Think of the children! A brief history of tenuous TV censorship
Conservative group The Parents Television Council urged Netflix to hold off on airing S2 of 13 Reasons Why lats year until “experts in the scientific community have determined it to be safe for consumption.” The first season of the teen phenomenon drew acclaim and controversy for its frank and often graphic depictions of challenging topics such as suicide, rape, and gun violence.
Backlash to 13 Reasons Why prompted Netflix to coddle the first season of the series with televisual bubble wrap, adding warnings and crisis hotline cards to each episode. The streamer further announced it would be releasing a series of resources for viewers watching the second season and a custom introduction from the cast of the show describing the graphic nature of the story.
The streaming giant did so in response to the findings of a global research study exploring how teens and parents responded to 13 Reasons Why. According to the PTC, these measures were commendable but aren’t enough.
PTC President Tim Winter mused that though “we may never know the full extent of how grave the influence was,” the impact of 13 Reasons Why was apparently obvious.
“Millions of children watched; the Google search term for how to commit suicide spiked 26 percent; and there were news reports of children literally taking their own lives after the series was released.” Referencing the findings of the global research study, Winter griped Netflix cannot “now feign ignorance should tragedy strike.”
You say “safeguarding” – we say “censorship”, buddy. This isn’t the first time (nor will it be the last) the American public has been sheltered from the apparently toxic content of a TV show. As this brief timeline of the history of TV censorship reveals, the apparently all-too-delicate sensibilities of children & adults alike have been overly protected in North America for decades.
A Tale of Two Kitties: Tweety Bird forced to cover up
Animator Robert Clampett introduced Tweety Bird as a featherless animal in the short A Tale of Two Kitties. According to the Hays Office Censorship Bureau, the sight of the cartoon bird’s bare flesh was deemed far too titillating for the American public to handle and Clampett was forced to cover Tweety’s “sexy” plucked skin with a fabulous yellow plumage instead.
I Love Lucy: Pregnancy is a dirty word
Comedy hero Lucille Ball (Yours, Mine and Ours) was pregnant during an entire season of I Love Lucy, a fact played out within the show as part of her character Lucy’s storyline. However, the word “pregnant” was apparently far too shocking and salacious to be aired on a family show. Instead, I Love Lucy had to use a clusterfuck of innuendo to describe the obvious, like “having a baby”, “with child”, and “expecting” in a bid to save humanity from the sins of conception.
Leave it to Beaver: The offending toilet seat
It’s remembered as being one of the most wholesome TV shows in U.S. history and yet the pilot episode was initially banned from airing. What was it that made CBS so concerned? It wasn’t sex, violence, or profanity, but several shots of a toilet seat that prompted the network to pull the episode (in which Wally and Beav try to hide a baby alligator in the tank of the family toilet. Such japes!) The episode finally aired after shots of the seat were removed.
Playhouse 90: Advertisers rewrite history
An episode of the dramatic anthology show titled “Judgement at Nuremberg” had a very sensitive sponsor in the form of the American Gas Association. The advertiser wasn’t thrilled about the episode – which featured re-enactments of the Nazi trials retaining references to gas chambers – and demanded the show remove them.
The X-Files: Incest and child murder are not cool
Widely considered to be one of the best episodes of The X-Files (and one of the scariest hours of TV ever made), the episode “Home” featured such gruesome scenes as a baby being buried alive, incest, and a deformed mother hidden beneath a bed.
Mulder (David Duchovny) and Scully (Gillian Anderson) managed to keep their shit together while investigating the ghastly case. However, Fox didn’t expect audiences to achieve the same and eventually decided against ever airing the episode again.
1998 – 99
Boy Meets World: Sex talk and underage hooch
As one of the most edifying decent shows any family could hope for their kid to watch in the 90s, it might be surprising to discover ABC banned several episodes of Boy Meets World. Why? “Promises, Promises” had the audacity to show Cory (Ben Savage) and long-term girlfriend Topanga (Danielle Fishel) discussing the possibility of losing their virginity together.
“The Truth About Honesty” dared to get real honest with some more apparently salacious conversation about (gasp!) doing it. Meanwhile Cory & Shawn (Rider Strong) did what absolutely no teenager has ever done in the history of anything anywhere and got very drunk on a (very small) stolen bottle of Hooch.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Post-Columbine high school gun violence
Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) thinks she can overhear Jonathon (Danny Strong) planning a mass murder in their school, only to discover the armed shooter was actually just planning on killing himself (FYI: still not cool, Jonny).
The episode was due to air a week after the Columbine High School massacre, which Warner Bros. deemed was a little inappropriate. Instead, they aired it five months later when everyone had no doubt completely forgotten that school shootings were still a thing.
The Simpsons: Post-9/11 sensitivity
In “The City of New York vs. Homer Simpson”, everyone’s favorite Khlav Kalash-eating, New York-hating, Springfield father discovers his car has been drunkenly abandoned outside of the World Trade Center by boozehound Barney.
Originally having aired in 1997, the episode is considered to be something of a gem, with plenty of comedy revolving around the Twin Towers. In 2001, following the terrorist attack, the episode was removed from repeat viewings and has only very recently found itself back in rotation.
South Park: The Prophet Muhammad
Trey Parker & Matt Stone (Orgazmo) pushing boundaries? Never. In episodes “200” and “201” of the series, the Prophet Muhammad is a featured character in a ludicrous storyline involving Tom Cruise leading a pack of people to sue the town of South Park for offences against them.
After some strongly-worded warnings from a radical Muslim group cautioning against them showing the Prophet (as teased in “200”), Comedy Central opted to heavily censor “201”. Black boxes were placed over every appearance of Muhammad and (ironically) a huge discussion about free speech was heavily censored. The episode still hasn’t aired in the UK and hasn’t been repeated in the U.S. since.