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George Gerbner; educator decried TV's influence

LOS ANGELES -- George Gerbner, an educator and pioneer researcher into the influence of television violence on viewers' perception of the world, died Saturday at his home in Philadelphia of unspecified causes. He was 86.

Mr. Gerbner, the former dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, became concerned as television and motion pictures supplanted family members and friends in relaying tales both true and fictional.

By 2000, after more than three decades of study, Mr. Gerbner told National Public Radio that he had ceased to view television as a medium.

''I call it a cultural environment into which our children are born, and which tells all the stories," he said. ''You know, who tells the stories of a culture really governs human behavior. It used to be the parent, the school, the church, the community. Now it's a handful of global conglomerates that have nothing to tell, but a great deal to sell."

He said that average homes had a television set turned on at least seven hours a day, and that youngsters were learning to read by watching television commercials, developing a consumer mentality.

During his 25-year tenure as dean in the Penn communications school, which was funded by TV Guide magnate Walter Annenberg, Mr. Gerbner received numerous grants to study the portrayal of violence on television and in films, and also to analyze how TV and films showcase particular professions and demographic groups.

In 1968, he founded and headed the Cultural Indicators Project to measure trends in television content and examine how television shapes Americans' concept of society. The project's database has collected information on more than 3,000 television programs and 35,000 characters.

In the early 1990s, after leaving Penn, Mr. Gerbner founded a second organization, the Cultural Environment Movement, to work for greater diversity in media ownership, employment, and representation.

Over 30 years of analysis, Mr. Gerbner said the level of violence shown on television remained relatively steady -- six to eight incidents per hour, and in children's programming up to 20-35 incidents per hour.

''The most general and prevalent association with television viewing," he testified to a congressional subcommittee on communications in 1981, ''is a heightened sense of living in a 'mean world' of violence and danger. Fearful people are more dependent, more easily manipulated and controlled, more susceptible to deceptively simple, strong, tough measures and hard-line postures.

''They may accept and even welcome repression if it promises to relieve their insecurities. That is the deeper problem of violence-laden television."

Through his research, Mr. Gerbner concluded that heavy television viewers (more than four hours daily) came to consider the world as rightly belonging to ''the power and money elite" depicted on the small screen -- the young, wealthy white males idealized in programming as heroic doctors and other professionals.

Mr. Gerbner, whose findings were regularly disputed by network executives, said that neither V-chips nor content-rating codes would prevent children from viewing the ubiquitous television violence.

Born in Budapest, Mr. Gerbner had a lifelong interest in folklore and literature. He began his studies at the University of Budapest before fleeing fascist Hungary in 1939.

He studied at the University of California at Los Angeles, and then completed a journalism degree at UC Berkeley. He worked briefly for the San Francisco Chronicle. Mr. Gerbner served in the Army in Europe during World War II, working with the Office of Strategic Services, parachuting behind enemy lines, and earning a Bronze Star.

He taught and conducted research at the Institute for Communications Research at the University of Illinois from 1956 until 1964, when he was recruited for the post at Penn.

Mr. Gerbner, whose wife of 59 years, Ilona, died Dec. 8, leaves two sons, John and Thomas, and five grandchildren.

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