Friday, August 16, 2019

When Classic TV Saved the Planet

If you think there’s never been more concern about the environment than there is now, you obviously weren’t watching television in the early 1970s. 

Ecology is not a word you hear much anymore but it was everywhere back then, defining a movement with its roots in books like The Population Bomb and Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. The Environmental Protection Agency was founded in 1970, the same year that the first Earth Day was celebrated. 

1970 was also the year that television picked up on the crusade, beginning in January with an episode of Room 222 called “Once Upon a Time There Was Air You Couldn’t See.” 

The setting is Pete Dixon’s class at Walt Whitman High School in Los Angeles, a city already infamous for its air quality thanks to all the smog jokes in Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show monologues. Two of Pete’s students raise more than $600 to film a 60-second TV commercial, urging viewers to support upcoming legislation to study the smog problem. 

What I like most about the result is how the ad sounds exactly like what two inner city kids would create, without the help of the episode’s writers to make them sound more polished. It’s arguably more effective because it is simple and sincere. 

Two months later, That Girl aired “Soot Yourself,” in which Ann joins an anti-pollution group that pickets the magazine where her fiancé works. 

There’s not much comedy here, just lots of self-righteous speeches, culminating in a wintertime dinner party during which Ann shuts off the heat to freeze her guests (because the building furnace is killing birds and grass and flowers and trees), and serves rancid food because…whatever. 
This kind of hammer-over-the-head approach, when people are just hoping for a pleasant 30 minutes of entertainment, tends to alienate more than it rallies the troops. Episodes like this are a reminder of how some people can become obnoxious even in support of a good cause. There’s still a lot of that going around. 

That same month another take on the same topic aired that was even more impassioned, but also more embarrassing. 

A Clear and Present Danger was a 90-minute pilot for the Hal Holbrook series The Senator. That show was a remarkable look at Washington politics that still holds up, but it stumbled badly out of the gate with a story that plays like the Reefer Madness of air pollution. 

It opens with prospective senatorial candidate Hayes Stowe arriving in Los Angeles to visit a beloved law professor. He arrives just after the man has died in the hospital. His doctor intones somberly, “I think he would have made it…if it weren’t for the smog.” 

That sets Hayes out on a mission to make pollution the central issue of his Senate campaign, which results in his being dubbed “the Paul Revere of smog.” 

The nadir of the drama comes when Hayes allies himself with a wild-eyed college professor who insists that breathable air on planet earth will not be around much longer. It reminded me of a 1962 Donna Reed Show episode in which an astronomer predicts that man will have visited Mars and Venus by the 1980s. It’s never a good idea to take television’s predictions about our future too seriously. 

A key component of the ecology movement was getting the message out to the next generation, so they would grow up to be responsible stewards of the planet. It was certainly a prominent classroom topic when I was in elementary school, and was incorporated into many of the children’s shows back then, once again beginning in 1970. Remember the Willie Wimple shorts on Sesame Street

That same year, The Archies sang about how “the little fish ain’t growin’, cause the dirty river ain’t flowin’” in a song called “Mr. Factory.” 

The Bugaloos (1970) was Sid and Marty Krofft’s contribution to the movement. The entire series is a paean to the superiority of natural landscapes over man-made urban jungles. The Bugaloos live a carefree life in Tranquility Forest, singing and celebrating the simple joys of nature. They are constantly under threat from Benita Bizarre (Martha Raye), loud, crass, and garish, like the city where she lives. 

The episode “On a Clear Day” has Benita pumping orange smog into the forest after they refuse to let her perform in a rock festival. If you’ve heard her sing you know they made the right choice. 

Would the ecology message get through to the kids? Filmation’s Ark II presented a future in which it didn’t. The opening narration describes its cataclysmic premise:  “For millions of years earth was fertile and rich. Then, pollution and waste began to take their toll. Civilization fell into ruin. This is the world of the 25th century.” 

By 1971 it wasn’t just the shows but the commercials between the shows that delivered a planet-saving message. That was the year Woodsy Owl made his first appearance and exclaimed: “Give a hoot, don’t pollute!” And if that didn’t get your attention, this one surely did:

It remains one of the most famous public service announcements of all time. In fact, let’s be honest – given how often it ran and for how many years, it was certainly more memorable and effective than any of the shows previously described. 

But did any of these efforts have any real lasting impact? The United States did pass many pieces of environmental legislation in the early 1970s, such as the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the National Environmental Policy Act. Perhaps television served to educate the public as to why such measures were necessary.

Has the climate change debate produced a similar spate of sitcoms and dramas about that issue? I’m not the best person to ask as I watch very few current scripted programs. What I do know is that once again we are in a moment when some prominent politicians are putting timelines on the end of the world. Even with TV’s spotty track record in prognostication, If I were betting on when civilization was going to fall into ruin I’d put my money on Ark II over Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez. 


  1. Mr. Hofstede, what is your overall opinion of "Captain Planet and the Planeteers"? Did you find a few episodes to be problematic?

  2. You bring up a really good point. Current programming does push some issues (and usually with the hammer-over-the-head approach). But the thinking doesn't seem to be very broad when it comes to issues that need more attention. Certainly compared to the 70s environmental issues are largely ignored. Funny I was recently reading a review of the Wonder Woman: Formicida episode (starring Lorene Yarnell of Shield and Yarnell) on

  3. That picture of Marlo Thomas in a gas mask is nightmare fuel!

  4. Didn't know about the That Girl or Bugaloos attempts to educate. I know it was a big thing on everyone's... most people's minds. I remember a contest my city had for an anti-pollution promotion. My sister won second place or something with "Where litter is tossed, a garden is lost." :)