tobacco advertising, I can't imagine the powerful television lobby allowing their "freedom of expression" being inhibited by a Canadian classification system, especially one as simple and limited as that required by the v-chip.

Since most violent programming we see in this country originates in the US, it is ridiculous to implement a technology or a classification system which can't be applied to their programming.

There are several other reasons why the v-chip strategy will not work:

Instead of empowering parents, the V-chip technology could very well disempower parents and further endanger kids. Relying on the v-chip will let parents to avoid their obligation to teach their children to be wise users of media. It will allow them to abdicate their important role of mediating their child's relationship to the world. Parents need to set examples and use words, not gadgets, to communicate their own thoughts, values and ideas to their children. They need information to develop those words. The V-chip won't prevent television from being used as a babysitter, it will just provide parents with a stricter babysitter - a babysitter with a switch.

Chances are that the parents who go to the trouble of programming the v-chip will be the kind of parents who already talk to their kids about media violence and can provide their kids with alternatives activities, thus reducing their exposure to television violence. Those kids don't need the v-chip. The kids who are at most risk of suffering the negative effects of media violence are the kids who don't have access to alternatives and who don't have anyone available to help them deal with violence issues. Do you really believe that anyone is going to bother to program the v-chip for those kids?

There is a possibility that some producers will use the existence of the v-chip as an excuse to actually increase the level of violence in programming because the v-chip can protect children from seeing it. This would be a terrible and ironic development but one which is quite probable.

The v-chip will be obsolete in my house - and many others with "hacker-age" kids - long before I will buy a new TV with a v-chip. If my children or their friends don't figure out how to de-programme the v-chip before I learn how to program it, then I expect deprogramming instructions will be available on the Internet within days of its appearance. The only households which will be able to make use of the v-chip technology are those with "pre-hacker" age children, ie. the very young. While this is probably the only audience who can realistically be prevented from seeing violent TV, they shouldn't be watching television without an adult anyway.

Inappropriate violent images are bombarding our children from many fronts these days and with the coming changes in delivery of these images we are truly foolish if we rely on a piece of technology which blocks violence on cable television but does nothing to other sources of violent images.

Television violence is an extremely serious issue. We must not trivialize it by fooling ourselves into thinking that a simplistic technology like the v-chip will provide a meaningful intervention.

Recommendation # 2 : Develop a national classification system which is accountable to the Canadian public.

The purpose of a classification system must be to provide information about content and context. It cannot be based on simple numerical levels to satisfy the needs of the v-chip. If providing meaningful information is the goal, then we recommend that the CRTC co-ordinate the development of a national classification system for Canada. This system should be developed with the participation of the industry but it must be developed, maintained and enforced in a way that is accountable to the citizens of Canada - not to an industry which is owned, operated and controlled for the most part, by US interests.

A classification system must be based on context and quality of violence as well as quantity. The purpose must be to provide parents and viewers with information which they can use to make better judgements for their own children and viewing. If such a system is to be useful it must be widely understood and made accessible. It will be just one component of an overall media literacy strategy.

We recommend that you consider the following factors when developing a classification system:

a. A central body, accountable to the CRTC, should be responsible for rating programs and the arbitration of disputes about ratings. This body should be composed of representatives of parent's organisations, media literacy organisations, teachers unions, community leaders, elders and all aspects of the telecommunications, motion picture and software industries. It should also reflect the regional and cultural diversity of the whole of Canada. The assigning of ratings and the arbitration of disputes should definitely NOT be left up to the industry.

The Action Group Against Violence on Television (AGVOT) should be commended for their initial efforts toward developing a national classification system but it is simply representative of the television industry. The violence that makes it to the screens in the homes of Canadians originates now, or will soon originate, from many sources including the motion picture industry, the computer and video game industry and the toy industry. The CRTC should be the body ultimately responsible for a national classification system since you are already charged to serve the best interests of the Canadian people.

. d. In answer to the question, "How would the Commission and the industry ensure that the program is rated?" we recommend that the CRTC make rating a condition of license. In other words, it will be up to the licensee to ensure that all programs from all sources have been rated. Failure to do so should be considered a violation of their broadcast license.

e. All programs should be rated regardless of the time of day they are broadcast. It is impossible to determine when children are watching television or time shifting.

f. Information about the classification system must be provided to all viewers by the television industry. This information must be provided free of charge and according to guidelines established by the CRTC.

Recommendation # 3 : Require the television industry to support and contribute to the development of a comprehensive media literacy project for all of Canada.

I would like to mention here some initiatives which have already been undertaken by members of the television industry and which indicate that some sectors understand their responsibility and the importance to their own industry of developing a media literate public.

I. The National Film Board of Canada is not technically a member of the private sector of the television industry but it is certainly a major contributor to productions which end up on television. We would like to commend the National Film Board's initiative in establishing the Media Awareness Network as well all the other government agencies who support it. The Media Awareness Network has the potential to be the most effective resource for developing media literacy programs in Canada. It could also provide an inspiring model for other countries. We urge the CRTC to do whatever is in its power to ensure that the Media Awareness Network is properly and adequately resourced and empowered to realize its full potential.

ii. The Canadian Cable Television Association of Canada's recently released pamphlet "Watch What Your Children Watch" is a very useful tool for parents. It is unfortunate that the CCTA didn't consult media literacy organizations before publishing the pamphlet. An excellent opportunity was missed to encourage parents to support school-based media literacy initiatives and to provide contacts to get further information.

iii. The Alliance for Children and Television, a television industry organization, has recently released Prime Time Parents, a workshop kit which provides excellent information and resources for parents to learn how to better use television to their children's advantage. Information about the Alliance awards program which celebrates excellent Canadian children's programs made by Alliance members should be more widely available to parents.

iv. MuchMusic, while often seen by many parents and television critics to be the source of objectionable violence, has been engaging in some very interesting and useful media literacy initiatives. For example, the late night program, Too Much For Much takes a careful and critical look at videos which MuchMusic programmers decided not to put on the air. Station decision- makers, media educators, cultural critics and others discuss the "how" and "why" of programming decisions. This is an important and original example of programming ABOUT television that will be discussed in later recommendations.

v. Of course the best programming ABOUT television and providing the best alternatives to glamourized and gratuitous violence is provided by publicly funded, and non-profit television such as CBC, TVOntario, Vision TV, WTN and PBS in the US. The CRTC must take determined steps to ensure that these channels and more like them have access to the airwaves and cables.

Initiatives like those are very welcome, but they really are the LEAST the industry can do to develop media literacy among Canadian viewers in order to disarm the damaging powers of media violence. To maximize these promising efforts and intensify measures to develop a media literate Canada, the Association for Media Literacy of Nova Scotia proposes that the CRTC take the following practical steps as soon as possible.

This approach can be compared to the arrangement reached between the Nova Scotia government and the ITT Sheraton Casinos. The Casino industry contributes $1 million per year to a Gaming Education Fund and will pay $100 million over the next four year to the Nova Scotia government. Presumably this financial contribution is made by the industry in recognition of its obligation to address concerns about the negative effects of gambling, in exchange for the privilege of operating a profitable, although potentially harmful business.

Likewise, the Canadian television industry should make a commitment to media literacy education and the people of Canada in order to minimize the negative effects of media violence, in exchange for the privilege of conducting a lucrative business which includes the distribution of material with potentially harmful effects.

1. Establish a Media Literacy Education Fund like the Canadian Program Production Fund. The fund should be administered by the CRTC rather than the industry and used by educational and community-based media literacy initiatives for research, development and implementation of media literacy projects for parents, children and the general public.

2. Require Canadian cable operators to provide permission for Canadian teachers to tape programs "off-air" for classroom use. The biggest obstacle teachers face in teaching media literacy is restrictive Canadian copyright legislation. The best media literacy classes are ones in which programs taped off-air - often on an impromptu basis - are analysed and discussed. Canadian educators are in the ludicrous position of being vulnerable to legal action if they tape, off their Canadian cable, a US program which is already cleared for educational use in its country of origin. US copyright laws are much more supportive of media literacy educators than Canadian.

Canadian Cable in the Classroom will be an important and useful service for teachers but it will not give them access in a timely manner for certain important media literacy purposes.

Without waiting for Canadian copyright laws to change - a process which has been ongoing for at least seven years - the CRTC can and must require that all broadcasters and distributors grant free permission to all Canadian teachers and media literacy educators to tape any program off air for educational use according to the limits described in the US legislation.

3. Implement a Media Literacy Content Regulation for Canadian broadcasters and cable operators.

Many would argue that the Canadian content regulation has been the single most important factor in the development of a viable and vigorous Canadian music industry. We argue that a Media Literacy Content Regulation could result in the development of the most media literate audiences in the world and as a result create a global market for the high quality Canadian television products which would result.

To understand the basis of this recommendation I need to familiarize you with the important distinction media literacy advocates make between teaching ABOUT television and teaching THROUGH television. Teaching THROUGH television is what television does now. The learning is assumed to take place as a result of absorbing the content of a program. For example, Sesame Street teaches traditional literacy skills - letter and number recognition - and tries to interest children in the learning process THROUGH the use of TV. But children learn much more than content when they watch TV. They learn that some people and ideas are more important than others. They learn language, values and perceptions. They are affected by the way programs are edited and the way sound is juxtaposed with picture. Currently and for the most part, television assumes these things are invisible to the average viewer. With the exception of music videos, reality-based dramas and some experimental video, rendering the technical aspects of television invisible is considered "good production". A media literate person knows how to name and identify these techniques and understands how they affect feelings and meaning. But they must be taught ABOUT them.

Just as the one-way, transmission-of-knowledge model - with teacher at the front of the class, imparting knowledge to a rapt class of "receivers" - is no longer considered an acceptable teaching approach to prepare children for the information age, neither is the model of teaching THROUGH television an adequate preparation for dealing with the information highway.

To be truly media literate, viewers need to be aware that techniques are used to construct the television programs they view and that they affect content. Viewers also need to know that someone is always making decisions about which image, sound, idea, person gets on television. We should know who those people are. That is why media literacy education concentrates on teaching ABOUT television - how it is made, why it is made, who makes it and how it affects viewers.

Until now, if the television industry admits it has an educational function or responsibility at all, it has seen it as taking place through content and providing access to content. That is, they see their role as teaching THROUGH television. But we believe it is possible for the television industry to teach ABOUT television. They can do this by creating more programs that teach about television such as last year's "Who's Minding the Set" co-produced by Rogers Cable and the Alliance for Children and Television and by providing more access to programs which can be used to teach ABOUT television by making it possible to freely tape off air.

A Media Literacy Content Regulation would require the following:

An on-air "masthead" for each channel. This would include information similar to that found in a magazine or newspaper with information about who owns and operates the station, location of the station and how to contact it. This "masthead" would be telecast more often than the current sign-on and sign-off announcements. It would include visual as well as audio information and appear throughout the broadcast day including prime time.

Program content ABOUT media literacy including programs that teach and illustrate the key concepts of media literacy. Broadcasters must increase the amount of programming they air about the making of television programs. This would include the behind the scenes aspects of film production including the business of television, not simply the stars and what we now know as "entertainment news." And it needn't be boring. Such programs as CBC's This Hour Has 22 Minutes, Discovery Channel's Movie Magic and Michael Moore's TV Nation provide excellent examples of how TV ABOUT TV can be made interesting, informative and even entertaining.

A new specialty channel devoted to in-depth media literacy programming, provided free as part of basic cable.

4. Telecast CRTC license renewal hearings, perhaps on the Parliamentary Channel. Canadians have a right to see first hand, the presentations made by the stations they rely on for so much of their news and entertainment. Since most Canadians get most of their information from television, it is fitting that this information ABOUT television be available THROUGH television.

5. Establish a central clearinghouse for citizens to make comments and get information about television programs. This clearinghouse would be accessible by a widely publicized free 1-800 phone line and through on-line networks like freenets and the World Wide Web. Publicity about the line should include regular and frequent television spots and be enclosed with monthly cable bills. The clearinghouse could act like a Better Business Bureau about the television industry. Parents/viewers could call the line or access a net site to register their comments and get a summary of information about specific programs or a channels. They could also be referred to other sources of information or avenue to pursue complaints. The current system for registering complaints is much to cumbersome for the average viewer to deal with, even if they know of the existence of such organisations as the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council, the Canadian Advertising Foundation, the Canadian Cable Television Association or the CRTC. The Media Awareness Network is already developing databases and on-line systems that could serve these ends.

The CRTC would take this information into consideration at the time of license renewal.

6. Require that broadcasters include an on-camera presenter for all programming directed at children under age 8.

When my family, including two young children, moved from Los Angeles to New Zealand in 1989, I was struck by the difference between US children's television and New Zealand children's TV. In the US there was no separation between cartoons except for commercials. It was a continuous barrage of slam, bam action. In New Zealand, even though the same inane, action-packed cartoons were being shown, after each cartoon, two cheery adults came on the screen, made a short comment, often in the form of a question, about the cartoon they just saw and introduced the next cartoon.

This simple technique profoundly changes the effect of television images on young children. For one thing it makes it clear that there is difference between real people and cartoon characters - something many children in this age group need help doing. It also sets children up to reflect on what they have just seen and to consider reflection and questioning as a natural thing to do. It also gives them a moment to change gears from high action of cartoons to the more sedate pace of the on-camera presenters.

In effect, the on-camera presenters serve the same function that parents or caregivers should serve, but often can't or don't. In the short term and the long run, this measure will be many times more effective in reducing the negative effects of media violence than any v-chip.

7. Please read these documents. I would like to draw your attention to three documents which I think you might find helpful in your deliberations. Television Violence: A Review of the Effects on Children of Different Ages published by the National Clearinghouse for Family Violence provides excellent recommendations for the industry and should be required reading for everyone responsible for producing, distributing, regulating children's programming. (This is my only copy so I can't leave it with you but you can get a copy by calling 1-800-267-1291)

Television Violence: The Power and the Peril by George Gerber who conducted the longest study on television violence in the US, makes some very important points about the culture of violence and the role television plays in that culture.

Elizabeth Thoman is the executive director of the Centre for Media Literacy in Los Angeles. Her testimony before the US Senate Committee on Commerce Science and Transportation this past summer does an excellent job of explaining how media literacy can reduce the negative effects of media violence.

Thank you for this opportunity. Association for Media Literacy of Nova Scotia
PO Box 1594 Central
Halifax, NS B3J 2Y3
Phone: (902) 453-2479
E-Mail: ag791@chebucto.ns.ca

 


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