New York -- Well aware that the television audience may be particularly sensitive, the Showtime network aired a disclaimer warning audiences of violent content in the season finales of its dramas “Homeland” and “Dexter” last weekend. It was two days after a gunman killed 26 people in a Newtown, Conn., elementary school.
The political thriller “Homeland” that night featured the burial of a bullet-ridden body at sea and a car bomb that killed scores of people. “Dexter,” about a serial killer, had a couple of murders.
Viewer sensitivity, it seems, was not an issue: Sunday’s “Homeland” was the highest-rated episode in the two years the series has been on the air. “Dexter” was the top-rated episode of any series in Showtime history.
That’s just one illustration of how violence and gunplay are baked into the popular culture of television, movies and video games. Speaking publicly Friday for the first time since the shooting, the National Rifle Association’s chief executive Wayne LaPierre criticized the media and the “shadow industry” of “vicious, violent video games” as playing a role in mass shootings.
While gun control and the mental health system have grabbed the most attention as ways to prevent further incidents, violence in entertainment has been mentioned, too. There have been unconfirmed reports that gunman Adam Lanza was a video game devotee.
Certainly in movies, danger is a constant refrain. James Bond has a personalized gun that responds to his palm print in the currently popular “Skyfall.”
“The Avengers,” this year’s top earner with a box office gross of $623 million, features an assassin with a bow and arrow and the destruction of New York City. No. 2 is “The Dark Night Rises” ($448 million), with considerable gun violence. “The Hunger Games” is No. 3 ($408 million), with an entire premise based on violence involving youngsters.
The Motion Picture Association of America expressed its outrage at the shootings this week and stands “ready to be part of the national conversation” about solutions, said Christopher Dodd, the organization’s chairman and CEO. Dodd is a former longtime U.S. senator from Connecticut.
The top-selling video game in November was “Call of Duty: Black Ops II,” according to the NPD Group, which tracks game sales. For players, “enemies swarm and you pop their heads and push forward,” PC Gamer described. The magazine called “Call of Duty” “Whack-a Mole, but with foreigners.”
NPD did not immediately have the year’s sales figures available. Top video games can earn anywhere between $1 billion and $6 billion in revenue, said David Riley, executive director of the NPD Group.
He emphasized, however, that November’s sales list may be a little deceptive; while “Grand Theft Auto” is among the top-selling video games of all time, the majority of the big sellers are not violent.
The body count piles up on television, too. Seven of the 10 most popular prime-time scripted series this season as rated by the Nielsen company are about fighting often violent crimes. The series are CBS’ “NCIS,” “NCIS: Los Angeles,” “Person of Interest,” “Criminal Minds,” “Elementary” and “Vegas,” along with ABC’s “Castle.”
Hollywood often scours its product output to appear sensitive when a tragic event dominates the news, and makes adjustments like the disclaimer Showtime used on Sunday. NBC last Friday said it pulled a rerun of a Blake Shelton holiday special because it had a short animated segment where a reindeer was killed, and told its stations to show a Michael Buble special instead.
To date, there’s been no evidence of a network pulling the plug entirely on a series because of violent content in the wake of Newtown.
The question for many who follow popular culture is what the cumulative impact of so much violence is on a user’s brain, particularly someone mentally vulnerable.
U.S. Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, on Fox News last weekend, said the violent content causes usersto be more violent. President Obama’s adviser, David Axelrod, tweeted that he’s in favor of gun control, “but shouldn’t we also question marketing murder?”
Violence in video games seems more realistic all the time, notes Brad Bushman, a professor of communication and psychology at Ohio State University. Game makers have even consulted doctors to ask what it would look like if a person was shot to make the action seem real, he said.
Bushman conducted a study that he said showed that a person who played violent video games three days in a row showed more aggressive and hostile behavior than people who weren’t playing. It’s not certain what the impact would be on people who played these games for years because testing that “isn’t practical or ethical,” he said.
An organization called GamerFitNation has called for a one-day “cease fire” on Friday, asking video gamers to refrain from playing violent games on the one-week anniversary of the Newtown shootings.
Bushman understands the thirst for answers.
“Violent behavior is a very complex thing,” he said, “and when it happens, you want to say what the cause is. And it’s not so simple.”
For whatever concern that politicians and moral leaders show about violent media content, it’s millions of consumers who will decide whether gore stays, said Marty Kaplan, director of the Norman Lear Center at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School of Communication.
“Hollywood is exquisitely reactive to the marketplace,” he said.
Associated Press Movie Critic Christy Lemire in Los Angeles, Television Writer Frazier Moore in New York and writer Lou Kesten in Washington contributed to this report.