Conceptions of censorship derive from Roman practice in which two officials were appointed by the government to conduct the census, award public contracts and supervise the manners and morals of the people. Today the scope of censorship has been expanded to include most media and involves suppressing any or all parts deemed objectionable on moral, political, military and other grounds.
With regard to television in the United States, censorship usually refers to the exclusion of certain topics, social groups or language from the content of broadcast programming. While censorship has often been constructed against the explicit backdrop of morality, it has been implicitly based on assumptions about the identity and composition of the audience for American broadcast television at particular points in time. Different conceptions of the audience held by broadcasters have been motivated by the economic drive to maximize network profits. At times, the television audience has been constructed as an undifferentiated mass.
During other periods, the audience has been divided into demographically desirable categories. As the definition of the audience has changed over time, so has the boundary between appropriate and inappropriate content. At times, different sets of moral values have often come into conflict with each other and with the economic forces of American broadcasting. The moral limits on content stem from what might be viewed as the social and cultural taboos of specific social groups, particularly concerning religious and sexual topics.
During the 1950s and 1960s, the networks and advertisers measured the viewing audience as an undifferentiated mass. Despite the lumping together of all viewers, broadcasters structured programming content around the "normal," dominant, values of white, middle-class Americans. Therefore, content centered around the concerns of the nuclear family. Topics such as racism or sexuality which had little direct impact on this domestic setting were excluded from content. Indeed, ethnic minorities were excluded, for the most part, from the television screen because they did not fit into the networks' assumptions about the viewing audience. Sexuality was a topic allocated to the private, personal sphere rather than the public arena of network broadcasting. For example, the sexual relationship between Rob and Laura Petrie in The Dick Van Dyke Show during the mid-1960s could only be implied. When the couple's bedroom was shown, twin beds diffused any explicit connotation that they had a physical relationship. Direct references to non-normative heterosexuality were excluded from programming altogether. In addition, coarse language which described bodily functions and sexual activity or profaned sacred words were excluded from broadcast discourse.
However, conceptions about the viewing audience and the limits of censorship changed drastically during the early 1970s. To a large degree, this shift in censorship came about because techniques for measuring the viewing audience became much more refined at that time. Ratings researchers began to break down the viewing audience for individual programs according to specific demographic characteristics, including age, ethnicity, education and economic background. In this context, the baby boomer generation--younger, better educated, with more disposable income--became the desired target audience for television programming and advertising. Even though baby boomers grew up on television programming of the 1950s and 1960s, their tastes and values were often in marked contrast to that of their middle-class parents. Subjects previously excluded from television began to appear with regularity. All in the Family was the predominant battering ram that broke down the restrictions placed on television content during the preceding twenty years. Frank discussions of sexuality, even outside of traditional heterosexual monogamy, became the focal point of many of the comedy's narratives. The series also introduced issues of ethnicity and bigotry as staples of its content. Constraints on the use of profanity began to crumble as well. Scriptwriters began to pepper dialogue with "damns" and "hells," language not permitted during the more conservative 1950s and 1960s.
While the redefinition of the desirable audience in the early 1970s did expand the parameters of appropriate content for television programming, the new candor prompted reactions from several fronts, and demonstrated larger divisions within social and cultural communities. As early as 1973 the Supreme Court emphasized that community standards vary from place to place: "It is neither realistic nor constitutionally sound to read the First Amendment as requiring that people of Maine or Mississippi accept public depiction of conduct found tolerable in Las Vegas or New York City." Clearly such a ruling leaves it to states or communities to define what is acceptable and what is not, a task which cannot be carried out to everyone's satisfaction. When applying community standards, the courts must decide what the "average person, in the community" finds acceptable or not and some communities are clearly more conservative than others. These standards are particularly difficult to apply to television programming which is produced, for economic reasons, to cross all such regional and social boundaries.
In part as a result of these divisions, however, special interest or advocacy groups began to confront the networks about representations and content that had not been present before 1971. For some social groups which had had very little, if any, visibility during the first twenty years of American broadcast television, the expanding parameters of programming content were a mixed blessing. The inclusion of Hispanics, African-Americans, and gays and lesbians in programming was preferable to their near invisibility during the previous two decades, but advocacy groups often took issue with the framing and stereotyping of the new images. From the contrasting perspective, conservative groups began to oppose the incorporation of topics within content which did not align easily with traditional American values or beliefs. In particular, the American Family Association decried the increasing presentation of non-traditional sexual behavior as acceptable in broadcast programming. Other groups rallied against the increased use of violence in broadcast content. As a result, attempts to define the boundaries of appropriate content has become an ongoing struggle as the networks negotiate their own interests against those of advertisers and various social groups. Whereas censorship in the 1950s and 1960s was based on the presumed standards and tastes of the white middle-class nuclear family, censorship in the 1970s became a process of balancing the often conflicting values of marginal social groups.
The proliferation of cable in the 1980s and the 1990s has only exacerbated the conflicts over programming and censorship. Because of a different mode of distribution and exhibition--often referred to as "narrowcasting--cable television has been able to offer more explicit sexual and violent programming than broadcast television. To compete for the viewing audience that increasing turns to cable television channels, the broadcast networks have loosened restrictions on programming content enabling them to include partial nudity, somewhat more graphic violence and the use of coarse language. This strategy seems to have been partially successful in attracting viewers as evidenced by the popularity of adult dramas such as NYPD Blue. However, this programming approach has opened the networks to further attacks from conservative advocacy groups who have increased the pressure for government regulation, i.e. censorship, of objectionable program content.
As these issues and problems indicate, most Americans, because of cherished First Amendment rights, are extremely sensitive to any forms of censorship. Relative to other countries, however, the United States enjoys remarkable freedom from official monitoring of program content. Negative reactions are often expressed toward imported or foreign programs when they do not reflect indigenous norms and values. "Cutting of scenes" is practiced far more in developing countries than in western countries. And Americans may find it interesting to note that even European countries consider exposure to nudity and sex to be less objectionable than abusive language or violence.
Head et al. (1994) point out that the control of media and media content is also related to the type of government in power within a particular country. They identify four types of governmental philosophy related to the issue of censorship; authoritarian, paternalistic, pluralistic and permissive. Of the four types, the first two are more inclined to exercise censorship because they assume they know what is best for citizens. Anything that challenges this exclusive view must be banned or excluded. Since most broadcasting in such countries is state funded, control is relatively easy to impose. Exclusionary methods include governmental control of broadcast stations' licenses, jamming external broadcasts, promoting indigenous programming, imposing restrictions on imported programs, excluding newspaper articles, cutting scenes from films, shutting down printing presses, etc.
Pluralistic and permissive governments allow for varying degrees of private ownership of broadcasting stations. Such governments assume that citizens will choose what they consider best in a free market where competing media companies offer their products. Such an ideal can only be effective, of course, if the competitors are roughly equal and operate in the interests of the public. To maintain this "balance of ideas" in the United States, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) established rules which control the formation of media monopolies and require stations to demonstrate they operate in the interests of their audiences' good. Despite such intentions, recent deregulation has disturbed the balance, allowing powerful media conglomerates to dominate the market place and reduce the number of voices heard.
Pluralistic and permissive governments also assume that competing companies will regulate themselves. Perhaps the most well known attempt at self regulation is conducted by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), which rates motion pictures for particular audiences. For example, the contents of "G" rated movies are considered suitable for all audiences, "GP" requires parental guidance, "R," "X," and NC17 are considered appropriate for adults. These standards are offered as a guide to audiences and have never been strictly enforced. Parents may take children to see X-rated movies if they so desire.
In the past one of the arguments against censorship has been freedom of choice. Parents who object to offensive television programs can always switch the channel or choose another show. Unfortunately, parental supervision is lacking in many households. In the 1990s this problem, coupled with political and interest group outrage against media producers has opened the possibility of a self imposed television rating system similar to that of the MPAA. To counter conservative criticism and government censorship, producers and the networks have agreed to begin a ratings system which could be electronically monitored and blocked in the home. Thus, parents could effectively censor programming which they found unsuitable for their children while still allowing the networks to air adult-oriented programming.
In the 1970s an early attempt at a similar sort of regulation came when the FCC encouraged the television industry to introduce a "family viewing concept," according to which television networks would agree to delay the showing of adult programs until children were, presumably, no longer among the audience. The National Association of Broadcasters willingly complied with this pressure but in 1979 a court ruled that the NAB's action was a violation of the First Amendment.
In the late 1990s, as networks relaxed corporate restrictions on content in their competition with cable and satellite programming, the early evening hours once again took on special importance. In mid-1996 more than 75 members of the U.S. Congress placed an open letter to the entertainment industry in Daily Variety. The letter called on the creative community and the programmers to provide an hour of programming each evening that was free from sexual innuendo, violence, or otherwise troublesome material. Clearly, the question of censorship in television continues to vex programmers, producers, government officials, and viewers. No immediate solution to the problems involved is apparent.
However, the debate and struggle over censorship of programming will more than likely continue into the next century, as social groups with diverse values vie for increased influence over program content.
-Richard Worringham and Rodney Buxton
Cripps, Thomas. "Amos 'n' Andy and the Debate Over American Racial Integration." In O'Connor, John E., editor. American History/American Television: Interpreting the Video Past. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1985.
Marin, Rick. "Blocking the Box." Newsweek (New York), 11 March 1996.