Gun use is dramatically down on TV this fall — but that may be mostly attributed to the recent Hollywood strikes, which led to the shutdown of virtually all film and TV productions this year, according to a new study.
The report, “Gun Smoke: An Analysis of How Labor Strikes May Have Impacted Network TV Gun Portrayals in Fall 2023,” comes from the 14 members of the Project Unloaded Youth Council and Project Unloaded staff. Project Unloaded is a non-profit organization aiming to change the public’s perception around gun safety to prevent gun violence.
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In particular, the study found that with fewer procedural dramas in first run, the guns that are prevalent on those shows weren’t found as often in primetime.
“In summer 2023, it became clear that labor strikes would reshape fall television. With writing and production on hold for most scripted shows, networks rushed to green light more unscripted content that could fill the airwaves this fall,” the introduction to the study reads. “At Project Unloaded, we wondered how this shift in fall TV content might impact the number of televised stories, and types of stories, involving guns.”
For their research, the Project Unloaded Youth Council watched and coded 127 episodes — more than 150 hours of content — shown on primetime network television from the last week of September 2022 and the last week of September 2023. They logged every show that included a gun in both 2022 and 2023, adding data about “the type of person holding a gun, whether a gun was fired, why it was fired and if the show included any mention of the risks of having a gun.”
The Council then compared the data from 2022 and 2023, seeing how ratings were affected by the decrease in gun depictions. They also compared gun depictions across networks.
The researchers found evidence to support their hypothesis about the correlation between the strikes and gun depictions, as episodes with guns generally decreased between 2022 and 2023. They reviewed four networks, finding that 25 episodes included a gun in 2022, compared to 15 episodes including a gun in 2023.
CBS was the major contributor to those gun depictions, showing more guns than any other network in 2023. In 2023, ten of those 15 episodes including a gun were from CBS. Without the gun depictions on CBS, the rate of gun appearances across those other network shows showed an overall decrease: from 29% in 2022 to 13% in 2023.
After evaluating the ratings, the Council members found that audiences seemingly prefer content without guns. In 2022, shows without guns won 77% of timeslots. In 2023, shows without guns 96% of their timeslots.
“This report should be seen as an invitation to those involved in developing scripted shows to really consider the messages those shows send about guns,” said Shiven Patel, a member of Project Unloaded’s Youth Council who helped lead the development of the report. “More guns make people less safe, but you wouldn’t know that watching most network shows that include gun use. As scripted content starts to return to television, creators and writers should pay attention to what their shows tell audiences about using guns – and if they really need guns at all to tell a compelling story. Gun violence is the number one killer of my generation. We need everyone with a public platform to do their part to help make us all safer.”
Other key findings include:
Guns on TV are often carried by law enforcement officers or individuals committing a crime, with rare depictions of civilians carrying guns.
Only one episode across 2022 and 2023, an episode from NBC’s “La Brea,” mentioned the risks of having a gun.
Ten of the 15 episodes that included a gun in 2023 were reruns. Eight of them were from CBS.
Tuesday night was the most violent night on television, but shows without guns outperformed shows with guns on Tuesday night in both 2022 and 2023.
The most frequent cause of gun deaths in real life are by suicide. However, there were only two gun suicide references/depictions, one in an episode of “FBI: Most Wanted’ on CBS in 2022, and the other in an rerun of “Yellowstone” on CBS in 2023.
“These findings prove that TV can avoid content that reinforces the dangerous notion that we’re safer armed and be profitable,” the conclusion reads.
The Council members include recommendations for gun depictions in the future, saying that TV writers and creators can weigh whether or not a gun is necessary to tell the story, show the risks of having guns whenever they’re depicted and avoid depicting guns as the go-to safety mechanism for police officers and law enforcement.
Read the full “Gun Smoke” report here.
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