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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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