THE CBS WARS: PT 1
SMOTHERING "SMO-BRO": THE SMOTHERS BROTHERS COMEDY HOUR"
All networks battle over show content - yes, even pay networks like HBO, SHOWTIME and AMC, don‘t kid yourself. But the censorship wars of CBS have over the years emerged as the most famous, … or infamous; at the very least certainly the most headline grabbing. In the early days of 1950’s live television, up and comers like John Frankenheimer, Paddy Cheyevsky, Rod Serling and Reginald Rose butted heads with the network and sponsors over depictions of racial injustice and political corruption while producing a slew of live television plays, the social themes of which still resonate today. Some of this is covered in Pts. 1 & 2 of our own THE INHERENT POWER OF GENRE series. In the 1970s Norman Lear’s CBS-based series ALL IN THE FAMILY, GOOD TIMES, THE JEFFERSONS and MAUDE would be groundbreaking in their frank examinations of homosexuality, drug use, sexual harassment, poverty, gender roles, and the struggle for civil rights - all of it executed (shockingly to some) in a humorous manner during prime time. And of course the legal battles waged for and towards the network's pioneering news series 60 MINUTES would become the stuff of TV legend.
It’s easy today to look back with the benefit of historical hindsight, wag a disapproving finger, and deride network executives of the era as “conservative, free speech quashing bastards!”. But it’s never that simple … or even fair. For if CBS had not been daring and experimental enough to allow many of these shows on the air in the first place, the censorship battles never would have occurred. Founded by William S. Paley in 1928 (when he purchased 16 radio stations then combined them into the “Columbia Broadcasting System”) CBS as a television entity was in it’s early days the most prestigious among the “Big Three”, earning the moniker “the Tiffany Network” because of the quality of it’s programming. That cache with audiences and (especially) sponsors gave “Tiff” latitude in breaking new ground, sometimes intentionally and at other times by mere coincidence of a show and the era in which it debuted meeting at a fortuitous social nexus. Such was the case of our first entry in “THE CBS WARS”, the censorship battles of THE SMOTHERS BROTHERS COMEDY HOUR.
Long before THE DAILY SHOW, REAL TIME WITH BILL MAHER or even SNL's "WEEKEND UPDATE", THE SMOTHERS BROTHERS COMEDY HOUR brought laughs, music and a truckload of biting political commentary and satire to TV audiences of the late 1960s / early 70s - an audience who'd had a belly full of racial and gender discrimination, government corruption and a very unpopular war in Vietnam. With a staff of iconoclastic up and coming writers including Rob Reiner, Steve Martin, Mason Williams and Carl Gottlieb, the show's sense of humor was trenchant enough to inflame the personal animosity of both the Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon Presidential administrations, put CBS in the FCC hot seat, and trigger a high court battle between the show's creators and it's own network over it's eventual cancellation.