Sex and Profanity on TV
In television the dominant point of view prevailed and influenced the nation. As long as most Americans were unwilling to redress intolerance, attitudes of social and economic justice for oppressed racial groups rarely entered the nation's video culture. If audiences kept violent series popular, then no amount of governmental regulation, short of outright censorship, would keep shootings, fistfights, and other forms of mayhem off the TV screen. The same was true for sex and profanity.
Sold to sponsors as a family medium, TV usually handled problems of language, dress, and body in terms suited to "family viewing." However, in the early 1950s the plunging necklines of female performers such as Dagmar on
Broadway Open House and Faye Emerson on her own CBS show, as well as Roberta Quinlan, Lena Horne, and Dinah Shore, triggered considerable controversy. A Cleveland councilman was so perturbed by what he saw on television in 1951 that he urged the city council to pass a resolution asking the networks to stop plunging necklines. Others in Cleveland charged that "plunging necklines replace talent," that such imagery "tempts incompetent people seeking publicity" and that it "puts a negative value on the nice, clean cotton-housedress type girl.
That these female performers were wearing fashionable evening gowns acceptable in most social circumstances made no difference to the Chicago woman who assailed the plunging neckline as "one of the most horrible eyesores of television, and it corrupts the minds of teenagers, the future citizens of America." To protect its reputation, the DuMont network in 1950 maintained bouquets of flowers for those emergency situations when a female star or guest arrived at the studio with too much cleavage exposed. In such cases the network ordered the woman to use one of the bouquets as a corsage to cover her overly-exposed bosom.
While sexual imagery may have been tolerated in motion picture theaters, TV entered the privacy of the home, where it could confront unsuspecting viewers. Moreover, video programs could not always be supervised by parents concerned about their children's sensibilities. Because the ultimate goal of TV programs was to sell commercial products, few advertisers were willing to spend large sums of money underwriting shows that might offend large numbers of viewers.
There were other moral confrontations. When Arthur Godfrey in 1950 uttered the words "damn" and "hell" on one of his live national programs, he was roundly criticized by viewers, affiliate stations, and CBS officials. Popular songs with "questionable" lyrics—from Lena Horne's recording of "I Love to Love," to "Go to Sleep, Go to Sleep, Go to Sleep" by Arthur Godfrey and Mary Martin, and "The Song of the Sewer" by Art Carney—were banned from network TV even though Horne recorded for RCA and the Godfrey/Martin and Carney discs were recorded by a CBS company, Columbia Records. Even local productions encountered problems. When Houston station KPRC-TV in 1951 prepared a bedding commercial that would depict a husband and wife in a double bed, public criticism prompted the station to cancel the spot before it was ever aired.
As a mass medium that assaulted the values of individuals and groups, TV invited a wide range of criticism and censorship. In 1952 ABC censors previewed 6,750 films and rejected 186 as unsuitable for broadcasting because of "violence, sacrilege, children's standards, or characters prejudicial to minority groups." Outrage from local Roman Catholics prompted WGN-TV in late 1956 to cancel a showing of
Luther, a motion-picture biography of the catalyst for the Protestant Reformation and founder of the Lutheran religion. The networks were consistently attacked by interest groups—such as businessmen, intellectuals, and other professionals; racial and religious minorities; those opposing the sale of alcohol, the mistreatment of animals, and the like—that were concerned with the way they or their interests were depicted on TV.
Many Americans recognized the power of television to form public perceptions that were at once moral and opinion-making. To many it was critical to form interest groups to protect or promote particular viewpoints against the standardized interpretations propagated by the networks. City police establishments cooperated in the filming of police series such as
Dragnet (Los Angeles P.D.) and The Lineup (San Francisco P.D.). Medical associations and facilities assisted producers of doctor programs such as
Medic. The U.S. Department of Defense was especially active in promoting the armed forces, providing stock footage, equipment, and personnel for productions of which the Pentagon approved.
Most anxious to propagandize their products, of course, were advertisers and their agencies. They prepared lists of do's and don'ts describing the proper way to treat their products. General Mills through the Dancer-Fitzgerald, Sample advertising agency issued a twenty-two-point edict demanding that "bulk American middle-class morals" be demonstrated in their commercials. For Coca-Cola, the McCann-Erickson agency even directed that "One does not serve 'Cokes' or 'Coca-Cola.' One serves `bottles of Coke.'" The agency even explained how bottles of the soft drink should be poured: "When pouring Coca-Cola into glass, both bottle and glass should be tilted rim-to-rim, as in pouring beer. Ice should always be in the glass."
Not only were advertisers intent on shaping their images in TV commercials, they also sought to mold the programs themselves. Liggett & Myers through McCann-Erickson demanded "No portrayal of pipe or cigar smoking or chewing. Avoid shots of messy ashtrays crammed with cigarette butts. Use king-size Chesterfields only. Take cellophane off pack." As sponsors of
Circus Boy, the adventures of a young boy traveling with a circus in the late nineteenth century, the Mars candy company announced that it was "very sensitive to the use of ice cream, soft drinks, cookies, competitive candy, or any other item that might be considered competitive to candy." And the Ted Bates agency for Miles Laboratories, manufacturers of a range of over-the-counter pharmaceuticals, prescribed that on its show
There should be no reference to headache, upset stomach, or the taking of remedies to relieve same. There should be no statement or situation in conflict with One-a-Day Multiple Vitamins. There should be no taking of bromides or sedatives for which Nervine might be used. . . . There should be no representation of doctors, dentists, druggists (or drug remedies) in a derogatory manner or in situations embarrassing to them as a group.
Still, it was sexual expression that most aroused moralists threatened by the intrusive new medium. Typically, a Roman Catholic bishop in Michigan praised TV in 1951 as "one of the great achievements of our age," then blasted it as a "sex promoter" that popularized "sex artists whose stock in trade is to make sex didoes before innocent children in their homes." According to the Church official, despite its technological brilliance television was "doing the work of the devil by bootlegging into homes foulness and obscenity."
One of the bolder public moves against video imagery and language occurred in Chicago in mid-1950 when the weekly magazine
TV Forecast spearheaded the creation of the National Television Review Board. The purpose of this panel of prominent citizens was to rate programs in terms of their effect on family life. Soon the Board publicly condemned shows it felt objectionable, among them
Howdy Doody ("loud ... confused ... senseless ... clown's role too feminine"),
Juvenile Jury ("bad taste ... smart-aleck kids should be spanked instead of applauded"), wrestling ("phony contest ... unsportsmanlike tactics ... glorifies sadism"), and
Leave It to the Girls ("gowns cut too low ... ridicules marriage ... excessive frivolity concerning family authority and customs."). By early 1952 the Board issued its own "Citizens' Television Code," complete with a twelve-point guide to "what shall be deemed objectionable":
1: Immoral, lewd, and suggestive words and actions, as well as indecency in dress.
2: A deliberate presentation of vulgar and sordid situations.
3: Irreverence toward religion or patriotic symbols where it is not essential to a dramatic situation.
4: Excessive bad taste in words and actions, deliberately projected for their own effect.
5: Excessive frivolity concerning established traditions of family authority and customs.
6: Malicious derision of racial or national groups.
7: Undue glorification of criminals and undesirables.
8: Excessive bloodshed, violence, and cruelty.
9: Excessive noise, confusion, and tumult to a point where it disrupts normal family relations.
10: Any ideas, situations, or presentations that essentially injure the dignity of God and mankind
and the inalienable right of human integrity.
11: Shows that tend to glamorize false values.
12: Disloyal or subversive sentiments that might injure the United States.
TV was under attack early and on many fronts as its programs conflicted with personal standards and tastes. From the proper attitudes with which to advertise laxatives or women's underwear, to scripts with sexual overtones or violent imagery, even to questions of the patriotism and political loyalty of individual performers and writers, early video clashed frequently with individuals and groups abused by what they saw. The result was increasing pressure on broadcasters to establish industry-wide boundaries for programming content. Network loyalty oaths and blacklisting were offered as guarantees that no Communists or Fascists were working in the industry. And in late 1951 the National Association of Broadcasters issued its Television Code that pledged fidelity to the commonly-held moral standards and tastes of the nation.
Facing possible FCC involvement in the controversy, the networks and most stations quickly adhered to the NAB Code. The Code spoke of decency and decorum in production as well as in advertising. In the opening paragraph of its preamble, the Code defined the place of TV in American social life:
Television is seen and heard in every type of American home. These homes include children and adults of all ages, embrace all races and all varieties of religious faith, and reach those of every educational background. It is the responsibility of television to bear constantly in mind that the audience is primarily a home audience, and consequently that television's relationship to the viewers is that between guest and host.
The Code did not come as a surprise to broadcasters. They were long aware of TV’s potential for upsetting the moral standards of some viewers. The DuMont network, for example, sought to be as inoffensive as possible by reminding its staff and guests of the need for propriety. In 1950 the network posted three-foot by five-foot posters in all control rooms and studios, proclaiming its dedication to good taste. Signed by the network's president, Mortimer W. Loewi, and its program director, James L. Caddigan, these signs declared:
Attention, producer directors and talent: Your audience is the average American family—Mom and Dad Junior and Sis—Grandma. You are a guest in their living-rooms. Any violation of this privilege through the use of material in bad taste, immoral business, situations, dialogue, lyrics, routines or costuming will not be tolerated by the DuMont Television Network.
NBC was typical, too. In the 1950s, Stockton Helffrich operated as the continuity acceptance director—the censor—charged with overseeing the words and images broadcast on the network. Recalling the position of the American Civil Liberties Union that all industry codes necessarily infringed on free expression, he argued as late as 1956 that "the spirit of this attitude hits me as more well-intended than practical. The industry has to have some rule of thumb for moving in on patently salacious material, racial stereotyping, ignorance toward the mentally and physically afflicted, etc." Helffrich continued, "The real problem in codes comes when they are used negatively to repress artistic expressions of reality and are followed after such uses with no alternative handling of any stature."
Nevertheless, to drive home the commandments of the new NAB Code and their meaning for TV productions, station WBNS-TV in central Ohio prepared a short play to be shown to NAB delegates holding a conference in Columbus in the Fall of 1951. Under the title
Premiere Playhouse, this never-to-be-televised drama demonstrated many of the situations now officially banned from television. It was a brief tutorial in artistic restriction and the boundaries of video imagery.
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