6 TV Showrunners Open Up About On-Screen Violence in an Emmy Roundtable Discussion

Drama ShowrunnersOn-screen violence is a touchy and controversial topic -- even for a veteran indie filmmaking maverick like Quentin Tarantino. However, 6 drama writer/creators, Alex Gansa, (Homeland), Aaron Sorkin (The Newsroom), D.B. Weiss (Game of Thrones), Beau Willimon (House of Cards), Kevin Williamson (The Following), and Matthew Weiner (Mad Men) sit down for a roundtable discussion for The Hollywood Reporter to talk openly and candidly about the subject of TV violence, as well as what it's like to run some of the most popular shows on television. 

There are plenty of sentiments, beliefs, and opinions surrounding the pervasion of violence on TV and film -- where it comes from, what effect it has on viewers, and who is ultimately held responsible when the fictional violence becomes real? This Hollywood Reporter interview gives viewers an inside look at what the creators of not only the shows, but the scripted violence as well, think about what goes on-screen. It's an interesting opportunity to peer through the exclusive point of view of a showrunner. Check out this snippet about television violence from the interview below:

There are several points made here, one being that some TV shows are just not made for young viewers and it is the parents' responsibility to regulate what their children are watching or not watching. Williamson explains,

When children watch violent television -- there are tests and studies about it -- it makes them more aggressive. So, it is really up to adults to monitor their children's viewing habits. The Following is not for children. Parents should turn the TV off or turn the channel.

Sorkin adds an interesting dimension by discussing Hollywood's influence on the culture. Through writers and creators of media, the mythology that glamorized some violent events in our history, like WWII, was created. Weiner questions the validity of the claim that TV violence makes people violent who aren't naturally violent. In a rather tongue-in-cheek yet astute example, he brings up the fact that those involved in the Crusades had only "plays and stained-glass windows" to entertain them.

Willamon mentions the double standard he sees in opinions of violence against humans versus animals by stating,

People had no problem seeing on House of Cards some of the ways people behaved emotionally or physically violent to one another. But we killed a dog in the first 30 seconds and people freaked out. You can kill as many human beings as you want in 30 seconds and no one gives a crap. But you kill an animal -- you don't even show it on-screen and people flip out.

We all know it's difficult to talk about these issues -- especially violence in media. When we experience, witness, or hear about violence, television, film, music, and video games are easy scapegoats. However, it's important to look at all aspects of our culture that may be affecting children and the rest of society negatively.

To hear more from these showrunners about violence in television as well as how changes in showrunners affects shows and what it's like to work in television, check out the full interview below.

What do you think about this controversial topic? How much responsibility should filmmakers, TV show creators, and writers take for the violence in their work? Do you think media is used as a scapegoat, or do you think that media is partially (or completely) to blame for violence in our culture?


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I believe its up to parents to turn the T.V. off.
I would hate for a show that i enjoyed to be tampered with because of some lazy parents who want television to do the baby-sitting and moderating for them.
Or worse, they complain because they think its better for the perpetuation of some kumbaya future utopia they wish to construct that will take them back to the days of their childhood they reminisce about.

June 9, 2013 at 11:39AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


I have kids. I am very vigilant about what my kids watch. That being said...

I don't think it should be placed ONLY on the shoulders of the parents. More single parents are raising kids today, both parents are working, more kids are in day-care. For better or worse, as a society (USA) we have decided that other entities beside the family are going to help raise kids.

I wish that every child had two parents, and at least one of those parents was available for their child all the time. Unfortunately, that isn't the society we have decided to perpetuate, and then to say "its up to parents to turn the T.V. off" is a little disingenuous.

June 9, 2013 at 12:12PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


Creators make shows that people want to watch. All people want is stimulation. Novelty stimulates. Novelty in violence, sex, language, humor, whatever!

Placing any moral responsibility on creator's shoulders ignores the fact that novel, increasing "visceral" portrayals of violence ARE stimulating, and will continue to be so regardless of any altruistic, self-censoring movement in Hollywood. You'd have to systematically ban violence across all media in order to stop the cycle of one-upmanship. I doubt that's going to happen.

I think we just need to accept that mass-culture has a mind of its own to some extent. It may clash with our own values at times, but there is no way to truly contain it. Leave it up to individuals to "opt-out" from the bottom up, instead of naively expecting creators to self-censor from the top down.

Honestly though, I'm not so sure about the underlying premise of this conversation to begin with - that violence in the media begets violence in real life. As far as I know, the only thing violent images do is desensitize people to violent images. I'd like to read those supposed "tests and studies."

June 9, 2013 at 1:20PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


1. Huesmann LR, Miller LS. Long term effects of repeated exposure to media violence in childhood. In: Huesmann LR, ed. Aggressive Behavior: Current Perspectives. New York: Plenum Press, 1994:153-86.
2. Bushman BJ, Huesmann LR. Effects of televised violence on aggression. In: Singer DJ, Singer JL, eds. Handbook of Children and the Media. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2001:223-54.
3. Huesmann LR, Moise-Titus J, Podolski CL, et al. Longitudinal relations between children’s exposure to TV violence and their aggressive and violent behavior in young adulthood: 1977-1992. Dev Psychol 2003;39:201-21.
4. Anderson CA, Dill KE. Video games and aggressive thoughts, feelings, and behavior in the laboratory and in life. J Pers Soc Psychol 2000;78:772-90.
5. Anderson CA, Bushman BJ. Effects of violent video games on aggressive behavior, aggressive cognition, aggressive affect, physiological arousal, and prosocial behavior: A meta-analytic review of the scientific literature. Psychol Sci 2001;12:353-9.
6. Anderson CA, Berkowitz L, Donnerstein E, et al. The influence of media violence on youth. Psychol Sci Public Interest. 2003;4(3):81–110.
Google Scholar and Pubmed are probably your best bet for finding copies of the actual studies. There are probably thousands of papers out there on this issue (definitely high hundreds): http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/?term=violent+films
At this point the scientific consensus is pretty established. Although, I don't think it should follow that violent media has to be censored because it is associated with aggression and behavioural change in consumers, I think it is pretty difficult to argue with the mountain of evidence supporting the idea that violent images/lyrics/sounds are associated with violent and aggressive behaviour.

June 9, 2013 at 2:44PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


Haha, thanks! Should have known someone would pull through with studies. :)

Just googled a few myself, and you're right, there's lots of stuff out there. I guess I've always written off culture-war arguments like these as puritanical BS without really investigating the information gathered. That said, its still all just a murky gray area to me.

I mean, the basic premise makes sense... the more aggressive behavior you witness, the more you normalize aggression. From there, maybe the threshold by which aggressive behavior is triggered in you becomes lower and lower. I can see that being true. And regardless, parents should absolutely use caution with the media their kids consume. Protect your kids, duh.

That said, I disagree with the idea that violent media somehow "undoes" a healthy moral compass and unequivocally causes violence. Morals are instilled by parents, not Terminators. Furthermore, as brutal as some movies can be, most still adhere to a strict moral code of "good guys win, bad guys lose." If anything watching violent movies - or ANY movie for that matter - cements that notion of cosmic justice. Just like ancient myths and fables, our media teach us lessons about our humanity. And though the hollywood treatment may render these lessons too intense for kids to appreciate, the lessons are still usually benign.

Overall, I think blaming media violence is a scapegoat. It doesn't HELP the situation probably, but let's face it, the real problem is bad parenting and / or an unhealthy home life. A bad parent would probably not instill healthy moral values (or ANY moral values for that matter) to their child, or give them the sense of confidence they need to feel secure with themselves. And while its also true that they probably wouldn't stop their kids from seeing violent movies, to rush off and blame THAT as the problem I think is short sighted. There are plenty of kids that grew up on violent, R-rated movies, that are perfectly well adjusted. We just latch on to culture-war polemic because its easier than trying to tackle a far more complex issue like upbringing.

June 9, 2013 at 7:40PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


I thought more on this, and I'll add that "mental health" is also a really important issue here. Parenting / upbringing sure, but sometimes violent kids come from seemingly normal families. So, if the point of these discussions is to address the issue of violence in America, and actually DO something about it... we're probably better off raising awareness re: mental health issues than just blaming the media.

June 11, 2013 at 6:52PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


I think everything needs to be taken into account if you are a government trying to solve this problem and mental health is a massive issue. However, from the point of view of people working (or hoping to work) in the film/television/media industry we want to be able to keep regulation in house as much as possible. It would be a disaster if regulation and classification was completely in the hands of government bodies; look at what is happening in Iran and China regarding film censorship.
To make sure this doesn't happen we can't ignore the data being produced. I think the alcohol industry generally manages to make a show of restricting access to underage people way better than the film industry does. I always see clearly underage children in 18 rated films when I go to the cinema (this is something I rarely see in bars and clubs). If we can at least make a good show of trying to stop this sort of thing we take away a lot of ammunition from pressure groups who would want to introduce sweeping censorship. It seems to me to be more of an exhibition and possibly a distribution issue. I don't think pressure should be put on writers, directors, producers etc to stop making content that there is obviously a huge demand for.

June 12, 2013 at 4:02AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


This is coming from a kid that got dropped off (with my cousin) to see Scarface when I was 12. As great as they are my parents weren't the brightest in the block. Sorry mom..ha! So for me violence is easy to dismiss, a lot of good parents (and even not so good) have kids that know right from wrong. What's more of a grey area for me than gratuitous violence is sexual content...with the disguise of shows like family guy, South Park and video games it's easy to dismiss them as cartoons and let your kids watch and play. I had this conversation the other day with my sisters who have kids. My opinion is not so much violence sends the wrong message but morally speaking these type of shows do more damage. Talk of promiscuity, sexual content and adult humor can do more damage to kids than guns and violence in my opinion. I grew up with toy guns, we played cops and robbers, world war 3 and even cowboy and Indians. No one I know wanted to rob a liquor store, blow up a mall or kill their classmates. However, I found growing up that some of us just grew up too quick, we got desensitized towards sexual promiscuity. We ended up having kids out of wedlock, entered bad relationships and from what I see today, that contributes more to the moral breakdown of society than violence or even general crime. Bottom line for me I feel the responsibility falls more on the parents and broadcasters than the writers, producers and directors. There's tools today to protect your children and that's where responsible broadcasting and good parenting come into play. Not stifling the writers, directors and producers. Just my 2 cents. Thanks :)

June 9, 2013 at 1:33PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM

Anthony Marino

The old line is that companies pay billions in advertising dollars because exposure to their ads influences human behavior is correct. If a main character of a teen related show (let's say, something like "Dawson's Creek) is a "slut with a heart of gold", then it will no doubt influence some of the teenage girls watching it. Now, I happen to be totally against any state censorship (in other words, I am for eliminating FCC in its entirety) but, at the same time, it's pretty clear that these showrunners try too hard to disavow any negative aspects - or, at least, aspects perceived to be negative at any given time - of their work. Of course, a second later they become more than eager to play up all the social angles that are popular among their Hollywood peers, from anti-gun to pro-abortion to anti-war to pro-sexual liberation campaigning. Once again, I might agree with some of their views and disagree on others - not all showrunners have the same Weltanschauung anyway - but it's rather disingenuous on their parts to claim that they're "just entertainers". I hate to sound like Tipper Gore circa 1985 but she did have a point.

June 9, 2013 at 3:09PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


I think this is a great question to explore, i loved the point about the violence or death towards animals in films and series, and i think it adds a whole other element to anything.

Recently on game of thrones (The Red Wedding) SPOILERS ALERT NOW, almost everyone who was awesome (the Starks) were killed, all in gruesome ways - but to cap it of, they killed a dog as well. Watching game of thrones every week, you become absorbed and used to watching the death and gore among the houses - its simply routine, but when it involves an animal it strikes a chord in us many don't know even existed.

I found it to be a similar instance with Quentin Tarantino's recent film Django Unchained - there are body parts flying all over the place its hard to take it seriously (apart from two rather upfront scenes) i found the film fantastic and hilarious. Nonetheless my point is - Horses, hundreds of horses and many appear to get blown up and shot to holy hell throughout the movie, but my saviour was at the start of the credits - a sign came up rather largely on the screen to inform all the viewers 'that no horses had been harmed in the production or filming of Django' - i must say that helped me get to sleep later that night.

Above anything i do believe that if you're films or series makes people uncomfortable, if it makes people cry and cringe and freak out or even laugh so hard until you cry - you're doing your job well, because your hard work is hitting emotional chords in people all around the world, and its making people think about things in a different light, and isn't that a great thing? :)

June 9, 2013 at 4:50PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


It's simple. You are what you watch as much as you are what you eat. Show me a list of movies you own and we can figure out your view in life. To some extent. I don't want to exaggerate either. But yes TV violence is entertaining much like MMA and Boxingl, where men harm each other for the sport. Where in film, emotion is tied in to the whole thing. Children have a free ticket to all of this. Parent's need to pay attention and filter this out. You have that power as a parent.

June 10, 2013 at 9:12AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


What if your favorite movie is "Triumph of the Will"?

June 10, 2013 at 10:00AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM

You voted '+1'.


August 6, 2013 at 12:01AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM