A Preliminary Demography of Television Violence

Nancy Signorielli. Handbook of Children, Culture, and Violence. Editor: Nancy E Dowd, Dorothy G Singer, Robin Fretwell Wilson. Sage Publication. 2008.

Television is the central and most pervasive mass medium in American culture. It plays a distinctive and historically unprecedented role as our nation’s, and increasingly the world’s, most common, constant, and vivid learning environment. Americans spend much of their time watching television. In the average home the television set is turned on for about 7 hours each day and the average person watches more than 3 hours a day (Nielsen, 2000). Few people escape exposure to television’s vivid and recurrent patterns of images, information, and values. Moreover, today’s delivery systems, including broadcast television, cable, satellite, video tapes, and DVDs, provide numerous venues for viewing.

Television is first and foremost a storyteller—telling most of the stories to most of the people, most of the time. It is the wholesale distributor of images and the mainstream of our popular culture. Today, the children of the world are born into homes in which, for the first time in human history, centralized commercial institutions rather than parents, churches, or schools tell most of the stories. Television shows and tells us about life—people, places, power, striving, what people do and how they do it. It tells us who is good and who is bad, who wins and who loses, what works and what does not, and what it means to be a man or a woman or a member of a particular racial group. As such, television has become a socialization agent. It gives us messages about violence, its prevalence, who gets hurt or killed, and who is likely to do the hurting or killing. These images of perpetrators and victims are particularly compelling because they provide viewers with a calculus of life’s chances— the likelihood that a particular person, or group of people, might hurt or kill someone, or more importantly, the likelihood of getting hurt or killed. Consequently, our understanding of televised images about the demography of violence can help us to understand better the media’s important role in people’s lives. This chapter focuses specifically on these messages, using the results from an analysis conducted specifically for this discussion as well as information and data from the most important and relevant studies of television violence to date—the Cultural Indicators project (see Gerbner, Gross, Morgan, Signorielli, & Shanahan, 2002) and the National Television Violence Study (1998).

Theoretical Perspective

Numerous theories explain why the study of television violence is important and how it may affect viewers, especially children. Desensitization (see Potter, 1999) and social learning-cognitive theory (Bandura, 2002), for example, examine the immediate and typically harmful effects of viewing violence. Desensitization posits that watching violence leads to insensitivity and callousness. Social learning-cognitive theory predicts that viewing violence provides viewers with potential scripts or models of violent behaviors or reactions to them and may teach viewers to behave aggressively. Cultivation theory, on the other hand, looks at viewing violence from a cumulative, long-term perspective (Gerbner et al., 2002). It posits that television violence illustrates and provides lessons about power, which in turn contribute to viewers’ perceptions of the world as a mean and scary place and their own chances of being a victim or perpetrator of violence.

These theoretical perspectives also explain the importance of understanding the demography of violence. According to social learning-cognitive theory, images of those who do the hurting or killing may enable viewers to develop scripts about their own likelihood of becoming involved in violence. If, for example, you find that people like you are typically the perpetrators or victims of violence, then you may have a different set of scripts than someone for whom these images rarely apply. Similarly, according to cultivation theory, viewers whose demography is similar to or resonates with the primary demography of being hurt or killed on television or other media, may feel their own personal or societal vulnerability is affected (Morgan, 1983). This could then translate to exhibiting behaviors of a more protective nature (such as buying a watchdog or gun for protection) or perceiving the world as dangerous (Gerbner, Gross, Morgan, & Signorielli, 1980).

Children, in particular, are likely to be affected by messages of violence. These messages may be particularly salient if those depicted in the violent images are children or adolescents. Children typically like to watch programs whose main characters are youngsters and find these programs more appealing (Harwood, 1997). Moreover, characters who are similar to children in age and sex are their favorites (Hoffner, 1996). From a social learning-cognitive theoretical perspective, children may focus on television characters who are “like” them to guide their behavior or help them form scripts of acceptable behaviors and possible outcomes, particularly those of an aggressive nature (Bandura, 2002). In addition, recent studies have found that the lessons learned from viewing violence may be related to the characters who are involved in violence (Wilson, Colvin, & Smith, 2002). The sex, race, and age of characters involved in violence could provide powerful messages about power and vulnerability.

There are relatively few studies focusing on how children and adolescents are portrayed on television. The existing studies tell us that this age group has been consistently underrepresented and devalued during prime time (Greenberg, 1980; Signorielli, 1987). Signorielli (1987) found that while children under 10 made up about 15% of the U.S. population, they made up less than 2% of the characters in prime-time programs. This study of prime-time programs broadcast between 1969 and 1985 found that children and adolescents were much more likely to be victimized than older characters. The only group that was equally likely to hurt others and be hurt themselves was young girls (9 years of age and younger). Overall, however, boys under 10 years of age were more likely than girls to be battered on prime time—they were more likely to get hurt than to hurt other characters. Young boys were also the most underrepresented and the most racially mixed group. While young girls were also underrepresented, the analysis found that as girls move into adolescence, particularly later adolescence, they become more numerous on prime time but more vulnerable in terms of their likelihood of getting hurt. Signorielli (1987) concluded that the overall image of children and adolescence on television was one of unimportance and devaluation. Similarly, Peck (1982) noted, “(t)he young are either played for laughs, kept subordinate to adult roles, or cast as victims—three states they are anxious to avoid in their own lives” (p. 63).

Violence on Television

Most of our knowledge about television violence comes from studies conducted during the past 35 years as part of the Cultural Indicators project (CI), the longest-running, consistent, and stable research project on television violence; and the research conducted in the mid-1990s in the National Television Violence Study (NTVS). Through the early 1990s, CI measured the amount of physical violence on television by monitoring intact weeks of prime-time network broadcast television programming (Gerbner et al., 2002), periodically publishing the results as a Violence Profile, the last in 1994 (Gerbner, Morgan, & Signorielli, 1994). This perspective has continued into the 21st century in the work of Signorielli (2003b). The CI studies examined 37 separate samples of prime-time network broadcast programs with a total of 2,836 programs and 10,294 leading characters. The NTVS (1998) also examined physical violence using a different sampling procedure. This study focused on three yearly samples (1994-1995, 1995-1996, and 1996-1997) made up of composite weeks of programming across 23 channels operating between 6:00 A.M. and 11:00 p.m. each day (N=8,200). This sample included programs on broadcast channels (commercial networks, independent stations, and public television) and cable channels (basic and premium offerings) seen between October and June of each year sampled. The samples included all genres except game shows, religious programs, “infomer-cials” or home shopping channels, sports, instructional programs, and news. NTVS thus provides a more expansive examination of television violence because it sampled a larger universe of television programming. Taken together, however, both research programs provide a unique and detailed understanding of television violence.

Definitions and Measures

CI and NTVS both define violence in terms of physical force. CI defines violence as “the overt expression of physical force (with or without a weapon, against self or other) compelling action against one’s will on pain of being hurt or killed, or actually hurting or killing” (Signorielli, Gross, & Morgan, 1982, p. 163). This focus includes all plausible and credible violence, including humorous violence. Although some have argued that humorous violence is not problematic (Blank, 1977; Coffin & Tuchman, 1972-1973), in actuality, humorous or comic violence may increase the risk of learning aggressive behaviors because it is not perceived as “bad” or problematic violence and the public often sees cartoon violence as harmless (Baron, 1978; Berkowitz, 1970; Potter, 1999). “Accidental” violence and violent “acts of nature” are also included because such actions are purposeful, claim victims, and demonstrate power. Writers add such scenes to programs in order to propel the story and perhaps to eliminate or incapacitate certain characters. NTVS defines violence as “any overt depiction of a credible threat of physical force or the actual use of such force intended to physically harm an animate being or group of beings” (Wilson et al, 2002, p. 41). NTVS focuses on physical violence, rather than psychological or emotional violence, and includes “depictions of the harmful consequences of unseen violence” (Wilson et al., 2002, p. 41).

These two research programs examine who is involved in violence differently. CI focuses on all characters whose roles are central to the story line or action. The data from this study can thus be analyzed to examine prevalence of violence among all the characters as well as those involved in violence. Several measures are used to examine how characters are involved in violence. Two distinct variables measure involvement—being a perpetrator of violence or being a victim of violence. An overall measure of involvement in violence is calculated from the intersection of these two variables and labels a character as either a perpetrator or a victim of violence. A fourth measure looks at the overlap of these two variables to isolate those characters who are both perpetrators and victims. Several variables also measure the context of the character’s involvement in violence. All of the variables used in the CI studies met standards of reliability as set out by Krippendorff (1980) and discussed in more detail in Signorielli (2003b).

NTVS (1998), in contrast, focuses only on characters who were actually involved in violence, specifically, the characters who took part in interactions consisting of perpetrators (P) who use unique violent actions (A) to aggress against a target (T), known as PAT interactions. Consequently the NTVS discusses characterizations only in terms of violent interactions. The CI studies present a broader picture by looking at a character’s involvement in violence from the perspective of the entire group of leading and supporting characters, not just those involved in violence. The CI studies thus tell us about the overall likelihood of involvement in violence of specific demographic subgroups of characters.

Who’s Involved

Physical violence is extremely prevalent on television. The CI project found that violence appears in about 60% of all network prime-time broadcast programs at the rate of 5 incidents per program (Signorielli, 2003b). More recent samples of network prime-time programs broadcast between the fall of 2000 and the fall of 2003 (Signorielli, 2003b, 2005) show that violence appears most in crime programs, dramas, and reality shows, and least in situation comedies and news magazine shows. While violence was a little more likely to occur in programs broadcast between 9 p.m. and 11 p.m. (67% were violent) than those broadcast between 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. (54% were violent), the rate of violent actions per program was higher in the early-evening programs (5.3 acts per program) compared to later programs (4.3 per program). Moreover, about a third of the leading and supporting characters in late-evening programs were involved in violence, compared to a little more than a quarter of the leading and supporting characters in the early-evening programs. Similarly, NTVS found that violence appears in roughly 60% of all the programs in their entire sample (6 a.m. to midnight) as well as those programs seen during prime time (Smith, Nathanson, & Wilson, 2002).

The early CI studies found a demographic power structure, with women and minorities more likely to be hurt than to hurt others. “Violence Profile No. 11” (Gerbner, Gross, Morgan, & Signorielli, 1980), for example, found that between 1969 and 1979, 60% of the male major characters compared to 40% of the female major characters were involved in violence (either hurting others or being hurt themselves). Whites were slightly more likely than minorities to be involved in violence; more than half of the minority men, compared to 60% of the White men, either hurt others or were hurt themselves. This was true for less than one-quarter of the minority women, compared to 40% of the White women. During the 1970s these patterns favored victimization for women and minorities—characters were more likely to be hurt or killed themselves than to hurt or kill other characters.

During the 1980s, male characters were slightly less likely to be involved in violence than in the 1970s (Gerbner, Morgan, & Signorielli, 1994). More than half of the male characters (56%) in the 1980s, compared to 60% in the 1970s, either hurt others or were hurt themselves. The percentage of women involved in violence, on the other hand, increased slightly during the 1980s. In the 1970s, 40% of the women were involved in violence while 44% were involved during the 1980s. Once again, characters were somewhat more likely to be victimized than to hurt others.

Ongoing research by the author in the Cultural Indicators perspective conducted specifically for this chapter and other projects (see Signorielli, 2003b, 2005) shows that by the end and turn of the century, patterns of committing violence and being victimized on prime time changed. Analyses of week-long samples of prime-time programs broadcast between 1993 and 2003 show that, overall, fewer major and leading characters were involved in violence—only one-third were involved in violence either by hurting or killing others or being hurt or killed themselves. In the 1960s and 1970s and into the 1980s about half of the leading characters were typically involved in some type of violence. Thus, during the last 40 years, the percentages of leading characters involved in violence decreased.

Although fewer characters are involved in violence overall, demographic differences mark their involvement in violence. Between the fall of 2000 and the fall of 2003, those characters involved in violence, as perpetrators or victims, were more likely to be male (68%) than female (32%), reflecting the continued overrepresentation of men on television (Signorielli & Bacue, 1999). But, as this data set of programming has an overall 60%-40% male-female split, it is clear that involvement in violence is much more an activity of male than female characters. Perpetrators of violence are 69% male compared to 31% female, while 66% of the males compared to 34% of the females are victims of violence. Similarly, looking at the entire sample of characters, those involved in violence as either perpetrators or victims are more likely to be White characters (77%) than minority characters (23%), a split that reflects the overall racial makeup in prime-time broadcast programs (Signorielli, Horry, & Carlton, 2004). Moreover, the distributions are similar for just the perpetrators and just the victims of violence. The distributions by involvement also are similar when comparing characters by both race and sex. These figures again reflect prime time’s overall White-minority distribution of 80% to 20%.

There are considerable differences when the data about the involvement in violence are examined and isolated in terms of just men, just women, just Whites, and just minorities. This analysis provides information about how many men, women, Whites, or minorities are involved in violence and gives a somewhat different picture of how characters are involved in violence during prime time. The data from the fall of 2000 to the fall of 2003 show that one-third of the men compared to one-quarter of the women are involved in violence as either perpetrators or victims of violence. Interestingly 15% of the men compared to 10% of the women are categorized as both perpetrators and victims of violence (Signorielli, 2005). If we look at how many men and women are only perpetrators or only victims of violence on prime time, we find that one-quarter of the men compared to less than one-fifth of the women fall in these two groups.

In these samples, we find that proportionally more of the minorities (33%) than the Whites (29%) are involved in violence. Minorities are a little more likely than Whites to be perpetrators or victims of violence (1 in 4 minorities compared to 1 in 5 Whites), and minorities are more likely than Whites to be both perpetrators and victims (17% of the minorities compared to 11% of the Whites). Adding sex to the equation, both minority men and women are slightly more likely to be involved in violence than White men and women.

Another way the CI studies have examined involvement in violence is by comparing the ratio of who does the hurting or killing to who gets hurt or killed. Interestingly, during the 1990s and early part of the 21st century, these ratios changed (Signorielli, 1990). In the 1970s and early 1980s, for every 10 male characters who hurt or killed other characters, 11 men were victimized. From 2000 to 2003, male characters were about equally likely to hurt or kill than be hurt or killed. For women, the differences vary. In the 1970s, 16 women were victimized for every 10 women who hurt or killed others. However, the odds have now changed. In the most recent samples of programs broadcast in prime time, women are also equally likely to hurt or kill as be hurt or killed (Signorielli, 2005).

there are few differences by race. While, as noted above, Whites are less likely than minorities to be involved in violence, both groups are equally likely to hurt or kill as be hurt or killed. However, when we add sex to the mix, there are some differences. Both White men and minority men are slightly more likely to do the hurting than be hurt (for every 10 White or minority males who are hurt, 11 hurt others). On the other hand, White women are slightly more likely than minority women to hurt others (for every 10 White woman who are hurt, 11 do the hurting), while minority women are more likely to be hurt than hurt others (for every 10 minority women who hurt others, 11 are hurt).

While NTVS (1998) did not generate a profile of all characters on television, it examined the demographic makeup of perpetrators and targets of violence. Most of the perpetrators (close to three-quarters) were men while only 1 in 10 was a woman. Few perpetrators were categorized as heroes and most were White. More than 4 out of 10 perpetrators (43%) were “bad” while more than a quarter (28%) were “good” and 1 in 10 was both “good and bad.” Similarly, about three-quarters of the targets were men while only 1 in 10 was a woman. Three-quarters of both the perpetrators and targets of violence were White. Potter, Vaughan, Warren, Howley, Land, and Hagemeyer (1995) also found that men were more likely than women to perpetuate aggressive acts, particularly those of a serious nature. They note, however, that these higher rates of aggression are due to the overrepresentation of men on television, and this explains the unrealistic nature of TV portrayals of violence. Potter and colleagues (1995) also found that the television world typically presents an unrealistic picture of serious aggression in regard to the race of those who commit the acts as well as those who are victimized. In short, television overre-presents both White perpetrators and White victims of aggression.

Age-Related Differences

Looking first at those characters in prime time who are perpetrators or victims of violence in the early 21st century, there are interesting age differences. An analysis of the data set used by the author in previous publications (see Signorielli, 2003b, 2005) conducted specifically for this discussion found that, overall, middle-aged characters are most likely to be involved in violence (53%), followed by young adults (40%), children and adolescents (6%), and almost none of the elderly (less than 1%). The same age-related distributions exist for White and minority characters. There are some differences, however, for women—47% of both the young adults and middle-aged women, 6% of the girls and adolescent girls, but no elderly women are involved in violence. Again, the figures are quite stable when looking only at perpetrators and only at victims of violence. Likewise, the NTVS found that about 75% of both White and minority characters in the PATs were adults, about 10% were children or teens, and only 1% were classified as elderly.

This special analysis also isolated interesting differences when looking at characters in four specific age groups: children and teens, young adults, middle-aged adults, and the elderly. The data show that minority and White boys, adolescents, and young men are the groups most likely to be involved in violence on prime time. Old or elderly characters, on the other hand, particularly old women, and young or adolescent girls are the least likely to be involved in violence. Except for minority girls, children and adolescents are more likely to be victims than to commit violence. For every 10 young boys who hurt others, 17 are hurt, and an identical ratio appears for young girls. On the other hand, young adult men and women as well as middle-aged women are equally likely to hurt others and be hurt themselves. Middle-aged men, however, are more likely to hurt others than be hurt themselves—for every 10 who are hurt, 12 hurt others. Overall, elderly women were not involved in violence in any of these samples, while 15 elderly men were victimized for every 10 who hurt others.

Adding race to the picture shows some interesting differences. Among White male characters, children, adolescents, and young adults are somewhat more likely to be involved in violence than middle-aged men— about 40% of the younger male characters compared to 30% of the middle-aged men and only 9% of the elderly men. There are larger differences for minority males—60% of the children and adolescents, 40% of the young adults, 33% of the middle-aged men, and 25% of the elderly men are involved in violence. Except for the middle-aged minority men, the ratios of involvement for minorities favor victimization over being a perpetrator of violence. For every 10 minority boys who hurt, 14 are hurt; while young minority men are equally likely to hurt as be hurt themselves. Elderly minority men are only victims of violence—none of this group hurt other characters. For middle-aged minority men, however, 14 hurt others for every 10 who are hurt.

Minority females have an interesting constellation. Minority girls are more likely to hurt others than be hurt on prime time— for every 10 minority girls who are hurt, 15 do the hurting. Young minority women are more likely to be victimized—for every 10 who hurt others, 14 are hurt. Middle-aged minority women, on the other hand, are equally likely to hurt or be hurt, while none of the elderly minority women were involved in violence.

Wilson, Colvin, and Smith (2002), in an analysis of the NTVS data set, found that while younger perpetrators of violence do not appear very frequently, when they do appear they are presented as attractive and may not be punished as often as adult perpetrators. Moreover, the type of violence in which they are involved typically produces fewer negative consequences for the target and may be found in a humorous context, most often in cartoon programming. Youthful perpetrators are important, however, because during a typical day’s viewing, a child will probably encounter two incidences of violence committed by a youthful perpetrator. Most violence, however, is perpetrated by adults who are more likely to be punished and typically cause more harm to their targets of violence.

Involvement in Killing

Overall, less than 10% of the leading and supporting characters in prime-time broadcast programs are involved in killing. More than 70% of this small number of characters are men. These figures show that both men and minorities are somewhat overrepresented when compared to their overall proportions in programming. While 1 in 5 characters is a minority, more than one-quarter of those involved in killing are minorities. Similarly while 6 out of 10 characters are men, they represent 7 out of 10 of those involved in killing. Killing is also most likely to involve adults and young adults. Children and the elderly are not involved in killing very often.

In terms of proportions, almost 1 in 10 men are involved in killing, compared to 1 in 20 women. The comparison by race shows that proportionally more minorities than Whites are involved in killing—7% of the White characters compared to 10% of minority characters. These differences also exist when looking at sex and race—for the White characters, 8% of the men compared to 5% of the women are involved in killing. For minorities, 11% of the men and 8% of the women are so involved. Thus, both minority men and minority women are more likely to be involved in killing than White men and White women. About 8% of both young adults and middle-aged characters are involved in killing, while about 4% of both children and the elderly are involved in killing.

Adding race to the mix shows some interesting differences. The involvement in killing for White characters of different ages does not change from the figures for the entire sample of characters. However, minorities in all age groups, except the young adults, are more likely to be involved in killing. Minorities involved in killing include 7% of the children and adolescents, 7% of the young adults, 11% of the middle-aged adults, and 17% of the elderly. Comparing rates by sex, boys are more likely to be involved in killing than girls (5% compared to 2%), young men are more likely than young women (11% compared to 4%), and middle-aged men are more likely than middle-aged women (9% compared to 7%). Moreover, there are no elderly women involved in killing, only elderly men.

The ratio of being a killer to being killed favors killers. Overall, there are 21 killers for every 10 characters who are killed, ratios that are similar for both men and women. Whites are more likely to be killers than minority characters. For every 24 White killers, 10 Whites are killed, while for every 16 minority killers, 10 minorities are killed. The intersection of sex and race shows that White males are the most likely to be killers (25 killers for every 10 killed), followed by minority women (22 killers for every 10 killed), White women (21 killers for every 10 killed), and minority men (14 killers for every 10 killed).

This analysis found that these patterns remain when characters are broken down by age. There are roughly 20 killers for every 10 young boys and young men who are killed, and 25 adult male killers for every adult man who is killed. Elderly men are equally likely to kill as be killed. Young girls (children or adolescents) are only likely to be killed rather than be killers (no young girls kill other characters). Young women, on the other hand, are more likely to kill than be killed, with 46 young female killers for every 10 young women who are killed. Similarly, there are 22 adult woman killers for every 10 women who are killed. As noted above, no elderly characters are killers or victims. While the ratios for the White characters are similar to these figures, the ratios for minorities differ somewhat. Both minority boys and girls are cast only as being killed (there are no minority killers). Among young adult characters, there are 16 young minority men who kill for every 10 who are killed, compared to female young adults, who are only victims. Adult minority women are much more likely to kill than be killed, while there are 18 killers for every 10 middle-aged minority men who are killed. Elderly minority men are only killed, while elderly minority women are neither likely to kill or be killed.

Consequences of Violence

On television, violence often occurs in a vacuum. Consequences for characters involved in violence, whether presented as rewards or punishments, are rarely shown. In an analysis of programs from the 1990s and the early 2000s, Signorielli (2003b) found that, overall, there are no consequences for violent behavior for more than 50% of the men, about 33% of the women, and about 60% of the White and minority characters. No consequences are shown for 56% of the White men and minority men, while 69% of the White women compared to 60% of the minority women commit violence without consequences.

Interestingly, violence has consequences most often for the very young (52%) and the very old (47%). In addition, characters, whether men or women, Whites or minorities, rarely exhibit any remorse for their violent behavior—only about 15% of any of these groups showed remorse. The only groups that show slightly more remorse are children (about a quarter) and the elderly (about a quarter). Finally, while about half of the violence exhibited by characters is presented as justified, there are some interesting differences by sex and race. Specifically, about 50% of the White men, compared to 60% of the minority men, commit violence that is seen as justified. The patterns are reversed for women: about 60% of White women, compared to about 50% of minority women, commit justified acts. Last, only one-third of the children commit violence presented as justified (Signorielli, 2003b).

The NTVS defined the consequences of violence primarily in terms of depicted harm and pain. This research found no negative consequences of violence in 3 out of 10 programs and that half of the programs only showed short-term negative consequences. In regard to the portrayal of harm to the targets, one-third of the violence interactions presented unrealistically low levels of harm, with more than half showing the victim in no obvious pain. Almost three-quarters of the violent interactions portrayed violence that went unpunished. Overall, both the CI studies and the NTVS found that television presents very few consequences of violence.

Mental Illness and Violence

There is one group on television for whom involvement in violence paints a very different picture. Characters judged to be mentally ill are considerably more likely to be involved in violence than “normal” characters. While the surgeon general posits that roughly 20% of the U.S. population may exhibit some degree of mental illness (U. S. Department of Health and Human Services, 1999), such illnesses appear very infrequently on television—in about 15% of the prime-time programs and less than 5% of the characters in leading roles. Nevertheless, when it is a story element, violence often is part of the picture (Signorielli, 2003a).

There is a decided relationship between the appearance of mental illness and elements of violence in programs. Overall, slightly more than 6 out of 10 programs contain elements of violence; among programs with mental illness themes, however, 8 out of 10 focus on violence. While 45% of all programs have themes of law enforcement, 70% of the programs with mental illness include themes relating to law enforcement. Similarly, while 40% of all programs have themes relating to crime, 66% of the programs with mental illness have a crime theme.

In the two most recent samples, fall of 2002 and 2003, there are very few mentally ill characters in leading or supporting roles—less than 2% of the characters. They are more likely to be men than women. Consistent with earlier analyses (Signorielli, 1989), mentally ill characters are much more likely to be involved in violence than characters who are not mentally ill: 56% commit violence and 25% hurt other characters while more than 30% kill. Mentally ill characters are also somewhat more likely than non-mentally ill characters to be hurt or killed. Similarly, Diefenbach (1997) found that mentally ill characters are much more likely to be involved in violent crimes, and are portrayed as considerably more violent than non-mentally ill characters. Moreover, television characters who are mentally ill are much more violent than actual people living in the United States who are mentally ill. This finding more than likely reflects the tendency of writers to build their stories on stereotypes that those with mental illnesses are more likely to be violent than “normal” people.


Although Potter et al.’s (1995) research as well as the NTVS and CI reports differ somewhat in how they isolate characters’ involvement in violence, the patterns are similar. Overall, we find that more men than women, more Whites than minorities, and more middle-aged adult characters than younger or older characters are involved in violence. The role of women in violence, particularly in prime-time programming, has undergone important changes. In the 1970s through the mid-1980s, a time when network programming was “the only game in town” and the “big three” (ABC, CBS, and NBC) typically garnered 95% of the viewing audience most nights, the presence of women in a program generally signaled less violence. Today, the presence of women in a program does little to reduce the level of violence. Women are now as likely to be involved in violence and to kill as men. Consequently, in this venue, women have achieved greater parity with men, but at what price?

Moreover, the patterns of being hurt or hurting others in the portrayal of children and adolescents on television have changed very little since the 1980s. As seen in earlier analyses (Signorielli, 1987), youngsters are still more likely to be victimized and consequently remain a devalued group on prime-time network broadcast programs.

The patterns of violence and victimization continue to demonstrate power. Cultivation theory posits that these depictions serve to intimidate rather than incite and to paralyze rather than trigger action (Gerbner, 2002). Those who watch more television tend to overestimate their chances of being involved in violence, believe that their neighborhoods are unsafe, and believe that crime is a very serious problem and is rising, despite data to the contrary (Gerbner, Gross, Morgan, & Signorielli, 1984). Moreover, Morgan (1983) found that viewers who watch more programs in which their demographic counterparts are consistently seen as powerless victims of violence rather than as the powerful characters who commit violence, tended to overestimate their likelihood of being involved in violence, particularly as a victim. Morgan does not imply that a one-to-one mapping, or that identification with all demographically similar characters, occurs. Rather, “the cultivation of a heightened sense of danger and risk is strongly enhanced among viewers who see characters ‘like themselves— on the bottom of the symbolic power hierarchy” (p. 156).

Similarly, the NTVS (1998) posits that some of the most hazardous violence on television is that seen by children under 7. Specifically, in 16% of the programs with violence, children see attractive characters who “use violence in a morally defensible way to solve problems” (p. 136). This violence is sanitized of consequences—the violence is not criticized or punished, and the character typically does not regret his or her involvement. In addition, Wilson, Colvin, and Smith (2002) note that the depiction of younger characters as perpetrators of violence poses particular risks for younger viewers because such characters are attractive, are cast as good characters, often serve as role models, do not cause much damage, present violence in a humorous way, and are found in programs and on channels that specifically cater to younger viewers. Importantly, many of the programs in which this violence is found are cartoons for the youngest viewers; this, in turn, tends to exacerbate the potential problems because the youngest viewers may not be able to differentiate between fantasy and reality and may learn that aggression is an effective and useful way to solve problems rather than seeing violence as a technique that typically causes more trouble.

The changes in the demography of television violence, as noted above, are particularly troubling. New research should determine how these new patterns of committing violence and being victimized in the 21st century relate to viewers’ perceptions of their likelihood of being involved in violence. In particular, it is important to ascertain whether those whose demographic counterparts are more likely to be involved in violence continue to overestimate their own risks of becoming embroiled in violence. Research should also examine if today’s reality-based prime-time television contributes to the cultivation of real-world fear. In short, we need to determine if viewers, particularly children, have come to perceive the world as an even meaner and scarier place because no one is immune from violence.