From Pearls to the Pill: How American Television Stopped Being Polite and Started Getting Real

By Jessica Wheeler, AliveTampaBay Columnist

A housewife scrubbing and vacuuming while immaculately dressed, complete with high heels and pearls. A young married couple sleeping in twin beds. A woman telling her husband and friends that she’s going to have a baby, and then going through an entire pregnancy—without once using the word “pregnant.”

None of these things are considered “normal” today, but to television audiences—fans of legendary shows like Leave It To Beaver, The Dick Van Dyke Show, and I Love Lucy, respectively—the examples above were par for the course. The reason for many of these now-oddities was the strict set of standards known as the Code of Practices for Television Broadcasters, adopted in 1951. While the rules and regulations were not necessarily set in stone, television writers and producers who wanted to push boundaries were often met with strong opposition from the television networks, who worried about upsetting their advertisers and losing money.

So, even though Mary Kay and Johnny had featured a married couple sharing a bed way back in 1947, under the newly implemented code, married couples were banished to separate beds through the 1950s and well into the 1960s. Fred and Wilma shared a bed on The Flintstones, but they were cartoons, and therefore didn’t count. Neither, apparently, did Herman and Lily Munster, who shared a bed on The Munsters—after all, they weren’t human, they were monsters. It wasn’t until Bewitched in 1964 that Americans saw a married couple with a double bed.

And as a result of this same trepidation, television was host to a number of things that just didn’t reflect the reality of American life. How else to explain The Andy Griffith Show, set in a small Southern town apparently devoid of any African Americans? The viewing public also readily accepted shows like Gilligan’s Island, Mr. Ed, and the Beverly Hillbillies, shows that defied any definition of reality. According to the networks and their research, what America really wanted to see were shows that provided an escape from their day-to-day lives.

Of course, there were always exceptions—shows that dared to push the envelope and challenge the standards. Room 222 presented a public high school classroom, with students and teachers of various races coming together and discussing the issues of the day. Julia featured an African-American lead, a widowed single mother raising her young son. That Girl, the brainchild of star Marlo Thomas, followed single girl Ann Marie as she tried to make it as an actress in New York City. Sketch and variety show hits like Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In and The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour used then-risque humor as much as they could, resulting in cancellation for the Smothers Brothers when they pushed back against the network one too many times.

By the late 1960s, things on television began to change. Partly because of shows that had pushed limits in the past, and partly because televisions across the country were transmitting images of protest, discontent, and the Vietnam War, viewers were primed for a dose of reality in their daily viewing habits. A new day was dawning in the land of television.

One of the first shows to strive for new levels of excellence in television was The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Inspired by That Girl, it followed Mary Richards, a newly single thirtysomething who starts over after a big breakup by moving to Minneapolis, finding her own apartment, and getting a job in a newsroom. The show’s creators originally intended the character to be newly divorced, but the network was having none of it. The research department at CBS told the producers, “Our research says American audiences won’t tolerate divorce in a lead of a series any more than they will tolerate Jews, people with mustaches, and people who live in New York.” After the compromise of making Mary just simply single, most definitely not divorced, the producers were allowed a bit more free rein—they insinuated that Mary had lived with her ex-boyfriend, although of course they were not allowed to say so directly, and over the course of the show’s run allowed the character to stay out all night with her dates. One episode even revealed that she took the Pill—a huge admission for television at the time.

Just a few months after The Mary Tyler Moore Show debuted, another CBS sitcom exploded onto the airwaves. Norman Lear’s All in the Family featured Archie Bunker, a so-called “loveable bigot” who fought with his liberal son-in-law and lamented the changing American society. The show featured language and content unlike anything else that had ever been seen on television before, prompting CBS to air a disclaimer before the pilot: “The program you are about to see is All in the Family. It seeks to throw a humorous spotlight on our frailties, prejudices, and concerns. By making them a source of laughter, we hope to show—in a mature fashion—just how absurd they are.” Despite the controversy, the show became a hit, and for five years in a row claimed the top spot in the Nielsen ratings.

Both of these shows spawned other hit shows—Mary Tyler Moore’s production company used its success to spawn Rhoda and the Bob Newhart Show, and Norman Lear’s success with All in the Family led to spinoffs like The Jeffersons, Good Times, and Maude. All of these shows featured top-notch, intelligent writing, and plotlines and casts which reflected a changing America. Their success indicated that Americans really did want realistic shows, after all.

Lear later noted that if CBS hadn’t ignored their own research, his show would never have made it onto the air: “If they hadn’t taken a leap of faith by ignoring the ‘hard’ numerical data of the research which said that Americans would not find Archie Bunker entertaining—the test results were the absolute lowest—they would have effectively squelched whatever innovation we were fortunate enough to bring to television comedy.” In other words, sometimes the television public doesn’t know what it really wants; it sometimes needs creative people to show them the way. When the Code of Practices for Television Broadcasters was dropped in 1983, the path was opened for new creators, eventually leading to today’s Peak TV.

Jessica Wheeler

Jessica Wheeler

Music Columnist

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