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“The Shadow of Incipient Censorship”: The Creation of the Television Code of 1952

While experimental television broadcasts were first transmitted in the 1920s, mass production of television sets did not occur until after World War II. By 1960 the number of sets in the U.S. had surpassed the number of homes. With this relatively swift introduction of television into domestic American life, concern was voiced over the harmful influence that watching television might have on the nation’s children. Although Congress held its first hearing on the subject in 1952, they chose not to take any action to interfere with the industry, in part because that year the National Association of Radio and Television Broadcasters adopted a code to regulate broadcast content. The Senate report held hearings in 1954 and 1955 on the possible influence of television on juvenile delinquency. The resulting report summarized standards included in the Television Code pertaining to the portrayal of crime, horror, sex, and law enforcement, and to the industry’s responsibility to provide “wholesome entertainment” for children. The report also presented testimony from a television executive who cited the motion picture industry’s history of successful self-regulation to ward off government censorship. The Senate report—excerpts of which are included below—also presented the preamble to the Code and detailed the Code’s review mechanism.

The National Association of Radio and Television Broadcasters

The National Association of Radio and Television Broadcasters (formerly known as the National Association of Broadcasters) is a trade association of the radio and television industry, organized in 1923. The NARTB provides industry services relating to labor, public and government relations, engineering, research and legal developments. On May 1, 1955, membership included 1,234 AM (amplitude modulation) stations, 327 FM (frequency modulation) stations and 3 national radio networks, Columbia Broadcasting System, Mutual Broadcasting System, and National Broadcasting Co., Inc. On the television side, the National Association of Radio and Television Broadcasters had 267 television stations as members and all 4 national television networks, American Broadcasting Co., Columbia Broadcasting System, DuMont Television Network and the National Broadcasting Co., Inc. . . .

Activities leading to the adoption of a code for television were begun simultaneously with the licensing of stations. The experience of many years of operation in radio broadcasting pointed to the desirability of early agreement upon standards of programs. The NARTB Television Code became effective March 1, 1952. Subscribers are entitled to display a seal of good practice signifying compliance with code standards.

The code is printed in booklet form and includes a preamble, section on advancement of education and culture, community responsibility, treatment of news and public events, controversial public issues, political telecasts, religious programs, presentation of advertising. Several pages are devoted to regulations dealing with acceptability of program material, including such items as:

(o) The presentation of cruelty, greed and selfishness as worthy motivations is to be avoided.

(q) 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.

(r) The presentation of techniques of crime in such detail as to invite imitation shall be avoided.

(s) The use of horror for its own sake will be eliminated; the use of visual or aural effects which would shock or alarm the viewer, and the detailed presentation of brutality or physical agony by sight or by sound are not permissible.

(t) Law enforcement shall be upheld, and the officers of the law are to be portrayed with respect and dignity.

(u) The presentation of murder or revenge as a motive for murder shall not be presented as justifiable.

(x) The appearance or dramatization of such persons featured in actual crime news will be permitted only in such light as to aid law enforcement or to report the news event.

Responsibility toward children is accorded separate attention in the code. This section is quoted in its entirety as follows:

1. The education of children involves giving them a sense of the world at large. 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 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 that they play a greater part in life than they do. They should not be presented, without indications of the resultant retribution and punishment.

2. It is not enough that only those programs which are intended for viewing by children shall be suitable to the young and immature. Television is responsible for insuring that programs of all sorts which occur during the times of day when children may normally be expected to have the opportunity of viewing television shall exercise care in the following regards:

(a) In affording opportunities for cultural growth as well as for wholesome entertainment.

(b) In developing programs to foster and promote the commonly accepted moral, social, and ethical ideals characteristic of American life.

(c) In reflecting respect for parents, for honorable behavior, and for the constituted authorities of the American community.

(d) In eliminating reference to kidnapping of children or threats of kidnapping.

(e) In avoiding material which is excessively violent or would create morbid suspense, or other undesirable reactions in children.

(f) In exercising particular restraint and care in crime or mystery episodes involving children or minors.

Thad H. Brown, Jr., director of television, NARTB, testified as a witness before a subcommittee of the Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce of the House of Representatives on September 16, 1952, regarding the television code which had then been in operation for 6 months. He said:

Why was this action taken? Because, for one thing, there was a sense of watchful waiting on behalf of Congress and on behalf of accountable and responsible organizations. Quite frankly, the shadow of incipient censorship by Government regulation was evident * * * In the formative days of the movies, six States apparently found it necessary and desirable to establish motion picture censorship boards. In 1926, the motion picture industry initiated its first code. Since that time, not one additional State has established a board to censor movies. On the other hand, and this is interesting, the six boards established prior to the initiation of the movie code are still in existence * * * Both by the program standards committee and by the entire television membership of the association, there was clearly apparent to an observer a voluntary sense of responsibility shown by the pioneer telecasters (and there were only 108 at this time) to develop and continue insofar as was comparatively possible, a wholesome stature for the commercial television broadcast industry in the years to come. . . .

Ralph Hardy, then vice president in charge of Government relations of the NARTB, testified in June 1954, before the Subcommittee To Investigate Juvenile Delinquency with regard to the method devised “for assuring reasonable observance of the code provisions.” A television code review board (consisting of 5 members who are appointed by the president of the NARTB to serve 2-year terms without compensation) is responsible for the administration, interpretation, and enforcement of the code. He pointed out that this code review board meets at least four times a year for considering complaints received by the NARTB concerning specific programs, series of programs, or advertising practices on the television stations or networks.

Harold E. Fellows, president and chairman of the board of directors of the NARTB, testified on October 20, 1954, that the television code review board may file charges against a station before the television board of directors. Upon an affirmative two-thirds vote, the board of directors may void, remove, or temporarily suspend a subscription and the authority to further identify itself as a code station through the seal of good practice.

Since subscribers have responded immediately to code review board suggestions, no such charges have been filed before the board of directors. . . .



(Effective March 1, 1952; second edition March 1954)

(By the National Association of Radio and Television Broadcasters, Washington, D.C.)


Television is seen and heard in every type of American home. These homes include children and adults of all ages, embrace all races and all varieties of religious faith, and reach those of every educational background. It is the responsibility of television to bear constantly in mind that the audience is primarily a home audience, and consequently that television’s relationship to the viewers is that between guest and host.

The revenues from advertising support the free, competitive American system of telecasting, and make available to the eyes and ears of the American people the finest programs of information, education, culture and entertainment. By law the television broadcaster is responsible for the programming of his station. He, however, is obligated to bring his positive responsibility for excellence and good taste in programming to bear upon all who have a hand in the production of programs, including networks, sponsors, producers of film and of live programs, advertising agencies, and talent agencies.

The American businesses which utilize television for conveying their advertising messages to the home by pictures with sound, seen free-of-charge on the home screen, are reminded that their responsibilities are not limited to the sale of goods and the creation of a favorable attitude toward the sponsor by the presentation of entertainment. They include, as well, responsibility for utilizing television to bring the best programs, regardless of kind, into American homes.

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 the acceptability of the program materials chosen, for decency and decorum in production, and for propriety in advertising. This responsibility cannot be discharged by any given group of programs, but can be discharged only through the highest standards of respect for the American home, applied to every moment of every program presented by television.

In order that television programming may best serve the public interest, viewers should be encouraged to make their criticisms and positive suggestions known to the television broadcasters. Parents in particular should be urged to see to it that out of the richness of television fare, the best programs are brought to the attention of their children. . . .

Source: Senate Committee on the Judiciary, Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency, Television and Juvenile Delinquency, interim report, 1955, Committee Print.

See Also:Air Waves "are in the Public Domain": Public Television Advocacy in the 1950s
"The Primary Goal Must Be a Single Society": The Kerner Report's "Recommendations for National Action"