Norman Lear: Politicians just wanted my money

Candidates came to Hollywood wanting help reaching people. Only "no one ever acted on a single idea I presented"

Published November 28, 2014 9:30PM (EST)

  (Reuters/Phil McCarten)
(Reuters/Phil McCarten)

You need a great gift. We have excerpts from some of the season's biggest entertainment biographies and memoirs all day -- guaranteed perfect for someone on your list. Excerpted from "Even This I Get to Experience"

My political life shot into high gear in the mid- to late seventies. The aroma of the dollars in my success led to my being solicited, it seemed, by every liberal, moderate, or progressive who held or ran for office in all fifty states. And calling me, from then to now, have been current leaders of the House and Senate, staff members and political advisers, the heads of political organizations, and a few presidents.

“Basically, you in Hollywood and we in D.C. are in the same business,” they would tell me. “We each seek the affection and approval of the American people and, most important, we seek to communicate with the American people.” Clearly I was doing better at that, they said, and oh so humbly they asked for my help. For forty years or so I’ve spent untold hours in meetings; at breakfasts, lunches, and dinners; and on phone calls offering up my thinking for this campaign and that cause, but—as unbelievable as this is to me even now—no matter how sincerely they seemed to listen, or how grateful they were for suggestions they couldn’t wait to put into effect, no one ever acted on a single idea I presented. Not ever. Every bit of contact following versions of that speech had to do with my checkbook and my Rolodex.

In 1973 I was invited to become president of the ACLU Foundation of Southern California, following my friend Stanley Sheinbaum. Because I was so busy, my presidency would be largely ceremonial, to help raise money and such, and I accepted on that basis. My value to the organization increased, however, with the popularity of the TV shows and my resultant celebrity. I admired the ACLU for standing on principle 100 percent of the time, even when they knew a position they had to take on a civil liberties issue would make them terribly unpopular. One such occurred during my presidency. When the National Socialist Party of America (derived from the American Nazi Party) decided to march in Skokie, Illinois—home to neighborhoods of Holocaust survivors— and was denied permission, the ACLU saw this as a free speech issue and interceded on its behalf (National Socialist Party v. Village of Skokie).

As an officer of the ACLU my name would likely have found its way into the press in any event, but I was also one of a number who wrote a check to help fund the case, and that became a big deal. One morning the phone rang around six a.m. It was Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne, who lived up the street and had just passed our house on their early-morning constitutional. They apologized for calling so early but thought I might wish to deal with a problem I didn’t know I had. The words “JEW HATER—NAZI SYMPATHIZER” had been printed in large red letters across our white front gate. What the Dunnes didn’t know was that a dead pig had been tossed over the fence and lay in our blood-splotched driveway. And it wasn’t paint that those hateful red words across our gate were inscribed with.

This was the work of the Jewish Defense League, a vigilante-styled group started by a rabbi, Meir Kahane. Jews did this? Led by a rabbi? The incident taught me everything I needed to know about the universality of all humanity. My bumper sticker reads, JUST ANOTHER VERSION OF YOU.

* * *

Complaints about sex and violence on television had for years been a convenient distraction from the real problems facing the nation. If one program can be said to have brought it to a head, it was 1974’s Born Innocent. Linda Blair had just starred as the possessed teenager in the hugely successful film The Exorcist—directed by my old friend Billy Friedkin—and NBC had hired her to headline the cast of a tawdry TV movie set in a girls’ detention home. Eager to capitalize on her popularity with America’s youth, the network scheduled the movie at eight o’clock on a Tuesday night despite its containing U.S. television’s first depiction of a lesbian gang raping a fourteen-year-old (Blair) in the shower with a plunger handle. When a subsequent real-life rape of a nine-year-old with a soda bottle was said to have been inspired by the movie, the notion of the early evening as a sex-and-violence-free zone took hold.

The earliest and most passionate proponent of this noble-sounding concept was Arthur Taylor, then midway through his four-year reign as president of CBS Entertainment. Mr. Taylor had been a top corporate executive at the world’s largest pulp and paper company, with no experience in broadcasting, but that didn’t stop him from suddenly and unilaterally declaring that the eight to nine p.m. hour (seven to eight in the central time zone) should be a “Family Viewing Hour.”

“We want American families to be able to watch television in that time period without ever being embarrassed,” read a statement from Taylor’s office. This assumed, of course, that there was uniformity in what would embarrass American families, that a significant number of families still gathered to watch television together, and that children who might have an interest in the shows that troubled Mr. Taylor all went to bed by nine o’clock—three premises any single one of which would have earned the man a failing grade in American Family Studies. But the absurdity of these perceptions didn’t stop ABC and NBC from joining CBS’s Mr. Taylor in his missionary zeal to make the TV screen safe for parents and children.

Of course, the “Family Viewing Hour” was nothing more than the networks’ draping themselves in the wholesomeness of the term. When people get upset with the amount of sex and violence on television, they tend to look west to blame Hollywood. Wrong. The content creators—the writers, producers, and directors—are not, and never have been, in control. Television is a business and, as with all businesses, it’s governed by supply and demand. If the demand didn’t exist at the networks, writers would not be supplying it. The blame lies to the east, on Wall Street and on the giant, often international media entities that answer to its short-term interests.

Nonetheless, sensing that a subject this visceral could provide political advantage, Congress got into the act. The House Appropriations Committee, which funds the Federal Communications Commission, pressured its chairman, Richard E. Wiley, to take action, and the FCC soon made Arthur Taylor’s brainstorm into a federal matter. With the three networks on board, the National Association of Broadcasters further demanded that local stations (the majority of them network affiliates) extend the embarrassment-proof programming back into the pre-prime-time hour as well. It was agreed in April 1975 that the Family Viewing Hour—or, as it was officially and more accurately known, the Prime Time Censorship Rule—would commence with the new TV season that September.

I was on vacation in Paris when I first heard how this symbolic attempt to clean up television would affect our company. CBS president Bob Wood called to tell me that All in the Family would have to be moved out of its Saturday eight p.m. time slot (from which it had reigned as TV’s number one show for four seasons) to a later hour “unless it can conform to Family Viewing time.” (Apparently the presence of the very word Family in its title was insufficient to inoculate it.) I kidded him and said, “Oh, so now you have a definition of Family Viewing time? Won’t you read it to me, Bob?”

“There is nothing to read,” he said, “but some of our people went through all of the twenty-four shows you made for this current season, and were you to make those shows next year, under the new Family Viewing concept, you would have to make considerable changes in twenty or twenty-one of them, and you would not be allowed to do two of them at all.”

And I said, “So we only made one show this season that was as clean as a whistle?” Bob Wood reiterated that if we were going into the next season with those scripts, that was the way it would be.

I said there was no way I was going to—or would have any idea how to—change America’s most popular show to meet the vague standards of decency that the Family Hour demanded. A few days later the fall schedule was announced, with All in the Family moved to Monday at nine p.m., where young minds, asleep now of course, could be spared its wicked ways.

Despite the fact that older minds must have found us in greater numbers, since the show remained number one the following season, it was instantly clear that there was a stigma attached to this move. All in the Family was virtually devoid of sex and violence, but its propensity for dealing with topical subjects was evidently deemed equally unfit for children, and the tendency of its characters to use the same language that children heard every day in their actual lives earned it banishment to the non-family-approved ghetto.

In addition to the demoralizing effect of being told that this show families had been watching and loving for five years was now considered bad for families, our instincts, confirmed by conversations with others in the industry, told us that there could be a serious economic penalty as well. Since there was now a considerable block of time (seven to nine p.m., counting the affiliates’ hour) during which local stations would not be able to run All in the Family, its value in the syndication market—where the real money that allowed producers to continue to make new shows was earned—would be significantly decreased. And if the show was not suitable for seven p.m., wouldn’t it seem at least as inappropriate for the late-afternoon after-school time slots?

Another by-product of this assault on freedom of speech was that writers of new shows were sanitizing their scripts to minimize potential offensiveness, because no one wanted to cut their chances of getting on the air by a third, which would be the effect if you were precluded from the Family Hour. Additionally, scripts that would have raised four or five objections were now raising dozens, and the intensity of the discussions escalated as well. The creative climate was becoming increasingly oppressive—there was a vapor that snuck under doors and through walls, even on shows ostensibly safe from Family Hour restrictions.

The best example from that season was what Program Practices came to call the “Raspberry to God” show. In the episode, Archie and Mike are arguing about religion, and whether or not Archie’s grandson would be brought up to believe in God. Mike’s attitude is, “He’ll grow up and make up his own mind,” and Archie’s is, “No, he won’t. He is going to go to church. He is going to be a good, God-fearing Christian.” Mike restates his opinion, Archie says that if Mike raises his son that way, “God will punish you,” and Mike says, “If I did believe in God, he wouldn’t be the kind of God you believe in. He wouldn’t be a punishing, vengeful God.” The argument continues in this vein, and at some point Mike gives Archie a raspberry, and Archie interprets it as his having given a raspberry to God.

Previously the network might, on occasion, have objected to this kind of thing in the script, and I would have said, “Let’s wait until you see it on its feet, and if you still have a problem we can talk about it.” Now they just decreed, “You can’t do it.” I suggested that we invite several clergymen from various religious factions to attend the pretaping run-through and said I’d be willing to abide by their decision if they deemed it sacrilegious. A man named Dick Kirschner from Program Practices rejected that idea, saying, “We don’t program for clergymen,” and assuring me that while he understood that the raspberry was not directed at God, others—i.e., our unsophisticated middle-of-the-country viewers—would not.

“There is going to be a knee-jerk reaction,” he said, “because they are talking about God and the raspberry comes in the middle of it and they are not going to hear it right. And there is going to be this knee-jerk reaction, and we don’t want that.”

“So,” I said, “you’re not programming for the clergy, you’re programming for the knee-jerkers.”

In the end we shot the show we wanted to shoot, and sometime later we got the word that it had been accepted by the network, so the ultimate result was that dozens of man-hours that could have been creatively spent were instead squandered on useless discussions that produced nothing but needless anxiety and animosity.

The combination of potential financial losses and the climate of unspoken censorship caused by the Family Viewing Hour prompted me to call my friend Geoff Cowan, then the head of UCLA’s communications law department, to ask if he thought we had First Amendment grounds for a lawsuit. He did, and a few days later, at Geoff’s suggestion, I met with a young attorney, Ron Olson, with the law firm Munger, Tolles—today, Munger, Tolles & Olson. (Charlie Munger is the partner of celebrated investor Warren Buffett.) I liked Olson immediately, and when I learned that he hailed from my adopted home state of Iowa, we linked like a pair of twelve-year-olds.

As I said in my deposition for the lawsuit, “A great deal of what you term excess violence occurs because there is a program department that is asking for action . . . and the euphemism for violence is action . . . In search of ratings, excess violence is coaxed out of writers and production companies by the very networks that bring on from another direction a Family Viewing Hour to lessen it.”

The foolishness and perniciousness of the Family Viewing Hour was evidently clear to Los Angeles district court judge Warren J. Ferguson, too. In November 1976 he ruled that the FCC’s Family Hour concept, and the NAB’s extension of it into pre–prime time, did indeed violate freedom of speech guarantees. “The desirability or undesirability of family viewing is not the issue,” Ferguson said, “but censorship by government or privately created review boards cannot be tolerated.”

Judge Ferguson’s decision was a source of joy and achievement for all the guilds. “One for the good guys,” we all felt on the creative end of TV. But little could change materially as long as the business end, the networks in particular, were addicted to and controlled by the numbers.

Excerpted from "Even This I Get to Experience" by Norman Lear. Reprinted by arrangement with Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © Norman Lear, 2014. All rights reserved.

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