A from a broader spectrum of programme types than

A handful of content analysis studies of violence on television have been carried
out in Britain since 1970. Much of this work has been funded by the broadcasting
industry. Halloran and Croll (1972) analysed broadcast material on BBC1 and
the ITV midlands region during one week of April 1971. They coded violent
incidents occurring in fictional drama programmes and news, current affairs and
documentary programmes. The coding instruments for violence were based on
those used by Gerbner and programmes were coded for the amount and type of
violence they contained, the kinds of characters involved in violence and certain
themes or contexts in which violent events happened.

At around the same time the BBC’s Audience Research Department undertook
a more extensive analysis of television over a six-month period and analysed
content from dramatic fiction, news and current affairs, documentaries, and light
entertainment programmes (Shaw and Newell, 1972). Unlike Halloran and Croll,
the BBC researchers did not follow the Gerbner method precisely, although in
general terms their analysis was conceptually of the same type. Violence was
treated essentially as an explicit form of interaction between human beings.
However, because the BBC’s study sampled materials from a broader spectrum
of programme types than did Gerbner’s, it was considered necessary to expand

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the definition of violence to include unintentional injurious acts and acts of
vandalism against property to code incidents of the sort often reported or
depicted in non-fictional programmes.

Each of these British studies indicated that although a common feature of
programming, violence was not as prevalent on British television as on American
television. In fictional drama, the only category of programming in which direct
comparisons between American and British findings were possible, Halloran and
Croll found that nearly 56% of programmes coded contained violence—
compared with a reported 80% of fictional programmes on American television
(Gerbner, 1972).

In nearly 48% of fictional programmes, a major character was involved in
violence either as aggressor or victim. The rate of violence on British television
drama was 2.8 incidents per programme or just over four incidents an hour, again
substantially less than an average rate of over seven incidents per hour reported
by Gerbner (1972) for American prime-time television drama.

In their more extensive analysis of British television content, Shaw and
Newell found a somewhat greater prevalence of violence in fictional drama in
terms of the number of programmes containing at least one major violent incident
(63%), but somewhat less violence in terms of the rate at which violent incidents
occurred; average numbers of just under two violent incidents per programme or
just over two per hour were recorded.

The prevalence and rate of violent incidents was also found in both studies to
vary considerably across different forms of drama programme. Halloran and
Croll noted that the most violent type of programme in the fiction category was
the cartoon. All cartoons coded by them contained some violence and the rate of
incidents per hour in such shows was nearly 34. None of the cartoon incidents
was fatal, however.

Violence was also prevalent in feature films; 80% contained some violence,
and incidents averaged over four per hour. This contrasted with plays, of which
50% were violent, but even then, with an average incident rate of less than one
per programme, were unlikely to be very violent programme by programme.
After cartoons, the most violent programmes coded by Halloran and Croll were
crime, western, and action-adventure shows. All programmes in these categories
contained violence with an average rate of nearly eight incidents per hour.

Turning to the BBC’s analysis of the prevalence of violence for different
programme forms or ‘themes’, once again, agreement with Halloran and Croll
was not complete. Feature films contained at least one major violent incident in
86% of cases which compares quite well with Halloran and Croil’s 80% figure,
whereas the category of programmes labelled as ‘TV series’ by the BBC’s
researchers, which consisted largely of crime-detective, western and action
dramas, contained violence in only 75% of cases, as contrasted with all such
programmes monitored by Halloran and Croll.

Inconsistencies across the violence measures produced by these two studies
become even more pronounced when consideration is given to mean rates of



violent incidents per programme type. The BBC team coded an average of just
over three incidents per hour for feature films, one per hour less than Halloran
and Croll. Even more significantly, they coded 2.2 incidents per hour for ‘TV
series’, a little over 25% of the average rate of incidents per hour recorded for the
crime-drama, western and action-drama categories by Halloran and Croll. Even
when examining particular themes or particular series, the BBC’s violence rate
statistics remained lower than those reported by Halloran and Croll. Thus, the
BBC reported that westerns contained a higher rate of violent incidents than any
other type of television series, but at 3.9 incidents per programme, this was still
only about half the rate reported by Halloran and Croll for crime-drama, western
and action-drama categories.

Cumberbatch et al. (1987) found an overall rate for dramatic fiction of 3.60
violent acts per hour which reduced to 2.51 in prime time (8.00 pm to 11.00 pm).
These findings compared with Shaw and Newell’s (1972) result of 2.74 violent
acts per hour for dramatic fiction, and the parallel analysis by Halloran and Croll
(1972) who found 4.04 acts per hour. Cumberbatch et al. (1988) suggested that
there may have been a degree of undercoding in the original BBC study.

The Cumberbatch et al. (1987) study found a decline in television violence
even against the depressed rates of Shaw and Newell. Thus, overall, the
proportion of programmes with violence in them declined considerably. The two
major channels, BBC1 and ITV, showed decreases from 49% to 28% and from
51% to 32%, respectively, while the minority channel, BBC2, showed a decline
from 55% to 26%. The least decline was in dramatic fiction where 63% of
programmes contained violence in 1971 compared with 58% in 1986. Other
programme genres that could be directly compared showed a consistent pattern of
reduction in violence. Light entertainment reduced from 30% to 26%; current
affairs (magazine) programmes reduced from 56% to 40%; and cartoons reduced
from 89% to 63% in the proportion of programmes within the genre that
contained any violence.

During the early 1990s, a series of monitoring studies were published by the
Broadcasting Standards Council in Britain. These studies monitored not only how
much violence there was on television, but also how much sex and bad language.
The first of these studies monitored television output over four separate two- or
three-week periods in 1991 and 1992. The second study examined television
ouptut over a single two-week period in 1993, and the third study monitored two
separate two-week spells in 1994. This exercise involved a survey of panels of
respondents who were interviewed about the programmes they watched and kept
a viewing diary. In 1992, a content analysis exercise was also run in parallel to
the viewer-based monitoring exercise for one of the sampled weeks, which
assessed the amount and distribution of violence on the four UK terrestrial
channels, BBC1, BBC2, ITV and Channel 4. In 1993 and 1994, the content
analysis was repeated and extended to cover two separate weeks each year, one
of which also covered output from three satellite movie channels, Sky Movies,

The Movie Channel and Sky Movies Gold (see Broadcasting Standards Council,
1994, 1995).

The content analysis conducted in 1994 sampled a total of 648 programmes
over two weeks of terrestrial television output, focusing on transmissions
between 5.30 pm and midnight every evening. A further 168 programmes were
video-recorded from the three satellite channels during the second of these two

During the first week of analysis in 1994, a total of 603 violent scenes were
found in 165 programmes (51% of all programmes monitored on the four
terrestrial channels during that week). These figures compared with 573 violent
scenes in 162 programmes (53% of all programmes monitored) for the same
week in 1993. The violence in both years covered 3% of broadcast time, with
fictional drama programmes and films contributing the greatest amount of any
programme genres to overall violence levels.

During the second week analysed in 1994 and 1993, which also coincided with
the single week content analysed in 1992, further year-on-year comparisons were
made. It was reported that 165 programmes monitored in 1994 (51% of total)
contained 648 violent scenes, compared with 155 programmes (50% of total) in
1993 which contained 666 violent scenes, and 143 programmes in 1992 (43%)
which contained 478 violent scenes. The total amount of violence therefore
exhibited a steady increase during evening broadcast hours on the four terrestrial
channels. This increase was further reflected in changes to the rates of
occurrence of violent scenes per hour, recorded as 4.0 per hour in 1994, 4.0 in
1993, and 2.9 in 1992. In 1992, violent scenes occupied 2% of broadcast time
monitored, increasing to 3% in 1993 and to 4% in 1994. Certain programme
types appeared to contribute disproportionately to this rise in violence on the
small screen. Between 1993 and 1994, for this particular week, rates of violent
scenes per hour fell for all major categories of programmes (e.g., national news,
factual programmes, light entertainment, sport, religion, children’s programmes
and fictional drama) except one—films. Films exhibited a marked increase, year-
on-year, in levels of violence, from 4.0 violent scenes per hour in 1993 to 7.1 in

Levels of violence on the three satellite movie channels were generally much
higher than the level on terrestrial channels. In 1994, nearly nine out of ten
(87%) programmes monitored contained some violence. This represented an
increase on 1993 (73%). In 1994, however, the numbers of violent incidents (1,
107) fell, year-on-year, from the 1993 level (1,139). The rates of occurrence of
violent scenes per hour, however, remained fairly stable at 7.8 in 1993 and 7.6 in


The quantitative measurement of violence on television via content analysis has
been largely a process of defining the concept of violence clearly and applying



the definition in an accurate and consistent manner to television programmes.
What the commonly assumed definitions overlook is that there are many forms
of violence other than that which involves purely physical injury and harm.
There is emotional and psychological violence, verbal violence, institutional and
symbolic violence. Of course, these can be as difficult to define and record as a
general concept of ‘violence’ as physical force.

As Hodge and Tripp (1986) pointed out, violence can be understood as a
multi-faceted concept which does not represent a unitary process or a single set of
events. Violence can vary in its severity, justification, consequences, and the
intentions of the perpetrator. While physical violence may be the most
commonly perceived form of violence on television, a more complete measuring
procedure also might include other expressions of violence such as verbal
violence and violent images.

Whether or not the use of force or infliction of harm or injury is perceived as
violent clearly depends on a number of considerations associated with the
particular circumstances surrounding the action. The total context in which the
action takes place exerts a significant influence as to how the viewer will
interpret the episode or image. Violence on television cannot be taken simply at
face value. How violent actions are perceived is related to social norms, personal
values and the particular form and context of violence itself.

Context is known to be particularly important to viewers’ judgements about
violence on television. Whether violence occurs in a realistic or fantasy context,
or in a serious or humorous context can make a significant difference to the way
it is regarded by television audiences. The perceived realism of the situation in
which violence on television is depicted tends to be significantly correlated with
how violent the behaviour is rated by viewers (Gunter, 1985). Humour can also
dilute the degree to which violent behaviour is upsetting to viewers. A recent
opinion poll in the United States indicated that 72% of Americans felt that
television entertainment contained too much violence and 80% believed that
television violence was harmful to society. Most people were not upset,
however, about violence that appeared in a humorous context (Galloway, 1993).

Research elsewhere has shown that people may not even see much of the
violence when it is presented in a humorous way. Most viewers, for example, do
not regard cartoons as violent (Gunter, 1985; Howitt and Cumberbatch, 1974),
despite the fact that content analyses have reported far higher rates of violence on
cartoons than anywhere else on television (e.g., Halloran and Croll, 1972;
Gerbner et al., 1978, 1979). Some researchers have even argued that violence
does not exist in humorous contexts such as cartoons, and that content analysis
studies which report high levels of violence in cartoons must therefore be
employing dubious violence definitions and coding frames of doubtful veracity
(Morrisson, 1993a).

Contextual characteristics of violence

With violence, the literature suggests a number of contextual characteristics that
provide cues that viewers use in interpreting the meaning of television
portrayals. Among these are reward, intention, motive, remorse, consequences
and presentation style.

One of the most important contextual characteristics of any portrayal is
whether the action is rewarded or punished. Social learning theory predicts that
when people watch a behaviour that is rewarded, they are much more likely to
learn it than if the behaviour was punished (Bandura, 1977). Reward has featured
as a component of analysis in quantitative studies of television violence. In that
context, it has been thought by some researchers to exhibit a potential to contribute
towards the development of antisocial behaviour among viewers. In a study of
violence on Canadian television, Williams et al. (1982) found that violence was
often portrayed as a successful way to solve conflicts. This observation was
reinforced by American research indicating that the great majority of antisocial
acts depicted on television was shown as being rewarded (Potter and Ware,

Much content analysis research in the past has indicated that violence on
television is mostly intentional. Williams et al. (1982) found that in 81 hours of
television output they examined, over 97% of the violent acts were intentional.
While violence may be intentional, it is important to know what a character’s
intentions were. If a character commits a violent act accidentally, viewers
interpret this differently from if the character was portrayed carefully planning
the act. In general, intentions to commit violence have been found to be divided
into three types (Mees, 1990). Using a social norms approach to define
aggression, Mees found three modes of intention that underlie conceptions of
motivation for aggressive acts: (1) thoughtlessness (the aggressor should have
taken possible dangers into consideration but did not); (2) selfishness (the
aggressor knows that the action will cause distress or harm, but accepts this and
places his/her own interests above those of others); and (3) malice (wickedness is
accepted and intended by the aggressor).

Motive is closely linked to intention. A television character’s motives are
filtered through the viewer’s legal or moral context of behaviour (Gunter, 1985).
Defensive or altruistic aggression may be interpreted as milder than offensive,
intentional, or sadistic aggression. Gunter (1985) argued that unusual forms of
aggression in which a strong motive (sadistic or sexual) is apparent are perceived
as more serious. Thus, the intention of the character can alter a viewer’s
interpretation of a violent episode.

In a study of Finnish television, Mustonen and Pulkinen (1993) measured
motivation by dividing aggression into defensive and offensive groups. Within
offensive aggression there were five values: instrumental, masochistic, reactive-
expressive, sadistic and altruistic. They reported finding that spontaneous acts
(57%) were more numerous than planned aggression (27%) and that first strike 


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