June 29, 2016

Not seeing the forest for the trees

I mentioned on Saturday that I'd be taking a closer look at one aspect of this week's TV Guide, one that clearly demonstrates how by June of 1968 television had entered something of a twilight zone - one that has nothing to do with science fiction, even though the events might have seemed just as outrageous.

In that TV Guide of June 29, 1968, it had been only a little over three weeks since the death of Robert F. Kennedy (which itself was less that two months after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.), and TV finds itself having to deal with one of its periodic existential crises. However, whereas in the past the issues were juvenile delinquency, rigged game shows, and a vague concern about violence, the RFK assassination has raised the stakes considerably. The programming section in this issue kicks off with a notice that "In the wake of the Kennedy assassination, the networks have been changing series episodes and movies in order to avoid running particularly violent material. We regret any inconvenience these last-minute changes have caused."

Obviously the networks are concerned about being sensitive to the convulsions gripping America, but at the same time one can't help but think some of this is lip service. After all, the cancelled episodes and TV movies will likely show up some time during the season; it's not as if the suits are going to throw away their money by throwing away all that film. The Doan Report gives a rundown of the various shows that were pulled:

ABC shelved a Big Valley story for good - it dealt with the assassination of a congressman. Reruns of The Avengers, The FBI and Will Sonnett were shuffled; a Man in a Suitcase episode was dumped. Even comedy sequences of The Flying Nun and The Second Hundred Years were found inappropriate. CBS, for its part, not only switched reruns of Cimarron Strip, Gunsmoke and Wild Wild West, but pulled out some movies like "Portrait of a Mobster," "Where the Spies Are" and "Young Dillinger" in favor of such happier items as Judy Garland in "I Could Go On Singing" and Peter Sellers in "World of Henry Orient." CBS's daytime serial Love Is a Many Splendored Thing got orders to postpone for a few days a story line about a young aspirant for the White House. At NBC, the soft-pedal removed episodes of Bonanza, High Chaparral, I Spy, Tarzan, The Champions, and even Mothers-in-Law. On the Saturday night movie, "Girls! Girls! Girls!" turned up in place of "Prescription: Murder." [The pilot for Columbo - MDH] The network insisted all the postponed shows will be aired "ultimately," unaltered. At another network, so many questionable series episodes were being pushed back to August that one underling predicted that month probably will be "the bloodiest in TV history."

(And they didn't even know about how the Democratic Convention in Chicago was going to turn out.)

WPIX in New York broadcast the single word "Shame"
for over two hours Wednesday morning while RFK
underwent surgery.
(WPIX/Corbis Images)
Nor is the concern limited to the programming. As we dip into this week's Letters to the Editor, we read one from Mrs. C.H. Scott of Rio Linda, California, who writes that "I have three little children and I don't want them growing up in a world where, if you don't agree with another human being's views, you just shoot him down. I feel that what is watched on TV does influence our lives, and all three networks do show too much violence, hate and fighting." Then there's Carolyn Shaffer of Tacoma, Washington, who excoriates violent commercials: "Surely manufacturers can find some way to sell their products other than with guns and gangsters. Immediately following a talk by Eric Sevareid against violence, two commercials came on, one with gangsters stealing a car, the other with guns blasting in the background to sell a 'thirst killer.'" Concludes Ms. Shaffer, "Guns and violence are prevalent enough; must we view these portrayals in commercials also?"

Mary Hager of Altoona, Pennsylvania, urges the networks to put programs with such adult themes in late-night hours where children won't see them. "We have to move forward with the times and not try to keep everything as it was in the past. Fairy-tale days are gone." However, counters Mrs. T.L. Carpenter of El Paso, Texas, "in Western time zones these 'adult' movies come on in prime-time for children viewers." What to do, what to do?

The rescheduling of particularly violent or questionable episodes is, as suggested, a temporary reaction to the high-profile murders of the past two months, but merely delaying such an episode for two months is hardly a solution. No, the larger question concerns television's responsibility for fostering a climate of violence, and how its content will change in the future. That's the subject of this week's As We See It editorial, in which Merrill Panitt asks The Suits whether or not all the violence they show on television is really necessary. For example, that episode of The Virginian in which a barn full of horses is set ablaze, and viewers are left listening to the neighing of terrified horses while a gun battle breaks out between an outlaw, a bounty hunter, and others. And then there's Run For Your Life, where "two punks seized an Army payroll, then shot and killed - in close-up - a motorcycle policeman" before being shot and killed by other police in Mexico. As Panitt puts it, "Violence certainly is a basic element of drama. And we know the argument that 'Macbeth' is full of violence too. But that violence is necessary to the plot, not something forced in to titillate the audience."

It's important to keep in mind the editorial viewpoint of TV Guide as you read the final plea to the networks to "reduce, or eliminate, unnecessary violence in entertainment shows." The politics of TV Guide, like those of its publisher Walter Annenberg, are conservative, and decidedly anti-censorship., However, the magazine has never hesitated to urge television networks to reform their programs, whether the topic is violence (as it is here), children's programming, or the quality of its drama offerings. There's a belief in the importance of these issues, but there's more to it as well. TV Guide has always been mindful that if the industry fails to police itself, that inertia will eventually constitute an open invitation for the government to step in and do the policing. The line about "Macbeth" may well be a concession that TV cannot and should not get rid of all violence, but it's also a warning to the industry that in order to preserve its freedom, it had best engage in some self-censorship before the Feds come in and do a much more extensive job. Watch yourself, it suggests, while you can.

Just as the movie industry has encountered such controversy over content, so does radio and television, and eventually record albums, comic books and video games. The violent content in the shows mentioned here, in comparison to what we see today on cable TV (and even most network programs) is almost laughable. Even when one looks at them in the context of the times, it's hard to imagine this kind of controversy. Perhaps I'm wrong about this, but with the mass shootings that have taken place in the last few years, has there been any significant discussion about the violence in Breaking Bad, Boardwark Empire or The Walking Dead (to cite just three contemporary series) leading to a social breakdown? Indeed, we hear a lot of discussion about how TV content doesn't influence behavior (I'm sure the people who buy commercial time would be dismayed to hear that), when one would have to think that at the very least such an onslaught of violence, on television and movies and video games, would at least have to desensitize viewers to its effects. Maybe you can blame a YouTube video for violence in Benghazi, but has anyone linked The Sopranos to the wild west shootout going on every weekend in Chicago? If there has been such angst, it certainly hasn't been to the extent that the topic was raised in 1968.

However, there's something else we can observe here, something that is in the long run more important. Let's draw a line from 1963 onward and see if we can find any consistent threads emerging by looking at three particular events:
  • In 1963, John F. Kennedy is murdered by a Communist sympathizer, Lee Harvey Oswald. The angst is over the availability of guns and a climate of hatred created by right-wingers.
  • In 1968, Robert F. Kennedy is murdered by an anti-Israel Arab sympathizer, Sirhan Sirhan. The angst is over the availability of guns and the content of television programs.
  • In 2016, 49 people are murdered in a nightclub in Orlando by an ISIS sympathizer. The angst is over the availability of guns and an attack against homosexuals.

What do these three events have in common? I think you could make a plausible case that each one of these acts was political in nature, that the ideological motive of the attacker in each case was readily apparent, and that there was a widespread inability on the part of the media and many in the public to confront that motive, preferring instead to focus on a broader (and more convenient) cultural indictment. This isn't to say that every major act of violence between then and now falls into this category; I'm not trying to suggest that at all. What I am saying is that in many respects, there isn't that much of a difference between 1963 and 2016. Just as conspiracies abounded in the wake of JFK's death, just as conspiracies abounded in the aftermath of 9/11, we seem determined to embark on a Quixotic quest to find a motive bigger and more "important" than the one that's staring us right in the face as the result of a simple reading of the situation. My point is that if you want to argue with me about Oswald being the lone gunman, about Sirhan being a patsy, or the Orlando gunman being motivated by something other than ISIS-inspired hatred of American culture, this is not the place to do it.

But if - and I mean if - Sirhan was indeed the assassin of Robert F. Kennedy, it probably wasn't because of a gunfight on The Virginian; I doubt that a shootout on Run For Your Life was what pushed him over the edge, what made him get up on the morning of June 4, 1968 and say to himself, "If Kennedy wins tonight, I will go to his hotel and kill him." The motive - Kennedy's support for Israel - already existed; the hate was already there. You can blame television for a lot, but not for that.

Reading the TV Guide of June 29, 1968 gives us a feeling not that dissimilar to what one gets when looking through the internet today. It doesn't even matter what the truth is, or what one believes the truth is - only that if you want to look at how people are going to react to events today, you can get a pretty good idea by looking at how people reacted to them back then. And that's a big part of what this blog is all about - how looking at television and what was written about it can serve as a jumping-off point for a study of the larger issues involved. You can't deny that such is the case here.

I don't think I'll pursue this any further here, but a deeper analysis would make a dandy chapter in my future book on TV. However, I say it time and time again, and it never proves wrong - the more things change, the more they stay the same.

1 comment:

  1. Great column. Unfortunately I think most of this still holds true today.
    BTW, I've created a rerun guide from THE MOTHERS-IN-LAW based on my TV GUIDE collection, and I know which episode was preempted & rescheduled, and now I know why. "I Thought He'd Never Leave" in the summer 1968 rerun cycle was the only episode of this series that according to TV GUIDE was ever rescheduled. It was originally scheduled to be rerun on June 9, which was the Sunday after the assassination, but (as Doan suggested it would be) it was rerun later on July 21 (before August), and TV GUIDE had a note on the July 21 listing that the episode was postponed from an earlier date.
    "I Thought He'd Never Leave" had Larry Storch as an armed robber who hides out at the Hubbards' house, holding the Hubbards & Buells hostage with his gun. I figure NBC didn't want people laughing about a gun so soon after the assassination. I don't know if I can ever find out which episode NBC ran in its place. Since there were 30 episodes made that season, and preemptions included only allowed 20 of them to be rerun, NBC could have removed this episode from its rerun cycle completely but chose to rerun it 6 weeks later anyway.
    Larry Storch was pretty funny in it, and later he played a burglar who held up a character played by Kay (sic) Ballard on LOVE AMERICAN STYLE. He & Kaye played off each other well, and in a way they seem to be opposite sex copies of each other.

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