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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The Baron said:

Also,, a kid would have to be spectacularly dimwitted if they thought that Batman could fly.

In recent movies there have been instances of Batman using his cape somehow to glide or soar. Since comic books are a lot less influential than movies, they might get it from this today.

Last year there was a lot of talk about a clown shooting someone, or someone shooting a clown, but none of these reports had proof it happened.

No, just lots of people dressing like clowns to mess with other people. Locally, where I am, some parents kept kids home from school on a day they'd heard that the clowns were going to turn up at schoolyards.

You can find all manner of reporting of clown sightings in mainstream media, but geekologie's provides more laughs.

Ronald Morgan said:

Last year there was a lot of talk about a clown shooting someone, or someone shooting a clown, but none of these reports had proof it happened.

I've read that there was an account of an adult giving a kid poisoned Halloween candy, but that it was done purposely, someone giving candy to a kid they didn't like.
The Baron said:

I had gone into it expecting to find that the whole thing was an urban legend, like what JD described above,  so that the fact that I found even one apparently real example surprised me. 

I mean, I recall that at a fairly early age, I understood that what I saw on TV or in comics wasn't real, and I was not (and am not) possessed of an especially keen intellect, so that if I encountered someone who couldn't tell fiction from reality, I probably would have thought of them as being a little dimwitted.   

I've been a Three Stooges fan as far back as I can remember, but I never had to either hit someone over the head with a hammer, or be hit over the head with a hammer to know that you shouldn't do that sort of thing in real life.

The topic I've been waiting for. I hope you won't mind, Commander, that I have a few replies to this...

ITEM: I have given a name to my pain and my rage… and it is Peggy Charren. (Well, Frederic Wertham too, but that’s a topic for another day.)

Ever since the Stooges, stage violence has been funny. Hanna-Barbera knew it (Tom and Jerry); Warner Brothers knew it (need I list them?); even Walter Lanz and Terrytoons knew it (Woody Woodpecker and Mighty Mouse). Kids that were watching these in the 40s and 50s didn’t turn into monsters – or at least, not due to those features. There were a ton of Saturday movie serials – episodic fantasy also loaded with violence and good guys fighting (and BEATING) bad guys. Westerns, gangster, war… I think the only genre that didn’t have a lot of violence was soap operas and romances (and even then, an occasional duel slipped in, I’m sure.) Kids and teens watching these didn’t turn into degenerate fighting or killing machines.

So the Saturday morning fare was an honest attempt to provide action and adventure… and that didn’t come without SOME violent activity, granted. But as noted, it also showed that good ALWAYS beat bad.

Disney cartoons did not show a lot of violence, granted… and until the 90s, Disney cartoons just didn’t make ratings on Saturday morning. Perhaps there’s a couple of exceptions I can’t recall right now, but while silly works just fine… it seems that it didn’t sell for long to the kids. (Oh, and let’s consider the sport Goofy cartoons, or pretty much ANY Donald Duck cartoon… that ought to scare any kid straight. :)

The main show that I saw as the kick off of the “death to super-heroes” era was “Scooby-Doo, Where Are You?” I watched it because, at eight years old, I watched pretty much what was shown on Saturday morning. But it didn’t much hold my attention… not the way the super hero cartoons did. This opened the flood gates of the mystery solving cartoons at which Hanna-Barbera excelled… but which weren’t for me.
ITEM: This is where a bad trend began (or perhaps came to the fore), which a lot of parents didn’t want to admit. Peggy Charren got on her damned bandwagon because she finally watched Saturday morning cartoons with her kids.

Let me repeat that: FINALLY. Up until then, she let her kid watch whatever the kid wanted without supervising, without checking, and apparently without much caring. Her responsibility was to oversee her child’s activities… and she didn’t. I will not comment on her qualifications as a parent overall… but in one very obvious situation here, she left her child to the television, trusting it would act as an electronic babysitter.

Television can be very good, and it can be very bad. Today, as has been noted, we have 600 channels of nothing good on. Back then, it was three channels. But it was still the same scenario; a child cannot discern what they should and should not watch, and it should not be the network's responsibility for what they air. They're are entirely and solely in the business of making money. Judging and restricting content? That’s a parent’s job.

Maybe Miss Charren got on her crusade because she was embarrassed or ashamed by her lack of parenting of her child, and decided that if it happened to her, it must be happening to thousands of other parents – so she, Peggy Charren, would become the advocate to protect all other young people in America, and save them with her own very specific set of morals and standards.

This leads to a discussion far beyond the scope of Saturday morning cartoons. Personal responsibility vs. Societal responsibility toward the upbringing of one’s children. Myself, I believe that parents should raise and train their children so that they know right from wrong, and the proper behavior – but that’s not important, and CANNOT BE UNIVERSALLY APPLIED. Every child is different; treating them uniformly is a gross injustice and abrogation of responsibility. All I can say is that no one ever had to tell me or my brothers not to use a chainsaw on each other.
ITEM: As for jumping off of a roof… anyone stupid enough to jump off a roof gets what they deserve. Eliminating Superman cartoons didn’t eliminate Superman comics… ah, but there we go back to Frederic Wertham again.

Look, there are unintelligent people in every generation, who do incredibly stupid things, and who pay the price. But if there are 1000 children, and ONE of them jumps off a roof… why focus on what the other 999 are doing? THEY are okay. THEY didn’t do anything wrong.

This has happened from generation to generation. “Oh, those science fiction books!” “Oh, that rock and roll music!” “Oh, those monster movies!” “Oh, those cartoons!” “Oh, that disco music!” “Oh, those role playing games!” There was always something that caused one or two kids unhinged… and then, let loose the floodgates of censorship and restriction!

ITEM: Commander, I hope I’m not stepping on your toes here… but this cartoon is kinda out of the silver age, so I hope I’m supplementing and not usurping. When NBC decided to give Hanna-Barbera a slot on their Saturday mornings in 1977, they created several new cartoons for an hour long format. Remember CB Bears? It was another of the formulaic H-B cartoons of the time of mystery/crime solving anthropomorphic. That hour also included “Blastoff Buzzard”, “Heyyy, It’s the King!”, “Posse Impossible”, “Shake, Rattle, and Roll”, and “Undercover Elephant” – all standard kid fare in that era. And they also tacked on an extra half hour… featuring Space Ghost. The original cartoons (hold your horses, Billy, I’m coming to you.) The middle cartoon wasn’t Dino Boy (somebody smarted up), but Frankenstein Jr. – the “sandwich” cartoon that was actually a super hero cartoon that wasn’t tied to another show. (The Galaxy Trio was contractually connected with Birdman if I remember right… but it doesn’t matter in this case.)

Apparently, ratings on that were so good that H-B got to try a super hero cartoon series again. In September of 1981, Hanna-Barbera’s “Space Stars” hit the air. This included Space Ghost, the Herculoids, the Teen Force (probably the new Galaxy Trio equivalent), and – sigh – Astro and the Space Mutts. If you didn’t watch these, they weren’t quite the quality of the original cartoons. But H-B did get Gary Owens and Mike Road back (Space Ghost and Zandor, respectively), and while these weren’t nearly as violent as the originals… they were something.

They also introduced something I had loved since the “Council of Doom” sequence… a common universe. Characters crossed over between cartoons, and the new Teen Force cartoons introduced a common Darkseid-ish villain in Uglor. Sort of a cross between a gorilla, a vulture, and Darth Vader, he was the Big Bad for the Teen Force; and he also fought the Herculoids and Space Ghost on occasion.

The other crossover event was the Space Stars Finale, where two of the lead features would team up. It was absolutely delightful to me. I LOVE a good team up, and these were my favorite cartoon heroes! (Well, cartoon only… Superman always holds a special place for me.)

And the concession to the kiddies… Astro and the Space Mutts. Yup, it was the Jetson’s Astro, now speaking much more clearly, and a team of incompetent space agents, led by a human office – Space Ace (voiced by Michael Bell.) They were a mystery solving anthropomorphic group and were the “Scooby Doo” group of Space Stars. They even crossed over with the Herculoids in the Space Stars finale once. But really… the less said about them, the better.

Eric L. Sofer said:

Let me repeat that: FINALLY. Up until then, she let her kid watch whatever the kid wanted without supervising, without checking, and apparently without much caring. Her responsibility was to oversee her child’s activities… and she didn’t. I will not comment on her qualifications as a parent overall… but in one very obvious situation here, she left her child to the television, trusting it would act as an electronic babysitter.

So obviously her child became a career criminal, right?

Television can be very good, and it can be very bad. Today, as has been noted, we have 600 channels of nothing good on.

I hope you’re exaggerating to make a point. There are more good shows available today than ever before. Granted, few of them are for little kids.

As for jumping off of a roof… anyone stupid enough to jump off a roof gets what they deserve.

It never occurred to me to jump off a roof. I think it’s call natural selection.

This has happened from generation to generation. “Oh, those science fiction books!” “Oh, that rock and roll music!” “Oh, those monster movies!” “Oh, those cartoons!” “Oh, that disco music!” “Oh, those role playing games!” There was always something that caused one or two kids unhinged… and then, let loose the floodgates of censorship and restriction!

There is the popular urban legend that Dungeons and Dragons caused a couple of teens to go crazy and kill or harm another teen. This was actually a (desperate) defense attorney strategy, not what actually happened.

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).

There is a theory, hopefully an exaggeration, that constant unearned praise and over-protection children leaves them unequipped in many ways to deal with adulthood.

Richard Willis said:

There is a theory, hopefully an exaggeration, that constantly praising and protecting children leaves them unequipped in many ways to deal with adulthood.

In my experience, it's a valid theory and not exaggerated.

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