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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Take it as far away as possible!  I thought that show as incredibly lame.  As I recall, one of my brothers must have liked it and there wasn't anything better on any of the other channels so it got left on, unless it coincided with a football game my dad wanted to watch, in which instance I'd go to my room to read or otherwise find something else to do as I loathed football.

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.

Uncle Croc must have liked it the way he kept advertising it in his theme song.

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