Standards and Practices is the term most American networks use for what many, especially in the creative community, refer to as the "network censors." Standards and Practices Departments (known as Program Practices at CBS) are maintained at each of the broadcast and many of the cable networks. The concept came about as a direct outgrowth of the trusteeship model: broadcasters were said to have a responsibility to the public interest as a result of their having access to a scarce resource. Another factor was the fear of propaganda, deemed to have been so effective in the World War I. The most important consideration, however, was the unprecedented reality that radio, and later television content, came into the home, unforeseen, often unbidden, and sometimes unwelcome. Historically, therefore, lest an offended audience demand government intervention, Standards and Practice's charge has been to review all non-news broadcast matter, including entertainment, sports and commercials, for compliance with legal, policy, factual, and community standards.

The broadcasters' insistence on setting and maintaining their own standards goes back the very beginning of the medium in 1921, when engineers were instructed to use an emergency switch in the event that a performer or guest used language or brought up topics which were held to be unsuitable. One early memoir describes the use of the button when a distinguished ballerina launched into a discussion of birth control. During radio's first decade, taboos also included any mention of price or even the location of a sponsoring store. Later, the networks would have an organist at the ready in a standby studio. A noted incident is said to have occurred in 1932 when a major administration spokesman was reporting on the government's progress in dealing with the Great Depression. He allegedly used the word "damn," a light went on in the standby studio, and the nation heard organ arpeggios for the length of time it took to be assured that he wouldn't do that again.

By the late 1930s, the networks had established so-called continuity acceptance procedures to assure that their advertising policies and federal law were adhered to. Later, as the role of radio in American life became more clearly understood, a body of written policy was articulated, generally on a case by case basis, to guide not only advertisers and their agencies but also programmers and producers in entertainment and other programming.

More than 67% of all television stations subscribed to the NAB (National Association of Broadcasters) Code adopted in 1950 (a similar radio code had been in operation since 1935). In addition to provisions which addressed historic concerns respecting the "advancement of education and culture," responsibility toward children, community responsibility, and general program standards, the NAB Code also included advertising standards and time limits for non-program material defined as "billboards, commercials, promotional announcements and all credits in excess of 30 seconds per program." In 1982, in settlement of an anti-trust suit brought by the U.S. Department of Justice, the NAB and the federal government entered into a consent decree abolishing the time standards and the industry-wide limitations on the number and length of commercials they provided. The Code program standards had been suspended in 1976 after a federal judge in Los Angeles ruled that the Family Hour violated the First Amendment. After the demise of the Code, the networks, which had already developed their own written standards, took over the entire burden.

Standards, and the broadcasters' efforts to implement them, come to the fore whenever an apparent breach of the implicit obligation to respect the public trust occurs. The celebrated 1938 broadcast by Orson Welles' Mercury Theater of "The War of the Worlds" which simulated a radio broadcast interrupted by news reports describing the landing of Martians; the quiz show scandals of the 1950's; Congressional hearings into violence, and concern over the possible blurring of fact and fiction in early docudrama, are notable examples of perceived abuse which resulted in expanding the duties and enlarging Standards and Practices operations, generally throughout the industry. By 1985, one of the traditional network's department had no fewer than 80 persons on its staff. Each episode of every series was reviewed in script form and as it was recorded.

With the changes in ownership of the traditional networks, the emergence of the cable networks, and the deregulatory climate, there has been considerable relaxation of the process--not every episode is reviewed once a series is established--but the essential responsibilities of the editors remain the same. These include, in addition to compliance with the law, serving as surrogates for the network's affiliates who are licensed to be responsive to their local communities; reflecting the concerns of advertisers; and, most important, for their employers, the networks themselves, assuring that the programming is acceptable to the bulk of the mass audience. This involves serving as guardians of taste with respect to language, sexual and other materials inappropriate for children, and the suitability of advertising, especially of personal products.

Commercial clearance involves the close screening of more than 50,000 announcements a year, falling into about 70 different product categories. The Federal Trade Commission's statements in the early 1970s which not only permitted but virtually mandated comparative advertising, resulted in the establishment of courtlike procedures to adjudicate between advertisers making conflicting claims. By the mid-1980s, at least 25% of all commercials contained comparisons to named competitor's products or services.

Critics contend, with some justification, that standards and practices is anachronistic paternalism at best, and most often a form of censorship; the networks claim the publisher's right to exercise their judgment as to what is appropriate for broadcast to the American public. The affiliated stations sometimes complain but are generally, though not always, satisfied that the network are sufficiently vigilant as their surrogates. Network and sales executives worry that the very process of vetting leads to pettifoggery and rigidity. Advertisers rail at the scrupulous insistence that all claims be substantiated, as the law requires. By far the most frequent complaints, however, are heard from the creative community which argues that the networks are too accommodating of the most conservative members of the audience and that only by "pushing the envelope" with respect to sex, violence, or language, can the medium advance.

Standards and Practices' primary purpose has always been to maintain the networks' most precious asset, its audience-in-being -- the delivery of a significant share of television households, hour after hour, to the advertising community. Secondary purposes historically, have included protecting the networks' images as responsible and responsive institutions, as sources of reliable information and satisfying entertainment for the entire family, and even as precious national resources. In the final analysis, if the concern for not giving offense has contributed to blandness, it must also be credited for making a commercially supported national system possible.

-George Dessart


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Dessart, George. "Of Tastes and Times: Some Challenging Reflections on Television's Elastic Standards and Astounding Practices." Television Quarterly (New York), 1992.

Henderson, Alice M. and Helaine Doktori. "How the Networks Monitor Program Content." In, Oskamp, Stuart, editor. Television as a Social Issue: The Eighth Applied Social Psychology Annual. Newbury Park, California: Sage Publications, 1988.

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See also Censorship; United States: Networks