Television and violence
While national TV ran roughshod over minorities expecting respectful and equitable treatment, it clashed also with those who felt its reliance on violent imagery was equally destructive of private dignity and social order. Most Americans liked violence in their entertainment, especially when it was packaged in morality tales of police and private eyes.
Murder was the preferred form. It was in literature and motion pictures, and it was on the air. One critic of radio crime estimated that in 1945 there were 1,642 mystery and detective shows on the air—and each show averaged 10 million listeners. By 1949 another writer deduced that radio was broadcasting 50 murders a week-2,400 killings a year—the majority of such deaths occurring in detective programs.
One reason for the popularity of detective programs in TV was their relatively inexpensive cost. Many were half-hour programs aired live with a small cast, a few cameras, and fewer sets. Filmed series were more expensive to produce.
The Cases of Eddie Drake, for example, cost $7,500 per episode when filmed in late 1948. That figure compared favorably to the costs for mounting lavish live comedy-variety series (The Texaco Star Theater budgeted at $8,000 to $10,000 per show and
Toast of the Town at $6,000) and dramatic showcases (The Kraft Television Theater estimated at $4,000 weekly). Further, anticipating reruns and future residuals from syndication sales, the producers of filmed programs did not need to recoup their costs during the first run of their series.
Although they basically preached the moral that crime did not pay, crime shows raised serious criticism. From the beginning, powerful individuals and social groups assailed them because of their fundamental violence. As was the case with crime fiction in other media, critics alleged that there were causal links between crime programming on TV and juvenile delinquency, social violence, and a general undermining of moral conduct in the United States.
As early as 1949 the Southern California Association for Better Radio and Television found video violence unacceptable. During one week of TV in Los Angeles the group reported ninety-one murders, seven stagecoach holdups, three kidnappings, ten thefts, four burglaries, two cases of arson, two suicides, one instance of blackmail, and cases of assault and battery "too numerous to tabulate." The organization protested in letters to local stations that "TV comes into the home and many children are looking at these programs. We believe without too much effort your station could substitute acceptable programs which would be suitable for family viewing."
By 1951 anthropologist Ernest A. Hooten of Harvard University could claim that television in general, and crime shows particularly, were detrimental to the survival of humanity. He blasted TV for presenting "an easy correspondence course in crime, a visual education in how to do wrong." He continued, "Such vicious programs result from the ignorance and venality of movie, radio, and TV producers." Professor Hooten concluded that the new medium was undermining humanity. "Just as our legs have shrunk from using motor cars, our minds and our ability to read have deteriorated because television offers, for the most part, foolish, harmful material which stultifies audiences."
In basic harmony with Hooten was Dr. Frederic Wertheim, a controversial psychiatrist who precipitated a crusade against comic books in the early 1950s. Although he was convinced that comic books were the greatest cultural force driving American children toward a life of crime, he widened his moral critique in 1952 to include television. To Wertheim, TV had great educational potential, but as presently used—with an overemphasis on "blood and thunder" and a glorification of crime that suggested that "crime is not so bad after all"—he felt television to be socially damaging.
Particularly vocal in the critique of early television, too, were leaders in the Roman Catholic Church who objected not only to televised violence but also to the sexual content of programming brought directly into American homes by the medium. In 1950 the National Council of Catholic Men (NCCM) urged broadcasters to establish a code of standards that would bar programs "detrimental to the best moral interests of televiewers, especially the family group and the children of the family." By 1951 the NCCM was organizing a system of Church censorship that would rate TV shows for Catholics on matters such as responsibility to children; advancement of education and culture; program material; and decency, religion, and the handling of news and controversial problems
A year later, Archbishop Richard J. Cushing of Boston complained openly that "some television programs have sunk to a new low in breaking the laws of morality and decency."
The religious argument was direct: TV comes into the home, where it is violating family values and the moral guidance of the Church. As the Reverend Timothy J. Flynn of New York observed in 1955, "Television has been sold to the American public as an item for the living room, and, hence, the industry must keep in mind the essentially domestic nature of its audience. There is no closed-circuit system for adults, and, I am afraid, nine o'clock is only theoretically an adult viewing hour." The priest was quick to add, however, that the moral health of children was not his only concern. "Of course, morally offensive presentations are objectionable at any hour, and the prompt and effective protests of the public in various areas of the country indicate that public opinion will quickly censor objectionable material when the industry fails to do so."
The television industry was not unresponsive. In 1951 the National Association of Radio and Television Broadcasters adopted a new Television Code establishing guidelines for program content and addressing the concerns of social critics. With respect to the crime programming, the Code promised that "criminality shall be treated as undesirable and unsympathetic," that "presentation of techniques of crime in such detail as to invite imitation shall be avoided," and that "brutality or physical agony by sight or by sound are not permissible." The Code also pledged that "law enforcement shall be upheld," that "murder or revenge as a motive for murder shall not be presented as justifiable," and that "the exposition of sex crimes will be avoided."
That the standards in the Television Code were not fully followed is obvious. Protests against program content continued, and as early as 1952 the U.S. government began to study the impact of TV on social values. That year a House Commerce Committee subcommittee chaired by Oren Harris investigated "offensive" and "immoral" TV programs. The inquiry touched on a wide range of topics—from beer commercials telecast into a TV market that remained prohibitionist, to vulgarity, to dramas depicting suicide.
This was a new and ambiguous area for lawmakers and programmers. There was only a thin boundary between enforced good taste and official censorship. Still, there were those who demanded protection from the messages, direct and implied, offered in the new medium. As one member of the subcommittee, Representative Arthur G. Klein, concluded, "I've come to the viewpoint that someone must take the responsibility for policing the good taste of radio and TV programs that come into the home. The industry should do it, but if they don't, someone else should."
Indeed, the United States in 1952 was well used to quiet censorship in the name of civic good. Official censorship boards existed in many states (Ohio, New York, Virginia, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Kansas, and Maryland), and in large cities (Chicago; Detroit; Atlanta; Memphis; and Portland, Oregon, among others). Often these boards of review were associated with police establishments. Their function was to ensure that within their jurisdictions no movies or books contained "obscene, indecent, immoral, or inhuman scenes, or ... [were] of such character that their exhibition would tend to corrupt morals or incite to crime…."
The banning of controversial books in Boston was so familiar that by the middle of the twentieth century the phrase "banned in Boston” had become a familiar part of American argot. In the South official censors excised positive movie presentations of African-Americans, since such imagery was subversive to the ideology underlying Jim Crow social and legal arrangements. Chicago authorities in 1950 banned the 20th Century-Fox feature film No Way Out, which treated racial hatred and dramatized a race riot—one that was won by blacks. The chronic sensitivity of Ohio censors to scenes of brutality compelled filmmakers to reduce the number of punches in fight scenes. To have their films distributed locally, Hollywood studios in many instances had to make special "protection" prints containing unique edits or revised scenes tailored to meet the requirements of particular state or city censorship boards.
Localism was a vital part of life in the United States at the time television emerged. Decisions to proscribe books, films, and other cultural products arose from a tradition of community self-protection. This entailed protecting the community against the morality of commercial industries insensitive to sectional and local peculiarities. In a society as historically and demographically diverse as the United States, creating cultural products for a national audience led easily to confrontations with forces of parochialism and tradition.
Violence on television was a contentious matter that went to the heart of this issue. The fact that the federal government never resolved the problem only exacerbated the displeasure of offended groups. In 1954 the U.S. Senate through its Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency conducted public hearings on TV violence. Chaired by Estes Kefauver—the senator whose hearings on organized crime in 1951 had been widely followed after he allowed live TV coverage of the proceedings—the subcommittee began a long governmental quest to discover substantive evidence that TV violence actually caused juvenile delinquency.
During the next four decades hearings followed at irregular intervals, and social critics conducted rigorous research to prove a causal connection between entertainment and crime. But the efforts produced ambiguous results. New crusaders, such as Senators Thomas Dodd and John Pastore, and Representatives Torbert MacDonald and Timothy Wirth, appeared over the years to castigate the TV industry. Yet Congress avoided creating specific rules to govern what could or could not be shown on TV. Calls for industry self-censorship never were effective, and discussion of governmental regulation always raised questions of artistic freedom and free speech.
Even the federal agency charged with broadcast regulation, the Federal Communications Commission, retreated from decisive action on the matter of TV violence. When Paul A. Walker retired in 1953 as chairman of the FCC, his statement epitomized the Commission’s chronic attitude, both before and after Walker. "One side thinks we haven't gone far enough in controlling programming. The other side is just as firmly convinced that we are determined to establish federal censorship," he remarked. "I like to think that this conflict of opinion shows that we have been steering a fairly straight course down the middle of the regulatory road."
Of course, steering to the center of the road meant allowing network programmers to broadcast their value system to the nation. The networks had their own censors, men and women who reviewed scripts and finished products before they were telecast. But the fact remained that day after day this seductive new mechanism was delivering a common message, laden with social and moral implications, directly into the homes and privacy of millions of Americans. Glamorous and trendy and delivered with the authority of truth, never had such a persuasive message been so pervasively communicated in the United States.
This was no subversion of the majority by a cunning minority. It represented,
instead, the propagation of orthodoxy—the commonly-held or consensus viewpoint—at the expense of dissent and minority attitudes. Rural values yielded to urban values; attitudes popular in the nineteenth century were replaced by modern perspectives; as laws changed, cultural orthodoxy adjusted. No counterculture here; this was the American Way of Life that was on television.
As for the citizenry, it came gradually to accept the TV version of moral life. Words and images and gestures strongly contested in the early years would become acceptable and routine in the following decades. In the early 1950s it was taboo on television to deal with unwed motherhood or drug addiction. At one time Arthur Miller's celebrated play
Death of a Salesman could not be produced on TV, nor could the motion picture version of it be shown, because the plot involved suicide. As late as 1966, ABC rejected the teen film
Beach Blanket Bingo because its standards and practices bureau forbade the showing of bare female navels.
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