The Forgotten Battles: Congressional Hearings on Television Violence in the 1950s


Keisha L. Hoerrner

[WJMCR 2:3 June 1999]




Although Congress has been interested in television violence for more than four decades, little scholarly attention focuses on its first actions. This article looks at the 1952, 1954, and 1955 hearings, which laid the foundation for every subsequent congressional hearing on the issue, as well as legislation passed in the 1990s. It utilizes historical methodology as well as legal analysis to expand the discussion beyond a simple summary of these first�yet so important�hearings.


Passage of the Parental Choice in Television Programming Act of 19961, which mandated the v-chip, and the more recent agreement by most of the television industry to rate programming by both age-based ratings and content-based designations2 are reminders of how the issue of television violence continues to resonate in society. This is not a new issue for researchers, who have produced thousands of studies documenting the possible link between television violence and anti-social behavior, particularly among children.Similarly, this is not a new issue for Congress. It has been concerned about violent content on television since the early 1950s4 and held its first hearing on the subject in 19525.

The legislature’s continuing interest in television violence is intriguing for numerous reasons. It exemplifies the constant struggle between the government and the television industry for control over broadcasting content; it provides an avenue for discussion of what role the First Amendment holds in the struggle; and it helps to define the role of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the administrative agency charged with oversight of broadcast licenses and, at times, licensees. The ongoing power struggle among the industry, legislators, the courts, and the FCC is clearly delineated in congressional actions regarding television violence in the 1950s.

While congressional hearings into the matter of television violence have been discussed generally by a number of researchers6, as have specific legislative action in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1990s, little attention has been given to the earliest hearings. This article focuses on those forgotten hearings, which are the origins of congressional interest, to examine the genesis of these actions. Relying extensively on primary governmental documents such as transcripts, reports, legislation, and the Congressional Record, the article specifically explores the congressional hearings of 1952 and 1954-55 to gain insight into how legislators originally viewed the issue and what specific actions resulted from this legislative interest. This historical analysis is undertaken under the umbrella of First Amendment implications of early congressional interest in the area of violent content on television to further illuminate the issue. Additionally, symbolic politics theory is introduced as a possible explanation for these “forgotten battles” in the 1950s.

The Battleground

After the Federal Communications Commission-imposed freezes on new television licenses in both 1941 and 1948 were lifted7, the number of stations and homes with sets grew quickly, making the new medium a part of eighty million American lives by the early 1950s.8 There were nineteen million television sets in the country as early as 1952.9 This early decade of television is generally thought of as “The Golden Years” of television.10 The decade is remembered for “I Love Lucy” and “See It Now,” not violence. Still, crime shows, action movies, and the first westerns came into American homes in the 1950s�and caused concern to a few parents, educators, and politicians.

Politicians were bound to notice a new technology generating such widespread attention. They, like much of the country, had conflicting views about this new form of entertainment that was changing family leisure time, consumption of goods and services, and politics.11 As David Halberstam noted in The Fifties:

Politics, for the first time, was being brought to the nation by means of television. People now expected to see events, not merely read about or hear them. At the same time, the line between what happened in real life and what people saw on television began to merge; many Americans were now living far from their families, in brand-new suburbs where they barely knew their neighbors. Sometimes they felt closer to the people they watched on television than they did to their neighbors and distant families.12

Extreme attitudes emerged, with some viewing television as “messianic” and others “demonic.”13 Regardless of how they felt about television personally, however, politicians were determined to play an important role in the industry’s development14, much as they had tried to play a primary role in the development of radio.15 In addition to focusing their attention on structural issues such as station ownership and content issues such as political advertising, one of the content topics receiving significant attention from legislators was the issue of violence within programming.

Background: Congressional Interest in 1950

Radio and television content was originally condemned as an afterthought; politicians discussing the evils of the movie industry began adding broadcasting to the mix in 1950. Senator Ed Johnson (D – Colo.), while raging against the adulterous affair Ingrid Bergman had with Roberto Rossellini, asked for a Washington Times-Herald article to be printed in the Congressional Record about crime programs on radio.16 This was the first documented mention of broadcast violence in the Record. Two days later Senator Johnson asked that an article from the Washington Post detailing the National Catholic Conference on Family Life’s concern with television programs be placed in the Record as well.17 He also asked that FCC Chairman Wayne Coy’s recent speech about radio and television appear in the Record. It was actually Coy’s words that first made specific reference to violence on television, although the subject was, again, treated more like an addendum than the speaker’s primary point. Coy quoted a survey of television programs undertaken by the Southern California Association for Better Radio and Television that found close to one hundred murders, ten thefts, and numerous other crimes portrayed on television in one week. He noted that many citizens were concerned about this type of television content.18

This first mention of television violence by a member of Congress is intriguing for two reasons. Senator Johnson appeared to be using the issue of radio and television violence simply to bolster his argument for tighter controls on the movie industry. He made no specific comments on the floor of the Senate regarding television or radio. FCC Chairman Coy’s comments were also illuminating, for he explicitly stated that the Federal Communications Commission could not censor broadcasting content. This was the first of many statements members of the FCC made in the 1950s about the agency’s inability to interfere with program content. Coy placed the responsibility for forcing changes in content on the shoulders of the public, on concerned and vigilant citizens.

Later in the year Senator Johnson asked that another newspaper article on television violence be added to the Appendix to the Congressional Record.19 The July 16, 1950 New York Times article “Time for a Halt�Radio and TV Carnage Defies all Reason” was a stinging rebuke of an NBC mystery show that aired on a Saturday morning, when children were more likely to be in the audience, and of crime shows in general. Senator Johnson’s brief comments add no insight into his motivation to focus congressional attention on this article. Senator Johnson’s action seemed, however, to be moving Congress away from treating television as an afterthought and toward focusing its attention squarely on the new medium.

It was Representative E.C. Gathings (D – Ark.), though, who decided Congress needed to take some action against television violence. On June 20, 1951, Representative Gathings told the House “many radio and television programs, as well as certain scurrilous books and comics are corrupting the minds and morals of the American people.”20 He mentioned the Southern California study of murders and crimes on television and argued that “juvenile delinquency and disregard for laws has increased in this country because of the laxity in which these problems have been dealt with.”21 Representative Gathings did not propose legislation or call for hearings or additional study at that time but demanded the first hearings in 1952.22

The earliest years of the decade show, then, a slow but steady growth of congressional interest in violent content on television, a growth that began simply with an insertion of a published article in the Congressional Recordbut progressed in only two years to Representative E.C. Gathings’ introduction of legislation mandating congressional hearings. Representative Gathings’ resolution (H. Res. 278) passed unanimously on May 12, 1952.23A new, yet enduring, form of congressional action in the area of television violence began.

Round One: The 1952 Hearings

House Resolution 278 gave authority to the Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce’s FCC Subcommittee to “conduct a full and complete investigation and study to determine the extent to which the radio and television programs currently available to the people of the United States contain immoral and otherwise offensive matter, or place improper emphasis on crime, violence, and corruption”.24 The resolution also charged the subcommittee with developing recommendations to alleviate any problems it uncovered, including legislative action if necessary. In debate over HR 278 Rep. William Colmer (D – Miss.), stated the boundaries of the investigation:

This is not an attempt on the part of the Congress or the sponsors of this measure to invoke any rigid censorship or anything of that sort; but, with the youth of the land as interested in radio and television programs as we know they are, considerable discretion should be used by those who put these programs on the air in order that the wrong results may not flow therefrom and that the impressionable youth of the country may not get the wrong concept or philosophy of life.25

The seven-member subcommittee, chaired by Oren Harris (D-Ark.), held public hearings in June, September, and December of 195226 to receive testimony from industry representatives, private citizens, and government officials.

Chairman Harris set the tone for the hearings in his opening statement when he remarked that the subcommittee would not seek to determine what constituted desirable programming and was not intent on “cleaning up” the broadcast industries.27 Indeed, historian Willard Rowland termed the hearings “congenial.”28 He remarked, “The subcommittee members and staff handled the network representatives most gingerly, commending them for their claims of concern and their assurances of adequate self-regulation. There was none of the sharper tone that was to mark later hearings.” Rowland speculated that Chairman Harris’s purchase of a twenty-five-percent interest in a Little Rock, Ark., television station at approximately the same time as the commencement of hearings might account for the “congenial” tone.29

Rowland’s argument only explained Harris’s ginger handling of industry representatives, yet a majority of the committee treated them with deference and respect. This was probably an outgrowth of the general disorganization and lack of focus for the hearings. The atmosphere was one of legislators chatting with witnesses rather than working toward a specific resolution. Some of the committee members seemed unsure of the television content they were there to investigate as evidenced from their questioning of witnesses about annoying but non-violent commercials as often as they questioned them about specific television programs. Radio content was almost totally ignored, except for an occasional question or statement concerning which shows were sponsored by tobacco or beer companies. In fact, beer sponsorship and advertising on both radio and television were prime concerns of numerous witnesses who testified about the deleterious effects of promoting alcohol to children and adults. Witnesses such as C.S. Longacre of the American Temperance Society, Elizabeth A. Smart of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Movement, and Dr. Raymond Schmidt of the National Grand Lodge of the International Order of Good Templars failed to mention violent content as they focused solely on broadcasting’s role in promoting alcohol consumption,30 which was not the stated focus of the committee’s investigation.

It is not surprising, then, that after thirteen days of hearings that generated almost five hundred pages of testimony, the subcommittee issued a succinct final report saying the television industry was in too great a state of flux to “pass any conclusive judgment”31 upon it. Industry self-regulation was seen as positive, and government regulation was viewed as an interference broadcasting did not need at the moment. The network representatives who testified proudly discussed the new Television Code, and the legislators agreed that this form of self-censorship, even though it was voluntary and not every station adhered to it, would be preferable to any externally imposed censorship. Still, the subcommittee’s final report left the door open to future government intervention if the industry was not serious about or successful in removing violent programming from the airwaves. The members made it clear that they believed there was too much crime and violence on television, and they encouraged public criticism if broadcasters failed to be responsive to the public interest.32

The 1952 hearings are generally forgotten in history books33, probably because they lacked focus, failed to discuss specific programs with supposedly violent content, failed to generate any subsequent congressional action, and failed to produce an outspoken leader who would continue to pursue the subject in Congress. Unlike Senator Thomas Dodd, Senator John Pastore, and Senator Paul Simon�members of Congress who would lead legislative interest in the issue of television violence in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1990s, Representative Oren Harris was not considered a staunch proponent of congressional action.

Later congressional hearings in the 1950s did not suffer from this lack of leadership, however, as Senator Estes Kefauver (D-Tenn.) took the reins. With Representative Harris easily forgotten, it is Kefauver who is remembered as the first congressional leader to investigate television violence.

Round Two: The 1954 Hearings

Following the publication of the 1952 report, Congress was relatively silent on the issue of television violence for more than a year. It once again became a congressional concern in December of 1953 during the hearings of a Senate subcommittee on juvenile delinquency.34 What began as brief statements by two witnesses evolved into a full-scale probe of television violence, which laid the foundation for congressional hearings on this issue for the next forty years.

Concerned about the rise in crime rates among juveniles and the growing number of teens incarcerated, the Senate passed Resolution 89 on June 1, 1953, to establish a subcommittee to study the problem and devise solutions. No mention was made of mass media specifically within the resolution, although the subcommittee was given wide leeway to explore “causes and contributing factors” of juvenile delinquency.35 Senator Estes Kefauver, ranking minority member on the four-member Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency, brought media into the debate when he questioned Dr. Leopold Wexberg, chief of the Mental Health Division of the Bureau of Disease Control in the Department of Public Health, on his belief that movies, television programs, and comic books may serve as a contributing factor to delinquency among juveniles. Even though Dr. Wexburg failed to provide a source or cite a study providing evidence for his statement, Senator Kefauver was most intrigued.36

The Kefauver-Wexburg exchange coupled with a statement during the subcommittee’s hearings in Denver by a private citizen, who also failed to provide any documentation or source for his belief that magazines and comic books contribute to juvenile delinquency37, led to the mass media being placed on a list of twelve “special areas” that were “worthy of concentrated investigation because of their effects upon juvenile delinquency.”38 Senator Robert Hendrickson (R-N.J.), chair of the subcommittee during the 83rd Congress, scheduled separate hearings on motion pictures, comic books, and television programs.39 Three days of public hearings on television programs were held in June and October of 1954. Before the glare of television lights and radio mikes40, Counsel Richard Clendenen developed a new rationale for devoting the subcommittee’s attention to television�hundreds of letters received from concerned citizens across the country. He stated:

This inquiry into television, you will recall, Mr. Chairman, had its origin in the very large number of letters that the subcommittee received from parents complaining about this matter of blood and thunder on TV. The vast majority of these complaints did not relate to a specific program but rather usually fell into one of two broad categories. First of all it was felt that the amount, the total volume of television programs which featured or centered upon crime and violence was such as to produce, at least in the opinion of many parents, an unhealthy and delinquency-producing climate for young people. Secondly, a large number of parents also complained about what we might call a lack of choice in television viewing for children. … he [a child] either watches a blood-and-thunder program or nothing at all.41

Senator Kefauver’s files, however, show only a sprinkling of letters from concerned constituents in the early 1950s, and there is no reference to hundreds of letters being stored in a separate file. Senator Kefauver’s files do reveal an increasing number of letters throughout the decade and into the 1960s as he continued to speak on the issue of media and violence, but those did not justify the 1954 hearings.42 (A letter from Mrs. Hugh J. Lucas is illustrative of those appearing in Kefauver’s papers. She sent him a letter in 1954 expressing her concern over television’s influence on young children and attached two newspaper clips of crime stories in which the criminals said they learned their techniques for shoplifting and strangling from watching television.43)

Senator Hendrickson chaired the special probe in 1954, promising that neither he nor the subcommittee came to the hearings with any existing biases against television or any preconceived notions that crime and violence programs did contribute to juvenile delinquency.44 Senator Hendrickson, however, was not nearly as congenial toward the television industry as Representative Harris had been two years earlier. In fact, Senator Hendrickson allowed biased comments to slip during interchanges with witnesses including, “As I watch my grandchildren, Doctor, I wonder how they stand it [TV].”45 Nor was Senator Hendrickson comfortable allowing the hearings to digress into seemingly unrelated topics as Harris had allowed. The 1954 hearings focused direct attention on specific programming decisions made by the television industry.

Industry representatives were, in fact, prime targets of Senator Hendrickson’s hearings. After viewing selected segments of television programs that portrayed violent actions, shown in the Washington, D.C. market during hours that children were likely to be in the audience, Senator Hendrickson and the subcommittee’s counsels questioned each of the fourteen industry representatives about what they programmed for children. The representatives responded by discussing numerous other subjects while failing to directly debate the legislators’ contention that certain programs were unsuitable for children. Four arguments ran through the industry’s testimony, regardless of the individual witness:

(1) interference with First Amendment protections,
(2) research that concluded television did not affect juvenile delinquency,
(3) complexity of the issue, and
(4) positive programming presented for children.

John Hayes’ testimony was illustrative of the broadcasters’ reliance on the First Amendment to diminish criticisms of the subcommittee. Hayes, president of WTOP in Washington, D.C., said, “I feel it is my duty respectfully to call to the attention of this subcommittee the fact that any congressional investigation of the content of any medium of free communication raises very profound questions. I am confident that is not the intention of these hearings, to interfere with the freedom of expression in this country.”46 Hayes and subsequent witnesses were assured that the subcommittee had no intention of censoring television, just determining if it contributed to delinquent youths.

Merle Jones, CBS-TV vice president of owned stations and general services, assured the committee he had research that indicated that television was not a significant cause of juvenile delinquency.47 NBC’s representative, Vice President Joseph Herrernan, echoed Jones’ argument saying, “We are aware of no responsible scientific data or opinion which fixes television as the cause of juvenile delinquency. On the contrary, there is a decided body of opinion that television and films have no causal relationship to juvenile delinquency.”48 The industry representatives continued to refute the charge that television caused juvenile delinquency, even though the subcommittee just wanted to know if it was a contributing factor.

Not letting this “apples v. oranges” distinction of causal versus contributing factor deter them, however, Jones and company tried to throw all kinds of fruit in the basket to make the issue too complex to be explained. Jones brought up Shakespeare’s plays and “Jack and the Beanstalk,” arguing that if those revered stories were abstracts for a television movie, people would be concerned about the level of violence. He believed that the issue of fantasy violence having an impact on real-life violence was perplexing, and each reference to another form of fantasy violence exacerbated the problem. In other words, no one called congressional hearings on Shakespearean plays or children’s literature because no one would see them as a significant cause of societal behavior. Why should a television program be any different, he asked. Jones warned the subcommittee against seeking an easy answer or designating a scapegoat just to put the issue to rest without really uncovering both the cause and the solution.49

Robert Hinckley, vice president of ABC, also added to the complexity argument when he compared the rate of juvenile delinquency in the U.S. to Russia’s rate. Playing to the “Red Scare” sentiment of the times, Hinckley said the delinquency rate in Russia was rising at an alarming rate as well. With only three television stations, though, and only 100,000 sets in the whole country, it was apparent to him that television was not causing Russia’s rise in delinquency. Therefore, according to Hinckley, it obviously was not the cause of the U.S.’s problem, either. He offered no further “proof” of the inability to link television to juvenile delinquency, and no member of the subcommittee questioned his Russian example.50

Finally, industry representatives focused their testimony on the positive aspects of television. Al Hodge, “Captain Video,” proudly testified about his “wholesome adventure program,” stressing how violence and conflict were presented in “good taste.” Hodge stressed that no one was killed on “Captain Video” and that the criminals were rehabilitated rather than executed.51Each time he was asked about a negative aspect of television, Hodge turned it around with a positive response. When all else failed, Hodge and others lauded the National Association of Radio and Television Broadcasters’ (now the NAB, National Association of Broadcasters) voluntary Television Code. Sections were read into the record by numerous witnesses, including:

(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. (v) Suicide as an acceptable solution for human problems is prohibited. (w) The exposition of sex crimes will be avoided.52

The code was advanced by broadcasters as the solution to problematic programming, an example of the effectiveness of self-regulation, just as it was in 1952.

On the other side of the debate, James Bennett, director of Bureau of Prisons in the Justice Department, called for greater levels of action than industry self-regulation. Bennett wanted a presidential commission to be established to study the issue and draw up a more workable code. This suggestion was actually one of the more extreme calls for government action; no witness or subcommittee member was ready to argue for governmental control over programming.53

Not even the commissioners of the Federal Communications Commission wanted governmental interference in broadcasting content. In one of the strongest anti-censorship statements, FCC Commissioner Rosel Hyde said he and all but one of the commissioners believed that the FCC should play no role in content decisions. The FCC statement read,

We cannot agree with those critics of radio and television who believe, however sincerely, that the only way to secure the highest quality program service is to provide a group of Government officials with a blue pencil. We believe it would be dangerous, as well as contrary to our democratic concepts, for a few officials in Washington, be they the Federal Communications Commission or any other group, to have such power.54

(Interestingly, this is exactly the same wording used by then FCC Chairman Paul Walker in 1952 in his prepared statement read during that year’s hearing.55)

Although Commissioner Freida Hennock asked that a separate statement be placed in the hearings transcript to represent her views�in which she called for the Commission to hold separate hearings on the issue of violent programming and to adopt “a firm policy against the future renewal of the licenses of any broadcasters who persist in failure to meet their responsibilities to the public by continuing to subject the children … to the concentrated and unbalanced fare of violence”56, she is the sole FCC voice arguing for some control over content for years.

With no one clamoring for strong governmental action, the subcommittee did not push for any legislation following the 1954 round of hearings. The subcommittee did state a need for more research, implored the industry to hire child specialists to help screen programs, and provided advice to the industry on improvements to the Television Code.

Round Two, Part Two: The 1955 Hearings

The Republicans lost control of Congress in 1954, so when the Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency met in 1955 it had a Democratic chair, Senator Kefauver.57 A nationally-known figure, Senator Kefauver was enjoying a “close and fruitful” relationship with the media58 because of the popularity he received as chair of the recent Senate’s Special Committee to Investigate Organized Crime in Interstate Commerce.59 The organized crime hearings were significant because they were the first congressional hearings to be televised that really caught the public’s attention, setting a precedent for the power of television and carrying an unknown junior senator from Tennessee into the national spotlight.60 Senator Kefauver was later labeled “the first elected public official who really capitalized on television to advance himself politically.”61

Senator Kefauver’s background suggested additional rationales for him having a favorable attitude toward the media. During his college years at the University of Tennessee, Senator Kefauver served as the first president of the Blue Pencil Club for college editors and held the positions of associate athletic editor and, later, athletic editor of the Orange & White, the school newspaper.62 During his congressional days he was a guest speaker at the National Association of Broadcasters’ 1951 convention, where he called broadcasting a “great industry” worthy of “the gratitude of the nation.”63Senator Kefauver even seemed to support crime programs on television, serving as the narrator for “Crime Syndicated” on three occasions.64 So why did this apparent media supporter initially introduce the idea of a possible link between television and juvenile delinquency and then pursue more hearings on the issue?

One Kefauver biographer said the answer is quite simple. Senator Kefauver knew a good bandwagon to lead when he saw one. As Joseph Gorman explained, “Just as everyone had been against crime, so everyone was against juvenile delinquency.”65 Another Kefauver biographer explained, “As soon as Kefauver succeeded to the chairmanship …, he gave indications that he hoped to turn the limping juvenile delinquency probe into a junior-grade crime investigation�and with a presidential race coming up the next year! There was no question that Kefauver was keenly aware of the publicity potential of a juvenile delinquency probe.”66 Senator Kefauver’s political aspirations looked squarely toward the White House67, so he needed all the positive national publicity he could secure.

The issue of media violence and juvenile delinquency provided him with a topic of national concern�albeit one he worked to create. A November 1954 Gallup poll, taken only months after the hearings on media and juvenile delinquency, asking whether comic books and television programs contributed to juvenile delinquency showed seventy percent of the country placing some blame on both forms of media for teen-age problems.68Senator Kefauver held hearings and issued reports in 1955 on television and comics as well as motion pictures. And the tone of the hearings was distinct from those held in 1954.

For two days in April of 1955 Chairman Kefauver enjoyed the publicity television, radio, and print reporters gave him while covering the next round of hearings on television and delinquency. Senator Kefauver opened the hearings pledging objectivity and promising testimony from leading social scientists. He placed twenty letters in the record during his opening statement, however, from parents and organizations concerned about television’s role in children’s lives. No letters were supportive of the industry.69

Scientific research was the main thrust of the testimony as psychologists, psychiatrists, and sociologists gave their expert opinions on the relationship between television and juvenile delinquency. Dr. Eleanor Maccoby, a child psychologist at Harvard, detailed the results of her study on why children watch television and what activities children are not engaging in during the three hours she calculated that they were watching. Would children’s cognitive skills suffer as a result of not reading? Would their imagination be stifled if they were not engaging in fantasy play? She did not have the answers but voiced these questions as concerns. While critical of television, she was not a strong proponent of government intervention, however.70 She actually avoided Senator Kefauver’s attempts to have her call for governmental action based on her research findings with the skill of a television industry executive.

Dr. Ralph Banay, a research psychiatrist at Columbia who was also affiliated with the U.S. Bureau of Prisons and the Attorney General’s Office, might have been a stronger proponent of government intervention based on his highly critical attitude toward television content, but he was never asked about what role the government should play in regulating violence. Instead, Senator Kefauver questioned Dr. Banay about his week-long survey of violent actions within television programs in the Washington, D.C. market�which included “Hopalong Cassidy” and “Buffalo Bill, Jr.”; his affiliation with professional associations within his field; his direct work with juvenile delinquents; and his personal attitude toward television. Kefauver asked him, “Then your testimony is that overall you think the violent TV programs or some of our TV programs, [sic] do increase juvenile delinquency?” Dr. Banay replied, “Yes, I believe so.”71 Dr. Banay offered no evidence of correlations, experiments with children, or even systematic study of children’s behavior, however.

Dr. Paul Lazarsfeld, who testified the following day, was the only academic who had published extensive media research, especially in the area of media effects. Dr. Lazarsfeld was, of course, the eminent sociologist at Columbia who pioneered media research. Rather than actually discussing possible effects of television on children, Dr. Lazarsfeld focused on why so little media research had been conducted, how difficult it was to secure funding, and how little was really known about children and television. He left the subcommittee with few definitive answers.72

Industry officials were called to testify in 1955 as well, many of whom came before the subcommittee in 1954, and they continued their four strategies developed earlier. The grave danger of infringing on First Amendment rights was discussed, contradictory research that found no relationship between television and delinquency was mentioned, the complexity of the issue was reinforced, and the positive aspects of the industry were again emphasized. Senator Kefauver responded to these strategies, as exemplified when he called Harold Fellows, president and chairman of the board of the NARTB, to task for focusing only on the positive accomplishments of the industry. Senator Kefauver remarked:

You have not set it out in this testimony you are giving us [why you are disagreeing about television having negative effects on children], and I think you would be rendering a better public service if you would not let your television stations and industry feel that this [sic] is just nothing to this. But if you would set forth the fact that 7 out of 10 parents, many great psychiatrists and child students, I mean students of children’s affairs, feel that as to some children there is a connection and an adverse effect.73

Fellows assured the assembled senators that the industry was made aware of all research, good or bad, and all public concerns through the NARTB and other channels. He then continued his testimony, focusing on the positive impact of the Television Code.74

Because of the vastly differing testimony, historians disagree on the actual results of the subcommittee’s probe. While Joseph Gorman argued that no definite relationship between television and juvenile delinquency was established75, Mary Ann Guitar said that the link had been made.76 The subcommittee itself fell somewhere in between, as evidenced by the language of its final report.77 While stating it was not aware of a “comprehensive, conclusive study” on the effects of television on children, the subcommittee “believe[d] that television crime programs are … much more injurious to children and young people than motion pictures, radio, or comic books.”78 The committee called for more research, vigilance on the part of the public in criticizing the industry whenever necessary, collective responsibility on the part of every member of the industry, and greater responsibility on the part of the Federal Communications Commission to use program content as a consideration when stations came up for license renewal.

A letter between subcommittee counsels showed Senator Kefauver’s team worked on ways to force the FCC to accept more control over television content. They considered stating in the 1955 report that “the subcommittee is of the opinion that the Federal Communications Commission is not fully exercising the powers presently vested in it to protect the public interest, and especially to protect the Nation’s [sic] children from the multitude of programs dealing with crime and violence.”79 While acknowledging that only one member of the FCC advocated an increased role for the agency (Commissioner Hennock continued to support greater FCC control over content), the letter listed several recommendations the subcommittee could make to enlarge the commission’s activities. Only the appeal to use content as one of the determining factors for license renewal actually made it into the final report.

The establishment of a presidential commission to oversee the systematic study of the issue and report annually to both Congress and the president and the added responsibilities for the FCC were the only two subcommittee recommendations that called for government action.80 Neither recommendation became law.

The Aftermath

After weeks of hearings spread over the first half of the 1950s, Congress had succeeded in producing over one thousand pages discussing the possibility of a relationship between television and juvenile delinquency, but the question remained regarding what had actually been accomplished. Many consequences resulted from the hearings. On a personal level, Senator Kefauver increased his popularity, one of the many reasons he became Adlai Stevenson’s vice presidential running mate in 1956 after contesting Stevenson for the top spot on the Democratic ticket.81 Senator Kefauver would serve as a role model for future congressmen who sought to further their careers and increase their popularity by criticizing the television industry for its violent programming. Senator Paul Simon’s (D- Ill.) focus on television violence in the late 1980s while also seeking the Democratic presidential nomination is a contemporary example.

On a more macro level, the 1950s hearings created a relationship between the broadcast industry and government remarkably similar to other regulated industries. It is intriguing that the broadcasters learned this relationship and how to exploit it so quickly. It is also important to note that the relationship remained static for almost four decades: first, the government castigated the industry for its deplorable programming, then the industry took its verbal punishment and promised to do better, followed by the government staying out of the industry’s business�at least in terms of content.82 This pattern was a “win-win” situation for both parties. The politicians scored points with their constituents for showing concern for children and outrage at any factor that contributed to crime and violence. The industry kept the government out of its daily affairs, allowing it to program the shows that would generate the greatest audience and result in more revenue. This is not to say that there were not members of Congress genuinely concerned about children and television or that the industry held no concern, but the general pattern of congressional public relations moves and industry sidesteps is quite obvious.

The 1950s hearings had another lasting effect. Almost every concern that researchers, activists, and politicians have raised in the area of television violence can be found in the testimonies and reports from 1952 and 1954-55. For example, a 1954 witness raised the issue of program sponsors linking the selling of their products to the entertainment provided in the show and suggested no advertising during children’s programs. Those issues would be debated twenty years later by Action for Children’s Television, the Federal Trade Commission, and the industry.83 Witnesses also raised concerns about the effects television had on a child’s cognitive skills, reading skills, and level of passivity. These issues have remained topics of academic research for ensuing decades.84

During his 1955 testimony, Dr. Ralph Banay asserted that emotionally disturbed children would be affected by television violence more than stable children. Almost twenty years later the Surgeon General’s Report substantiated his belief with empirical research.85 Future research also debunked a belief originally advanced during the 1952 hearings when the “catharsis theory,” which stated that television violence served as a release for aggressive children and was therefore not harmful, was found to be lacking as a suitable explanation of the relationship between television violence and young viewers.86

Even legislation that did not pass Congress until the 1990s had roots in the 1954 hearings. Of the twenty-seven bills introduced between 1950 and 1996 concerning television violence87 only two actually became law, and both have origins in the earlier hearings. The effect of removing anti-trust regulations that prohibit stations, or networks, from discussing programming or cleaning up the industry was explored during the hearings as a solution to each network being fearful of dropping its violent programs when the others might continue to show similar highly rated shows. Senator Paul Simon introduced the Television Program Improvement Act88 in 1990 to exempt networks from anti-trust laws so they could work out an industry-wide plan to cut the amount of violence on television.

Finally, the Parental Choice in Television Programming Act of 1996, or the v-chip law, can be traced back to the 1954 hearings. The subcommittee inquired as to the feasibility of a “superorganism” to review all programs prior to airing and rate their content�an idea quite similar to the special commission the FCC could have developed to rate television programming if the industry had not done so voluntarily according to the Act’s provisions.89 It also questioned why the television industry could not rate programs like the movie industry.90 Of course, the voluntary age-based ratings systems developed by the television industry in 1997 closely mirrored the MPAA’s ratings.91

Legal Implications

The legal environment in which the 1950s hearings took place provides an interesting juxtaposition to the seeming inaction by Congress. While the issue of the constitutionality of broadcast regulation had yet to be fully developed by the Supreme Court (the seminal Red Lion92 decision would not be issued for another fifteen years), the justices had ruled on the role of the Federal Communications Commission on several occasions, providing the agency with fairly substantial leeway in terms of regulation. In NBC v. U.S. (1943)93 the Court’s majority clearly established that the FCC held “expansive powers”94 with which to regulate broadcasters due to the “public interest” clause of the 1934 Communications Act. Justice Frankfurter’s majority opinion stated:

The Act itself establishes that the Commission’s powers are not limited to the engineering and technical aspects of regulation of radio communication. Yet we are asked to regard the Commission as a kind of traffic officer, policing the wave lengths to prevent stations from interfering with each other. But the Act does not restrict the Commission merely to supervision of that traffic. It puts upon the Commission the burden of determining the composition of that traffic.95

Just as he disregarded all the appellants’ arguments for restricting the FCC from enacting its chain broadcasting regulations, Justice Frankfurter ignored their appeal to the First Amendment saying that the “unique characteristic”96 of broadcasting�spectrum scarcity�automatically denied some speech freedom over the airwaves. Not receiving a license because one refuses to follow the FCC’s regulations was, therefore, not an abridgement of speech. Justice Murphy’s dissent did not raise the issue of the First Amendment, making it rather obvious that the Court did not see broadcast regulation as a potential infringement on constitutional protections.

Law professor William Mayton97 and others have argued convincingly that Frankfurter’s opinion in NBC was based on a misreading of the 1934 Communications Act, specifically the “public interest” clause. According to Mayton, a careful reading of congressional debate surrounding passage of the legislation, hearings transcripts, and the law itself reveals a specific set of agency responsibilities rather than the broad, open-ended power that the FCC assumed and Frankfurter condoned. Mayton’s argument is that the FCC was supposed to be the “traffic cop” that Frankfurter disdained.98

Court precedent, whether rightly or wrongly decided, established that the FCC had broad, discretionary power. Subsequent decisions by the Court through the early 1950s solidified the FCC’s authority to regulate broadcasting and the justices’ reluctance to interfere with the agency’s decisions.99 Although the Court overturned the FCC’s authority to define “give-away” programs as illegal in FCC v. ABC (1954), it did so only because it exceeded the explicit wording of 18 U.S.C. 1304, a criminal statute derived from Section 316 of the 1934 Communications Act.

Justice Frankfurter’s dubitante100 opinion in RCA v. U.S. (1951) clearly established his personal disregard for broadcasting and his view that it could be regulated by the government quite easily. After stating his concern about the negative impact captive listening of the radio may have on society’s ability to reflect on issues and his belief that television “may lead to the hasty jettisoning of hard-won gains of civilization,”101 he cited a Report of the Broadcasting Committee which stated that “the evil is that broadcasting is capable of increasing perhaps the most serious of all dangers which threaten democracy and free institutions today�the danger of passivity�of acceptance by masses of orders given to them and of things said to them.”102

It was against this backdrop of Court acceptance of broadcast regulation that the question of governmental intervention into television content to decrease the amount of violence shown on the air was raised. It appears rather academic that had Congress amended the Communications Act to empower the FCC to review violent programming content or set limits on violent content that the Court, using NBC v. U.S. (1943) as precedent, would have found no constitutional concerns with the action. Congressional action might not have even been necessary. The FCC, utilizing Commissioner Hennock’s argument, might have simply included a review of violent content as part of the license renewal process to ensure that the licensee was operating in the “public interest.” The Court’s majority opinion in NBC rests so heavily on the FCC’s responsibility to uphold the “public interest” clause and finds no First Amendment issue related to regulating broadcasting that it seems reasonable to assume that an FCC regulation could have easily withstood constitutional challenge.

Yet it was the members of the FCC who raised the issue of First Amendment concern just as loud as the industry representatives in the 1950s. And this reluctance to regulate content continued even after the hearings, although changes in FCC personnel led to changes in outlook on this issue.

From Chairman Coy’s comments in 1950 to the 1960 Report and Order on Network Programming,103 members of the FCC showed no desire to play the role of program monitor or censor. In 1952 FCC Chairman Paul Walker told the House subcommittee:

…I think we can all be in agreement that the maintenance of adequate program standards cannot and should not be achieved by establishing the Federal Communications Commission, or any other Government agency, as a censorship board to which all stations must submit their programs for prior approval.104

Walker based his statements as much on Section 326 of the Communications Act (the no censorship clause) as the First Amendment. During the 1954 hearings, FCC Chair Hyde relied primarily on the First Amendment to ward against governmental interference in television content. His statement that no governmental entity needed “blue pencils” to edit programming content stands as one of the strongest rebukes to governmental interference. Although there are members such as Nicholas Johnson in the 1970s who follow Hennock’s path of calling for FCC involvement, there is a remarkable consistency through the years of FCC Chairmen invoking the First Amendment and/or Section 326 of the Communications Act.105 (It is difficult to judge the attitude of FCC personnel in the 1980s and 1990s based solely on hearing testimony, because the FCC is rarely called to testify during the twelve hearings that occurred from 1980-1996).106

There is no clear answer to why the FCC would be so reluctant in the 1950s to regulate, or even why Congress was so reluctant to pass legislation requiring any level of regulation. The answer may be found, however, in a political science theory that was not even developed until 1964, Murray Edelman’s symbolic politics theory. Succinctly explained, Edelman posited that politicians engage in symbolic activity rather than substantive activity to manipulate the public into perceiving that they are looking after the public’s interests and concerns.107 Hearings without subsequent legislation are examples of symbolic actions taken by members of Congress to appear responsive to an issue of some concern to the public without engaging in the time-consuming and complex task of enacting real change. This symbolic action remained the “act of choice” for Congress until the mid-1980s, when Senator Paul Simon repeatedly began to introduce legislation to curb violence on television. Still, there is a significant amount of symbolic congressional action from 1950 to 1999 in the area of television violence, but only two public laws enacted.

The question of why the FCC would be reticent to gain control of programming is probably explained more by history than theory, however. The 1950s were a decade of great technological advancements in broadcasting, and the FCC was overwhelmed by the technical aspects of its responsibility.108 The last thing commissioners needed were further responsibilities, especially ones that would be contested by the industry. Furthermore, the FCC has traditionally been more concerned with economic issues than social issues109, and television violence is a decidedly social issue. Finally, by the late 1950s the FCC was embroiled in its own controversy, with Senator Oren Harris investigating the commissioners for accepting bribes, taking trips on privately owned yachts of broadcasters, and being overly friendly with the industry they were charged to regulate. Commissioners came and went at a much faster rate than what is commonplace today. The end of the decade saw the FCC, Congress, and the industry focusing on the quiz show scandals, which was actually the first time the agency was involved in a programming content discussion.110There is little wonder that the activities of the 1950s left little time for the FCC to concern itself with regulating television violence.


For all of their lingering impact on the issue of television violence and the government’s involvement in that issue, the 1952 and 1954-55 hearings are usually thought of as merely the starting point of four decades of sporadic government concern. Certainly, the 1968 congressional hearings that established the research project known as the 1972 Surgeon General’s Report111 and the 1972 hearings that followed the report’s release have received much more attention than their ancestors. Careful examination of the 1950s hearings, however, provides invaluable insight into how the issue originated and the unwritten guidelines that the industry, government, and researchers followed for decades.

It is no surprise these early television violence hearings are easily forgotten, though, for the Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency forgot about them after issuing its 1956 report. The subcommittee itself continued into the 1960s, but its primary focus returned to families, communities, schools, and courts. Kefauver and the Democrats did not win the White House in 1956, and he turned his attention to anti-trust crusades for the remainder of his congressional career.112 The issue of television violence did not tickle the fancy of legislators again until 1962, when the juvenile delinquency subcommittee briefly revisited the issue once more.113 More attention was given to the 1964 hearings, held when the country was beginning to question the violent society that allowed the president to be assassinated. Subsequent upswings in real-life violence, at least in the minds of citizens, led to nine congressional hearings on television violence in the 1970s, seven in the 1980s, and five in the 1990s.114 That cycle looks as though it will continue.

Still, the overarching issue is the establishment of the “game” played between the broadcasting industry�the media industry that faces the strongest forms of governmental regulation�and Congress as well as the placement of the First Amendment into the game by both sides. The industry uses the First Amendment as its primary defense to ward off governmental interference in its programming decisions even though its primary concern is arguably economic rather than constitutional principles, while the government�both the FCC and Congress�uses the First Amendment to ensure that current governmental boundaries are not enlarged. The accepted activity of discussing the problem seems useful to all the players of the game, as the public is assured that both Congress and the industry are concerned about children. No further action is attempted by either side, however. The rules established in 1952 remained in place for decades to follow, so the game could be played over and over again to everyone’s benefit.

About the Author:

Keisha L. Hoerrner received her Ph.D. from the University of Georgia in 1998, and is an assistant professor in the Manship School of Mass Communication at Louisiana State University. She can be reached by e-mail at

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