• Psychopaths Coming Soon to a TV Near You

    by  • March 11, 2013 • Violence • 1 Comment

    glory_violenceNow that award season is over, Hollywood’s big muckety-mucks can finally stop patting themselves on the back for all the “good” their industry supposedly does for the world, and get back to the serious business glorifying psychopaths.

    If entertainment industry leaders are worried about increased regulation or crack-downs on violent content in the wake of Sandy Hook, you sure can’t tell from their programming slate. Already in 2013, we’ve seen the debut of The Following on Fox which centers on a charming serial killer and his legions of devoted followers who mindlessly do his bidding, even to the point of self-mutilation and suicide. On deck for debut later this year is Hannibal on NBC, which puts a cannibalistic serial killer at the center of the action; Bates Motel on A&E, which explores the formative teen years of Psycho’s Norman Bates; and Twisted on ABC Family — yes, you read that correctly: ABC Family – about a charismatic teenager with a  troubled past who is suspected in the recent death of a fellow student.

    Are you starting to see a pattern?

    Just how tone-deaf is Hollywood, that even in light of growing concerns about media content, and violent media targeted at teenagers, in particular, they would push ahead with not one, not two, but nearly half a dozen new shows about charming serial killers?

    Even Variety’s Brian Lowry observes:

    In the wake of the Newtown school shooting, critic Roger Ebert quoted from his review of “Elephant,” which placed any media blame for inspiring such mass shootings on news, not drama.

    All that seems true. Yet there is something distasteful, at the very least, about dramatic programming making killers the cool kids, having the hottest sex and driving the nicest cars.

    Lowry stops short of conceding to the preponderance of evidence pointing to a causal relationship between youth exposure to media violence and real-world violence, but does express misgivings about this new programming trend, given the more intimate nature of television which comes directly into our homes and invites us as viewers to build a relationship with the characters over time:

    It’s also worth noting that TV operates somewhat differently than movies. On the bigscreen, spending time with a morally flawed character is a one-and-done experience. By contrast, series demand an ongoing relationship, and while that doesn’t require liking the characters, viewers do have to care about what happens to them.

    That’s one reason why something like FX’s “American Horror Story” — which revels in nastiness for its own sake, offering few redeeming qualities among its assorted characters — is such a grim, nasty exercise. Rebooting the show for a second season only exacerbated this fundamental flaw.

    As noted, the preoccupation with criminals — the more outlandish the better — is hardly confined to drama (Investigation Discovery has built a profitable niche around it), and time will determine whether the audience’s appetite is expansive enough to support this latest wave of scripted fare.

    Nevertheless, casting more evildoers in starring roles does hand ammunition to TV’s cultural critics. Because while it’s easy to say this is nothing new, the sensation is different when TV goes from a couple of empathetic bad guys to one on every channel.

    Television is an intensely intimate form of entertainment. Viewers often develop strong attachments to their favorite television characters. So it should concern us when the characters viewers are asked to forge a relationship with are cold-blooded killers.

    Not long ago, television broadcasters adhered to a voluntary code of conduct, the Television Code, which was rooted in a desire to show the “highest standards of respect for the American home,” and stipulated that “Criminality shall be presented as undesirable and unsympathetic. The condoning of crime and the treatment of the commission of a crime in a frivolous, cynical or callous manner is unacceptable… The presentation of techniques of crime in such detail as to invite imitation shall be avoided… The use of horror for its own sake will be eliminated; the use of visual or aural effects which would shock or alarm the viewer, and the detailed presentation of brutality or physical agony by sight or by sound are not permissible…The exposition of sex crimes will be avoided…”

    Even though the code fell out of use more than twenty years ago, it is sadly apparent that broadcasters no longer have any interest in showing respect for the American home.  They have used the broadcast airwaves to deliver messages that poison impressionable young minds.  Despite the obvious concerns of millions of parents, public policy and medical experts, depictions of violence on prime time broadcast television have become more common and increasingly graphic, and there doesn’t appear to be an end in sight.  Broadcasters will continue to push the envelope with TV violence as long and as far as they are able.



    Ms. Henson is a noted expert on entertainment industry trends and the how the impact of entertainment affects children and the American popular culture at large. She also directs the organization’s Advertiser Accountability Campaign, which encourages companies to sponsor family-friendly entertainment. She previously supervised the research and program content analysis operations of the PT and produced a number of groundbreaking PTC studies that document the levels of graphic sex, violence and profanity on television. Some of those reports include: The Ratings Sham I & II, Dying to Entertain, Faith in a Box, The Sour Family Hour, The Blue Tube, and TV Bloodbath. She began her career with the PTC in 1997 as an entertainment analyst, documenting instances of inappropriate content on television. Ms. Henson has appeared on a variety of television shows including Fox News Channel’s The O’Reilly Factor, Your World with Neil Cavuto, The Big Story, CNN Headline News’ ShowBiz Tonight, CNBC’s On the Money, MSNBC’s Scarborough Country, and CBN’s Newswatch. She is a frequent guest on radio talk shows across the country and has been quoted extensively in news sources such asEntertainment Weekly, Time, Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, New York Times, USA Today, New York Daily News, Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle, Variety, Associated Press, Reuters, and Bloomberg. Ms. Henson is a graduate of the University of Virginia where she received a BA in Government. She resides in Falls Church, Va., with her husband and their son.

    One Response to Psychopaths Coming Soon to a TV Near You

    1. James Winters
      March 24, 2014 at 6:13 am

      It’s so good to hear someone name and shame the media for its unrepentant veneration of the psychopathic mindset.

      Shows like The Sopranos and Breaking Bad seem to occur in a moral twilight zone, where a psychopathic serial killer can be portrayed as just one of the guys who, with his family problems and vulnerabilities, we can all relate to; television should not be promoting empathy with such figures.

      I despair that television seems to be delivering the message to society that likeability is not worth cultivating; one of the most rotten things about modern entertainment is the way only unpleasant seedy occurrences seem to be regarded as ‘true to life’.

      I can assure you, sadly, that your article would be equally applicable here in Britain; over here this glorifying of callous personalities and actions is not restricted to fiction; it routinely surfaces on celebrity panel shows also.

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