From the Archives: Deck Log Entry # 63 Saturday Morning Silver Age: Part Seven--Who Killed the Super-Heroes?

If you were a kid and a comic-book fan from the fall of 1967 through the summer of 1968,  Saturday mornings were television heaven.  Super-heroes had taken over kid-vid; between nine a.m. and two p.m., there was nothing but.  Those of us who were television wise back then actually managed to see almost all of them.  Typically, the new season ran twenty-six weeks, followed by another twenty-six weeks of re-runs.  Since the networks usually ran the repeats in the same order as the shows originally aired, it was possible to watch the shows on one network when they were first ran, then when the re-runs kicked in, switch channels to catch what you missed earlier.

 

In a matter of two years, a new genre had taken over Saturday mornings.  But it was not fated to last.

 

The youngsters, of course, were rooted to their TV screens on Saturdays.  The problem was adults had taken a peek too, and some of them were dismayed at the violence that was part and parcel of the super-hero cartoons.  To be sure, violence was rampant on prime-time television, as well.  But, the critics argued, children were unable to distinguish between real violence and the make-believe of television; as such, they were more susceptible to having their little minds warped into believing that violence was acceptable.

 

Now, concern about violence on television and its impact on children was not a new thing.  Congress had initiated committee hearings on the subject as far back as 1951, and the ensuing years saw the creation of media interest groups with names that were a sign-painter’s headache:  the National Association for Better Radio and Television, the International Catholic Association for Radio and Television, the Children’s Program Review Committee.  But these organisations were pretty much toothless in their day.  Saturday-morning violence then was pretty much limited to the re-runs of Bugs Bunny, Tom and Jerry, and Popeye.  Most adults had watched those as children and heck, they hadn’t grown up to be bloodthirsty maniacs.  So the barking of the watchdog groups was ignored.

 

Then came the super-hero cartoons.  Here we had violence without the ameliorating exaggeration and obvious humour of Bugs or Popeye.  The super-hero cartoons regularly featured villains who had no compunction about hurting people or killing, and whom often were killed in return by the super-heroes.  Even all this mass mayhem might have gotten through---if one Saturday morning in 1968, a Massachusetts woman named Peggy Charren had decided to sleep in.

 

Instead, she rose early, because she thought it would be fun to watch the Saturday morning cartoons with her four-year-old daughter.  She did and she was appalled.

 

“All they had for children was wall-to-wall monster cartoons,” she would claim later.

 

That wasn’t quite accurate, but Mrs. Charren’s perceptions were enough for her to gather three other like-minded mothers in her living room and found Action for Children’s Television (ACT).  Their goal was simple:  improve children’s television.  Eliminating the violence in Saturday-morning cartoons was a good way to start, and the super-hero cartoons became prime targets.

 

The show with the biggest bull’s-eye was Space Ghost.  First, because its popularity made it a highly visible target; and second, because the cartoons appeared to be strictly violence from beginning to end, with no redeeming qualities to offset it.  (Apparently, the lesson of “good triumphing over evil” failed to make an impact on the interest groups.)  But, in ACT's esteem, shows like The Herculoids and Birdman and the Galaxy Trio were just as bad.  Even the more light-hearted Frankenstein, Jr., and the Impossibles was too much for Mrs. Charren and her supporters.

 

ACT spread its ire around.  It condemned the DePatie-Freleng cartoon Super President as being in abominable taste, coming so soon after President Kennedy’s assassination.  (It didn’t help that the show’s companion piece, Spy Shadow, was probably the most violent of the lot.)

 

Unlike the previous children’s advocacy groups, ACT’s grassroots began to flourish.  What it lacked in funding, its members made up in zeal and political savvy.  Also, their timing couldn’t have been better.

 

The mid-to-late ‘60’s was a period of turmoil in this country.  Conservative America was being assaulted by youthful rebellion and Viet Nam War protests.  Race riots broke out in Los Angeles and Chicago and Minneapolis.  Hunkered down in their suburban tract home, Mr. and Mrs. John Q. Citizen desperately sought the reason for all the unrest.  Blaming it on the violence shown in Saturday-morning cartoons made about as much sense as anything else.

Public surveys began pouring in.  According to Saturday Morning TV, by Gary Grossman (Dell Publishing Company, 1981), The Christian Science Monitor recorded 162 threats or actual acts of violence on Saturday morning, the majority of which occurred between 7:30 a.m. and 9:00 a.m., when an estimated 26.7 million children were watching.  The highly publicised National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence report would second these findings.  According to the report, children's television, as it currently existed, was a dangerous threat to the minds of young people.

 

Advertisers that ran Saturday-morning commercial spots deemed as being too violent for children were bombarded with petitions and threats of boycott.  Some of these companies, concerned over their family image, capitulated and withdrew their sponsorships. 

 

The watchdogs were beginning to bite.

 

But the death knell sounded for the Saturday-morning animated super-hero shows with the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy in mid-1968.  That's when the public pressure against violence on television rose to the red-line level.

Social backlash from these ultimate demonstrations of real-life violence had an effect on television programming across the board.  For one thing, it led to the cancellation of the ratings-high The Wild, Wild West. Other crime/adventure shows were ordered to severely reduce their levels of violence.  But nowhere was the effect felt more than in Saturday morning programming. The feeling was that the "little kiddies" were the most impressionable, and therefore, the most in need of protection.  Suddenly, everybody was jumping on the ACT bandwagon.



By the autumn of 1968, less than six months after the King and RFK assassinations, the networks' Saturday morning schedules began to show the effects of the public outrage.  Timothy and Kevin Burke, in Saturday Morning Fever (St. Martin’s Griffin, 1999), stated, “Many of the leading producers of animated cartoons ended up ritually confessing their sins and promising to do penance by producing non-violent shows for the 1969 season.” Friz Freleng, of D-FE, and Filmation’s Norm Prescott claimed to have been against the super-hero cartoons all along. 

 

Super President and Birdman were the first to go in the wake of public outcry.  NBC replaced them with a nature programme, Untamed World, and a children's version of The Hollywood Squares, called The Storybook Squares.  In due time, ABC and CBS followed suit.  As the super-hero cartoons dropped by the wayside, the growing void was filled by innocuous bits of fluff such as The Archie Show, The Wacky Races, and H. R. Pufanstuf. Super-hero shows that didn’t get the heave-ho right away were banished to the oblivion of Sunday mornings.


Additionally, all three networks appointed officials to oversee their children's television efforts.  These officials laid down the law and, backed by intense public and government scrutiny, the law was obeyed.  A network censor would sit in on script meetings and veto subject material right up to airtime.  The effects on the remaining action-adventure cartoons were profound.  Villains could no longer threaten people, only inanimate objects, and they could only attack the heroes with non-injurious weapons, such as nets or barriers.  Once entrapping the hero, the villain had to settle for a fast getaway, rather than finishing him off. 

 

If anything, the heroes had it worse.  They could not use anything that resembled a firearm or that emitted a ray.  Clubs and swords were forbidden.  They couldn’t even resort to a good old-fashioned right hook.  Punching or any other violence, even the relatively harmless act of hitting a character in the face with a pie, that a child could conceivably imitate was prohibited.

 

In other words, all the life was sucked out of them.

 

Hobbling super-heroes in such a manner looked ridiculous, so the costumed crime-fighters were soon replaced by lead characters who were rock musicians, gladsome teen-agers, or anthropomorphic animals, so the ludicrous limitations would fit in as comedy.  Accordingly, the cartoons shifted to non-violent "educational" themes.  The heroes of this new wave fought ecological ills rather than tough mobsters; they spoke in politically correct buzzwords; and they crusaded for socially commendable causes.

 

This led to the “moral of the day”.  These were painfully obvious lessons in good citizenship that encouraged the young viewers to practice conservation, avoid polluting, accept diversity, stay in school, and look both ways before crossing the street.  Sometimes, these lessons came in the form of a short epilogue after an episode, in which one of the characters would break the “fourth wall” and speak directly to the kids. That was like getting hit over the head with The Boy Scout Manual, but tolerable.  Because you knew the commercials would come next, you could skip the lessons and go into the kitchen and make a glass of chocolate milk or something.

 

Worse was when the writers inserted these social messages into the storylines themselves.  Inevitably, one character would be advised of the proper behaviour early on in the plot.  The character would ignore this lesson, only to find himself in trouble because of it.  Thus, he was shown the dire consequences of not acting in the socially acceptable manner.  And, of course, no matter how stupid or venal his transgression, he was always forgiven. 

 

It wasn’t that the moral was such a bad thing; it was the way they were shoehorned into the plot.  It made for awkward, uninspired writing. The intended lesson was so telegraphed that the youngest viewer could see what was coming.  Therefore, it made the offending one seem like a total dunce.  In some shows, it was always the same character who needed to be taught a lesson, and it made you wonder why the hell the rest of the gang put up with him. 

 

Oh, and what about CBS daytime executive Fred Silverman, the man who started the whole super-hero-cartoon wave?  Well, Silverman insisted that he had been planning the shift from super-heroes to comedy all along.  “Archie has been so successful that we’re dropping all our non-comedy shows like The Herculoids and Moby Dick and the Mighty Mightor to go into character comedy for five out of six hours on Saturday,” said Fred, in a 1969 interview for McCall’s magazine.

 

It took a while to die.  But by the fall of 1970, CBS withdrew its last four super-hero cartoons; NBC, three more; and ABC had cancelled five.  And the Saturday-morning Silver Age was over.

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Yes, as I caught most of this stuff in reruns, I have no sense of tying it to a specific time period.

The Baron said:

Interesting stuff.  I turned five years old in 1968, so I didn't really pick up on this kind of stuff.  My earliest memories of Saturday morning TV are from 1969.

Baron, when I first read JLA #30, I had zero knowledge of any of the characters. As the story made no reference to secret identities I assumed the JLA sat around their cave all the time just being Superman, Batman, etc. At five years old that was no stranger than anything else in the issue.

Yet Superman and Batman couldn't be doing that, since they're running around in their own comics, so it looked like they were the exceptions to the rule.

  The problem with censoring what children see is that there is no one size fits all.  Some kids will be able to handle the sight of violence, others won't.  Blanket censorship sacrifices the individual to the whole.  Naturally there is going to be some problems with that.

Commander Benson said:

The central problem with censorship is, and always has been:  who decides what the public can and cannot see?  The Founding Fathers recognised a clear and present danger in censorship; thus, they ensured, in the Constitution, that the government could not censor public media.  But private individuals and companies are free to censor whatever falls under their onuses.

I agree with the Fogey's stand on public advocacy groups and how they have no place imposing their standards on the general public.  However, I do recognise that it's not a cut-and-dried issue.  Let me demonstrate this by providing a real-life example with more practical applications.

Last year, there was a controversy in a middle-class neighbourhood of the city where I live.  It was a residential area that attracted all demographics---singles, marrieds, multi-racial.  There were many couples with children of all ages.  And in this neighbourhood lived a single middle-aged man who was a practising nudist.  If someone rang his doorbell, be it salesman, pizza-delivery guy, Jehovah's Witness, he presented himself in the buff.

Many families in the neighbourhood were outraged.  A few folks called the police to complain.  The problem was, the laws in this state make clear the elements of the offence of indecent exposure, to wit:  a person must, with intent, expose his or her genitalia to a member of the opposite sex, in public.  By legal defintion, if someone remains within the boundaries of his private residence, then he is not in public. Consequently, the police were unable to charge the nudist or compel him to stop answering his door naked.

Also bear in mind, no-one, not even the most ardent complainants, accused the nudist of flaunting his nudity; he didn't stand in his front window and wave at passers-by or sit on his front porch.  Nor did anyone accuse him of trying to lure children or of having any kind of sexual attitude toward children.  They simply didn't like the fact that, whenever he answered the door, he could be plainly seen by anyone who happened to pass by.  (The sidewalk and roadway was fairly close to the front door.)

The same thing was reported by the police, who sat up on the nudist's house for several days, hoping he might do something that could be stretched into a violation of the law. Nope.  All they saw was the man answering the door naked, and that, they admitted, his nudity was obvious even to a casual on-looker.

Because the police "refused" to arrest the man, some of the residents called the local news-network troubleshooter hotlines, so the situation hit all the local news programmes.  The reporters presented the facts that I've just relayed.  Police officials told the reporters that the law did not let them arrest the nudist; however, they would "talk to him".  (Which is police-speak for, we can't do anything to the guy, so we hope we can persuade him into doing what we want.)

Now, if you were a resident of this neighbourhood, say, two doors down from his house, and you had children, would you want someone---meaning, the authorities---to make this man stop standing in his doorway naked?  If you did, it would be understandable, but it would still be censorship.

My take on it?  The same as with violence on television:  it's up to the parents to address with their children, which is something many parents don't want to do.  Many parents prefer to simply prevent their children from seeing something, as opposed to dealing with the issue itself.  By refusing to address unpleasant issues, parents do their children a disservice.  It leaves the children unable to deal with such things when they do become exposed to them, as they inevitably will.

I've known, from time to time, a parent who proudly states, "We never let our children see any kind of violence whatsoever."  So what happens when Junior runs across the schoolyard bully or little Missy gets shoved out of line?  

I won't go as far as the Fogey did and assume that Peggy Charren used television as an electronic babysitter for her children, prior to discovering what was on Saturday mornings.  Kids are going to watch television, and it's not mandated that the parent has to sit down with them every time.  But Eric is correct in that Mrs. Charren and her group had no business dictating what the rest of the children in America were watching.  No, her responsibility was to 1) educate her children as to the difference between real life and fiction; or 2) not let her children watch shows in which she disapproved (which, as I stated above, is a flawed method, but is within her right to do, as a parent).

Mark O., you make a good point about censorship, and I'll take it a step farther. There are times when censorship is necessary; I am thinking about information from the government or military, in such times when that information must be secret for national security.

I do not believe that censorship has ever been necessary with regards to entertainment programming. The broadcasters have standards to which they must adhere, and these are, I think, all that should be required on the broadcasters' behalves. After that, there is an inherent responsibility upon the viewer to decide what they do and do not find acceptable.

Further, the only time that responsibility should be applied to others is in the situation we're describing here; with regards to children or others who are not capable of deciding for themselves what is acceptable content. That should stop at the front door... one has no right to apply their own standards to their neighbors.

I don't object to guidelines; a mature comic, or an R rated movie is a way to recommend, in advance, that content is not entirely acceptable to every audience. If it's not acceptable to ANY audience, then it will not be published/broadcast for very long; "Gourmet Cannibal Weekly" likely would be cancelled in three episodes.

Very obviously, children should not be reading "Playboy" (as an example) - but they cannot decide that. (Pictures of mommies! With no clothes - they're gonna take a bath. Or a nap.) It is a parent's (guardian's) responsibility to not only keep that away from youngsters who will not understand it, but to teach them what it is, and WHY it is not appropriate for them... yet.

And here, the biggest shadow of censorship is cast. Stopping people from seeing something tells them nothing except that they can't see it. Explaining why allows people decide, and learn, and think about what they're seeing/reading/hearing. And THAT'S what the important part is... using our brains to comprehend what is or isn't acceptable.

The problem with censorship in any entertainment medium is that the person being offended has to put in a lot of effort to be offended.  First they have to go out and buy the comic/radio/tv and then they have to watch it.  That's a lot of work to do just to get upset.  But they do it and then the find a way to bully the rest of society into going along with them.  This has been going on since societies have existed.  It's just part of what societies do.  

But there are all sorts of ways to censor.  It doesn't have to be official.  Society does it by scorn and abuse.  Speak an opinion that is unpopular more than once -I think the rule now decided by whoever decides such rules is 3 times- and you become 'that guy' who's words will never be taken seriously on the subject again, and so you just keep quiet because it's not safe to say anything without being smacked around a bit.  That's more the modern way of censorship now, especially on the net.

  The great thing about those early cartoons was that anything a kid didn't understand just wasn't really important.  I no more cared about how much violence there was than I questioned how the Lone Ranger could afford silver bullets.

"I no more cared about how much violence there was than I questioned how the Lone Ranger could afford silver bullets."

John Reid and his brother owned a secret silver mine. (FYI)

Scorn and abuse ain't censorship. Abuse (in the sense of death threats, doxxing, rape threats, etc.) is objectionable but scorn is a reasonable response to things someone feels are scornful (whether or not I agree with their assessment).

Mark S. Ogilvie said:

The problem with censorship in any entertainment medium is that the person being offended has to put in a lot of effort to be offended.  First they have to go out and buy the comic/radio/tv and then they have to watch it.  That's a lot of work to do just to get upset.  But they do it and then the find a way to bully the rest of society into going along with them.  This has been going on since societies have existed.  It's just part of what societies do.  

But there are all sorts of ways to censor.  It doesn't have to be official.  Society does it by scorn and abuse.  Speak an opinion that is unpopular more than once -I think the rule now decided by whoever decides such rules is 3 times- and you become 'that guy' who's words will never be taken seriously on the subject again, and so you just keep quiet because it's not safe to say anything without being smacked around a bit.  That's more the modern way of censorship now, especially on the net.

  The great thing about those early cartoons was that anything a kid didn't understand just wasn't really important.  I no more cared about how much violence there was than I questioned how the Lone Ranger could afford silver bullets.

Should be a story about a guy going over the west trying to collect his bullets to get rich from them.
 
Jeff of Earth-J said:

"I no more cared about how much violence there was than I questioned how the Lone Ranger could afford silver bullets."

John Reid and his brother owned a secret silver mine. (FYI)

Even then, with silver dollars in common use, no one was going to get rich collecting silver bullets. Gold bullets, maybe.

Ronald Morgan said:

Should be a story about a guy going over the west trying to collect his bullets to get rich from them.
 
Jeff of Earth-J said:

"I no more cared about how much violence there was than I questioned how the Lone Ranger could afford silver bullets."

John Reid and his brother owned a secret silver mine. (FYI)

Limited scorn isn't. but it reaches a level where censorship becomes a self exercise.  

Fraser Sherman said:

Scorn and abuse ain't censorship. Abuse (in the sense of death threats, doxxing, rape threats, etc.) is objectionable but scorn is a reasonable response to things someone feels are scornful (whether or not I agree with their assessment).

Mark S. Ogilvie said:

The problem with censorship in any entertainment medium is that the person being offended has to put in a lot of effort to be offended.  First they have to go out and buy the comic/radio/tv and then they have to watch it.  That's a lot of work to do just to get upset.  But they do it and then the find a way to bully the rest of society into going along with them.  This has been going on since societies have existed.  It's just part of what societies do.  

But there are all sorts of ways to censor.  It doesn't have to be official.  Society does it by scorn and abuse.  Speak an opinion that is unpopular more than once -I think the rule now decided by whoever decides such rules is 3 times- and you become 'that guy' who's words will never be taken seriously on the subject again, and so you just keep quiet because it's not safe to say anything without being smacked around a bit.  That's more the modern way of censorship now, especially on the net.

  The great thing about those early cartoons was that anything a kid didn't understand just wasn't really important.  I no more cared about how much violence there was than I questioned how the Lone Ranger could afford silver bullets.

I remember those Japanese cartoons when I lived in Long Beach, CA, in 1971-72, along with Super Chicken and George of the Jungle.

Commander Benson said:

Mark S. Ogilvie said:

When it all started to change I’m sure a lot of kids switched to reruns of the 3 Stooges on the UHF channels.

Yup. And that was also about the time when the Japanese adventure live-action shows and cartoons, such as Ultraman and 8th Man and Speed Racer started populating the UHF stations.  There was always something available on television for a kid to see someone get hit over the head.

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