Programming Trends in the 1960s
Sports and news shows notwithstanding, viewers in the 1960s watched television principally for the entertainment series and specials in prime time. This programming was marked by familiar patterns of shifting public tastes, most noticeable in the slippage of the Western from dominance at the opening of the decade to irrelevance in the 1970s. With programs such as
Gilligan's Island, Get Smart, and The Carol Burnett Show, the varieties of comedy reappeared—on film and videotape, but seldom live—as the most popular form of video fare. Other trends of note included a decline in the popularity of police and detective crime shows; the limited success—in offerings such as
Combat, 12 o'Clock High, and The Rat Patrol—of action dramas set in World War II; and the commercial boom sparked in 1966 by the campy comedy-adventure series Batman.
Critics have tended to assess TV programming in the 1960s as essenially facile. To prove the point, they describe an excess of fantasy-comedies featuring bizarre characters that included a talking Palomino, a domesticated witch, a Martian, a cornpone southern sheriff, a nun who could fly, and two ghoulish but lovable families. The irony, of course, is that this was American popular culture, not sprung from a consensus among viewers but because its offbeat characters appealed to the most important demographic entity in the TV audience during the decade: the children of the postwar "baby boom," predominantly middle-class and white, who were now entering adolescence and early adulthood. By attracting sizable numbers of youngsters and their families through
Mr. Ed, My Favorite Martian, The Addams Family, and the like, ABC, CBS, and NBC sold their advertisers access to a large and lucrative market. In U.S. television, commercial mandate begat national culture.
TV in the 1960s exposed what music listeners already knew, that mass culture in the United States was being created by the desires and pocketbooks of youngsters. From their musical tastes to their rejection of "establishment" standards, Americans born in the years after World War 11 exerted their influence. By 1965 almost 41 percent of the U.S. population was nineteen years old or younger, and children watched TV more than adults, especially in the early evening hours.
Not only were they numerous, but juvenile viewers also had money and a high propensity to spend it. Even the preteen market in 1965 generated sales of $50 billion. As critic Les Brown noted in Variety that year, "For the first time in history, popular culture is not being handed down to the younger generation but handed up by it."
But youth represented not only a cultural force. Many young people in the 1960s proclaimed their political separateness. This was expressed in the civil rights movement, the antiwar movement, environmental protest, and demonstrations against a desensitized mass society. Hippies, peaceniks, free-love advocates, radicals, whatever their cause, whatever their label, those coming of age in the decade exerted enormous influence. The older generation—the one that owned and operated television—may not have understood or agreed with the purpose of its offspring, but the adults showed it and pandered to it on TV.
Network television helped to nurture a national sense of generation, a spirituality that linked, if not united, youths in the decade. There was communion in the dances shared by
American Bandstand, Shindig, and Hullabaloo. Seeing their peers emerge triumphant on
The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, or
Leave It to Beaver fed a sense of generational superiority. Viewing their naive value system flattered in countless "Good always defeats Evil" dramas reaffirmed the untested moral code that motivated much of their support of Truth against Falsity.
In many ways television was the font from which the younger generation drew understanding and inspiration. This was a theme touched by noted Swedish sociologist and economist Gunnar Myrdal when he asserted in the mid-1960s that "television is a big factor in what has been going on." For Myrdal it was "tremendously important" that through TV "all the dreadful things that happen are brought into our living rooms," for here was the vivid classroom where American youth learned of the world.
Every child knows about the physical horrors of the Vietnam War. This is not fiction. Real people are killed. We see them lying dead. The effect is that youth discovers the credibility gap. It sees the horrible reality of the war. It feels that it is being talked to by liars. To young people this is serious. This is what has roused the generation. This is what has given us the present period of protest and demonstration.
Among the significant developments in the 1960s was the emergence of the socially relevant program. Whereas social criticism appeared rarely in the early dramatic showcases, now entire series were fashioned around pressing issues. The most successful of these offerings was
The Defenders, which featured E.G. Marshall and Robert Reed as a father-son team of lawyers involved in cases touching on civil rights and civil liberties. Among the topics treated on
The Defenders were capital punishment, censorship, military justice, abortion, and political blacklisting.
The NBC series attracted major playwrights such as Reginald Rose, Ernest Kinoy, and Howard Fast, and prominent directors such as Buzz Kulik, Lamont Johnson, and Franklin J. Schaffner. During the years it was on the air, 1961-1965, The Defenders earned thirteen Emmy awards. Importantly, its record suggested—in many cases, erroneously—that other series with mature political themes might find popular acceptance.
Among the laudable failures to replicate such success were Charming, which treated university life in the early 1960s; Slattery's People, focusing on issues confronting state government; and East Side, West Side, which probed urban racial and social problems. History also received short shrift: with its dramas of human achievements in the building of America, The Great Adventure found no great audience and even the death of President John F. Kennedy could not make a hit of Profiles of Courage, with its stories inspired by Kennedy's Pulitzer Prize-winning book of the same title.
But there were familiar genres that offered stories of substance. There was sensitive medical theater in
Ben Casey and Dr. Kildare, suspense in The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, and mature science fiction on
The Twilight Zone and Star Trek. Soap opera came to prime time with
Peyton Place, and The Fugitive offered compelling action-adventure entertainment. In fact, when telecast on August 29, 1967, the final episode of this four-season search for justice was the highest-rated broadcast—earning a 45.9 rating and a 72.0 share—of the decade.
In offering relatively sophisticated filmed series, network TV was reacting to criticism of the late 1950s and early 1960s. The fact that many of these dramatic series lasted no longer than one season was not as important as the fact that government criticism could persuade the networks to upgrade their product. As critic Richard Schickel explained it in
TV Guide in 1964:
Live TV drama was pronounced dead, after a lingering illness, three years ago, just as the industry was getting its hardest buffeting in the aftermath of the quiz scandals. Coincidentally, there was a shift in national mood toward deeper concern over social issues and the national purpose. The New Frontier was possibly the product of that mood and certainly the focus of it. It remained only for the former Federal Communications Commission Chairman Newton Minow to point out, as he did in the Wasteland speech, that there was a certain variance between this mood and the actual content of television programming. Forthwith, things began to take a turn for the miserable on the dramatic series.
The network shift toward dramas of increased complexity and social relevance demonstrated the political sensibility basic to broadcasting in the United States. Not only because they are subject to governmental regulation, the networks are structurally political. As powerful corporate enterprises rooted in the status quo, they are by nature self-protective, conservative, and woven profitably into the institutional fabric of the nation.
In general, the networks support the established, and in turn receive support. Media scholar Joseph Turow has detailed how the networks cooperated with one establishment institution, the American Medical Association, to offer only a flattering image of physicians in TV drama. Since the doctor series
Medic, which premiered on NBC in 1954, the AMA cooperated to make medical personnel and facilities available to filmmakers; it also reviewed scripts for negative connotations, and advised, pressured, and otherwise labored to make certain its favorable picture of doctors, as well as its own positions on controversial medical issues, were communicated to the audience.
In this way, television drama seldom focused negatively on doctors. And were a program to spotlight an unethical or inept physician, his depiction would be strongly countered by good doctors and by a central, heroic figure whose respect for the profession was boundless. Similarly, a script that seemed sympathetic to government medical insurance programs or regulation of the profession—strategically labeled "socialized medicine" by the AMA—would not appear on commercial TV.
But the AMA was only one of many entities consulted by the makers of TV dramas. No matter that such relationships could turn drama into propaganda, producers and networks sought assistance from other medical organizations as well as local, state, and federal law enforcement groups. An eager participant was the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which considered the series
The FBI from Quinn Martin Productions to be effective public relations during its run on ABC in 1965-1974. Writing in 1972, Director J. Edgar Hoover of the FBI praised the series for winning "additional friends and admirers for the Bureau" and helping "to give millions of persons here and abroad (The FBI has been seen in more than fifty other countries, requiring sound tracks in nine languages) a better understanding of the caliber of public service which the FBI strives to provide." It was a wonderful endorsement from the nation's top G-man.
Through the nine seasons of The FBI, the Bureau maintained control over its scripts, casting, and even its sponsorship. According to biographer Richard Gid Powers, "Hoover watched over television's FBI as closely as he did the real Bureau." He assigned an agent in Hollywood to oversee the filming. Hoover even appeared on-camera each fall to introduce the new season of
The FBI. As Powers noted, the video FBI was for Hoover an idealized Bureau—"the FBI of his dreams: unfailingly polite, white, male, middle-class agents to whom the FBI was family, men protecting a public that responded with gratitude and respect."
Cooperation between Quinn Martin Productions and the Bureau gave writers and producers access to records, equipment, facilities, and personnel. Because it was cleared by the FBI, it ensured, too, that powerful governmental and social agencies would not criticize the final product. For the FBI, such an arrangement guaranteed that television would avoid embarrassing realities—incidents of corruption among local police, illegal burglaries or wiretappings, ideological narrowness, discrimination within Bureau units, investigatory activities that violated civil liberties—in its portrayal of the law enforcement officers.
Although the FBI sought favorable publicity by cooperating with Hollywood, its efforts were minor compared to the U.S. military. To shape its own image in the public mind, the Department of Defense actually produced its own programs for free distribution throughout the nation.
The Big Picture, a weekly U.S. Army filmed series, ran from 1951 to 1970 and totaled more than eight hundred half-hour episodes. The Pentagon also lent advisers to other TV series, made stock film footage available to cooperative producers, offered military bases and equipment to approved filmmakers, and even lent troops to be used as extras in war dramas requiring large military forces.
Such cooperation was part of the massive propaganda campaign by the Department of Defense to create and maintain popular approval of the U.S. military. In his revealing study
The Pentagon Propaganda Machine, former senator J. William Fulbright in 1970 described the process by which the Pentagon retained final approval rights over any film made with its assistance:
When shooting is finished and the film put together, the filmmaker is then required to submit the completed production to the Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs for an official review ... so that changes can be made if necessary. This review ostensibly is to ensure accuracy and check for viola¬tions of security. Even if a filmmaker does not require physical assistance and the Department of Defense involvement entails only the sale of stock footage, the review process is supposed to be followed.
For all their flaws and vulnerability, the networks maintained their hegemony over U.S. television and profited enormously in the process. As long as nothing drastically altered network-affiliate arrangements or the basic structure of VHF/UHF broadcasting in the United States, ABC, CBS, and NBC would remain robust financial operations. Even if challenged with restrictions on their business operations and their access to the national audience, they had flexibility enough to maintain profits and audiences, ensuring in the process that this would remain one nation under network television.
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