You can kick, stab, shoot, stomp and savagely beat a large number of people in 30 seconds. At least on television. Baltimore's Channel 45 (WBFF), which penetrates the Washington market, is proving that again with a half-minute promotional announcement for its current slate of prime-time action movies.
Ballyhooing the films with the theme "No Week for Wimps," the promo consists of short, violent clips that include such sights as a knife being plunged into a leg, two youths being blown away by a vigilante killer, a man on fire writhing in agony and blood pouring from the mouth of a man beaten and knocked backward into an alley.
The promo dramatizes, unintentionally, the relaxation of standards in recent years by American commercial television. Old prohibitions against graphic depictions of brutal acts fell as the Federal Communications Commission abdicated its role of industry regulator and told broadcasters that, in effect, practically anything goes.
Channel 45's spot opens with Chuck Norris taking aim with a rifle, continues as Charles Bronson blasts a man off a fire escape, another victim crashes through a plate-glass window, another is smashed in the face with a club, a youth pops open a switchblade knife, Bronson shoots a young black man in the chest, and two toughs batter each other in a street brawl. Cars crash and bodies fly.
Mike Schroeder, promotion manager of Channel 45, said he has received "no complaints" about the ad even though it aired during daytime hours when the audience was bound to include substantial numbers of children. The promo was shown early Sunday morning during a rerun of the spy spoof "Get Smart" and again Sunday afternoon during a double feature of movies featuring child star Gary Coleman.
When asked about these airings, Schroeder said, "We didn't feel that was really kids' programming" and that the spot would not air during peak children's viewing times at the station, 7 to 9 a.m. and 3 to 5:30 p.m. weekdays.
But not long after Schroeder said that on Monday, the spot aired at 5:29, between the high kid-appeal programs "Mork and Mindy" and "The Andy Griffith Show."
It appeared in the same time slot last night.
"The whole basis of the week is that it's called 'No Week for Wimps,' " Schroeder said. "That's what the movies are all about. It's supposed to be a strong promo."
Robert Smith, program director of the station, said, "We haven't heard any complaints about it at all. I don't expect we will, as long as we don't violate anybody's right to watch what they want to watch."
Like other TV stations and networks, Channel 45 is in the middle of the February "sweeps" period, when particularly comprehensive ratings are taken and future advertising rates affected. "Most of the movies that do the best" in the ratings, Smith said, "are the action-violent-type titles. Naturally we promote what does the best."
Not all stations promote bloody movies with quite such abandon. Donita Todd, program director of Channel 20 (WDCA) in Washington, said broadcast standards at her station would preclude showing a promo this violent during hours when children were likely to make up the bulk of the audience and that ads for especially violent or frightening theatrical movies are not shown before 7 p.m.
Todd said it was unlikely her promotion department would put together a promo made up entirely of stabbings, shootings and beatings anyway. "If you do promos like that, it certainly limits the time periods in which you can run them," she said. "This sort of thing would probably not appear in a promotion."
There may seem to be fewer violent TV series than there once were, at least on the networks. But the severity of aggressive acts within programs has increased dramatically, partly because cable viewers have grown accustomed to seeing R-rated violence uncut in films on pay channels.
Sunday night's CBS movie, "Hostage," for instance, included scenes of brutal beatings that would have been unthinkable 10 years ago, before former FCC chairman Mark S. Fowler instituted his hands-off deregulation policies. The FCC is currently embarked on a crusade against so-called "indecency" on the air, a gambit instituted by Fowler and continued by his sound-alike successor, Dennis Patrick, but killing and maiming are not considered indecent.
No study has ever shown racy language to be socially harmful. Many studies have shown that exposure to large amounts of television violence can be. But the FCC is going after the racy language.
Networks tend to have stricter standards on violence than local stations. The TV syndication market is increasingly hospitable to brutal and bloody programs, including TV series versions of the R-rated "Friday the 13th" and "Nightmare on Elm Street" slasher films. The TV knockoffs are milder, but horrific acts remain central to them.
Sen. Paul Simon (D-Ill.), the presidential contender, introduced a bill last year that could help reduce violence on television, without any specific federal sanctions against violators. The bill, approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee in early December, would merely waive old antitrust strictures that networks say prevent them from cooperating to establish voluntary guidelines of their own.
David Carle, Simon's press secretary, said yesterday that even though a previous Simon-sponsored bill that passed the Senate failed to get through the House, "there is great hope" for this new version, expected to reach the floor within the next two months.
Was Simon's bill prompted in part by the fact that the FCC has been remiss in regulating TV violence? "Yes," Carle said.
The argument can always be made that news broadcasts contain more violence than entertainment shows. So far, 1988 has been a particularly murderous year in Washington. When fictitious but graphic violence becomes as common as beer commercials on TV, though, aren't viewers encouraged to think violence is a completely normal part of existence, to be less alarmed when it happens for real?
Doesn't greater tolerance of violence help encourage it? Some experts believe it does.
In its own small, 30-second way, Channel 45 is helping to diminish the quality of American life. Just because viewers are getting used to such pollution is no reason to shut up about it. Indeed, the fact that the audience now takes excessive TV violence for granted may be one of the best reasons of all to object.