Have you ever heard of The Code of Practice for Television Broadcasters? If not, you’ve probably seen its seal after the closing credits of TV shows that originally aired between 1952 and the late 1970s.
Of the many factors that separate shows from the Comfort TV era from the current television landscape, the Code of Practice may be the most consequential – and the most divisive.
In four single-spaced, two-column pages, this document provided a set of guidelines specifying what is acceptable content for a television series, and what is not.
According to its Preamble, “It is the responsibility of television to bear constantly in mind that the audience is primarily a home audience, and consequently television’s relationship to the viewers is that between guest and host.”
This is the first sign that these guidelines have long since passed into a bygone age. Would you welcome any of the Real Housewives, or the inhabitants of the Big Brother house, as guests in your home?
The Code continues: “Television, and all who participate in it, are jointly accountable to the American public for respect for the special needs of children, for community responsibility, for the advancement of education and culture…for decency and decorum in production, and for propriety in advertising.”
Antiquated? Perhaps. Words like ‘decorum’ and ‘propriety’ are no longer prevalent among television executives and producers, unless they are used as examples of what doesn’t draw ratings or sell enough Cialis.
The Preamble is followed by a list of subjects that must be approached with prudence. More quotes from the text:
“Profanity, obscenity, smut and vulgarity are forbidden”
“Attacks on religion and religious faiths are not allowed”
“In reference to physical or mental afflictions and deformities, special precautions must be taken to avoid ridiculing sufferers from similar ailments and offending them or members of their families.”
“The presentation of cruelty, greed and selfishness as worthy motivations is to be avoided”
“Criminality shall be presented as undesirable and unsympathetic. The condoning of crime and the treatment of the commission of crime in a frivolous, cynical or callous manner is unacceptable”
“The use of animals, both in the production of television programs and as a part of television program content, shall, at all times, be in conformity with the accepted standards of humane treatment.”
“Racial or nationality types shall not be shown on television in such a manner as to ridicule the race or nationality”
“News reporting should be factual, fair and without bias”
I’ll pause for a moment until you stop laughing at that last one.
What is being communicated is not primarily about censorship; unlike the Comics Code Authority, which famously rejected an issue of Spider-Man because it depicted drug use, the Code of Practice allowed a wide range of topics to be included in television dramas or comedies, including drugs. However, it required that behavior that is considered wrong, illegal or destructive be presented as such.
As the document later states in a section on children, “Crime, violence and sex are a part of the world they will be called upon to meet, and a certain amount of proper presentation of such is helpful in orienting the child to his social surroundings. However, violence and illicit sex shall not be presented in an attractive manner, nor to an extent such as will lead a child to believe they play a greater part in life than they do.”
Still, the question becomes: Are these restrictions that limit creativity? Or did the Code establish protections that helped television to maintain a suitable standard in programming content that would be preferred by the majority of its viewers?
It was inevitable that television would eventually grow beyond any concerns over being a well-behaved guest in a viewer’s home. The cable TV industry was not limited by whatever broadcast restrictions remained at the time of its introduction, and networks have been forced to keep up with edgier content. Many of the series aimed at mature viewers are now among the medium’s most honored and acclaimed.
But I am grateful that television, in its first three decades, strived for something beyond entertainment. Dozens of the shows created during this era remain among the finest ever produced. And if you have children you can let them watch any of them without worrying about inappropriate content.
If you would like to read the Code of Practice for Television Broadcasters in its entirety, you can do so here.