Protestant Influence on Television Censorship Regulation

This is one in a series of guest posts authored by students in an undergraduate course I taught during Spring 2014, “Protestantism and the Development of American Culture.” Each student’s task was to write an informative essay explaining some way that Protestants have shaped (or tried to shape) American culture. Students knew that their essays would be posted to this blog, so they would have a real-world online audience.

Students are entirely responsible for the content and quality of their essays; I am merely the vehicle for broadcasting them (though on the whole I’m reasonably pleased with the results).

Protestant Influence on Television Censorship Regulation
By Mary Jane Leveline

“There is a charm about the forbidden that makes it unspeakably desirable.”
~Mark Twain

mjl001No matter how much we try to deny it, the lure of the forbidden fruit, regardless of what it is, causes controversy, if not within ourselves, within some sanction of society. This is especially true in the United States where Protestant values are permeated throughout the fabric of our origins as a nation. Scripture governed morality warns of the fall of man if given over to unbridled desires. Prowling like a lion in search of fresh prey is sin after man. These beliefs have led to a governing society with arms that reach into the entertainment industry through censorship and regulation.

Censorship Defined

mjl002Let’s begin by defining censorship so that we can see the relationship that Protestant values lend. Censorship, as defined by the American Civil Liberties Union, (ACLU), “is the suppression of words, images, or ideas that are “offensive,” happens whenever some people succeed in imposing their personal political or moral values on others. Censorship can be carried out by the government as well as private pressure groups. Censorship by the government is unconstitutional.”

Censorship Committees and Support

The Federal Communications Committee (FCC) was established to regulate the airwaves. In the 1950’s television came under scrutiny of the FCC as appointed by President Franklin Roosevelt in the attempt to limit socially harmful conduct caused by people’s exposure to sexually explicit or violent material, and to prevent children’s exposure to a variety of material that may harm them. This came about during a time in our nation’s history where Protestant values were the moral norm. This new medium began pushing the boundaries of moral acceptability. The mainstream Protestant groups used their influence to shape the regulations regarding what was allowable to be viewed over the airwaves and enter the American home.

The Voice Behind Censorship

mjl003As Heather Hendershot puts it well “the difference between censorship and regulation is tightly bound up in the ideological process of constructing nationalism and patriotism”. Nielson ratings became a measuring stick for family television that consisted of white, Anglo-Saxon, protestant families.   As the fabric of the United States changed spurred by the 1960’s, so did Americans’ views on where they stood in light of their religious views and affiliations. Gone were the days of Protestant dominance as new ideas about religion and ideologies began to gain ground.

The Beavis and Butt-head Experience

mjl004Religious organizations have supported the FCC in its efforts to keep the airwaves clean. Focus on the Family’s Dr. James Dobson, a prominent Protestant vocalist, has been a strong advocate for quality censorship. Dobson’s fears are that television violence will shape the behavior of American children. The show that created this alarm was the animated program “Beavis and Butthead”; a show that targeted adolescent youth. If you have not seen it, I am sure you have at least heard of it. The adolescences depicted are sarcastic rebellious teens that show no initiative to participate in anything that isn’t self-gratifying. They are lazy, disrespectful, and engage in self-deprecating and dangerous stunts. From the Protestant perspective, their antics go against everything that defines a morally upstanding, socially conscious American. By continuing to push back against the growing liberal influence in media, groups associated with the Religious Right work to keep America as the ‘city on a hill’.

Pushing the Envelope

mjl005Before Focus on the Family and other conservatives brought Beavis and, his faithful counterpart, Butthead, to the forefront, television has been regulated for offenses that are now considered mainstream acceptance. Examples of this start with Sylvester and Tweety in the Saturday morning cartoons in the 1942 episode “The Tale of Two Kitties”. Tweety is considered to be ‘too naked’ as he was originally drawn without feathers. The creator, Bob Clampett, counters the criticism by writing in to the script sarcastic comments against the Hays office of the censorship bureau.

Religious Consults

The timeline continues on with shows like “I Love Lucy” when the word “pregnant” can’t be used on air in 1952. After talking to religious authorities from the Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish faiths it was agreed upon that the word ‘pregnancy’ could be used in a sit com. The Judeo-Christian leadership consults show the powerful impact that religious moral views still held in American culture.


“A Really Great Show” Gets “All Shook Up”

mjl008“The Ed Sullivan Show” in 1956 quickly focuses in on a close up of Elvis’ face when the infamous pelvic gyrations begin to go into full swing; all in hopes of not over stimulating the American viewers watching. By 1966 the censors are still doing their jobs of caring for the moral high ground of the viewer as belly buttons are covered in daily serials like “Gilligan’s Island”, “I Dream of Jeannie”, “Star Trek”, and others.

Pushing Back Against the Protestant Views of Morality

The Civil Rights Movement and the Sexual Revolution start breaking down the Protestant influence in the United States. Television is not immune. The ideology of individualism and the growing cultural influences take a stronger foothold. Lines become crossed with lessened resistance by the mainline churches who held the political power to push back. The evangelical churches were too weak to have the influence needed during this tumultuous time of change in our country’s history. This is the time when the slopes becomes very slippery for the Protestant foothold in many aspects of the American culture.

Reining It In

In efforts to accommodate a growing medium, regulators worked with networks to create schedules that would take into account the viewing audience. Still recognizing the pressure from Protestant values that are engrained in the society, Family viewing hours were developed to promote viewing that contained values that a family could sit down and watch together in 1975. Prime time was considered 8:00 p.m. hour. Shows that had more adult content were viewed in a later time slot after the children had been put to bed.   Saturday morning viewing became time for young children to watch television safely with cartoons, puppets, and animals adventures scheduled in those viewing slots. These efforts continue to reinforce family values and moral codes on America’s airwaves. Depending on the time of the viewing gave parents the sense of what was considered allowable viewing for their children. This policy was overturned in 1977 and the family hour ended though many networks still honor the prime time slot as family viewing and hold to the practice. The fact that family viewing hours were established shows the Protestant’s lessening influence on the medium as a whole.

What’s All the Fuss?

mjl009In today’s world the ideas of seeing a bared naval, hearing a toilet flush, even viewing the inside of a bathroom, or watching lovers roll in the sheets on television doesn’t seem a reason to pause. Alfred Schneider, a thirty year veteran of TV censorship, chronicles the battles between networks and the censorship bureau as to what can be viewed, how it can be viewed, and when it can be viewed. In days past you never heard a toilet flush, or even saw the inside of a bathroom. The Dick Van Dyke Show is still the iconic show used to depict the non-sexual relationship of spouses by creating separate bedrooms for each. We now view commercials that are more explicit than what would ever be considered from the 1940’s through the 1970’s where Victoria’s Secret would still be kept.


mjl010Some would wonder after researching censorship since television’s migration if there is still a need for regulation and censorship from the FCC? Times continue to change! With the onslaught of cable channels, public television, and other non-regulated venues, the regulations for the broadcasting companies under the FCC rule has loosened considerably. Today it is common to view increasing sex and violence on television. Research continues to study the effects of television violence and promiscuity on society. Results are dependent on the group originating the study as to societal impact. In an effort to regulate and inform concerned viewers of content a Television Ratings Guide.

Repercussions and Relevance

mjl011What happens when the content violates the laws? Fines! Large ones! Remember the 2004 “wardrobe malfunction” during Super Bowl XXXVIII? That blunder cost the network a fortune. The FCC fines were $550,000. It didn’t stop there. The NFL had to reimburse $10 million in sponsor refunds. The network was also out the time it took to deal with over 500,000 viewer complaints. These numbers reflect the relevance that the FCC still holds in protecting American values. This view is not to be an advocate of the FCC or be its opponent. It is to merely show the relevance that the organization holds in the American culture based on the Protestant values during the founding of the United States. This is reflective in the ideology that America considers herself a leader in policing morality.

That’s a Wrap

mjl012Television has gone from censoring animated naked birds (Tweety), pregnant stars of leading serials (Lucille Ball), married couples sleeping arrangements (The Dick Van Dyke Show), belly buttons (I Dream of Jeannie), terminology from ‘water closet’s’ (Jack Par) to the ‘seven dirty words’ (George Carlin), conservative Americans have exercised their Protestant values in trying to protect morality on television. The evolution of television has created great strains on both sides of the fence. The conservatives have had to release some of the tight reigns with the liberal push for freedom of speech and expression, the development of cable and public television stations that are under different regulatory laws, and the loss of dominant political power that they once held. As the conservative Protestant power continues to be challenged by the growing liberal world view the evolution of television has gradually pushed the envelope where censorship is concerned. The law of diminishing returns leads to the conclusion that censorship and regulation will never be able to restrict to the level of the early FCC. As long as there are liberals and conservatives, there will be a need for a regulatory source that will continue to evolve to try to accommodate that balance between demand and democracy.

Tagged , ,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: