"There is a problem of public taste in which there is a concern for eliciting a negative response from a large mass of people."
That’s The Twilight Zone and Night Gallery creator and longtime TV writer Rod Serling on the creative challenge of “pre-censorship.”
This wonderfully articulate man, in a 1959 interview with Mike Wallace is essentially explaining the tension between the creative and the commercial concerns, with what he (and Paddy Chayefsky before him) observed as the effort by writers to cater their content to the concerns of sponsors and networks who are in turn, squeamish about offending or provoking the public in some nebulous way. The thinking goes that an offended public won’t buy your toys, gadgets, cigarettes, and sweets if they’re pissed off at you, so why not reign it in early.
The downside to this line of thinking is a gross level of hyper-vigilance, where any voice from the teeming mass that is the “public” is considered representative if it speaks loudly and frequently enough. Take the incident that Serling recounts from the previous year involving the show Lassie: the cuddly, wholesome show about a boy and his dog featured an episode where Lassie gave birth to puppies.
“And Mike, it was one of the most tasteful, and delightful, and warm things depicting what is this wondrous thing which is birth,” Serling explains around the 3:00 mark. And this piece of innocuous TV got some viewers in the South up in arms, resulting in an influx of outraged letters taking the network to task for even hinting that sex exists.
There exists a dreadful tension between the desire to make a creation commercial and Serling is right, the effort to pre-censor one’s work is “insidious” in a way, speaking as it does to the tastes of the most squeamish among us.
Anyway, check out the full video and see one of the smartest men of the golden age of TV explaining why his work could sometimes be a pain in the ass.
[h/t Scott Tipton]