Sunday, August 31, 2008

Television's Violent Era

One of the common misconceptions about television violence is that it is actually greater today than it was in the Fifties and Sixties. This might be true if one takes into account the various cable channels and premium channels, but it hardly holds true of network television. In fact, it is a common misconception for many to view the Fifties and Sixties as a time when television was altogether more wholesome. This might be true of sexual content, but it was hardly true of violence.

In fact, the most violent era of American network television was not the Eighties, Nighties, or Naughts, but may well have been when the Fifties were becoming the Sixties. More hours of violence probably aired during this era on network television than any other time. It was during this period that such shows as The Untouchables, The Westerner, Cain's Hundred, and The 87th Precinct debuted.

Of course, even then violence was nothing new on television. It sometimes played a role in such anthology series as Suspense and Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and even shows in other genres, such as Flash Gordon. With the beginning of a cycle towards Westerns in 1955, however, violence began to appear more frequently on television. Those first Westerns of the cycle, Gunsmoke, The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, and Cheyenne generally focused on characters rather than gunplay, although this would not hold true for other shows in the cycle. It would be in 1958, however, that violence would start to dramatically increase on television. It was that year which saw the beginning of a private eye cycle which included shows such as Peter Gunn. The cycle was mostly likely sparked by the success of a summer replacement series. Richard Diamond, Private Detective was based on the popular radio show of the same name. It debuted on July 1 1957. It was followed by Peter Gunn, which debuted in September 1958. 

Peter Gunn was a slick, jazz driven series created by Blake Edwards. The series borrowed liberally from film noir, including the occasional bursts of violence. A much more violent private eye series debuted in syndication that season, Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer starring Darren McGavin. Critics often attacked the series for gratuitous violence. At the same time that detective series started debuting on American television, so too did violence increase in Westerns. An example of this is the first several episodes of The Rifleman. Its creator, future director Sam Peckinpah, insisted on gritty realism, including violence. This put him odds with Four Star Television and he eventually left.

While the cycles towards Westerns and detective shows would naturally increase violence on television, it would be in 1959 that violence saw a dramatic increase on network TV. The Untouchables debuted in October 1959, starting a cycle not only towards police series (along with The Naked City), but a cycle towards ultraviolence on television. Indeed, the show was very controversial in its day. Critics attacked the series for what they considered "excessive and senseless violence." Despite the criticism, the violence was hardly gratuitous, as Chicago's gangland of the Twenties was a place where beatings and murders were par for the course. And while The Untouchables was gritty, its violence was never graphic or gory. In contrast, The Naked City very rarely used violence and can actually be considered an early police procedural. Later that season would see the debut of what could be considered the first Untouchables imitator. 

The 1960-1961 season would see yet more ultraviolence on the small screen. That season another show that was an imitation of The Untouchables debuted. The Roaring Twenties was set in New York and followed two reporters for the fictional New York Record as they reported on crime. There was also the debut of what may have been one of the most violent private eye shows to air on network television. Michael Shayne was based on writer Brett Halliday's detective from many short stories and novels. The series was so violent that it would actually be one of the first shows to be taken off the air for complaints of excessive violence. Another violent show was another Western created by Sam Peckinpah, The Westerner. Peckinpah offered a grim and gritty portrayal of the West, with Brian Keith playing a very fallible hero. The series was critically acclaimed, but earned the dislike of both NBC and its sponsor. It was cancelled after its first episode had only aired ten minutes. It only lasted thirteen episodes.

It would be during the 1961-1962 season that the networks' love affair with ultraviolence would be in full swing. It would also be the season that it came to a screeching halt for a time. The season saw the debut of another Untouchables imitator, in this case Cain's Hundred. Cain's Hundred centred on a former mob lawyer who decides to quit after he gets engaged. It was then that a mob boss put a hit out on him, although his fiancee would be killed instead. The former lawyer then joins up with the FBI to see 100 gangsters go to jail. That same season saw the debut of 87th Precinct, based on the Ed McBain novels. Like the novels, the series was rather gritty, complete with violence.

The episode of a TV series that would generate the most controversy, however, would come from what would have been a very unexpected source at the start of the season. Bus Stop was based on the play by William Inge and the movie starring Marilyn Monroe. Its earliest episodes were of the type one might see on Love Boat fifteen years later. The very first episode dealt with a cowboy who had deserted his family. In the fourth episode a seemingly average couple turn out to have been sweepstakes winners. But by the sixth episode, the series would see a remarkable change as it delved more into violent crime. In the sixth episode both a detective and a professor became suspects in the murder of a woman who had blackmailed them both. It would be the tenth episode, "A Lion Walks Among Us," that would ultimately bring the ongoing controversy over television violence to a head and bring an end to the run of Bus Stop, not to mention possibly getting Oliver Treyz fired from his job as President of the American Broadcasting Company (ABC).

"A Lion Walks Among Us" was based on the novel The Judgement by Tom Wicker. It featured teen idol Fabian as psychopath Luke Freeman. In the plot, which was rather intense even for the violent era of 1961, Freeman makes robs and kills an old grocer, tried to seduce his defence attorney's wife (who's not only a drunk, but is hinted has loose morals on the witness stand), and murdered his own defence attorney. It was fairly early that ABC and Twentieth Century Fox realised they might have problems with the episode. Sponsors Brown and Williamson Tobacco Co., Johnson and Johnson, and Singer Manufacturing Company (of sewing machine fame) all withdrew their advertising. The episode was then rescheduled until such time as new advertisers could be found. When the network showed the episode to its affiliates, twenty five of them, including major markets such as Atlanta, Baltimore, and Dallas, refused to air it. In the end, unable to find new sponsors, ABC finally aired the episode on December 3, 1961, with limited commercial interruption (the "commercials" were movie trailers from Warner Brothers and previews of Bus Stop episodes.

Reaction from critics was swift and immediate. Newsweek called it a "...cynical, perverted, and flacked-up opus." The Los Angeles Times called it "...a sleazy, nasty, sex-laden, slice-of-sensational trash reminiscent of the worst in drug-store fiction." Famous critic Jack Gould of The New York Times referred to it as " hour of dark and sordid ugliness." Much of the criticism came about because of the casting of Fabian, perceived as a wholesome teen idol, as a psychopathic rapist. And unfortunately the reviews caught the attention of Senator Thomas J. Dodd, a conservative Democrat from Connecticut.

Senator Dodd had taken over the mantle of the Senate's crusader against TV violence from Estes Kefauver. He held his first hearings on television violence in June and July 1961, attacking such shows as The Untouchables. In January 1962 he convened TV violence hearings again, and this time the focus was on firmly on "A Lion Walks Among Us." Even though Dodd himself had never seen the episode, the reviews had invoked his ire. Senator John Pastore, a Democrat from Rhode Island, had seen the episode. He commented of it, "I looked at it and I haven't felt clean since." During the hearing Dodd grilled ABC's president, Oliver Treyz on the episode. Oliver Treyz was unrepentant and defended the episode in the name of artistic freedom, although he admitted to the Senator that he would not allow his own children to watch such an episode. Bus Stop, a show previously well received by critics, was now a cause celebre.

The fallout from the episode would not end with Dodd's hearings. In February 1962 the Federal Communications Commission finished its investigation of network programming. During the FCC's hearings, Oliver Treyz admitted that airing "A Lion Walks Among Us" was probably a mistake. That March Oliver Treyz was fired as president of ABC. There can be little doubt that the whole matter of "A Lion Walks Among Us" was a major factor in his dismissal. Vice president in charge of television production at Twentieth Century Fox and Bus Stop's executive producer Roy Huggins (who had produced Maverick and would go onto to create The Fugitive) found Fox refusing to let him develop any new series. Huggins returned to graduate school to get his Ph.D. and created The Fugitive in 1963. As to the episode itself, "A Lion Walks Among Us" has never again aired on primetime network television. Presumably, it still languishes in Fox's vaults. Bus Stop itself was cancelled at the end of the season.

Dodd's television violence hearings in January 1962 appears to have had some impact on the 1962-1963 season. Untouchables imitators such as Cain's Hundred and Target: The Corruptors were gone, as were police shows 87th Precinct and The New Breed. While they may have been cancelled for low ratings, their ends may have also come because of the outcry over violence. Overall, the 1962-1963 season would be a less violent season for the networks. Most of the new shows were such innocuous entries as The Jetsons, McHale's Navy, and The Beverly Hillbillies. That is not to say that violence was still not to be found on the tube. The Untouchables entered its fourth season that year, while the classic World War II drama Combat made its debut.

In fact, although not at the level it had been in the period from 1958 to 1962, violence would still play a role in many television shows of the Sixties. In the summer of 1964 Senator Dodd held another hearing on television violence, this time attacking both Combat and The Outer Limits, but to little effect. In fact, the 1964-1965 season would see the beginning of the spy cycle with The Man From U.N.C.L.E.. In its wake would follow such spy series as I Spy and The Wild Wild West, with British imports Secret Agent (Danger Man in the UK) and The Avengers making their American debut about the same time. The violence in these series was almost always on the comic book level, although it was present in nearly every episode. The 1966-1967 season would see a new cycle towards police dramas, with the debut of Felony Squad and Hawk (an early Burt Reynolds series). The following season would see the debut of more police dramas, including N.Y.P.D. and Ironside. The 1966-1967 season would also see the debut of more action-adventure series, such as Star Trek (actually a rather violent show, when one thinks about it), Tarzan, The Green Hornet, and The Rat Patrol. Despite Senator Dodd's best efforts, violence was hardly gone from network television for most of the Sixties.

It would take the assassinations of both Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. to force the networks to finally reduce violence on television in significant numbers. By that time outcry over television violence was common even among the general public. It was that year that Peggy Charren founded Action for Children's Television over conerns about both violence and advertising in children's programming. More rounds of congressional hearings were scheduled. The Democratic Party even came close to adding a condemnation of television for its depiction of violence to the party's platform at their convention in September. Of course, by that time it was a moot point. It was for the 1968-1969 season that the networks introduced new restrictions on acts of violence on television. As an example, CBS restricted the producers of their series on the use of firearms, fighting in close quarters, and even such stunts as falling off a horse. This would seriously hamper the plots of Westerns such as Gunsmoke, spy series such as The Wild Wild West, and police dramas as N.Y.P.D.. Even with the new restrictions in place, for the following 1969-1970 season the networks would go even further with regards to restricting violence on the small screen. During the 1968-1969 season CBS cancelled The Wild Wild West ostensibly because it had been attacked for excessive violence.

The networks would continue to curb violence in their shows throughout the Seventies and even into the Eighties, to the point that new Westerns were seriously impaired and believable police dramas were nearly impossible. One need only contrast Starsky and Hutch with N.Y.P.D. or The Untouchables. N.Y.P.D. and The Untouchables had their share of gunplay (The Untouchables may have had too much at times). In Starsky and Hutch the most exciting thing one might see was a car chase (usually down the same alleyway). While the Seventies would produce some quality mystery series, detective series, and sitcoms, its police dramas and Westerns were often a miserable lot, hampered by telling a good story by not being able to realistically portray their milieus. It would not be until the mid-Eighties that the networks would lighten up on the amount of violence allowed on their shows, and even then it would not be noticeable until the Nineties.

The network's violent era from 1958 to 1962 produced some quality shows. Peter Gunn, The Untouchables, and The Westerner can all quite rightfully be considered classics. The era would also cost the networks dearly in the long run. It spurred the strongest outcry against television violence yet. And while the furore would die down, it would swiftly build again in 1968 following the deaths of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. Had television's violent era never taken place or at least been a bit more restrained, it is possible that the networks would not have felt forced in 1968 to become more restrictive on the portrayal of violence. While we may have have missed out on some classic shows from 1958 to 1962, perhaps the Seventies would not have been quite so dismal as they were when it came to network programming.


Bobby D. said...

Making your film has been a challenge! I've written several screenplays and thrown them all out. I'm working on a new one and casting actors for the lead role.It still may take another week or two.

dbreckman said...

Actually, violence was alive and well on the networks until 1977, when a serious crackdown began and shows were limited to a specific number of "units of aggression" per episode. In the wake of this, the hit ABC shoot-'em-up SWAT was canceled immediately, and STARSKY AND HUTCH, which was rather violent in its first couple of seasons, was radically overhauled into a tamer, watered-down version of its former self.

The crackdown lasted until 1981 and the debut of a violent ABC cop show called STRIKE FORCE, starring Robert Stack. It wasn't a particularly good or successful show (it was canceled after one season), but it reflected a broader public appetite for more mayhem on the airwaves.

Unknown said...

Excellent article! Another show from that era that aired during 1960-1962, NBC's Thriller hosted by Boris Karloff, astonishes me even to this day with its outbursts of violence and bloodletting. While its horror-themed episodes (as opposed to its dreadful crime-themed episodes) were often excellent, it's an good example that TV of days gone by wasn't always as wholesome as the conventional wisdom.