Monthly Archives: September 2011

Scandals That Shocked Reality Television

On Saturday morning, August 15, 2009, the Buena Park police surround a trash receptacle at an apartment building in Orange County, California. They uncovered the body of Jasmine Fiore who was mutilated and stuffed in a suitcase. That night her ex-husband, Ryan Jenkins, reported her missing. Unable to reach him for questioning, the police issued an alert to the public for his whereabouts on August 19. The following day, he was wanted for questioning with the murder of Fiore. Subsequently, on August 21, VH1 canceled the show Megan Wants a Millionaire, which he appeared on as a contestant (Stelter). Following scandal and public scrutiny, decisions that will affect programming are made by networks in reaction to damaging criticism. These decisions are implemented through various power structures and based on economic and ethical polices which consider political and social environments. Using the production analysis theory in determining control, this article looks at how networks, such as CBS and VH1, attempt to navigate the genre of Reality Television programming and how recent events occurring impact what is seen on broadcast television.

When critically assessing the decisions exercised by network programming, it is essential to use key principals of production analysis theory. According to Elissa Fineman’s PowerPoint “Production Analysis”, presented in her Television Critical Studies class, capitalism (or for-profit mass production) dominates what is called production analysis. This analysis “is often concerned with the balance, or imbalance, of power and control that develops throughout the production process among a variety of players” (Fineman). The players of this theory can range from the writers of the show to the advertisers that invest in the show. In order to look at a program to determine who has the power, production theory divides itself into three sections: Macrolevel, Midrange, and Microlevel. Often, the influencing factors that make up the policies at the Macrolevel effect the decisions made at the Midrange, which determine the Microlevel. By studying these broadcasting institutions, our understanding of programs increase.

The top of the power structure often encompasses the Macrolevel, which “looks at how media ownership, regulation, and social trends affect content” (Fineman). In this level, the political or social environment can affect the shows that are produced and the content that is presented. For instance, when Janet Jackson exposed herself on live television, the FCC fined CBS $550,000 (“FCC Proposes Statutory Maximum Fine of $550,000 Against Viacom-Owned CBS Affiliates for Apparent Violation of Indecency Rules During Broadcast of Super Bowl Halftime Show”), which then led to the investigation of indecency policies. A decision was made that live television would be delayed to prevent further incidences (“Network Looking to Avoid Surprises at Grammy’s”). This level often looks at the industry and the media owners then allocates these policies on down.

The Midrange level looks at a company and the decisions that will be implemented based on these new policies. This level looks at how the organizational structure of the medium affects content. At this level, organizational communication and industrial relations perspectives are common (Fineman). Theses decisions are often reflective of economic or ethical constraints and this effect can restructure programming of the network. VH1 canceled two reality shows in response to public scrutiny after a contestant was accused of murder and began looking to distance itself from current programming. In another example, CBS had to release one of their cast members mid season for holding a knife on a fellow contestant. Networks were forced to re-evaluate the standards and practices that were utilized for the casting process.

When decisions made at these upper levels of power trickle down, they finally affect the Microlevel. This includes the actual production of a show: the crews, which include casting, props, and camera. On this level, certain constraints on these television workers can affect the content. For instance, if the prop team decides to walk off, this can affect the quality of a live show as the crucial props in a scene may be missing, ruining the intention and meaning. This level looks at the power of each player during the production process and the relationships among the staff and talent when doing their jobs. The firing of a cast member and the cancellation of shows will affect the crews and production companies that make up this section.

Critics will then take these concepts that make up the production analysis theory and determine the level of control exhibited. Allocative control is the power to define an organization’s scope, goals, and use of resources. Operational control looks at the use of resources and implementation of policies already decided upon and allocated down (Murdock). These criticism structures are used when looking at production theory and analysis of network programming.

Reality shows can be seen as significant cultural objects whose production and consumption reflect and reveal norms and ideologies of contemporary culture. Although what is currently conceived as the Reality Television genre is perceived as novel, this type of programming has a long history, with its foundations dating back to the early days of television (Murray).

The characteristics that define the Reality Television genre include the casting of non-professional actors competing in given tasks to determine a winner. The programs are often episodic, and generally never rerun (O’Donnell 128). Reality TV shows use constant surveillance, and the reactions in spontaneous and unscripted ways to their environment. The Networks can schedule this genre year-round, and it is relatively inexpensive programming making this format attractive to the industry (Schmuckler).

Currently, a dominant shift in Reality Television programming has emerged in both cable and public broadcasts (Murray). These reality programs regularly win the highest ratings for the majority of half-hour time slots during primetime American Television (Hill 3).  This suggests that these shows are widely accepted by the social environment in which audience voyeurism characterizes the accepted content (O’Donnell 108).

Recently, Reality TV has come under criticism for having a negative effect on modern society because it blurs the boundaries between fact and fiction (Hill 7).  The audience’s connection with reality and television is based on their understanding of the performances of the cast and that, often, personas are created for the camera (Hill 54). The debate over ethics in reality television looks at protecting the rights of these non-professional actors, and treating them in a fair manner while program makers have a responsibility to tell stories by sharing their experiences (Hill 108). Many aspects of Reality TV programming raise moral questions about how people chose to live their life (Hill 116). Many audiences tune in each week to be entertained by these programs while discussing socially acceptable or unacceptable ethics.  Rights to privacy and fair treatment, moral conduct, taste, and decency are some issues that arise when looking at the reality genre.

The recent financial crisis in America has influenced the political environment that business adheres to. Since reality television is cost effective and encourages commercial appeal, this reality format has gained widespread popularity throughout the industry. And due to deregulation policies, new technologies, and privatization, a growing number of channels that broadcast require an increased amount of relatively cheap programming to schedule this airtime (Moran 464). Advertisers look at a network for consistency and stability of a brand and to its programming. Imagery production is a for profit enterprise where valued audiences with stronger buying power are sold to advertisers by Media organizations (Media Images and the Social Construction of Reality 1). In the television business, buyers are adapting to a new reality environment. Yet as buyers may find ample rating points for their clients, the producers struggle to re-invent their back ends (Schmuckler).

Ryan Jenkins was a contestant on the VH1 series Megan Wants a Millionaire, which was a show produced by 51 Minds Entertainment. It featured several millionaires all competing for the affection of Megan, a contestant known from other previous shows on VH1 which were also produced by 51 Minds Entertainment.  After the show’s completion Jenkins then signed onto another show, I Love Money 3, to be shot and aired with the same production company and network. Two days after picking up his paycheck for I Love Money 3, news broke that his ex-wife was found murdered. The next day, Jenkins was suspected of the murder and a national manhunt was issued in the United States, as well as in Canada where he was believed to be on the run. In response to this tragedy, VH1 pulled the show off the air. Soon after the suicide of Jenkins in a Canadian motel, the network also canceled I Love Money 3 (Stelter).

It seems no one, including the casting directors and his fellow cast members, would have pegged Jenkins as dangerous. That was the case at least until news surfaced that he had a criminal record for assaulting a woman in Canada in 2007 — a crucial piece of information that, according to 51 Minds, failed to turn up on his background check for Megan. This information surfaced only during the police investigation into the murder. The events surrounding these reality series raised numerous questions within the industry and the public about the extent of background checks, contestant’s psychological stability, and whether the shows triggered delusions of grandeur or worse among those with mental problems (Stone).

VH1 became heavily scrutinized during this process which lead many to question the ethical responsibilities of the network to its programming and casting requirements. However, VH1 has had a history of employing cast members with criminal records.  This includes assault with a deadly weapon charges for member Becky Johnston of Flavor of Love 2 and Charm School with Ricki Lake, and Brittanya O’Campo got out of jail just two days before filming 51 Minds’ Charm School with Ricki Lake and previously had appeared on Rock of Love 2 (Schwartz). Similarly, Andre Birleanu, the male model who was the runner-up on America’s Most Smartest Model in 2007, had been to prison several times on charges including assault, harassment, criminal contempt, criminal mischief and trespassing before appearing on the show (Lang).

Previously on an episode of Big Brother 2, a show produced by Endemol Entertainment and broadcast on CBS in 2001, cast mate Justin Sebik was kicked off for holding a knife to housemate Krista Stegall’s throat. It was later disclosed that Sebik had been arrested three times for assault and twice for robbery but the charges were all dismissed (Schwartz).

There was a time when criminal wrongdoing immediately disqualified would-be reality stars. However, Producers were running out of people to choose from, so they started easing up on people who may have had minor infractions on their record contends casting director Robert Mazza, whose credits include the 51 Minds-produced Flavor of Love, Rock of Love, and I Love New York (Schwartz). Most insiders agree that cable channels are more lax than networks because they’re not scrutinized as heavily, and they don’t have the same financial resources. For all of the shifting rules, some say any history of violence is still a deal breaker (Schwartz).

While casting ex-cons isn’t illegal, Douglas Johnson, an entertainment lawyer in Los Angeles who has represented reality TV production companies and contestants, thinks dating shows that involve intimate feelings like Megan Wants a Millionaire have a greater responsibility to ensure the emotional well being and physical safety of their contestants (Lang). Reality shows have good reason to vet contestants through background checks and by other means, and many do: there are issues of liability, employability, and, of course, marketability to consider (Lang).

In the article VH1 Wants Less Love, More Redemption from the Los Angeles Times Online, the Viacom-owned cable network VH1, whose top five shows this year all have the word “love” in the title, is reassessing its heavy reliance on dating and relationship shows. Although the network says it was already in the process of plotting a new direction, the shift has taken on greater urgency following the tragedy. Joe Flint goes on to write in the article that VH1 President Tom Calderone added that VH1 was to work with 51 Minds to figure out where the vetting system went wrong. Calderone also wants to bring some new producers into the mix to ensure the network’s longevity. Many blue-chip advertisers are wary of some of the shows on VH1 because they often feature drunken antics, fighting and lots of sexual innuendo (Flint). According to industry consulting firm SNL Kagan, VH1 will have advertising revenue of $424.4 million in 2009, down 12% from two years ago. Although some of that can be attributed to the troubled economy, people close to VH1 say several of the network’s programs are a hard sell (Flint).  This is a clear indication how the Macro level influences the Mid-Range tiers.

Endemol USA, a subsidiary of the Endemol Group, produces its own unscripted television shows, and has been known for their controversial reality programming on public network primetime broadcasting with shows such as Big Brother, Fear Factor, and Deal or No Deal. They have achieved a reputation of delivering quality programming which has led to a solid partnership with the Networks (Adalian). Similarly, 51 Minds Entertainment is a television production company that focuses on reality-based programming, talk shows, and game shows. Most of its work has been for MTV Network’s VH1 channel, including such shows as Charm School, Flavor of Love, and I Love New York. Producers and partners Cris Abrego (51 Pictures) and Mark Cronin (Mindless Entertainment) first combined forces in 2003 to create The Surreal Life (“51 Minds Entertainment, LLC”). In a deal valued at upward of $200 million, Endemol USA has acquired 51 Minds Entertainment, which comes in the wake of Elisabeth Murdoch’s multimillion acquisition of Reveille. Both moves represent attempts by international conglomerates to expand their stateside presence by looking to successful American producers (Adalian).

These recent violent acts in reality television are not isolated incidents. Jonathan Schmitz was accused of murdering Scott Amedure three days after they appeared together on a taping of The Jenny Jones Show in March 1995 (Carter). The show was never broadcast but in 1996, a jury ordered producers of The Jenny Jones Show, a Time Warner Inc. Company, to pay more than $25 million to the victim’s family (Talk Show Held Negligent in Guest’s Killing). In July 2000, Ralf Panitz, 42, was convicted of killing his ex-wife, Nancy Campbell-Panitz, 52, after an episode of The Jerry Springer Show, which depicted them in a love triangle (Weber). Recently, in September 2009, 45-year-old Brian Lee Randone was charged with the murder of Felicia Tang Lee, 31. The AP reported that Randone was a contestant on the 2000 Fox Reality show Sexiest Bachelor in America (Netter).

Could these shows promote murder by the Producer’s for ratings in the future? One can look at a show in Brazil as an example of the dangers of violence in the Reality Television genre. Wallace Souza, the former host of the true crime television show Canal Livre, was accused of commissioning a variety of criminal acts, which included at least five murders, to bolster the show’s ratings. Since that time, officials have filed multiple charges against Souza and prosecutors say that he even attempted to have a federal judge assassinated (“Brazil TV Host Accused in Plot to Kill Judge”). Like the film Rollerball, which depicts a violent game on television that commissions it’s players to kill others for ratings, the future of entertainment has a tumultuous future ahead. Without corporate responsibility, producers of media could go to extreme lengths to increase their viewership.

According to the A.C. Nielsen Co., the average American watches more than four hours of TV each day. This means that in a sixty-five-year life, that person will have spent nine years glued to the tube. The number of violent acts seen on television by the age of eighteen averages about 200,000 (“Television and Health”). Seventy-nine percent of Americans believe that violence on TV contributes to real life violence (“Television and Health”).  Analysts remarked that realism in TV programs increased the aggression and involvement of the viewer. They claimed that the high violence shown in reality TV programs adversely influenced viewers’ perceptions; such programs made viewers regard the real world to be as violent as that shown on TV (“The Reality TV Controversies: A Series of Controversies”). Analysts observed that viewers continued to watch reality TV in spite of the criticism it received. They therefore argued that viewers were as much to blame for these shows as the networks and advertisers.

Entertainment television, whether in the Micro sense of the program or the Macro sense as a commercial medium is shaped and sanctioned by individuals who make choices (Mascaro). Based on discussed variables, the corporations, such as Viacom, make policies that become implemented in the industry that effect the decisions of the networks, like CBS or VH1, and production companies such as 51 Minds Entertainment and Endemol. Ethically.  If networks continue to employ violent cast members they surely will have more bloodshed on their hands.

It is detrimental that viewers also take responsibility in their viewing choices as these decisions directly affect the content that is produced. For the protection of all people involved in television programming, it is crucial that the Ethics of the Macro level are upheld so that the decisions that effect both Midrange and Microlevel are executed.

Media Censorship

Media censorship is used all around the world to keep people in check and prevent them from being exposed to controversial information. China is the most censor-heavy country in the world with every aspect of media controlled by the government.  When it comes to the United States, the country is prided for its freedom of speech and press, but it has also done its fair share of media censorship as well. Even though censorship in the United States is less overt than in China, government censorship still has a major affect on media in the United States.

There are several similarities between government censorship in China and the United States. The first similarity is that both countries have a government agency that controls and censors content. Secondly, both countries afford their citizens freedom of speech and press in their constitution, but have separate laws that negate that freedom. Lastly, the United States and China have censored information that challenges political authority.

China has become one of the most powerful countries in the world, but that doesn’t mean that the country is open to any outside media. The media censorship in the country has increased drastically in recent years due to globalization and advances in technology. In April 2010, the Chinese government revised its existing Law on Guarding State Secrets to tighten its controls on information flows (Bennett). The main reason that China has tried to control media is to prevent any challenges to its political authority. China’s socialist government tries to keep a tight leash on everything that it feels would make the government look bad or weak (Bennett).

Currently, more than a dozen government bodies work to prevent information from leaking to the public by enforcing laws related to information going in and out of China. The most powerful agency in China is the Central Propaganda Department (CPD), which works with the General Administration of Press and Publication and the State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television to make sure the content shown promotes the Communist Party’s principle (Wines). The way that the CPD enforces its censorship is by contacting the media outlets in the country and demanding that they withdraw any controversial stories. They even go as far as coaching them on how they should cover certain stories. It also helps that most of the media outlets in China are state agencies that are owned by the government.

The United States has a similar agency that observes the content that is presented to the public. Even though it is not as extreme as China, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is the watchdog for the government that censors and controls all kinds of content. The agency is appointed by the president and enforces punishments on media outlets that do not comply with FCC laws (Shah).

According to the FCC: The Commission does have enforcement responsibility in certain limited instances. For example, the Courts have said that “indecent material” is protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution and cannot be banned entirely. It may be restricted, however, in order to avoid its broadcast when there is a reasonable risk that children may be in the audience. Between 6 A.M. and 10 P.M. – when there is the greatest likelihood that children may be watching –airing “indecent material” is prohibited by FCC rules. Broadcasters are required to schedule their programming accordingly or face enforcement action.

Similarly, the Commission has stated that “profane material” is prohibited between 6 A.M. and 10 P.M Finally, the courts have ruled that “obscene material” is not protected by the First Amendment and cannot be broadcast at any time (FCC). The FCC states that it cannot go against the First Amendment but it could restrict content when it finds it to be a risk to children. This shows that the FCC definitely censors media and controls the content presented. Although it claims that these laws are protecting children from being exposed to indecent programming on television, it is not only children that it censors information from but adults as well.

The second similarity that China and the United States share when it comes to censorship is that both countries allow their citizens freedom of speech and press. It is very ironic that China has freedom of the press in its constitution when their reality is definitely far from it. According to China’s constitution: Article 35. “Citizens of the People’s Republic of China enjoy freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of procession and of demonstration” (usconstitution.com). It’s actually Chinese law that regulates media with its vague language and lack of specific information. This allows the government to abuse its power and enforce censorship on anything that it considers offensive (Bennett).

The United States also has freedom of speech and press in its constitution that is supposed to be allowed its citizens. According to the first amendment of the Constitution:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
Despite the first amendment, the United States has other FCC laws that negate the First Amendment. According to the FCC, “obscene material” is not protected by the First Amendment (FCC). The interesting thing is that “obscene” doesn’t have a specific definition. The FCC and the government could find anything they want to be “obscene” and censor it. This is similar to China because their laws are so loosely worded that they could go against the constitution.

Finally, a major issue with censorship in China and the United States is that both countries tend to censor information that challenges political authority. Both countries have implemented laws to prevent the media from making them look bad and disrespecting them in any way.

The government in China even goes as far as using its power to harass and imprison journalists that disobey the media laws that question the government. Tan Zuron, a reporter in China, was recently sentenced to five years in prison for reporting on Chinese government corruption and the poor construction of school buildings that collapsed and killed thousands of children during an earthquake in 2008 (Ford). As of 2010, China is tied with Iran, another censorship-heavy country for the most imprisoned journalists (Bennett). This kind of treatment pressures many journalists in the country into “self censorship”.

Media self-censorship refers to non-externally compelled acts committed by media organizations aiming to avoid offending power holders such as the government, advertisers, and major business corporations (Bennet). Since the journalists are in fear of being harassed and imprisoned if they release any information that the government finds controversial, they are not taking that risk and are not releasing that information.
A major issue in the United States that involves censorship has been the censoring of coffins with deceased soldiers coming from war. For the past 18 years, the United States government has not allowed media outlets to release photos of the coffins.  According to former president Bush, he had seen photos of the coffins of soldiers and felt that releasing the photographs was wrong. Former White House spokesman, Trent Duffy said, “we must pay attention to the privacy and to the sensitivity of the families of the fallen, and that’s what the policy is based on and that has to be the utmost concern” (Taranto).

According to Taranto, a major reason that the coffins coming from war are censored is to prevent people from seeing the real truth about the war. Not allowing photos to be published might give people a false idea about the war and take their attention off of the realities of war. A major way that the government benefited from this policy in the past is with the mindset that if people see the deaths that the war has caused, than they will not have support for the war and the administration.

Another way that the government has tried to punish people for questioning the authority of the government is by outing the name of an undercover CIA agent named Valerie Plame. Her husband, Joseph Wilson, was a diplomat that traveled to Niger to investigate accusations that they were selling yellowcake uranium to Iraq. Even though his investigation proved that the accusations were false, the U.S. government still invaded Iraq (Ballard).

With the war already taking place in Iraq, Wilson wrote an article for the New York  Times called “What I Didn’t Find in Niger?” to prove that the reasons behind the war in Iraq were false. A week after the article ran in the paper, an article for the Washington Post revealed his wife’s identity and ruined her CIA career. It was later determined that it was the Bush Administration that was responsible for releasing the identity (Ballard).

Lewis Libby, the former chief of staff to the president, was found guilty of giving false statements, perjury, and obstruction of justice. He was sentenced to 30 months in prison, but his sentence was commuted by President Bush and he didn’t have to serve any time (Ballard). This kind of retaliation by the government at a CIA agent shows how the government cared about its reputation and tried to cover up information.

The censorship in China is very extreme, but with the Internet as accessible as it is in a country with 420 million Internet users, it is becoming a challenge for the Chinese government to censor every website that it finds offensive (Wheterbee).  Although China has between 30 thousand and 50 thousand Internet monitors, there are still opportunities for information to become accessible through blogs, social networking sites, and forums. Bloggers have also been able to go around the censorship by altering characters and making them undetectable (Ford). Other bloggers use humor and satire to criticize the government.

This is the one major difference between censorship in the United States and China. Even though the United States censors information, it still has outlets for people to get the truth. The United States does not censor the Internet and lets its residents access any kind of information.

The media censorship in China is much more severe than the United States. China is depriving its people from regular human rights and severely punishing those who go against the country’s censorship laws. The United States’ censorship laws try to protect people from being exposed to inappropriate content even though they fail at times.

Works Cited

Ballard, Tanya. “Key Players in the Plame Affair.” The Washington Post. 20 Oct. 2005. Web. 20 Apr. 2011. <http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/10/20/AR2005102001487.html>.

Bennett, Isabella. “Media Censorship in China.” Council on Foreign Relations. Web. 29 Mar. 2011. <http://www.cfr.org/china/media-censorship-china/p11515>.

“Constitution of the People’s Republic of China – The U.S. Constitution Online – USConstitution.net.” Index Page – The U.S. Constitution Online – USConstitution.net. Web. 11 Apr. 2011. <http://www.usconstitution.net/china.html#Article35>.

Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Home Page. Web. 15 Apr. 2011. <http://www.fcc.gov/>.

Ford, Peter. “China Sentences Quake Activist Tan Zuoren.” The Christian Science Monitor. 9 Feb. 2010. Web. 16 Apr. 2011. <http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Asia-Pacific/2010/0209/China-sentences-quake-activist-Tan-Zuoren>.

Lee, Francis L. F.; Chan, Joseph. International Journal of Press/Politics, Jan2009, Vol. 14 Issue 1, p112-133

Shah, Anup. “Media in the United States — Global Issues.” Global Issues : Social, Political, Economic and Environmental Issues That Affect Us All — Global Issues. Web. 11 Apr. 2011. <http://www.globalissues.org/article/163/media-in-the-united-states#FreePressCriticalforFreeDemocraticSociety>.

Taranto, James. “Censorship Inc. (The American Spectator, 4/10).” James Taranto’s Opinions. Web. 15 Mar. 2011. <http://www.jamestaranto.com/spec0410.htm>.

Wetherbee, Rebecca. “Censorship and Evolving Media Policy in China.” The Elon Journal of Undergraduate Research in Communications 1.1 (2010): 112-18. Print.

Wines, Michael. “China’s Censors Tackle and Trip Over the Internet.” New York Times. 7 Apr. 2010. Web. 21 Apr. 2011. <http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/08/world/asia/08censor.html?pagewanted=1&_r=2>.

From Serling to Smothers: Reacting to the System in 1950s and 1960s America

By Jude Warne

“Push the envelope…You know who uses that phrase? People who don’t have the guts or the brains to work inside the system. Letter writers, radicals. Howard Dean.”
-Jack Donaghy, 30 Rock

Since its earliest days the medium of television has been used to express viewpoints on society and politics, offering a means through which to communicate to the masses. Such viewpoints were often contrary to those of television networks and faced limits of censorship, particularly during such volatile political times as the 1950s and 1960s. While some programs chose to rebel against such practices in full view, defying the networks and in turn facing the consequences, others chose to assume an appearance of conformity while simultaneously expressing contrary views hidden within their episodes. These differing approaches were largely colored by programs’ genres and their limits and opportunities within these genres. The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, a variety program of the 1960’s was, by its generic nature, encouraged to react to and poke fun at political situations of the day. However, when these expressions grew to be in direct opposition to those of the network the program became continuously censored and was eventually canceled. Rather than back down, Smothers Brothers continued to express its liberal ideas knowing the strife that would ensue.

In contrast The Twilight Zone, a science-fiction program of the late 1950s and early 1960s was, by its genre’s nature, encouraged to tell bizarre tales seemingly separate from any known reality. It was under this guise of fiction that the program’s creator, Rod Serling, was able to express his liberal political leanings and opinions on society and escape the censors’ scissors. By working within the system rather than confronting its unjust limitations head on, Twilight Zone enjoyed great freedom and largely went unnoticed by networks that, had they realized what was going on, would have brought the program to an end. This enabled Serling to reach the public, while the Smothers brothers were prohibited from being able to do so consistently as their sentiments were presented directly, exaggerated by the variety show format, and were subsequently attacked by the network.

Serling began work as a professional writer following his return from service in World War II, acting as a writer for Cincinnati’s WLWT-TV station’s weekly dramatic anthology program The Storm. Serling’s first obvious success was his 1955 piece Patterns written for Kraft Television Theater, which he won an Emmy for best original teleplay writing. He continued to write dramatic teleplays dealing with moral and societal issues, eventually completing his well-known 1956 Requiem for a Heavyweight for CBS’ Playhouse 90. This success resulted in additional Emmys and a signed contract with Playhouse 90 as a head writer. Despite his success at Playhouse 90, Serling decided to depart from the series and begin work on a new science-fiction series, soon to be dubbed The Twilight Zone. Choosing to leave a successful and well-respected program such as Playhouse might have seemed a compelling move at the time, and a risky one at that. However, behind the scenes of success, Serling had grown extremely frustrated by the limits and cuts imposed on his writings by the network and its sponsors.

“At the start of the fifties, when TV had only just begun its explosive growth, and was still an accoutrement of the educated classes, there had been room for high populist art…      however the medium proliferated and sponsors and network officials began to worry         about alienating and losing their audience…as a result TV playwrights were faced with increasing censorship…”

Serling’s scripts, such as his “Noon on Doomsday” episode for United States Steel Hour, were dramatically altered in content by their networks. Serling’s insistence upon featuring stimulating topics such as suicide, lynching and adultery caused networks to carefully overview his episodes and rid them of such controversial issues. Serling, who very much believed in his ideas and his work, and who viewed these acts of censorship as unjust, was all the more determined to communicate his ideas to the public. Serling soon realized that a shift in genre would allow him to disguise the same controversial plot points along with the political and societal ideas that he strongly wished to express.

“Science fiction gave Serling much more flexibility in developing his political and social      themes in a safer context. The censors would not allow two senators to engage in current political debate, but they could not stand in the way of two Martians saying the same thing in allegorical terms.”

During a time when live television programs were decreasing in popularity Serling’s new series offered an opportunity to test out the success level of a newer format. Generic confines proved an asset to Serling, who had learned from previous dealings with censors in his dramatic teleplay work that had been viewed seriously and thus realized as politically liberal. “Serling did not have to keep fighting in the Twilight Zone. As his wife Carol pointed out, ‘The TV censors left him alone, either because they didn’t understand what he was doing or believed that he was truly in outer space.’” This gave Serling the go-ahead to write what he desired without it being removed through censorship. Twilight Zone provided entertainment during the turbulent years between 1959 and 1964.  It responded to American viewers’ fears of the ensuing Cold War, the tail end of the McCarthy era and blacklisting, the Cuban Missile Crisis and communism in Europe and Asia. Audiences were thus provided with an entertaining and thought-provoking refuge and escape from increasing societal chaos. Simultaneously, viewers were fed Serling’s pro-justice and pro-equality ideology that spoke to the times they sought to escape, thus addressing their concerns albeit indirectly.

Perhaps the 1964 episode entitled “I am the Night, Color Me Black” was the most outright relevant to societal woes.  In it, a giant storm cloud forms over a small town in the American South that is dealing with issues of racism amongst its townspeople. This episode is particularly metaphorical and conceptual and borders on the edifying.  The show often dealt with very relevant concerns of the day such as the threat of nuclear war or communist blacklisting.  Because these subjects were featured under the guise of the fantastical and in settings not of the known world, they were free from harm.

“The first season also contained more meditations on the threat of nuclear war by the author (Serling), who joined the anti-nuclear group Citizens for a Sane Nuclear Policy in 1955, and was one of the most active members of its Hollywood chapter. The first ‘place’  the bomb was dropped on American television was in a memorable episode called ‘Time Enough at Last,’ a morbidly ironic tale that aired November 11, 1959.”

Even though program content often escaped CBS’ censors, those executives who suspected Twilight Zone’s plot disguises and wanted to bring Serling and his success to an end frequently cut program funding. This resulted in sets with low production value and little room for extra glamour in aesthetics, which ultimately contributed positively to the show‘s overall look:

“Instead of resorting to censorship, Aubrey, who was apparently determined to see  Serling’s one-man show canceled as soon as possible, began to make Serling’s life     miserable by pulling on the financial reins…ironically Aubrey and his auditors probably   enhanced the show’s storytelling power and its effectiveness…”

L.A. Times reporter Cecil Smith referred to the series as “…tales of imagination and suspense, ranging from adult science fiction to fantasy, even to the occult, yet the stories and characterizations are handled realistically… and from a look at the pilot they have logical explanations.”

Eventually the program was canceled, after five seasons on the air, as Serling rejected ABC‘s purchase offer which required a shift in genre: “When the Twilight Zone was dropped by CBS in 1964 after five seasons, Serling rejected ABC’s offer to buy it because ABC wanted to turn it into a series of ghost stories. This format would have been limiting.” As the 1960’s began to intensify in political and societal unrest, Twilight Zone’s network decided to abandon its formerly successful program. In early 1964 CBS had become disenchanted with the program’s decreasing ratings and no longer wished to include the series in its production budget. Serling, rather than accept a bid from ABC, refused to accommodate its subtle genre shift request, and only returned with a new series in 1970 with NBC’s Night Gallery. There was no question however, that Serling had not taken advantage of his years of screen time and subsequent audience access during the success of Twilight Zone. He had designed the format of the show so as to allow for this expression:

“Whatever the topic of a given story, The Twilight Zone was overtly didactic. Serling’s cryptic on-camera introductions of every segment were integral to the style of the show.  He also supplied verbal commentary at the conclusion of each episode, remarks that  summarized the lessons to be taken from the story we are often encouraged to regard as a  parable.”

These parables, had they been conveyed through a typical dramatic teleplay, would have been discovered by censors.

“Tommy Smothers, for all his earnest pleas, never has been able to understand the limitations on free speech in broadcasting. The constitutional guarantee to voice his views does not include an assurance that 200 television stations will saturate the nation with his words.” Tom and Dick Smothers began their entertainment careers as a folk music group in the late 1950’s, performing in small clubs along the West Coast. The brothers quickly realized that their on-stage banter between songs was the strength of their act and began to shape their duo persona around this. Dick would play stand-up bass, Tom would play guitar and they would both sing, but amidst this Tom would give rambling and inane song introductions and interrupt designated straight-man Dick during the songs with ridiculous questions.

The Smothers Brothers garnered a following, eventually getting a booking on Jack Parr’s Tonight Show in February 1960 which awarded them national attention. The duo’s popularity grew as they recorded a slew of comedy albums, and in 1965 CBS contracted them to star in a new sitcom. The Smothers Brothers Show, as the program was dubbed, lasted for one season before being canceled. The plot situation featured Tom Smothers as his brother Dick’s guardian angel who frequently got in the way of Dick’s pursuits at his publishing job and in his love life. This dynamic duo, that of Tom playing off of Dick’s straight-man, would be preserved for the future variety program; however, the Smothers Brothers were not writers on the show and felt that sticking to the sitcom’s scripts ruined the essence of their impulsive and improvisational comedic talents.

Despite the failure of The Smothers Brothers Show, CBS was aware of the Smothers brothers’ connection to younger and newer audiences and decided to give them a second opportunity at a series. A variety and comedy program was chosen to accent the Smothers’ performance strengths, and as variety programs were particularly popular at this time, it was seen as a promising venture:

“For variety currently is the spice of TV life, no matter what the network press    department announcements say about meaningful drama…Television programmers        apparently believe that if viewers respond happily to a liberal helping of one TV dish,      they develop an insatiable appetites for it.”

The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour premiered on CBS in February of 1967 and instantly attracted younger and hipper audiences with its cutting-edge humor, performances by popular musical acts of the day such as Jefferson Airplane, Buffalo Springfield and The Doors, and socially relevant political references. Ironically, it was these very aspects of the program that lead to censorship and network grievances.

As the show was a variety comedy program and thus presented outright objections to and critiques of political figures and sensitive issues in general, censors and networks consistently absorbed the program at face value.  Unlike Serling’s potentially controversial reflections and beliefs in Twilight Zone, Comedy Hour’s ideologies had nowhere to hide.  Sooner rather than later, the variety comedy show that had first been viewed by CBS as a promising modernized version of the reliable variety show format morphed into a controversial liability: “…almost from the beginning the Brothers have taken to climbing angrily on the nearest soapbox at regular intervals to accuse CBS of ‘censorship.’”[13]

1968 was a significant year for the United States, with the Tet Offensive the difficulties of the Vietnam War could no longer be ignored, the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, violent protests at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago and a new presidential election was at hand. Censorship controversies became evident as show guest Pat Paulsen documented his comical run for the Presidency, when CBS received letters from audience members expressing concern that Paulsen’s ongoing joke might disrupt other candidates’ chances of gaining the majority vote.

The most significant effects of network censoring were evident when having to deal with scheduled musical performances. During the second season of the series, Pete Seeger’s anti-Vietnam War tune “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” was cut from the show, yet due to strong public outcry, CBS felt pressured and Seeger was allowed to come back at a later date and perform the song. Other musicians were not so lucky: Joan Baez’ song introduction was cut from the program because it addressed her draft-dodging husband, and Harry Belafonte’s performance of “Don’t Stop the Carnival” was cut because of the background screen showing violent images from the protests at that year’s DNC in Chicago.

As the Smothers’ transitioned into their third season, they began to respond to the censorship issues and deliberately shifted their focus to a targeted audience of the exclusively young. They invited guests they knew to be outspoken against the War, such as Dr. Benjamin Spock, which increased their percentage of censored material. The Smothers Brothers seemed determined now to stand up for the ideals of free speech and expression and rather than back down in fear of show cancellation, invited more opportunity for censorship. This reaction was rather fitting of the anti-establishment sentiments circling around at the time, and the Smothers Brothers continually insisted on proving their points: “That this comedy/variety show could instill such vehement objections had as much to do with television, CBS, and the United States circa 1968 as it had to do with the relevance of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour content.” The fight at hand was one between the culture of youth and freedom and that of perceived maturity and of the past.  Ultimately the program chose to feature a skit with comedian Elaine May that poked fun at the act of censoring program material, which was of course, also censored.

After just three seasons, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour was canceled. CBS insisted its reasons for doing so had little to do with frequent censorship:

“In announcing cancellation of the show, Robert Wood, president of CBS-TV said the       Smothers brothers had consistently failed to deliver tapes of the program to the network in time for review by network executives and local stations.”

It was obvious however that CBS’ fury had been rooted in the Smothers’ refusal to adhere to the network’s conventional notions of what was appropriate for its audiences. The Smothers brothers’ rebellion against CBS was a paragon of American youth’s rebellion against its society’s institutions and imposed rigidities. Although the variety show format drew attention to the program’s anti-establishment and therefore anti-network ideals, it simultaneously created the opportunity to protest against unfair abuse of authority, here in the form of CBS censors. This opportunity strengthened the plight of anti-establishment ideologies that were most prevalent in the youth of 1960s society.

The fate of both Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone and the Smothers brothers’ Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour proved similar in that both programs were canceled after a couple of seasons, albeit for different reasons. Serling had learned beforehand the lesson that the Smothers brothers were to learn, when he had faced censorship of his dramatic work in content considered controversial or inappropriate. Serling then made the choice to work within the system and disguise his political leanings and moral ideologies through science fiction, a genre of the unexplainable therefore impossible to condemn for direct temporal relevancy. This allowed him to get his ideas across to audiences for a time and avoid extensive conflicts with censors.

The Smothers brothers on the other hand met with censorship issues and chose to encourage the conflicts, perhaps less avoidable given the direct nature of their show’s genre. This program, at first glance appearing unsuccessful due to its censor-related cancellation, was simultaneously able to shine a light on CBS’ bigotry and gain support from young viewers, thus feeding the counter-culture youth movement of the era.  It is difficult to say which program had more of an impact on society and its history of entertainment culture.  It is important to note however that The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour is forever associated with its war against censorship and its embodied spirit of the 1960s, therefore rendering it a television martyr, while The Twilight Zone is recognized mainly for its science fiction narratives and not for valor or mettle.

Footnotes

Tina Fey and Jack Burditt, “Rosemary’s Baby,” 30 Rock, NBC, New York: 25 Oct 2007

2 Gordon F. Sander, Serling: the Rise and Twilight of Television’s Last Angry Man (New York: Dutton, 1992) xviii

3 Don Presnell and Marty McGee, A Critical History of Television’s “The Twilight Zone”: 1959-1964 (Jefferson N.C: McFarland, 1998) 12

4 Presnell 12

5Gordon F. Sander, Serling: the Rise and Twilight of Television’s Last Angry Man (New York: Dutton, 1992) 155

6Sander 162-3

7 Cecil Smith, “Series Spooky but Sans Ghosts,” Los Angeles Times 4 Aug. 1959: ProQuest Historical Newspapers. Web. 28 Apr. 2011.

8 Peter Wolfe, In the Zone: the Twilight World of Rod Serling (Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular, 1997) 14

9 Rick Worland, “Sign-Posts Up Ahead: ‘The Twilight Zone,’ ‘The Outer Limits,’ and TV Political Fantasy 1959-1965,” Science Fiction Studies 23.1 (1996): 2

10 Lawrence Laurent, “Unsmothered Smothers,” Washington Post, Times Herald 12 Sept. 1969: ProQuest Historical Newspapers. Web. 30 Apr. 2011

11 David Bianculli, Dangerously Funny (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2009) 49-50

12 Cynthia Lowry, “Nets Boost Variety Shows,” Chicago Tribune (1963-Current file) 25 Feb. 1968: ProQuest Historical Newspapers Chicago Tribune (1849 – 1987), ProQuest, Web. 1 May. 2011.

13 Clay Gowran, “ ‘TV Today’ Two CBS Comics Wage Teapot Tempest Over Gags: Smothers Tiff Irks Net Aids,” Chcago Tribune (1963-Current File) 2 Feb 1968: ProQuest Historical Newspapers Chicago Tribune (1849 – 1987), ProQuest, Web. 1 May. 2011.

14 Bianculi 210

15 Steven Alan Carr, “On the Edge of Tastelessness: CBS, the Smothers Brothers and the Struggle for Control,” Cinema Journal 31.4 (1992): 14

16 “Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour Dropped by CBS TV,” Chicago Tribune (1963-Current file) 5 Apr. 1969: ProQuest Historical Newspapers Chicago Tribune (1849 – 1987), ProQuest. Web. 3 May. 2011.

Works Cited

Bianculli, David. Dangerously Funny: the Uncensored Story of The Smothers Brothers Comedy    Hour. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2009.

Carr, Steven Alan. “On the Edge of Tastelessness: CBS, the Smothers Brothers and the Struggle   for Control.” Cinema Journal 31.4 (1992): 3-24. JSTOR. Web. 24 Apr. 2011.

Fey, Tina, and Jack Burditt. “Rosemary’s Baby.” 30 Rock. NBC. NBC, New York, 25 Oct. 2007.

Gowran, Clay. “TV Today: Two CBS Comics Wage Teapot Tempest Over Gags :Smothers Tiff Irks Net Aids. ” Chicago Tribune (1963-Current file) 2 Feb. 1968, ProQuest Historical          Newspapers Chicago Tribune (1849 – 1987), ProQuest. Web. 1 May. 2011.

Laurent, Lawrence. “Unsmothered Smothers.” Washington Post, Times Herald 12 Sept. 1969.      ProQuest Historical Newspapers. Web. 30 Apr. 2011.

Lowry, Cynthia. “Nets Boost Variety Shows. ” Chicago Tribune (1963-Current file) 25 Feb.       1968,ProQuest Historical Newspapers Chicago Tribune (1849 – 1987), ProQuest. Web. 1       May. 2011.

Presnell, Don, and Marty McGee. A Critical History of Television’s “The Twilight Zone”: 1959-  1964. Jefferson (N.C.): McFarland, 1998.

Sander, Gordon F. Serling: the Rise and Twilight of Television’s Last Angry Man. New York:        Dutton, 1992.

Smith, Cecil. “Series Spooky but Sans Ghosts.” Los Angeles Times 4 Aug. 1959. ProQuest Historical Newspapers. Web. 28 Apr. 2011.

“Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour Dropped by CBS TV. ” Chicago Tribune (1963-Current file) 5 Apr. 1969, ProQuest Historical Newspapers Chicago Tribune (1849 – 1987), ProQuest.      Web. 3 May. 2011.

Wolfe, Peter. In the Zone: the Twilight World of Rod Serling. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling           Green State University Popular, 1997.

Worland, Rick.  “Sign-Posts Up Ahead: ‘The Twilight Zone,’ ‘The Outer Limits,’ and TV            Political Fantasy 1959-1965.” Science Fiction Studies 23.1 (1996): 103-22. JSTOR Web.             24 Apr. 2011.