Family Hour was initiated in 1975 as a two-hour period in the early evening when "offensive" material would be taken off the television airwaves. One of its first effects was to protect audiences from hearing a popular situation comedy character say, "My wife usually takes care of those damn things." Thanks to family-hour policies the "damn" things became "dumb."
Geoffrey Cowan, legal consultant to the Hollywood coalition whose lawsuit immediately attacked family hour, argues that at stake were not just trivialities but basic questions of censorship and civil liberties. He begins his book "See No Evil" with a guided tour of pre-1975 censorship, from McCarthyite blacklisting up to more recent times when Joan Baez could not say her jailed husband was a draft resister and when "spic" became "chilieater."
Pre-family hour censorship was vague and erratic, variously imposed by sponsors and networks. There was also much room for free expression, and an occasional producer attracted audiences large enough to permit resistance to all outside interference. In 1972, for example, Normal Lear, producer of "All in the Family" and other socio-political comedies, assured a congressional committee looking into network policies, "I am not censored"
However, the idea of systematic censorship of some kind had already begun to take shape. In 1969 Sen. John Pastore, whose subcommittee controlled Federal Communications Commission funds, had seen a suggestive "take it all off" commercial and decided to do just that. Cowan chronicles subsequent FCC inquiries and congressional hearings on the subject of violence and sex on television the highpowered meetings between network executives and FCC officials, and finally the emergence of family hour, proclaimed by the National Association of Broadcasters in 1975 as voluntary self-regulation.
Sedutive in its simplicity and very popular politically, family hour never had clearly defined standards. Cowan describes how "writers and producers wound up censoring themselves" because they confronted networks out to please "the most uptight parent imaginable." Despite some programming shifts and a few word changes, sex and violence continued. Family hour itself became a sexual playgroud surrounded by, in the words of Variety, "gore as before."
Cowan insightfully analyzes the networks' schizopherenia, both geographic - "We've been tossed this baby by the East Coast and told to make some thing of it," complained a West Coast censor - and procedural. "The programming people encouraged controversy, sex and violence," Cowan writes, "while the Program Practices 'editors' stood by with a heavy blue pencil, ready to draw a line through the parts of the script the program developers had requested or praised."
Cowan does an excellent job of conveying the flavor of backstage network machinations, and his ear for networkese is impeccable. "You've got to meet this guy," says a network president "Great gut. White meat as far as you can slice him."
Some scenes are classics. Like the incident when CBS had postponed broadcast of theatrical producer Joseph Papp's "Sticks and Bones." A top executive told Papp replied. And there's a most revealing episode of frontier justice in networkland. In 1976 ratings were down, and CBS Board Chairman William Paley blamed family hour, pet policy of his heir apparent, CBS President Arthur Taylor. At 9:30 one morning Paley asked for Taylor's resignation, and Taylor "was out of the building by noon." That same morning, someone asked a CBS vice president to reserve theater tickets for the presumably all-powerful Taylor. "The vice president, who had learned Taylor's fate, was in the midst of a small conference and had his back to the door. He didn't even bother to turn around.
'Tell Taylor to - off,' he said."
Taylor's firing highlights the fact that beneath family hour's failure to change programming lay the profit motive. Fear of costly govenment interference prompted the policy; fear of competitor advantage hamstrung it and fear of financial loss made it meaningless. As Cowan show, with each rating point worth approximately $25 million, networks cared little if they earned profits without honor.
To Cowan, however, threats to the First Amendment were more pernicious than programming greed. Family hour had emerged in response to direct congressional and FCC pressure. Didn't that abridge freedom of speech? Four years ago a group of producers, writers and actors ("It's not funny when they take our jokes away," explained Alan Alda of "M*A*S*H") took this question to federal court, calling family hour an unconstitutional "cosmetic fraud."
Ironically, nearly three decades of sound and fury about network abuses had produced a measure opposed by many of the people responsible for television's best programs. Cowan captures their legal machinations from the case's inception the lawyers chose Los Angeles because "They feared that in New York or Washington their clients might be . . . treated as alien agitators in sunglasses" - to a conclusion fully worthy of, well, television.
To give away the verdict would spoil a good story. Cowan found it almost moot.
"See No Evil" suffers methodological problems, primarily because Cowan uses the third person to describe his own involvement (which of the bright young lawyers is he?), and because he rarely identifies sources for personal impressions and private conversations. He is also too kind to friends. And he fails to point out that anti-family-hour litigants may have had some monetary as well as constitutional motives. Some took heavy losses in the rerun sales value of programe deemed unfit for family viewing.
All the same, family hour, in his view, released a force potentially more powerful than systematic censorship. Religious, civic and medical groups began to demand that program content meet their specifications. Cowan considers this a throwback to McCarthyism. "The struggle," he concludes, "had begun all over again."