July 11, 2013

Permissive TV, circa 1973

In the TV Guide issue of April 21, 1973, Richard K. Doan – he of the Doan Report, which I’ve frequently cited – sits down for an interview with FCC Chairman Dean Burch, in which he quizzes the Commish about permissiveness on television. Is there too much? What should the FCC’s attitude towards sex and violence be? What are the trends for the future?

Dean Burch became FCC Chairman in 1969; prior to that, he served as Chairman of the Republican National Committee, and was one of the main players in Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign. Given that Goldwater was, in many ways, more libertarian than conservative politically, it’s not a surprise – to me, at least – that Burch displays a few libertarian instincts of his own when it comes to suggestive content on television.

Burch is against censorship per se; citing the First Amendment, Burch comments that “I think any adult, by and large, ought to be able to read anything he wants to read in the privacy of his home, view anything he wants to view and, so long as he’s not interfering with the rights of others, do anything he wants to do that satisfies his own moral, ethical and religious codes.” However, Burch adds, that comes with a caveat:

However, he acknowledges there’s a difference between books and movies, “ which you pay money to see,” and the free medium of TV, available at any hour of the day or not to anyone who has a television set. The main responsibility, as Burch sees it, is the programming available to children. “We can all kid ourselves that our own children watch only what we want them to. The hell they do! They watch what they want to.” Without constant adult supervision, Burch argues, there as to be some kind of “limitation” on television content. But not censorship, he adds later on.

Regarding the unholy legal trio of obscenity, profanity and indecency, the legal guidelines for broadcasters, he remarks that because of recent court rulings, obscenity “has practically no meaning any more.” As for profanity, it too is almost impossible to define. “’Goddammit,’ for instance, is not legally profane, however profane some may thing it is.”

That leaves indecency, which is easy to see but hard to describe. And here Burch alludes to the often-forgotten “public trust” aspect of broadcasting. It’s the individual station manager, rather than the FCC, who “knows better” what his community considers pornographic, “and I think he knows what’s indecent and what’s profane.” Given the knowledge of his viewers and what they expect from him, the station manager can make the judgments, and if he’s well motivated he will make the judgments.”

Burch references CBS’ recent broadcast of the movie The Damned, a story set in Nazi Germany which I believe was originally rated X for, among other things, rape, incest, cross-dressing and other deviancy. “I imagine a lot of people thought, ‘Well, here come the X-rated movies!’” However, Burch points out, the movie was “heavily sanitized” for broadcast (which leads me to wonder how cogent the story could have been). But it does raise the point of how to deal with such concerns.

Individual, as well as community, judgment plays a key part in Burch’s philosophy. Regarding an episode of Young Dr. Kildare dealing with gonorrhea, Burch remarks that he had to wait until he was in the Army to find out about the disease, and that “I might like to have my 16- or 17- year-old children know something about its dangers before that.” However, he adds, this a situation “where someone with fairly decent judgment” – presumably the station manager or the parent – “can decide what is within bounds.” Burch noted that the show was broadcast at 7:30pm, “which is certainly family viewing time.”

The FCC receives “constant” complaints about sex and violence on TV, e.g. “This medium permeates my entire home and I don’t want to see nudity and I don’t want to see sex and lesbianism or homosexuality and the like,” This may be true, Burch says, but the FCC “cannot censor. Which I happen to think is a wise rule.” The answer isn’t necessarily with government intervention; rather, Burch suggests, look at the system that’s already set up. It’s up to the public to hold the individual stations accountable to that “public trust.”

We’ve been discussing violence quite a bit the last few weeks, and the issue pops up here as well. The Surgeon General’s recent report on violence urges “ more research, more definitions.” For example, Burch points out, the report suggested that “violence in an appropriate setting is not necessarily disturbing,” As for his own opinion on the effects of violence on children, he’s unsure. “Is Mickey Mouse running over an opponent with a steam engine and the opponent afterward puffing up to normality and running off – is that ‘violence’? I don’t know. Do children relate that to ‘violence’? I don’t know.” The answer, he suggests, could be a “code of violence” such as V for violent, NV for non-violent – not unlike the system we have now.

Aha, you might say, but what about cable and satellite TV? Cable was just starting to be developed in 1973, which raises the question about Burch’s analogy between purchased goods, i.e. books and movies, and free TV. Does this not give the viewer a right to demand, if so wanted, more explicit programming, consistent with Burch’s view of books and movies as having been invited into the home, so to speak, by virtue of the consumer’s purchase?

Burch doesn't address that question directly, but he does intimate that this does make a difference. “I’d like the option of staying home and seeing ‘Deliverance.’ I’ve never gotten to it because I don’t want to pay the parking and the baby-sitter. But if I could see it in my home for three bucks, I’d jump at the chance.”

On the question of cable-TV, by the way, Burch does have some interesting insights. He doesn't see it as the death knell for OTA television, not by a long shot. But, as was the hope of many people, he sees the potential for specialized programming, much of it of an educational bent. And it offers the possibility of more high-quality programming – showing his free-market roots, he points out the opportunities for “people who've never had a chance to broadcast, for entrepreneurs who have a idea they want to sell.” And that’s certainly the way cable-TV started: with specialized, niche programming, developed by people who felt they’d identified a demand from the public and could make a profit by meeting it.

That isn’t quite the way things turned out, of course. Many of those early networks – ARTS, for example – failed to find a way to make their business model work; and others, such as A&E, TLC and Discovery, have dramatically changed their programming over the years. Many channels simply don’t have enough to broadcast 24 hours a day, and resort to informercials to make the overnight hours profitable. Most of those who saw television as a great educational tool have overestimated its TV potential on TV - noble deeds often take a back seat to ratings and profitability – but, to be sure, Burch had seen this as something that could happen, not that it would. He saw the future of cable TV as an exciting one, with specialized cable shows augmenting general interest network shows, leading to expanded and enhanced television viewing.*

*It’s funny though, how Burch refers to “40 channels” – I've probably got access to five times that number. Doubt that there’s 40 channels worth of good programming, though.

In short, Burch is far more nuanced than one might expect when it comes to television permissiveness. There need to be standards, he feels, but they should come from the community and the family rather than the government. Violence may be a problem, but we shouldn’t leap to conclusions without more research. Television needs to be concerned about content, but viewers also have a right to the programming they want. And cable TV will be a powerful part of the future.

While the idea of the local television station as a holder of the “public trust” seems antiquated nowadays, Burch was very perceptive regarding the future of cable TV, and more moderate than some might have expected from a conservative Republican when it came to controlling content, although the idea of limited government involvement is involved as well. Over 40 years later, it’s quite interesting to look back at how these issues were perceived at the time, and how many of them have played out since.  How times have changed.

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