LOS ANGELES -- When Kevin Reilly, the chairman for entertainment at the Fox network, commissioned an ambitious thriller series called The Following, about a Hannibal Lecter-like serial killer who inspires a legion of deranged followers, his intention was to challenge the cable business, not the culture.
Now, in the wake of the horrific shooting of schoolchildren in Newtown, Conn., Reilly knows he cannot avoid questions about the propriety of putting that kind of content on television in an atmosphere of heightened sensitivity about violence.
"The timing is not great," Reilly said in an interview here during the semiannual press tour where networks discuss new programs. "The show does not deserve to be the poster child for our society."
But if the persistent questioning of Reilly and other executives by reporters who cover the television business is any indication, the issue of extreme violence on screen and its potential impact has become a thicket programmers cannot avoid.
"I don't think there's anyone on this planet whose life hasn't been changed and/or affected by the recent course of events," said Nina Tassler, the president of CBS Entertainment. But, she argued, "nothing that is on the air is inappropriate."
CBS has more programming involving murders than any other network, but, Tassler said, the network justifies the level of carnage by assuring that "the bad guys are brought to justice." In response to criticism of a specific CBS show, Criminal Minds, which features a serial killer every week, she said she would not allow her 14-year-old child to watch that show because "it's an adult show."
Bob Greenblatt, the chairman of NBC Entertainment (which has a show about a young Hannibal Lecter coming up), said, "There are a lot of parameters in broadcast television that we think about, not only as a company that has responsibilities to the FCC, but as people who have families."
Debates about television violence have waxed and waned for more than 50 years, sometimes surrounding shows, like The Rifleman and Kojak, that now seem tame. The increasing appeal of cable series, however, has changed the stakes. In 2001, Bob Wright, chairman of NBC at the time, wrote a memo pointing out an especially violent episode of The Sopranos on HBO and questioning whether "there was a lesson" for network shows in the popularity and acceptance of that level of violence.
Cable series have become more violent and more popular in the years since. The six highest-rated dramas on cable in the past year were The Walking Dead, Hatfields & McCoys, True Blood, Sons of Anarchy, American Horror Story and Game of Thrones. All contain high levels of violence.
In an interview, Reilly cited those shows and others, saying, "You look at the top scripted shows on cable, and they are all pretty heavy-duty. These are not some small cultural little things that people like. The top drama on television now is a show where people get their heads blown off at point-blank range."
The show Reilly referred to, AMC's The Walking Dead, is not the most-watched drama on television, but it does rank first among viewers between the ages of 18 and 49 -- the audience that executives want to reach most because advertisers pay the most for them. (Overall the most popular drama is CBS' NCIS, which, like virtually every CBS drama, features at least one murder every week.)
On The Walking Dead a group of survivors from a dystopian upheaval are compelled to kill hosts of zombies in every episode. Sometimes those zombies are children.
Reilly said the challenge for a network programmer is to compete with that kind of show on cable, which has never been held to the same strictures over content, while trying to maintain sensitivity to cultural standards, something still expected more of companies with a broadcast license. The outcry over the shootings in Connecticut and elsewhere is clearly complicating that effort.
"Had the incident in Connecticut not occurred, I think everybody would be saying The Following is a great show, and you're taking on cable at their own game," Reilly said. He noted that AMC's Breaking Bad is now among the most praised shows on television, but it is unquestionably dark and violent.
"If you are going to be in this genre," he said, "the bar is set at the level of shows like Breaking Bad. You can't come in lower and succeed."
Fox still supportive
The violence in The Following is occasionally graphic and disturbing: A woman stabs herself in the eye; a man goes through a street setting strangers on fire. Kevin Williamson, the show's creator, said in one of the press sessions that he was disturbed by the Newtown incident and the earlier mass shooting at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo.
"We sit in the writers' room after that happened, and we just, sort of, we're all traumatized by it," Williamson said. "It reaches a moment where that just gets too real, and it's very disturbing." But he added: "I'm writing fiction. I'm just a storyteller."
John Landgraf, the president of FX, which programs hit dramas based on some level of violence like American Horror Story and Justified, stressed a distinction between what he called "third-person entertainment" and "first-person entertainment." The former describes the passive viewing of scripted dramas; the latter describes participatory entertainment, like video games, where shooting and mayhem are personally inflicted on characters.
He explicitly tied the prevalence of violence in the United States to the availability of guns, noting that television viewers in Britain watch the same shows as Americans and play the same video games, but that the country has drastically lower murder rates.
The Fox network has no intention of backing away from The Following, which stands as its most important show of a dismal season. Reilly plans to build his prime-time schedule partly around the show, perhaps using it exactly as AMC has been using The Walking Dead, in a pair of eight-episode bursts twice a season.
"Most viewers compartmentalize," Reilly said. "It's apples and oranges in their lives. It's entertainment versus real life, fact and fiction. If you're not crazy, you have a very easy time to separate the two, if you're not a delusional human being -- which is, thankfully, the vast majority of people in the world."