Violence and the
Attack Upon the Western
Criticism of the popular arts as glorifiers of violence—and the mass media as vehicles for popularizing destructive images of brutality and criminality—was not new to television. However, as an entertainment medium that captured the mass audience with unprecedented quickness and finality, TV was especially vulnerable to scrutiny of its effects upon the national psyche.
From the beginning television executives faced a chorus of criticism of their product. The critique came from individuals, organized groups, and government. One of the earliest complaints about video violence came from a private citizen in Chicago who in May 1949 purchased a complete page in the local TV Forecast magazine to decry the unnerving imagery entering his home via the new medium. In the passionate tones that often have marked such assessments, this alarmed citizen wrote the following:
IN OUR LIVING ROOMS
MUST BE STOPPED
We have a growing son. His little life is in the formative stage. Each day brings new thrills and experiences. He does what he sees and hears.
We can keep him away from public theaters, that have resorted to gruesome killings to attract blood-thirsty crowds (as in the old Roman gladiator days) but we cannot keep our son out of our own living room.
These stabbings, shootings, hangings, and killings must be kept out of our homes.
Television is still in the formative stage, the same as our own son. Help us keep television respectable—so we can try and raise a respectable citizen.
This full page ad of appeal is being paid for by one man, but one man is helpless in this undertaking. I need your help.
Write your U.S. congressman and send me a copy. Let's get the ball rolling to try and stop our children from murdering each other.
From a single voice at the start, the attack on TV violence grew rapidly to national proportions. By 1965 an interim report of the U.S. Senate Juvenile Delinquency Subcommittee, chaired by Senator Thomas J. Dodd, came to conclusions more eloquently stated, but essentially the same, as those of that lone protester in Chicago. According to that interim report,
it is clear that television, whose impact on the public mind is equal to or greater than that of any other medium, is a factor in molding the character, attitudes, and behavior patterns of America's young people. Further, it is the subcommittee's view that the excessive amount of televised crime, violence, and brutality can and does contribute to the development of attitudes and actions in many young people which pave the way for delinquent behavior.
From the beginning the violence permeating TV Westerns was a favorite target of protesters. Whether it was a critique by behavioral researchers, the Parent-Teachers Association, the U.S. Surgeon General, the U.S. Senate, city governmental agencies, religious task forces, or similar study groups, the Western—so attractive to children and so prevalent on television—was singled out as a major contributor to juvenile delinquency, a brutalizing reflection of a violence-prone society, an offender of civilized values.
It is important to note that television executives were sensitive to such public debate. As early as 1955 officials at NBC formalized rules regarding excessive violence in Westerns. This was done, according to the network's continuity acceptance director Stockton Helffrich, "in response to parental concern and child-specialist suggestion that the cumulative effect of too casual fatalities, of justice by six-gun rather than by more civilized processes, and of invariable exploitation of saloon locales and English-garbling protagonists might be damaging. "
Self-censorship was one matter; however, network concern was heightened when the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) openly attacked the TV Western as banal and violent, a discredit to the industry and a disservice to the United States in the way it projected the American image abroad. This happened when Newton N. Minow, recently appointed by President John F. Kennedy to head the FCC, assailed the "vast wasteland" created by network television. Speaking on May 9, 1961, before a convention of the National Association of Broadcasters, Minow not only blasted TV for offering a "procession of ... violence, sadism, murder, western bad men, western good men," but he wondered aloud:
What will the people of other countries think of us when they see our Western bad men and good men punching each other in the jaw in between the shooting? What will the Latin American or African child learn of America from our great communications industry? We cannot permit television in its present form to be our voice overseas.
Minow was most unnerving, however, when he threatened to fight the license renewals of those who continued to air such "bad" television. "I understand that many people feel that in the past licenses were often renewed pro forma," he stated. "I say to you now: renewal will not be pro forma in the future. There is nothing permanent or sacred about a broadcast license."
It is difficult to pinpoint the ways in which TV executives were influenced specifically by the Minow critique, or more generally by the years of public protest against TV violence. Television is, after all, a business and corporations do not readily make public their thinking on important decisions. There was at NBC, however, a deep division over the function and importance of violence in Western programming. The availability of several NBC letters and reports from the late 1950s and early 1960s now make it possible to document that controversy at least at one network.
In 1957 a researcher for NBC argued that the more violent programs lacked plausibility with viewers. "We live today in a social climate in which there is considerable respect—on the American scene—for the value of a man's life," wrote Dr. William J. Millard, Jr. in analyzing the forthcoming series, Tales of Wells Fargo. "The greater the number of lives snuffed out in a play," he continued, "the less apparent in the play is the standard of values by which we live from day to day. The more removed, therefore, it may be from what Americans sense to be the 'real' world.”
The other side of the argument was articulated in a letter written August 15, 1957, by Cyril C. Wagner, an NBC account executive, to an advertising agency interested in co-sponsoring for Edsel automobiles the upcoming Wagon Train series. Wagner argued the case for violence in Western programming, claiming that "with any type of TV adventure program you naturally have to have some blood and thunder—that is what the public, and men particularly, want, as evidence[d] by audience rating records."'
While these documents offer insight into network ambivalence over Western violence, it is clear that those opposing aggressive representation were losing the debate. This became most apparent in a lengthy and revealing letter written July 13, 1961, by David Levy—the outgoing NBC vice-president in charge of TV programs and talent—to Robert W. Sarnoff, chairman of the board of NBC. In 74 frank pages Levy sought to explain his accomplishments and to express frustration and dismay at being terminated by the network.
Levy was particularly sensitive to the speech delivered two months earlier by FCC chairman Minow blasting American television for its violence and banality. Pointedly, Levy wrote of the failures of network and production company executives to diminish violence on television. He noted that his own official concern about TV violence had been stated as early as July 1960.
Levy reviewed his ongoing argument with network president Robert Kintner who "repeatedly emphasized the need for these elements [sex and violence] in the program structure of 1960-61." He explained a recent trip to Hollywood as emanating "out of my own conviction that violence must be curbed and not at anyone else's urging. I planned it, and made it, many weeks before Mr. Minow's famous speech" [Levy's emphasis].
In his letter Levy was most specific with reference to Westerns on NBC that season. He reiterated his dismay with Whispering Smith, a series he originally felt to be "too violent" to schedule, only to be overruled by Kintner. Levy quoted an earlier letter he wrote criticizing the violence in an episode of Bonanza. Here he had cynically remarked, "If Adam [Cartwright] kills two men in his first show, by the end of the year the combined slaughter of four Cartwrights would be pretty impressive."
Levy also drew from his earlier memos expressing distaste for the level of violence in The Tall Man and The Deputy. He mentioned having personally discussed his ideas on video violence with the producers of other NBC series: Tales of Wells Fargo, Wagon Train, The Outlaws, Bonanza, Laramie, and The Tall Man.
Levy was a would-be network reformer who lacked the base of power from which to enforce his will. All he could do was attempt to persuade. This was apparent in his letter of May 17, 1961—a week after Minow's denunciation of TV violence—written to John Champion, the producer of Laramie.
Last night I watched the episode of LARAMIE titled "Trigger Point." In the light of the recent visit I made to the coast ... I think it important to point out that this particular episode was needlessly violent, and I would like to be specific.
There were five killings, and in my judgment the impact of the show would not have been lessened at all if the number of killings had been reduced to three. For example, the old man could have been wounded and Robert Fuller could have brought him into town. In the showdown with the last of the outlaws Fuller in an aside to a townsman says, "Get a doctor." He comes into the saloon with both guns drawn and the last of the outlaws is killed. Here, too, in my judgment, it seems restraint could have been exercised and the outlaw could have been wounded and taken away by the doctor and a sheriff.
I don't doubt that the episode passed through all normal channels of NBC but I submit that it is exactly the kind of unnecessary violence that will not pass the coming season.
I believe that we should do everything possible to reduce "shoot-outs," killings and unnecessary violence. I would also like to urge you to eliminate excessive drinking.
I believe that on reflection and with greater creative effort on the part of writers and greater supervision on your part the stories on LARAMIE can be exactly as Western without subjecting you or us to justifiable criticism.