Sunday, November 6, 2011

1964: When Violence Was Fun

   There are those who would assert that in modern, Digital Age America, there is a serious problem with depictions of violent acts on the many action-adventure shows, realistic dramas, crime and mystery programs, gory occult melodramas, and uncut movies on the hundreds of channels available to television viewers via satellite and cable, not to mention Netflix. But the culture of violence today is apparently nothing like it was back in 1964. This according to a recently discovered article that ran in the November 1964 issue of the Ladies’ Home Journal (also reprinted in the February 1965 Reader’s Digest) titled “We’re Teaching Our Children That Violence Is Fun” by Eve Merriam. 

   In that supposedly more innocent era when most television sets were black and white, the picture quality was awful, the choices were limited to three network affiliates and maybe one or two local independent stations (and only if you lived near a major city), and all broadcasting was over the air, blood, gore, guts, mayhem, and other horrible things were being depicted all over the place to the amusement of viewers young and old, or at least that’s the impression one gets from reading this particular article. It knocks the idea people have of early 1960s television being all cute family comedies and the Ed Sullivan Show right on the head.

   “A report to the Federal Communications Commission states that between the ages of five and 14 the average American child witnesses the violent destruction of 13,000 human beings on television,” the article claimed alarmingly, adding that children spend more time watching television than any other activity outside of sleep and school.

   The 1964 article goes on to summarize a survey of one week’s programming on four commercial television stations “in a major U.S. city” conducted by researchers at Stanford University:

   “In a five-day period, Monday-Friday, programs showed a stabbing in the back, four attempted suicides (three successful), four people falling or pushed over cliffs, two cars rolling over cliffs, two attempts to run cars over persons on the sidewalk, a raving psychotic loose in a flying airliner, two mob scenes (in one of which the mob hangs the wrong man), a horse grinding a man under its hooves, 12 murders, 16 major gunfights, 21 persons shot (apparently not fatally), 21 other violent incidents with guns (ranging from near-misses to shooting up a town), 37 hand-to-hand fights, an attempted murder with a pitchfork, two stranglings, a fight in the water, a woman being gagged and tied to a bed, and a great deal of miscellaneous violence, including a hired killer stalking his prey, two robberies, a pickpocket working, a woman killed by falling from a train, a tidal wave and a guillotining.” No specific programs or networks were named in this summary.

   The report went on to say, according to the article, “The picture of the adult world presented on the children’s hour (defined as “between four and nine PM when young people do most of their watching”) is heavy in physical violence, light in intellectual interchange, and deeply concerned with crime.”

   While the article cited numerous supposed examples of violent content on television, particularly on westerns, crime and adventure shows, few actual shows were named, beyond passing mentions of Gunsmoke, The Untouchables (which had ended its run the previous year) and Combat, a World War II drama specifically called out in the article for all its licensed merchandise, presumably for children.

   “A child can be in a state of total combat from morning until night. He can wear an official Combat uniform and helmet…wind a Combat watch…read a Combat comic book…play a Combat board game…carry a Combat field medical kit complete with bandages and stretcher…throw a rubber Combat grenade (10 points for knocking out infantry, 100 for a tank)…and he can sport several different kinds of Combat guns.”

   [Ironically one of the stars of Combat, Vic Morrow, met a violent demise in real life in 1982, when he was struck and decapitated by a helicopter’s rotor blade in an accident during the filming of a Twilight Zone movie.]

   While the article primarily railed against violence-saturated television programs, it cited other examples of how our culture was “teaching our children that violence is fun” such as movies, comic books and toys for small children. “(M)ake-believe weapons for children are part of the daily scene, ranging all the way from bomber models to gun-shaped teething rings,” the article claimed. “On Christmas and birthdays, doting grandparents give toddlers the latest mock-up missile. This year, toy grenades are popular.” At least there weren’t any video games to bitch about back then.

   The consequences of all of this, the article contended, were dire. Juvenile delinquency was said to be on the increase, as well as disrespect for fellow human beings and lack of empathy, although the article makes no actual link to TV and other entertainment violence, it merely suggests that they must be related in some way, and damnit, something has got to be done about it!

   And in any event, the westerns, crime and adventure shows of the era never showed blood, no humans or animals were actually harmed and the good guys always prevailed in the end. The lesson was always crime in fact does not pay, so to say that such programs were inspiring juvenile or other crime was patently absurd. There might have been a problem, or maybe it wasn’t nearly as bad as the pundits claimed, but then as now, these pundits, activists and others with (excuse the expression) axes to grind were always great for finger pointing and simplistic solutions that never do a thing to actually solve whatever the problem might be.

   In the ensuing years of the 1960s after the article was published, actual violence, mayhem and bloody gore were seen on television sets nightly across the country, during the dinner hour when the whole family was watching, on the Huntley-Brinkley Report and the Cronkite News. Color film footage of battlefield scenes and street executions in Vietnam, club-wielding police clashing with protesters in the United States and elsewhere, Soviet tanks rolling over citizen resistance. It was enough to make Combat, The Untouchables and Gunsmoke look downright tame.


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