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The Censor and the Civil Libertarian

Two new books offer different views on what America watches, and what children are not supposed to see

Alfred Schneider '52 graduated from Harvard Law School a passionate First Amendment defender, illustrationa "strict constructionist in the interpretation of free speech." In his new book, he champions free expression and details his zeal to do everything is his power to ensure that controversial, groundbreaking material is aired.

He, in case you were wondering, is the censor.

Schneider pursues the role not unlike Nixon going to China: a person ostensibly unsuited for the task but making the most of it for that very reason. In The Gatekeeper: My 30 Years as a TV Censor, Schneider recounts his career as vice president for policies and standards at ABC from 1960 to 1990, years of tumultuous change in the nation and on its TV screens. The job, unique to the broadcast medium of television, balanced the responsibilities of a government licensee and the necessities of a profit- and advertiser-driven business. While lobbied by groups--from gay rights advocates to the religious right--that wanted to shape network programming to their own agendas, Schneider envisioned the television censor as foremost "a guardian of the public interest."

At the same time, he understood that the creative community must have an opportunity to innovate. He shepherded through production the TV movie Something about Amelia, which dealt with incest; The Day After, a TV movie that portrayed the aftereffects of a nuclear attack on the United States; and Soap, which featured the first openly gay major character in a network television series.

Schneider of course did censor also. In his book, he recounts many battles, including one in which he nearly came to blows with Danny Arnold, the creator of Barney Miller, over Schneider's refusal to allow the words "hell" and "damn" to be used on the series. Though that debate may seem quaint now in an era when the word "asshole" is uttered on the same network he worked for, Schneider writes that his work reflected mainstream values of the times.

"As I looked at how I approached the portrayal of violence, the expression of love and sex, and the intertwining of the breaking of taboos in this three-decade review, I realized that television is the diary of our lives. Television programming is ultimately the culture."

He never anticipated, as his career began, that he would play a part in shaping that culture. After graduating from HLS, Schneider took a job at ABC, eventually advancing to become the assistant director of business affairs, and he later worked as assistant to the president at CBS. Schneider returned to ABC in 1960, accepting a newly established position formed in reaction to the quiz show and payola scandals that rocked the industry.

"My job was to see that we succeeded as a network," Schneider said in an interview with the Bulletin. "I had to review the program in such a way that we didn't cast off the program. At the same time we had to do it in a way that the advertiser would support it, and therefore you exercise a review of the degree of sexuality and violence and [consider] how much the advertiser would hear from the viewer. And the fact was that you had a license at stake. There was a great deal of government regulatory process."

Through his 30 years on the job, Schneider saw plenty of sex and violence. His network ushered in the debate, still raging, over mass-produced violent entertainment, with series like The Untouchables in the 1960s. The '70s introduced "jiggle TV," with shows like Charlie's Angels and Three's Company increasing viewership on ABC but also increasing calls to restrict sexual content. Loftier--and even more controversial--themes emerged in that era too, with the medium's first airing of subjects such as homosexuality and abortion. And Schneider worked in the trenches, tweaking scripts and storylines, cajoling and beseeching the creative talent to allow him, as he writes, "to act responsibly, to preserve a sense of fairness and good taste, to respect the dignity of man, to balance interests that the medium serves, to permit the exploration of new ideas and examination of old practices."

The pushing of boundaries has continued in television without his stewardship, though, this censor said, not nearly enough.

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