THE POWER OF STORY: THE PIVOTAL PURGE
In 1971, a remarkable decision was made by executives at CBS Television. In one move they axed eight of its most popular programs. The Ed Sullivan Show was gone after 23 years. Lassie, The Beverly Hillbillies, Mayberry RFD, Green Acres, Hogan’s Heroes, and Hee Haw were summarily ended.
The cancellation of programs wasn’t remarkable. Under-performing shows were often cut from the schedule. But Mayberry RFD and Hee Haw were still Top 20 shows. The rest were solid performers, with steady and reliable viewing figures.
The significance was in the thinking behind the cancellations. The executives at CBS, battling the growing popularity of NBC and ABC programming, chose to create programs they considered more relevant to the viewers and consumers of the younger generation.
Whether they realized it or not, the executives were sweeping aside the sensibilities that had maintained television for three decades. Apart from a few hard-hitting news programs (the work of Edward R. Murrow and others) television was generally a non-offensive reinforcement of traditional American values. Ozzie & Harriet, Father Knows Best and Make Room for Daddy portrayed stable white families. The parents were amiable. The children were wholesome. None of them caused trouble directly, but had to deal with trouble that came their way. Variety shows, cops-and-robbers, mysteries, westerns, and court-room dramas were the mainstays, all tackling the usual plotlines in the usual ways.
There were exceptions, of course. Writers like Paddy Chayefsky and Rod Serling presented challenging characters and plotlines, sometimes to the annoyance of the sponsors. The Honeymooners, featuring Jackie Gleason, was a late-50s innovation: it portrayed a solidly working class couple with plot situations grounded in everyday life and conflicts. Even Leave it to Beaver, saccharine as it seems now, broke the mold of most family sit-coms as “the Beaver” initiated much of the trouble he encountered.
Moving into the 1960s, the television executives continued their practice of bringing non-offensive, money-generating programming into the nation’s homes. There was a difference, however. Families moved out of the suburbs and into more unusual situations. The Honeymooners became The Flintstones (the first prime-time cartoon), Ozzie & Harriet turned into The Munsters, and every other middle-class family was spoofed in shows like The Addams Family and Bewitched. At the same time, rural families became something to laugh at. First with The Real McCoys and then The Beverly Hillbillies, Petticoat Junction, and its spin-off Green Acres. The Andy Griffith Show arrived, though its star often said in interviews that the small-town reality the show presented was already a fading part of America. It was as if TV was foreshadowing that “normal” families were already falling outside of the executives’ and creators’ consciousness.
These shows and their stories reflected various aspect of the American culture, but did not attempt to redefine or redirect it. It wasn’t until the 1968-69 season that America witnessed TV’s first “toe-in-the water” when it came to the new generation of youth. The Mod Squad on ABC told the story of three young lawbreakers-turned-undercover cops, allowing the plotlines to present counter-cultural ideas to the mainstream. Room 222 followed, engaging the new generation in the conflicts of a classroom.
The upheavals and riots of the late 1960s, the ongoing war in Vietnam, along with the growth of the younger generation as consumers (with more discretionary income than previous generations), caught the attention of the network executives. Relevancy became the new buzzword.
No program proved to be a greater pivot-point than the arrival of a mid-season replacement show on CBS in January, 1971. All in the Family, adapted from the British comedy Till Death Do Us Part, presented a working-class bigot, his beleaguered wife and daughter, and the liberal son-in-law with whom he constantly argued. Meet the Bunkers.
The show aired without much fanfare, triggering a few complaints from audience members and critics. But the mix of the Bunker family with both humor and politics proved to be entertaining. Throughout the Spring, the show’s audience grew.
Producer Norman Lear, an activist at heart, saw a new opportunity for agenda-driven storytelling in an America going through tumultuous change. Comedic entertainment became the spoonful of sugar to help Americans swallow a worldview and morality that was unthinkable only ten years before. Placards and protests might have their place on the news, but Lear knew that an ongoing series of funny stories would impact viewers more. He understood something that many other writers had known before him: Story had the power to transform the minds and hearts of the millions that sat glued to their TVs every night.
Network executives noticed. They saw the future and it didn’t include Ed Sullivan, the Clampetts, Lassie, the citizens of Mayberry and Hooterville, or Americans in a German prisoner-of-war camp. Now there was Archie Bunker, The New People, That Girl, Love American Style and a plethora of other shows about hip and idealistic up-and-comers trying to make their way through life. The “Rural Purge” by CBS executives in 1971 secured the future of television and its stories as a culture-changer.
Author David Frum’s How We Got Here: The 70’s: The Decade That Brought You Modern Life (For Better or Worse) highlights how the fringe and radical ideas of the 1960s actually sunk into the mainstream through television. Consider, he notes, the rise of childless protagonists in the 1970s popular sit-coms The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Rhoda, The Jeffersons, and Three’s Company.
Consider how Maude, Norman Lear’s spin-off character from All in the Family, discovered she was pregnant at the age of 47 and decides to have an abortion – a year before Roe v Wade became law. (Many shows in the next three decades followed, turning abortion into a difficult-but-sympathetic act.)
Consider the role of the top-rated M*A*S*H to capture the cynicism created by the Vietnam War and Watergate and then redirect it into broader issues. Though it was set in the Korean conflict of the 1950s, main character Hawkeye Pearce, as played by Alan Alda, became the embodiment of the “New Man” of the 70’s, mocking traditional views of masculinity, while turning emotionalism, self-indulgence and the shirking of one’s duty to one’s country into virtues.
It’s not difficult to leapfrog through television history to mark the cultural shifts we’ve seen thanks to masterful storytelling. Soap, Roseanne, Married with Children, Friends, Will & Grace, Parenting, How I Met Your Mother and the storylines of many other comedies led to the normalization of sexual behavior that would have caused previous generations to react with shock and outrage.
None of this is to suggest that there’s a conspiracy among story-tellers to subvert the nation. It is not a conspiracy, but merely a consensus of people who tell their stories from a particular worldview. It’s what they believe – and what they think others should believe. And the decision-makers for television were (and are) always watching the ratings and the bottom-line.
Where were the Christians? Where was the Catholic Church? For the most part, we placed ourselves on the sidelines, reacting to what was being produced, without participating in a meaningful way.
As has been proclaimed elsewhere: the culture wars were lost because the other side told better stories than we did.
Both the Protestant and Catholic realms relegated Storytelling to the fringe. Broadly speaking, our efforts served one of two purposes: to crudely evangelize through contrived characters in contrived situations, or to reaffirm the faith to the already faithful through contrived characters in contrived situations.
Perhaps the best answers come from St. John Paul the Great and his Letter to Artists, now celebrating its 20th anniversary.
There, St. John Paul reminds us of something we seem to have forgotten: the Church needs Art. “Art must make perceptible, and as far as possible attractive, the world of the spirit, of the invisible, of God,” he wrote. Colors, shapes, sounds, images, symbols, music, architecture – they all present the transcendence and mystery of eternal realities. Art (including Story) communicates with a powerful immediacy and becomes personally internalized – the “breath” of the “Creator Spirit” – in a way didactic and propositional teaching doesn’t. Art is incarnational, in that it humanizes the reality of God’s Truth. And when it’s done well, it changes lives.
If, then, the Church needs Art, then it follows that the institutions that serve the Church – its universities and seminaries, its many organizations and apostolates, should make Art a priority in its work. To create great Art, we need great Artists – and it takes education, inspiration and incentive to develop a new generation of great Artists.
We also need venues for the current generation of Artists that have given up pounding on the Church’s doors and turned their talents to more rewarding places. There are many Catholics working in secular arenas, if only to pay the bills, who yearn to share what they know with the Church. Many would volunteer their services if they believed they were welcomed.
But, as the old saying goes, you can see what your priorities really are in how you spend your money. A revitalization of the Arts in the Church will only happen if the Church and its people – at all levels of its hierarchy – makes Art a greater priority financially. “A worker is worthy of his wages,” as the Apostle Paul proclaimed. Artists are worthy to be supported for the work they do.
St. John Paul concludes his Letters to Artists with a call to rediscover a sense of wonder, of beauty, of enthusiasm. He prays that our many paths will lead to “that infinite ocean of beauty where wonder becomes awe, exhilaration, unspeakable joy” – and for our Art to “affirm that true beauty which, as a glimmer of the Spirit of God, will transfigure matter, opening the human soul to the sense of the eternal”.
Considering the past 50 years, it is clear that Art has the power to change society, for better or worse. If we want to change society for the better, we need to heed what St. John Paul tells us. It is time for the Church to renew and reinvigorate its support for the Arts.