Why is Violent Media so Pervasive?

Representations of violence are not new. In fact, violence has been a key part of media since the birth of literature: Ancient Greek poetry and drama frequently portrayed murder, suicide and self-mutilation, many of Shakespeare’s plays revel in violence, torture, maiming, rape, revenge and psychological terror, and some of the most popular books of the 19th century were “penny dreadfuls” that delivered blood, gore and other shocks to the lowest common denominator.

In today’s mass media world, research tells us that violence sells. Not only do we spend more to consume violent media, but violent media costs less to export, it costs less to translate, and it has way fewer problems being picked up by markets in different cultures than ours. As a language, violence is easy to understand and requires little context in order to present a plot: Explosions, gunfire, and martial arts are a language that anyone can understand. Consider some of the following numbers:

  • Annual movie ticket sales worldwide in 2010 were calculated at over $31 billion.
  • Canadian films grossed about $7 billion in 2011. [1]
  • From 1995 to 2012, the top grossing movie for each year was a decidedly violent movie with the exception of four films, all of which still had elements of mild violence. [2]
  • Films that are rated PG-13 hold almost 50 per cent of the American market. Films that are either PG or PG-13 make more money than all other film ratings combined.
  • The majority of video game players (53%) are between 18 and 49. [3]
  • Only 25 per cent of all games sold are rated for adults. [4]
  • In 2010, consumers spent approximately $25 billion on video games.

As we can see from the above numbers, the two major forms of entertainment media that traffic in representations of violence are huge businesses. It is interesting to note, however, that while much of the moral panic tends to revolve around video games, the majority of game players are not children, but adults. Conversely, the major source of income for filmmakers in Hollywood is to create movies that are targeted towards a youth demographic.

For film, then, the financial “sweet spot” appears to be films that are action rather than dialogue oriented, but still accessible to minors. This combination allows filmmakers to target the most profitable local markets while still being relevant in foreign markets due to the relative lack of dialogue and domestic-culture-specific references: action movies don’t require complex plots or characters. They rely on fights, killings, special effects and explosions to hold their audiences. And, unlike comedy or drama—which depend on good stories, sharp humour, and credible characters, all of which are often culture-specific—action films require little in the way of good writing and acting. They’re simple, and they’re universally understood. To top it off, the largely non-verbal nature of the kind of films that journalist Sharon Waxman refers to as “short-on-dialogue, high-on-testosterone” makes their dubbing or translation relatively inexpensive. [5]

That, at least, is the conventional wisdom in the film industry: in fact, research has found that violence has at best a minor and indirect effect on a movie’s financial success, [6] and the single largest foreign market – China – is more aggressive in its censorship than the United States. [7] The belief that violence is a ticket to foreign revenue is still widespread, however, which means enormous pressures on the American movie industry to abandon complexity in favour of action films. [8] The effect is a kind of “dumbing-down” of the industry in general. Foreign investors are much less likely to invest in films focusing on serious social themes or women’s issues, or ones that feature minority casts. Such films, however brilliant, are not where the big money is. Worldwide appeal determines casting and script decisions—and the overwhelming demand is for white actors and action.

Success breeds success, and the sheer ubiquity of these productions and all their spin-off products and businesses around the world is in turn fueling an ever-growing demand for U.S. popular culture products. However, there is evidence that this emphasis on violence may come as a result of the industry’s “conventional wisdom” rather than actual fact. Recent research on television violence has shown that while images of violence are effective in getting people to watch a media product, most viewers actually prefer media that are less violent. [9]

Foreign market pressures are driving the multibillion dollar Canadian film and television industry as well: international sales are essential for a country with such a small domestic market. And so, as the Writers’ Guild of Canada points out, “distributors are now the gatekeepers of Canadian television.” According to the Guild, the pressures of foreign markets are resulting in more non-Canadian writers, and television series that look less and less Canadian.

It’s hard to compete with the giant next door. Because American studios export so widely, they can sell an hour’s worth of TV entertainment to Canadian broadcasters at a cost well below what it would cost Canada to produce its own. (It’s been said that two minutes of original television production can buy an hour of American drama). And getting a film shown in Canadian theatres can be a challenge when most theatres are owned by large multinational corporations.

Video Games and Violence

Though many continue to be challenging and non-violent, over the past decade video games have become almost synonymous with violence. Their movie-like realism, combined with enormous marketing budgets, has made this entertainment industry the second most-profitable in the world.

In 2010, the most popular videogames included the ultra-violent Call of Duty: Black Ops and Halo: Reach, successors to the first person shooter genre made famous by Doom. This genre continues to make huge sales and, just like violent film and television, these games require minimal translation or adaptation to move across cultures.

The 24 Hour News Cycle

In 1980, Ted Turner founded the first 24 hour news television station, revolutionizing people’s relationship to current events. Twenty-four hour access to constantly updating news has had a major social and political impact on our society.

Since news is constantly “breaking”, comment often happens simultaneously with little opportunity for deep engagement or consideration of the situation—speculation, therefore, supplants analysis.  As well, the pressure to deliver content means that producers have less time to judge whether or not certain images are appropriate—and there is significant pressure to run anything that might be a “scoop.” This means a whole lot more violent and shocking content is becoming more accessible to everyone. And since all of us are seeing it and many of us are outraged or shocked by it, we’re asking many more “experts” and panelists to talk about this content a whole lot more as well.



[1] Thompson, Hugh. “Profits for Canadian television broadcasters up 40% in 2010.” Digital Home, November 1 2011.
[2] “US Movie Market Summary from 1995 to 2012.” The Numbers, May 14 2012.
[3] “Essential Facts about the Computer and Video Game Industry.” Entertainment Software Association, 2011.
[4] “Essential Facts about the Computer and Video Game Industry.” Entertainment Software Association, 2011.
[5] S. Waxman. “Hollywood Attuned to World Markets.” Washington Post October 26, 1990; Page A1.
[6] Taylor, Laramie. “The Effects of Nudity, Sexual Content, and Violence on a Film’s Financial Success.” Paper presented at the annual meeting of the International Communication Association, Marriott Hotel, San Diego, CA, May 27, 2003 .
[7] Landreth, Jonathan. “China nixes film ratings, restates censor role.” Associated Press, August 19 2010.
[8] Lacey, Liam. “International box office: The tail that wags the Hollywood dog.” The Globe and Mail, April 29 2011.
[9] Jacobs, Tom. “Television Violence Enticing But Not Satisfying.” Miller-McCune, March 13 2012.