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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Lee Semmens said:

So, it's because of people like Peggy Charren that 1970s and 80s cartoons and children's shows are so bland, unexciting and often moralizing.

Take the live-action show Shazam!, for example.

Yes, Mrs. Charren and her ilk made the same mistake so many parents do:  not realising that children, even very young children, understand more than the parents think they do.

My elderly aunt Dorothy died when I was seven, and I remember distinctly my mom and dad being dressed and ready to leave, to go to her funeral, and how they hemmed and hawed and looked uneasy at trying to explain to me where they were going.  I hadn't been particularly close to Dorothy, but they still hadn't even told me that she had died.  I knew, because I had overheard family conversation that the adults thought I was too young to understand.  No, Mom and Dad hadn't told me because they thought I wouldn't understand the concept of death.

But I fully comprehended what death was.  I knew it wasn't "going to sleep", and I knew no-one came back from it.  Nor did I fear it---because like all young people think, death was something that happened only to old folks and it wasn't going to happen to me anytime soon.  (I'll point out here that I said children understand more, not that they're immune to over-confidence.)

The same held true for what I saw on television and in the cinema.  I knew there were no such things as vampires or werewolves or monsters from outer space, and I knew they weren't going to get me in my sleep.  And I knew the guy I just saw gunned down on the street on The Untouchables wasn't really dead; that it was just fiction, like what I read in books and comics.

And every kid I talked to knew the same things.

Someone might say, "That's all well and good, commander, but what about those kids you read about, the ones who tied bath towels around their necks and jumped off a roof because they thought a cape would make them fly like Superman?"*

Sure, I'll stipulate that there are some children who are just too stupid, or too caught up in their enthusiasm, to not be swayed.  But those youngsters are not for any children's advocacy group to correct.  It is the responsibility of the individual child's parents to see that he's squared away on what's real and what's fiction.

Mrs. Charren was perfectly within her rights as a parent to prevent her children from seeing things on television of which she didn't approve.  But Mrs. Charren wasn't my mother.


Just how did that idea that his cape is what enables Superman to fly get started, anyway? That's one of the dumbest things I ever heard.  Yet, in a story I'll tell sometime, that was my introduction to the fact that most people dislike and resent having their beliefs proven wrong.

Has any kid actually done the Superman cape thing?

Apparently, one, at least.

I recall reading that in the 60s, Adam West had to do a public service announcement (or its groovy equivalent) over in England because kids were jumping off things, thinking that Batman could fly.

He had to convince them that the Caped Crusader, despite the cape, could not fly. Though where that notion started in the UK, I have no idea!

Some people object to the idea that violence can solve problems as such. There's also a strand in our culture of hostility to fantasy, although I think it's less strong than it once was.

There's also an age issue. Material which is appropriate for older children can be scary for younger children. I found Lost in Space scary as a little kid and afterwards avoided it.

That's the thing with urban legends-- often, they represent something that happened or sort of happened or was reported to have happened once. Then it becomes reality in people's minds. I've written a fair bit about these matters, and there are entire websites dedicated to them, but, truth be damned,  hordes of kids leap off roofs every year thinking they're Superman, receive razor blades in Halloween apples,* the ACLU is trying to remove crosses from American cemeteries,** and teens get drunk from alcohol-soaked tampons.***

Also, science can't explain how bumblebees fly, Catherine the Great died under certain hoarse conditions, and General Pershing stopped Islamic terrorism for years by killing people with bullets soaked in pig's blood.**** The current POTUS has repeated that last one at least twice.

*Based on something that has maybe occurred once or twice.

**Based on a gross misrepresentation of an incident involving one cemetery, and an ACLU attempt to defend the right of soldiers to be buried in graves marking their religious faiths.

***Moral panic based on something that is almost impossible to pull off, causes serious pain, and doesn't actually work.

**** Complete B.S.

There was an episode of Adventures of Superman where Clark explained his cape didn't give him the power to fly. While it was just a dream, there was a show where Lois and Jimmy get the power and neither wore a cape. The info is usually there if people will look for it.

Being at a couple of family funerals at a very young age, I knew exactly what death was before kindergarten.

Has any kid actually done the Superman cape thing?

Apparently, one, at least.

I found other articles detailing the same event and discovered the same problem as in the earliest account I could find.

In his book Flights of Fantasy (BearManor Media, 2009), Michael J. Hayde reports:

According to the Associated Press and New York Herald Tribune, on March 18 [1955], "a Brooklyn lad who believes what he sees on television" named Walter Adams, Jr., age four, took his two-year-old brother Kevin into the bathroom "to show him how Superman operates.  He climbed up on the bathtub, chinned himself with great effort up to the window."  The Adams apartment was on the fourth floor.

"Two girls from the project . . . were passing 40 feet below.  They noticed Walter and shouted, 'Better get inside.'"  Undaunted, the young boy "took off like a high-diver with his hands together [and] landed in a snowbank.  A clump of bushes also helped break his fall."  Immediately notified by the two girls what happened [sic], his Marine father, Sgt. Walter Adams, called for an ambulance; luckily, doctors found nothing more serious than scratched hands.  "Said Walter gleefully, 'I played Superman,'" but when his mother threatened to punish him, "the three-foot-four-inch Superman and flyer began to weep. Mom, I won't do it again,' he said."

I researched this story on-line and found a few more hits relating to it.  None of them contained any more information than the one cited by Mr. Hayde, and all of them, including the one found by Mr. Hayde, contain an omission.  It's the same omission that stands out in all of the reports I found about the poor Bronx boy that you indicated, Baron.

That is to say, none of them indicated that either of these kids was wearing a towel or some other sort of fabric as a cape.  Both youngsters simply stated that they were emulating Superman.

Attempting to copy the feats of a fictional hero goes to the issue of knowing what's real and what's fantasy. As I said above, there has always been a small percentage of youngsters who are unable to discern the difference (still, the high majority of kids can). It falls upon the parents of these ungrasping kids to settle them straight on that sort of thing.

But as to my sidebar question of "What gives kids the idea that it's his cape which enables Superman to fly?", neither of these accounts illustrates or addresses it.

I looked for other documented stories on-line of kids trying to fly like Superman, but all I was able to find was anecdotal accounts.  If children were actually prone to trying to fly like Superman, because they saw it on television or in the movies, then we'd be reading monthly, or even weekly, newspaper accounts of kids getting hurt or killed from jumping off roofs.  Every hospital would have its own "They Thought They Were Superman" wing in its pædiatric ward.

Interesting stuff, Commander.

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.

Though I point out I categorized this as a "based on something that happened once or twice" variety of urban legend.

I suspect somewhere we already have a discussion of why superheroes wear capes in the first place, never mind that they don't make you fly. Although, in cosplay circles, a stylish cape might make you fly.

Yeah, I'll show myself to the window.

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. 

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

(On a side note, it occurs to me that I don't remember when I learned that Bruce Wayne was Batman or that Clark Kent was Superman. By contrast, I remember roughly when I learned that Barry Allen and/or Jay Garrick was the Flash, or that Tony Stark was Iron Man, but those two I learned by some kind of cultural osmosis.)

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