But the Republic Stood: Program Producers' Perceived Pivotal Moments in Network Television Broadcast Standards of the 1970s

By Turner, Leslie Jackson | Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, Winter 2000 | Go to article overview

But the Republic Stood: Program Producers' Perceived Pivotal Moments in Network Television Broadcast Standards of the 1970s


Turner, Leslie Jackson, Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media


"The traditional system for the delivery of broadcast television signals to U.S. households is the local TV station" (Blumenthal & Goodenough, 1991, p. 13). Stations broadcasting all day, every day, have 8,760 programming hours to fill annually. Part of that programming, primarily news coverage, is produced locally; the remaining time is filled with programs from network and syndication sources. Broadcast networks are essentially program distributors. They serve as middle men between wholesalers (the program producers) and retailers (the individual stations). This system is based on a set of interlocking needs: (1) program producers need the networks to buy their creative products; (2) networks need air time on the local stations to show the programs they buy from producers; and (3) local stations need to fill schedules. The entire process is funded by sale of commercial time to national and local advertisers who want to market products to the audiences viewing the programs.

In 1970, network television was less than 20 years old. CBS, dubbed the "Tiffany Network" for its string of top-rated shows in the 1960s, consistently dominated the Nielsen ratings with very few exceptions, notably NBC's Sunday night blockbuster hit, Bonanza (Kloman, 1969). Civil rights issues made headlines daily, and, for the first time, television brought war into American living rooms, forcing viewers to confront the horror of the Viet Nam Conflict firsthand each evening on the national news. The television industry realized it was time to make the medium more reflective of the real world, to use television to explore substantive, mature subjects and to change the direction of prime-time entertainment TV from "bubble gum for the eyes" to thought-provoking, socially relevant programming. The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour already demonstrated that audiences were receptive to social relevance in prime-time entertainment. Their show, filled with veiled and less subtle references to the politics of the day, ranked among the top 20 rated shows for the 1967-1968 and 1969-1970 seasons. The challenge for the producers, writers and networks developing programs in 1970 was to discover how far was too far for viewers. "As one taboo after another was swept aside, as creative people began to test and experiment with their new and increasing freedoms, it was predictable that they'd think up more barriers to be pushed back" (T. Swafford, personal communication, December 14, 1995).

This historical analysis details pivotal moments in network television broadcast standards in the 1970s, specifically the impact of Norman Lear, Larry Gelbart, "Jiggle TV," and Soap. The television schedules from each broadcast season do not tell this story: they merely reflect the results of the programming and standards processes. The story is presented best through the reflections and interpretations of the individuals directly involved with program creation, in this instance, program producers and their counterparts at the networks, the broadcast standards editors. "History is, after all, a reconstruction by an individual of things past" (Startt & Sloan, 1989, p. 47).

How Broadcast Standards Work

Mr. (Grant) Tinker: "Well, to oversimplify it, the program department selects and buys the programs, and the standards people are concerned with the content of those programs, in terms of standards and taste and morality and so on" (House of Representatives Subcommittee Hearing, 1976, p. 88).

Network television has always been big business; advertising revenues are projected to reach $15.6 billion dollars by the 2000 season (Kelly & Ross, 1996). With so much money on the line, the broadcast networks have developed a system of self-regulation, through their standards departments, to exercise control over program content. Daytime and late night programming and advertising are handled within the same departments, but with different guidelines and editors (C. …

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