NEW YORK – Children's television is studded with violence, much of it darker and more realistic than when Road Runner dropped an anvil on Wile E. Coyote's head, a watchdog group reported on Thursday.
The Parents Television Council analyzed 444 hours of kids' daytime programs last summer and detailed 2,794 violent incidents, even after sifting out "cartoony" moments. That's 6.3 incidents an hour -- more than the PTC found in prime time aimed at adults during a 2002 study.
Programs like "Teen Titans" on the Cartoon Network and ABC Family Channel's "Mighty Morphin Power Rangers" often feature intense fights with swords, guns and lasers, the group said.
It detailed a scene on Fox's "Shaman King" where two characters have a lengthy sword fight. One character is knocked out by a blow to the head, and his opponent reaches into the chest of his screaming rival and pulls out his "soul," leaving him dead.
There's nothing wrong with fanciful, fantasy violence, said Brent Bozell, PTC founder. "I grew up with `Tom and Jerry' and I think I'm OK," he said.
"Popeye beat up Bluto and you cheered," he said. "That was perfectly fine. Now the protagonists will be caught in dark, powerful, oftentimes scary scenarios where there is hard violence."
Violent cartoons can increase children's anxiety, desensitize them or lead them to believe that violence is more prevalent -- and acceptable -- in real life than it really is, said Dr. Michael Rich, director of the Center of Media and Children's Health at Harvard University's medical school.
Children under age 8 are cognitively unable to distinguish between real and fantasy violence, he said. Rich studied reactions to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and found children much less upset than their parents, perhaps because they couldn't distinguish it from what they saw on TV regularly, said Rich, who endorsed the study.
"They will tell you it's only make-believe," he said. "The responses they have to it are exactly the same as the real-life information."
The PTC cited the Cartoon Network as having the most violent incidents. The watchdog group also criticized the ABC Family Channel while praising the Disney Channel as the least violent network; both are owned by the Walt Disney Co.
Fox and NBC, with more live-action children's shows, scored low on the violence meter.
The Cartoon Network, in a statement, said that "we are confident that our standards and practices policies ensure that the programming on our air is age-appropriate. All of our shows undergo several reviews throughout the production process to make sure they are suitable for their intended viewers."
The watchdog group also criticized networks for coarsening the dialogue with potty humor and mean-spirited name-calling. There's also been a trend toward mimicking movies in including double-entendres so shows will appeal to both children and adults, their report said.
Rich said he didn't expect critical reports like this to change the industry's habits. Only if parents become more aware and reject violent shows will the industry listen, he said.
"This should be the age of utter innocence for a child," Bozell said. "Hollywood should do anything within its power to protect that innocence."