The body count in prime-time television these days rivals that of a war zone.
The popularity of CBS’ “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation,” its spinoffs, imitators and other crime or supernatural shows has made network TV home to an astonishing amount of blood ’n’ guts, which has attracted little notice due to a preoccupation with sex.
During the last week of September, there were 63 dead bodies visible during prime time on the six broadcast networks. That’s up sharply from the 27 bodies counted during the same week in 2004.
This year, channel surfers in that one week could spot:
—The lead character in Fox’s “Bones” discovering a badly decomposed body hanging in a tree, crows picking on the remains. The maggot-covered head falls off and lands in Bones’ hands.
—A man preparing dinner on the WB’s “Supernatural” when his sink suddenly fills with water. He reaches in and something grabs him, pulls his head in the water and drowns him.
—On CBS’ “CSI: NY,” a man falling after trying to climb the outside of a skyscraper. He hits a ledge, and a large chunk of bloody flesh falls to the street.
—A driver speeding up to hit a woman coming out of the clinic on NBC’s “Inconceivable.” She’s shown hitting the windshield, flying through the air and lying on the ground with blood dripping from her mouth and nose.
—The victim of an auto-erotic asphyxiation on CBS’ “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.”
Then there’s the gunshot victim with blood spurting from his chest, the man screaming as he’s being burned alive, the murdered woman whose eyes had been removed and eyelids stitched shut and the medical examiner using pliers to pull a diamond from a dead man’s chest.
You get the idea.
Do they have your attention yet?“The whole name of the game in television is holding attention,” said Martin Kaplan, professor at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School of Communication. “Ever since we were creatures on the savannah, fear, sex and novelty were things that made our heads jerk.”
The reign of “CSI” as television’s most popular show is clearly the leading factor in the trend. CBS, in particular, keeps putting new crime-oriented dramas on the air and the public keeps lapping them up.
“I think one of the drawing cards of ‘CSI’ is that it is depicted very real and sort of gross,” said David Janollari, WB entertainment president. “It’s part of why the audience comes to see it.”
Television must compete for attention with movies, where the effects can be even more graphic, he said.
“Gore is not a goal in and of itself,” said Peter Liguori, Fox entertainment president. “Accurate storytelling is. When you look at a show like ‘Bones,’ Bones is a real-life forensic psychologist. This is what she sees on a daily basis when she’s called in to solve a case.”
Liguori, who has children aged 11 and 14, said he knows “CSI” is not appropriate for most kids. But he said it’s up to parents to monitor and decide what their children should watch.
“All of the media executives are going to pay a lot more attention to what’s making them money,” said David Walsh, head of the National Institute on Media and the Family. “Their job performance is not going to include ‘What do parents think of what you’re doing?’ Their job performance is going to be based on ‘How much money did you make?”’
Fifteen years ago when he first started talking about the influence of media violence on young people, Walsh said he had to convince parents it was an issue worth being concerned about. Now he said they need no convincing.
Still, it’s an increasingly lonely effort.
The prime-time body count was compiled, after a request from The Associated Press, by the Parents Television Council, a watchdog group that keeps tapes of network programming.
Yet the PTC, which frequently files complaints with the Federal Communications Commission about network fare, admits that its focus has primarily been on sex, not gore. One reason is that there’s no government agency concerned with these issues, said Melissa Caldwell, the PTC’s research director.
The council prefers to steer advertisers away from programming it disapproves of, but hasn’t started any campaign against a broadcaster for violent content this season. The closest it came was a protest this month about an episode of CBS’ “NCIS” where a stripper had her throat cut, primarily because it was shown before 9 p.m.
Americans “seem to have more of a taste for violence, unfortunately, so it’s a little bit more difficult to get people worked up over it,” Caldwell said.
Both the National Coalition on Television Violence and the National Alliance for Non-Violent Programming were active in the 1990s. The impact of blood ’n’ guts in the media was a big issue then. But now each organization is largely defunct, their funds dried up.
The current body count hasn’t gone unnoticed by former leaders of these groups, although one noted an interesting twist brought on by the popularity of forensics shows.
“One of our arguments used to be that they showed the violence without the effects,” said Mary Ann Banta, former board member of the National Coalition on Television Violence. “Now they are showing the effects without the violence.”
That’s still upsetting, she said.
How much televised gore affects people has been the subject of countless studies but hasn’t — perhaps can’t — be answered definitively.
“The most difficult issue here is desensitization,” said Whitney Vanderwerff, former head of the National Alliance for Non-Violent Programming. “People have become so accustomed to this that it no longer registers.
“But,” she maintains, “it does to kids.”