FAMILY VIEWING TIME

Prompted by widespread public criticism in 1974 the United States Congress exhorted the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to take action regarding the perennial issues of alleged excesses of sex, crime, and violence in broadcast programming. Early in 1975 Commission Chairman Richard E. Wiley reported to Senate and House Communications and Commerce Subcommittees recent steps taken by the FCC. They included discussions with corporate heads of television networks which resulted in four strategies for addressing the issues. The network heads adopted a self-declared "family viewing" hour in the first hour of network evening prime-time (8:00-9:00 P.M., Eastern time). Actions by the National Association of Broadcasters' Television Code review board expanded that "family hour" forward one hour into local station time (7:00-8:00 P.M.). The NAB also proposed "viewer advisories" related to program content that might disturb members of the audience, especially younger people. And the FCC made further efforts to define what it construed as "indecent" under the law, in a case involving Pacifica's WBAI(FM), New York.

Arthur R. Taylor, president of CBS Inc., had championed more acceptable early-evening programming but could only do so at CBS if competing networks followed suite. FCC chairman Wiley urged reluctant executives to adopt these actions. But to avoid inter-corporate collusion they felt the professional association (NAB) could best orchestrate the effort through its self-regulatory Industry Code of Practices. Enacting the code led to several results. Some early-evening shows with comedy and action deemed less suited for young viewers were displaced to later hours. West Coast producers, directors, and writers claimed the new structure infringed on their creative freedom and First Amendment rights. Later scheduling also led to lower audience ratings, partly from the stigma attached to some programs as inappropriate for viewing by families. Popular sitcom All In The Family suffered from the ruling; its producer Norman Lear protested against the policy and with celebrity colleagues and professional guilds mounted a lawsuit against it. Meanwhile some public-interest groups, including major religious organizations, objected to the policy for not going far enough; they claimed it sanitized only an hour or two of TV programming, leaving the rest of the 24-hour schedule open to "anything goes."

After extensive hearings U.S. district court judge Warren Ferguson ruled that, while the concept might have merit, the FCC had acted improperly in finessing the result by privately persuading the three network representatives to marshall the NAB's code provisions. Normal FCC procedure was to openly announce proposals for rule-making, then hold public hearings to develop a record from which federal rulings might be developed. Thus the Family Viewing policy was scuttled, apparently to the satisfaction of not only the creative community that produced programs but to most network personnel who had the complicated task of applying the principle to specific shows and time-slots, with direct impact on ratings and time-sales for commercial spots. Syndicators of off-network reruns also were relieved because the early-evening "fringe time" programmed by local stations had been brought into the ambit of the Code's provisions, limiting the kinds of shows aired then. But the reversal was frustrating to many members of Congress, to FCC chairman Wiley, and to CBS chief Arthur Taylor. Dubbed by many the "father of Family Viewing" Taylor had proclaimed the policy as the first step in twenty-five years to reduce the level of gratuitous TV violence and sex. John Schneider, president of the CBS/Broadcast Group, issued a statement after the court's decision: "The Court recognizes the right of an individual broadcaster to maintain programming standards, yet it denies this same right to broadcasters collectively, even though these standards are entirely voluntary. . . . To rule that broadcasters cannot, however openly and publicly, create a set of programming standards consonant with the demonstrated wishes of the American people leaves only two alternatives: no standards for the broadcasting community or standards imposed by government, which we believe would dangerously violate the spirit of the First Amendment. CBS's belief that family viewing is an exercise of broadcaster responsibility in the public interest is confirmed by its popular acceptance" reported by a major publication's two national polls.

 

The episode demonstrated the daunting task of guiding a complex mass entertainment medium in a pluralistic society with varied perspectives and values. Through the decades television came under increasing scrutiny for alleged permissiveness in drama and comedy programs. The theme of excessive "sex and violence" was sounded regularly in Congressional sessions from Senator Estes Kefauver in the 1950s to Senator Thomas Dodd in the 1960s and Senator John Pastore in the 1970s. By 1975 House Communications Subcommittee chairman Torbert MacDonald, fearing the Family Viewing plan was no more than a public relations ploy, raised the perennial threat of licensing the source of national program service, the commercial networks. Meanwhile, the FCC sought to clarify the U.S. Code provision (Title 18, 1464) prohibiting obscene, indecent or profane language, to extend explicitly to visual depiction of such material.

The issue joined, of course, is the broadcaster's freedom to program a station or network without censorship by governmental prior restraining action (or by ex-post-facto penalty that constitutes implied restraint against subsequent actions). That freedom is closely coupled with the diverse public's right to have access to a wide range of programming that viewers freely choose to watch. The other side of that coin is the audience's right to freedom from what some consider offensive program content broadcast over a federally-licensed airwave frequency defined by Congress in 1927 and 1934 as a "natural public resource" owned by the public. The problem arises from the medium's pervasiveness (the Supreme Court's wording) which reaches into homes and beyond to portable receivers, readily available to young children often unable to be supervised around the clock by parents. FCC chairman Wiley explained to the Senate Commerce Committee in 1975: "we believe that the industry reforms strike an appropriate balance between two conflicting objectives. On the one hand, it is necessary that the industry aid concerned parents in protecting their children from objectionable material; on the other hand, it is important that the medium have an opportunity to develop artistically and to present themes which are appropriate and of interest to an adult audience." The issue recurred, as deregulation of broadcast media in the 1980s and growing permissiveness of program content on proliferating cable channels was succeeded in the 1990s by widespread calls for "family values" in media. Senator Paul Simon engineered a waiver of anti-trust provisions enabling major networks and cable companies to collaborate on voluntary self-regulatory practices, to preclude threatened government enactments: "Son of Family Viewing?"

-James A. Brown

FURTHER READING

Cowan, Geoffrey. See No Evil: The Backstage Battle Over Sex And Violence On Television. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1979.

Rowland, Willard D. The Politics Of TV Violence: Policy Uses Of Communication Research. Beverly Hills, California: Sage, 1983.

 

See also Censorship; Programming