Femme Fatality

More than ever, women are dopping dead on prime-time TV. And why is this entertainment?

It seems that you can't turn on the tube without seeing a woman being set on fire, tossed off a roof, chomped by a bear—or worse. A recent study confirms it: Violence against women on TV has jumped 120 percent since 2004, according to the Parents Television Council. For the study, called "Women in Peril," the group zoomed in on prime-time shows on Fox, ABC, CBS, and NBC. We looked into how crime gets marketed as entertainment.

The biggest offenders: CBS, which airs CSI, takes the prize for the largest number of story lines featuring violence against women—118 from February to May 2009. The runner-up is Fox (home to 24), with 82, followed by NBC (which airs Law & Order: Special Victims Unit), with 70.

Who's writing these shows: Surprise—several of the most gory shows employ women writers. On Law & Order: SVU, for example, three women crank out the bloody scripts along with five guys. Of course, there are plenty of dead dudes on these shows, too, notes Pam Veasey, a writer and producer for CSI: New York. Yet while there are no studies on violence against men on TV, overall violence on the small screen has stayed level, according to the Parents Television Council, making that 120 percent leap for women all the more whopping.

Who's tuning in: It's not all guys. Women made up 60 percent of viewers who watched CSI and Law & Order: SVU in the 2009 fall season, according to the Nielsen Company.

This is entertainment because ... We've been conditioned to view TV as a relaxing outlet, so we assume we're having fun as we watch horrific images, says David Gentile, Ph.D., a developmental psychologist in Ames, Iowa. But there's more to it than that. "On an evolutionary level, we simply can't look away when we see violence—it's like watching a car wreck. Our brain is telling us that to survive, we better pay attention."