Here are some excerpts from an incredible editorial written by Worthington Minor. It was published in the March 1961 issue of Television Magazine . In it he discusses censorship in television, using an episode of WNTA-TV’s Play of the Week, produced by National Telefilm Associates, as an example of what television can deliver when not constrained by commercial interests. It is a wonderful, insightful look at television in the late 1950s/early 1960s and is just as relevant today as it was fifty years ago.
In my twenty years in television, the most imaginative managerial idea I have encountered is Ely Landauâ€™s concept for producing and financing Play Of The Week. It is ironic that a single local station in New York should have been the one to do what no network has dared to tryâ€”to release its creative personnel from the strait jacket of commercial interference. I have worked now for nearly a year with Play Of The Week. I have never to date received a single call from an advertiser or an agency executive. I donâ€™t even know who they are. No lunches, no conferences, no arguments, no refusals. When I secure a property like â€œThe Iceman Cometh,â€ I ask Ely Landau if he wants to put it on the air. When he says yes, thatâ€™s it.[â€¦]
It is faintly amusing now to look back on the reaction of so many after â€œThe Icemanâ€ was first put on tape. Ely Landau was battered with dire forebodingsâ€”forebodings born and conditioned by the commercial mind, which inevitably belittles the stature of the public and shrivels before a hint of adverse response. He was told didactically by every wise, objective observerâ€”from salesman to lawyerâ€”that he would lose half his audience, lose every sponsor on the series, lose his license for the station, lose his shirt. To his credit, and against this wave of adverse advice, he let â€œThe Icemanâ€ go on the air. And go on the air it did, as Oâ€™Neill wrote it.
None of the dire forebodings of the wise Madison Avenue minds were borne out. There was a microscopic amount of adverse mailâ€”something like thirty letters. There was no sponsor complaint nor cancellation, no FCC complaint, no religious complaint. In the face of compelling theatre, little voices are stilled. Also, quite incidentally, the rating doubled.
â€œThe Icemanâ€ is merely the outstanding example of how far a courageous man with flexible imagination can go toward giving television a shot in the arm without suffering a catastrophic economic setback in return. No network censor would have passed this productionâ€”but, by the same token, 80% of all our productions this year would have been refused. Integrity of purpose and dignity of spirit are weightless assets on the censorâ€™s scale.[â€¦]
What is left? Synthetic hogwash and violence! Not one corpse per half-hour, but three. Shot through the guts, the head or the backâ€”the bloodier the betterâ€”Nielsen and Trendex demand it! Untruth and spurious gallantry. Let a woman blast her man in the face with a shotgunâ€”but, please, no cleavage. Tears? Oh, yesâ€”lots of tearsâ€”for the poor misunderstood woman, or man, who just happened on the side to be selling heroinâ€”or themselves. And in the daytimeâ€”Woman! The backbone of the home, the family, the business, the works. Oh, yes, within the censorâ€™s acceptance, the woman is forever a giant of integrity, loyalty, forceâ€”while generally misunderstood an abused. Manâ€”a poor, fumbling, well-meaning idiotâ€”or a martyr. This is what the censor declares every American adolescent should know about his father.
Here, then, is the ultimate evil of censorship. One may defend some of the things it deploresâ€”but who can defend the things it permits? Mediocrity, boredom, sadism and untruth.
Over my name, Iâ€™ll let â€œThe Icemanâ€ stand. Let the censor and his supporters put their names above The Untouchables.
1 “Worthington Minor on Censorship: The Terrible Toll of Taboos.” Television Magazine. Mar. 1961: 42-47.