part of the
plot and receives an explanation, if not a justification. A good
example is the character of Toni Soprano in The Sopranos—a
godfather who runs a criminal organization as a family business.
The TV criminal of this type tends to belong to the upper or
middle class. He is often presented as a businessman whose
pursuit of profit leads to performing illegal actions.
In sharp contrast with reality—where convicted criminals
over-represent people under the age of 25, and in particular
young black—on television the vast majority of criminals are
white males aged 30 to 40 years old (Lichter & Lichter, 1983;
Brown, 2001). This over-representation of Caucasians in criminal
roles sends, perhaps unintentionally, a somewhat utopian mes-
sage about the behavioral nature of minorities.
Women are under-represented among TV felons, just as they
are under-represented in the criminal population in the real
world. While the ratio of males to females in leading and sup-
porting roles in drama and comedy has been—according to dif-
ferent studies—approximately one to two (Greenberg & Col-
lette, 1997; Greenberg, Simmons, Hogan, & Atkin 1980), among
criminal characters this ratio has fluctuated between one to ten
(in 1968) and one to three. Over the decades, there was a slight
increase in the share of female criminals, but this change is
minor in size and does not conceal the lingering unequivocal
message of popular TV programs: criminal behavior is not a
viable option for women as it is for men (Hetsroni, 2007). This
is part of a generally conservative worldview of gender roles,
typical of popular programming, which finds expression in the
portrayal of family life, occupations and child rearing (Green-
berg & Collette, 1997).
In terms of occupation, television criminals are seldom iden-
tified in any way other than as criminals or law enforcers who
crossed the line (Dominick, 1973). More than one third of the
criminal characters are gangsters, thieves or own an organized
crime network. Second in share, come law enforcers (police-
men, lawyers etc.) who switched sides. Businessmen and free
occupations e.g. doctors, architects make up the third major
source of criminal characters (Lichter & Lichter, 1983). Blue
collar occupants are rarely depicted as criminals, even though
in the real world this group contributes abundantly to the popu-
lation of thieves and unarmed robbers (Maguire, 1988). How-
ever, since petit crime is rarely seen on the screen, one can say
that actually the exclusion of blue collar occupants from the
pool of criminal protagonists is realistic in its way. Economi-
cally speaking, TV criminals tend to be rich people: From boss
Hogg in Dukes of Hazzard in the 1970s to Toni Soprano in The
Sopranos in the 2000s not much as changed in the socio-eco-
nomic profile of criminals in TV drama television content (Ro-
man, 2005), which continues to contradict real world statistics
according to which most of the criminals are of the lowest eco-
nomic tires (Lichter & Lichter, 1983; Maguire, 1988). The
twisted racial-economic TV portrayal of criminals stretches on
to convicts: Prison cells in TV drama are full of older rich white
males, while in the real world many inmates are poor young
blacks. One aspect where the TV picture does resemble the real
world is the tendency towards recidivism in criminality: Most
of the people who are arrested on the screen, just like most of
the people who are arrested by the police, have been arrested
before (Lichter & Lichter, 1983).
Crime on television is carefully contemplated in 60% of the
cases. Greed, revenge and mental illness serve as primary mo-
tives (Lichter et al., 1994). It is difficult to compare this finding
with real world statistics, since there is no official notation of
criminal motivations for all crimes. However, the FBI does
publish statistics regarding motives and circumstances sur-
rounding homicides. On television, murders are meticulously
planned, whereas in real life murder is most often a crime of
passion, a result of momentary annoyance such as reaction to
hostile argument (Surrete, 1998). As for the victims of TV
criminals—they are portrayed as passive and helpless with an
over-representation of white people in general and young white
females in particular. This demography resembles the viewers’
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142
A. HETSRONI
fear of being subject to crime more than it represents actual
victimization risk (Scheingold, 1984).
Which sorts of crime are most often depicted in TV drama?
Table 1 summarizes the most frequent crimes according to four
studies conducted in different decades.
While the numbers have fluctuated over the years, murder is
a highly frequent crime across the board and property crime is a
rare occurrence. This contradicts official statistics, which point
at property crime, particularly theft and larceny, as the most
frequently reported crime, subject to over 80% of the cases
known to the police (Maguire, 1988). The implied message to
viewers is that violent crime (murder, armed robbery, aggra-
vated assault) and not property crime is what people face more
often in daily life.
News programs present a picture of crime that bears a lot of
similarities to what is shown in fictional programming, but the
news has few unique nuances. Just as in drama, the news, too,
present homicide as the most frequent crime, but in contrast
with drama the news present a somewhat larger share of white
collar crime (often in relation to political scandals) and sensa-
tional sex related crime (Sheley & Ashkins, 1981). A distinc-
tive example of sensational coverage of crime, which packs
together politics and sex, is the New York State governor Elliot
Spitzer use of escort service and his alleged use of campaign
money to pay for the service. In 2008, this affair took an un-
precedented share of local and national news airtime, although
the crime itself was classified as no more than misdemeanor in
the eyes of the law. The extensive coverage of sensational
crime has to do with its rarity, as the media prefer to report on
the unusual and leave the expected out of the screen. Murder
makes up only 0.2% of the crime known to the police, but it is
the subject of more than a quarter of crime news stories, be-
cause it is dramatic and infrequent (Graber, 1980; Surette,
1998).
Of course, the police and the justice system put efforts to
publish “success stories” in news magazines. This increases the
chances of resolved crime stories to get published. These stories
are prepackaged, so that the broadcaster’s task in assembling
the report is minimal. In broadcasters’ jargon such stories re-
ceive the unflattering title “garbage crime”. They are aired only
when the station has nothing better to air (Surette, 1998). At a
higher level, we find news stories that report on crime, where
noted public figures and celebrities are involved, either as of-
fenders or as victims. To cover these stories, termed “OJ felo-
nies” (in the name of O. J. Simpson), journalists search for ad-
ditional information, beyond what is supplied by the police, the
defense attorney etc. Thus, the news reporter becomes a sig-
nificant gatekeeper of information (Berkowitz, 1990). Overall,
Table 1.
The most frequent crimes in TV drama.
Crime Dominick
(1973) Lichter &
Lichter (1983) Maguire
(1988) Bro w n
(2001)
Homicide 22% 24% 48% 79%
Armed robbery 6% 18% 2% 3%
Aggravated assault 29% 8% 12% 6%
Rape 0% 2% 1% 1%
Fraud/White collar crime 6% 3% 1% 0%
Theft and no n-violent
property crime 0% 5% 1% 2%
most of the crime remains unreported: in a study of local news,
only 15 of 1741 felonies investigated by the police over a three
month period were mentioned in the news (Fedler & Jordan,
1982). Nonetheless, crime and justice items still make up a
prominent share of the news—ten to fifteen percent in local
news programs and around 20% in national news magazines
(Graber, 1980).
The typical treatment of crime does not refer to it as “a social
problem” but covers criminal incidents as discrete events. Thus,
the implied message is that responsibility for committing the
crime resides almost exclusively with the individual criminal
(Surette, 1998). Who are the criminals according to crime news?
Like in entertainment programming, crime news bring to fore
greedy businessman as perpetrators of white collar crime, and
present professional predators and organized crime moguls as
responsible for violent transgression of the law, but in contrast
with TV drama—the news frequently present bureaucrats and
civil servants as criminals who breech public trust (Terry, 1984).
The most ignored group of criminals in TV news are poor
young men, who do not belong to any criminal organization but
do commit property crime which is sometimes violent but more
often not (Surette, 1998). The victims, according to television
crime news, tend to be females, who are considerably young or
exceptionally old, and/or of high social status. This mode of
portrayal, which contradicts real life circumstances, where most
of the victims of violent crime are males, assists in construing a
narrative of crime as an intended action in of strong men to
exert power on physically weak women (Meyers, 1994).
The criminal justice system is described mostly as a punitive
organization. Since crime is presented as an individual choice,
the function of the system is to punish the sinners and correct
the deviants. The system is evaluated according to its success in
doing so, namely changing the criminal habits of individuals
(Graber, 1980).
Finally, a new sub-genre, infotainment, which emer ged in the
1990s, blurs the line between news magazines and entertain-
ment programming. Shows such as Cops and Rescue 911 pre-
sent actual crimes in a realistic light—sometimes in reenact-
ments, so metimes as dramat ized stories, and sometimes in docu-
mentary-style stories. These programs tend to concentrate on
bizarre violent crime, and present stereotypical portraits of pre-
datory evil criminals and helpless victims. The gruesome is
shown as the mainstay of modern life (Jermyn, 2006). The con-
tent of these shows is often an over-exaggeration of crime dra-
ma, but the apparent realism makes it more credible.
Does TV Crime Pay Off and Does It Curb
Potential Harmful Effects Off-Screen
Does crime pay? Statistically speaking, the answer in the real
world is commonly yes, since around two thirds of the cases
reported to the police remain unresolved. Television is a totally
different sphere. On the screen, nearly 60% of the crimes are
solved (Lichter & Lichter, 1983). The juridical procedure in the
real world is a multi-step saga, where many of the phases are
less than dramatic, and where most of the cases end in a non-
ceremonial deal between the prosecution and the defense. Tele-
vision concentrates on cases that do reach a verdict, and high-
lights the more dramatic phases of the juridical procedure. In
past decades, episodes of police or courtroom drama nearly
always ended in a conviction of the criminal. Recent programs
such as Law and Order and Boston Legal do leave an open-end
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 143
A. HETSRONI
from time to time, or let the criminal sneak out unpunished
(Roman, 2005), but the conviction rate of TV criminals remains
impressively high. This sends a clear message to the audience:
Crime does not pay off, since law enforcers put things in order
(Stark, 1987). Here is the place to emphasize: While crime
shows and cop shows may be about law and order, in practice
they are light on law and heavy on order (Lichter et al., 1994).
This tone has led to a number of concerns about the message
and its implications. On the one hand, concerns are about unre-
alistic expectations that viewers may develop about the ability
of the police; on the other hand, the programming’ dismissal of
negative police behaviors such as overuse of guns and lack of
consideration of detainees’ rights may encourage disregard of
human rights in the name of security (Surette, 1998). Generally,
the media portray the justice system as a malfunctioning or-
ganization, saved occasionally by lonesome heroes (attorneys,
private detectives, police officers) whose actions go against the
mainstream. However, paradoxically, it is the presentation of
the justice system as malfunctioning that encourages expecta-
tions for harsh punishment as the only effective way to avoid
dealing with t he s ame cr imina ls on ce and again (Bo rtn er, 19 84).
How Criminal Is Television?
The claim about the negative effects of TV crime assume that
the screen is loaded with shows abundant with violent crime
and that these shows are successful i.e. attract large numbers of
viewers. To examine the accuracy of these assumptions we
follow the percent of the “most criminal genre”—crime drama
and action-adventure programming in the prime-time lineup of
the major networks over the years and the rating figures ob-
tained by these shows. Figure 1 shows the percent of crime
drama and action-adventure programming that were shown in
ABC, CBS, NBC and FOX between 1970 and 2006. The clas-
sification of the programs is based on descriptions appearing
the TV Guide directory (TV Guide, 2006).
On average, over the years, about 20% - 25% of all prime-
time shows have focused on crime and law enforcement. There
were two golden eras—the mid 1970s, when police drama such
as Starskey & Hutch and Kojak and action-adventure series like
Charlie’s Angels and Dukes of Hazard were major staples of
prime-time, and the mid 1980s, when the A-Team adventures
and Magnum P.I. investigations dominated the airwaves, but
the overall pattern points at a rather steady presence of crime
programming with periodical ebb and flow.
Rating wise, over the years, crime dramas have not been
among the industry’s most notable blockbusters, nor were they
Figure 1.
Percent of Network prime- t ime prog rams featuring crime.
considered to be the most enjoyed programs in the eyes of the
general public (Diener & DuFour, 1978). In the last two dec-
ades only one show that emphasizes crime Rescue 911 was in
the top ten of the ratings chart. One reason for the relatively
low ratings could be the scheduling of crime drama in the later
part of the prime-time slot (10 pm-11 pm), when many viewers
are already sleeping and others are excruciatingly tired. How-
ever, this scheduling is not arbitrary. It is an effective economic
move in light of the shows’ failure to attract a larger bulk of the
public at large. Most of the viewers of violent programming are
men above the age of 50 or in the age bracket of 18 - 24, often
high school or college dropouts (Comstock, Chaffee, Katzman,
McCombs & Roberts, 1978). Economically speaking, this clus-
ter does not constitute the most sought for population. Pro-
grams that attract these viewers are nonetheless desired by
some advertisers, but they constitute just a narrow niche (Com-
stock & Scharrer, 1999). The distinctive demographic composi-
tion of crime drama viewership can explain the lingering pres-
ence of the genre on the small screen despite its moderate rat-
ings. The niche status of the genre has even been strengthened
recently with the proliferation of cable channels such as Spike,
which target less-educated males and concentrate on crime
programming.
Effects of TV Crime on Individuals and Society
The surreptitious and unexpected nature of crime in the real
world makes isolating and assess ing the direct impact of single
factors, such as television, impractical in most of the cases. As
a result of that, most of the conclusions regarding the influence
of television on crime level are indirect, historical or derived
from artificial laboratory experiments.
A popular approach among researchers is to treat crime as an
expression of violence, and to suggest that an intensive tele-
vised depiction of violence brings about aggression among the
viewers (through observational learning), which in turn results
in increased amounts of crime. This proposition suffers from a
number of deficiencies. First, even though crime is routinely
presented on television broadcasts, which target large numbers
of viewers, and although these viewers normally have no alter-
native source that exposes them to such crime—in practice over
90% of the crime on the street is not violent and consists of
offenses rarely shown on television. Evidence from historical
aggregate crime rate studies indicates that the introduction of
commercial broadcasting in the USA was associated with an
immediate increase in the rate of property crime but not an
increase of violent crime (Hennigan, Heath, Wharton, Del-Rosario,
Cook & Calder, 1982). One study was able to point at an in-
crease in the level of violent crime—but only 10 to 15 years
after television was introduced (Centerwall, 1989). The author’s
suggestion that the criminals needed a number of years to ab-
sorb the message does not sound convincing, as he disregards a
more plausible explanation that connects the rise in violent
crime in America in the 1960s with the political turmoil of the
era. Further shadow of doubt on the relationship between the
level of violent crime in society and the depiction of violent
crime on television is cast by the fact that the level of violent
crime in America decreased steadily throughout the 1990s,
even though violence remained present on the screen through-
out the decade. The immediate correlation between crime rate
and the appearance of crime in fictional American TV pro-
gramming is negligent (Potter, 2003). Another study examined
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144
A. HETSRONI
the patterns of 140,000 US homicides from 1973 to 1979,
which took place before and after TV news reports about prize-
fights, murder acquittals, life sentences and executions, and
found out that the number of homicides showed a significant
increase several days after the TV report (Philips & Hensley,
1984). However, this research disregarded the fact that gang
crime and homicides happen as ebb and flow due to factors
such as gang rivalry and revenge that have nothing to do with
the media. Furthermore, the effect detected in that study, al-
though statistically significant, covered barely one percent of
the variance.
Laboratory experiments found greater effects, but they often
used amateur films as stimuli and operationalized criminal in-
tention as the willingness to administer an imaginary shock to a
research confederate—a twisted definition by all means. Fur-
thermore, even lab studies revealed that televised depictions of
violence do not affect all the viewers in the same way. A num-
ber of factors—from momentary frustration to hypermasculine
personality—play into the media's effect (Comstock, 1983).
Only one mass-scale work took a longitudinal approach.
Eron and Huesmann (1980) surveyed young people in two dif-
ferent time periods: when they were nine years old and when
they were thirteen years old. The researchers detected a positive
correlation between the kids’ preference for violent program-
ming, when they were nine years old, and their violent behavior
four years later, but they also found out a positive correlation
between the kids’ violent behavior in primary school and their
violent behavior as teens. As a result of that, it is difficult to
determine if the violence at a later life stage was caused by
earlier media exposure, or whether the subjects’ aggressive
nature motivated them to act violently as teens and to consume
violent media as kids. Even more perplexing is the lack of cor-
relation between the teens’ tendency to act violently and their
media diet as adolescents.
The despair from detecting behavioral effects of significant
size that can be unequivocally ascribed to watching crime on
television led the scientific community to look for a different
kind of impact and adopt the reality construction metaphor.
Researchers were able to establish a small but significant cor-
relation between the amount of time devoted to television view-
ing and overestimating the numb er of criminals (Gerbner, Gross,
Eleey, Jackson-Beeck, Jeffries-Fox, Signorielli, 1977; Hetsroni
& Tukachinsky, 2006) and perceiving violent crime as a serious
problem (Doppelt & Manikas, 1990). However, when it comes
to more profound dispositions, the findings are more ambigu-
ous. On the one hand, there is a correlation between the overall
amount of time devoted to television viewing and seeing the
world as a dangerous surroundings and the mean world index
set of questions (Do you think most people would try to take
advantage of you if they got a chance or would they try to be
fair?”; “Would you say that most of the time people try to be
helpful, or that they are mostly just looking out for them-
selves?”; Generally speaking, would you say that most people
can be trusted or that you can’t be too careful in dealing with
people?) composed by Gerbner and his colleagues to measure
what they term cultivation, namely the ability of television to
enculturate suspicion and mistrust among the viewers (Ger-
bner, Gross, Morgan, Signorielli, & Shanahan, 2002). On the
other hand, the more recent work of Apple (2008) shows that
the mean world index is associated with general viewing, but
watching fictional programming (including crime drama) is
actually statistically related to a just world syndrome i.e. be-
lieving that justice and not injustice is the norm in our society.
The researcher explains that the message connoted by drama,
where justice almost always wins, is often different from the
message carried by the news. This way or another, the bottom
line, again, indicates small effects that are more dispositional
than behavioral. Furthermore, even the disposition applies more
to general fears of crime and less to worries about specific
misconducts (Heath & Gilbert, 1996).
TV Crime and Public Policy
Very early in the history of commercial broadcasting, Ameri-
can politicians have expressed concern over TV portrayal of
crime and commented that something ought to be done about
this. In 1952, the Commerce Committee of the House of Rep-
resentatives held the first political hearing on the subject—
seeking to determine whether television programs contained
offensive material or emphasized crime and violence. Through-
out the next decade, several congressional and senate hearings
followed, culminating in the conclusion that further research is
needed to determine whether television viewing is dangerous to
society and individuals (Donnerstein & Linz, 1995; Signorielli,
2005). However, for officers app ointed by politicians to serve as
regulators in the FCC, the answer appeared to be very simple:
Millions of television receivers are pouring an unending
stream of crime, violence, outright murder, brutality, unnatural
suspense and horror into the living rooms of America The
suggestions that there is no discernible relationship between
these programs and the recent appalling increase in juvenile
delinquency, in my opinion, flout common sense (Testimony of
FCC officer before the US Senate Judiciary Committee on Ju-
venile Delinquency in the United States, 1955—cited in Surette,
1998: pp. 116-117).
In the 1960s and 1970s, the US Surgeon General appointed
two committees to scientifically investigate the relationship
between TV violence and violence in American society. Both
of the committees reached the conclusion that there is probably
a connection between the two, but that relationship is not very
strong and is heavily mitigated (Signorielli, 2005). The broad-
casters have kept on claiming that the research findings are not
conclusive, and that the study conditions are too artificial to
bear enough resemblance to the real world (Donnerstein & Linz,
1995). No longstanding regulatory decision was made (Si-
gnorielli, 2005). In the 1980s, the political-public discourse re-
garding the operation of the TV industry revolved around mar-
ket deregulation, and the issue of televised crime and violence
was left mostly off the table. The 1990s saw renewal of the
debate expressed in congressional and senate hearings and fur-
ther research that eventually led the “advisories compromise”,
which became part of the 1996 Telecommunication Act: Ac-
cording to this compromise, the broadcasters agreed to add
marking advisories to violent programs that viewers can use as
a guideline to avoid exposure to violent shows (Potter, 2003).
That agreement also marked the demise of the longstanding
public discussion concerning the hypothesized connection be-
tween presenting crime on television and crime in American
society (Grimes et al., 2008). This happened for two reasons.
First, the increasing penetration of the internet brought with it
the notion that dealing with the effects of exposure to moder-
ately violent content on television at a time when much more
aggressive contents are readily available on any computer is
outdated (Signorielli, 2005). Second, the discussants were pro-
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 145
A. HETSRONI
bably exhausted of failing to locate the “smoking gun” in media
violence and started to search for it under “media sex”.
Summing Words
What lesson should we learn from the analysis? It is probably
possible to establish some relationship between being exposed
to violence on television to disposition towards violence, which
then may translate to some increase in the level of violent crime.
However, the attention given to this connection by the scientific
community, politicians and the public at large is all but propor-
tional to its size. This article does not aim to explain the moti-
vations behind ascribing so much power to such small effect,
but it is obvious that in contrast with other factors that encour-
age acts of violence such as family, friends, schools and the
welfare system—the media system is probably the most eagerly
willing to serve as a scapegoat. Finally, a few words of caution
are due about the scope of the conclusions. The studies we have
reviewed took place mostly in the United States. Even though
American TV shows are broadcast worldwide, we cannot au-
tomatically generalize the findings to other cultures.
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