Olbermann Joins Smothers Brothers, Ed Asner as Victims of Corporate Television Censorship

by Randy Shaw on January 25, 2011

I again watched V for Vendetta last weekend, whose smaller subplots include a popular television host who draws record ratings after discarding the censors approved script and substituting a satirical skit on the nation’s leader. When Natalie Portman’s character Evey asks him whether he is not afraid of repercussions, the host says “of course not,” as the show’s high viewership would protect him. Soon after, the leader’s police force enters his home and kills him. MSNBC’s termination of Keith Olbermann’s top-rated Countdown show lacked such violence, and the popular host will receive the millions of dollars left on his contract. But corporate interests have silenced one of television’s most popular promoter of progressive views, and have sent a powerful cautionary message to others. Olbermann’s firing shows how media giants like Comcast will pay millions to keep progressive views off the air, refuting the conservative line that progressive views are missing from television because they are not popular. Olbermann joins the Smothers Brothers, Ed Asner, the cast of WKRP in Cincinnati and the Weavers as victims of ongoing corporate censorship of television in the United States.

It’s no surprise that the traditional media is framing Keith Olbermann’s firing as a personal matter related to his allegedly prickly personality and inability to stay in any job for very long. After all, Americans do not want to think that powerful profit-driven corporations decide who appears on television and limits what they say – that sounds like censorship.

But like the population in the futuristic England portrayed in V for Vendetta, few are fooled by Olbermann’s firing. His Countdown spot will now be filled by the inoffensive Lawrence O’Donnell, who can be trusted not to say anything that worries Comcast’s ardently Republican top executives.

Ongoing Censorship of the Left

Keith Olbermann is only the latest in a long line of television stars whose progressive political views led to their removal from the airwaves despite high ratings and popularity.

CBS killed the Smothers Brothers show in 1969 because its hosts insisted on publicly opposing the Vietnam War, and were openly critical of mainstream political institutions. The show’s high ratings made no difference; CBS was so eager to deny a national audience to the Smothers Brothers that it cancelled the show with an entire episode left unaired.

Ed Asner’s highly rated show, Lou Grant, was a victim of an even more insidious form of corporate censorship. It was cancelled by CBS in 1982 despite being in the top ten.

Asner, who gained fame from playing Lou Grant in the Mary Tyler Moore show, was an outspoken political activist. He served two terms as President of the Screen Actors Guild, backing the union’s 1980 strike against the industry.

Asner was an outspoken activist at a time when Ronald Reagan was at the height of popularity and many Democrats – including those running television networks – feared criticizing his agenda. His refusal to stay quiet was widely seen as the cause of Lou Grant’s cancellation.

Asner was not silenced by his show’s demise. As I describe in my book, Beyond the Fields, his 1990 narration of an incendiary television ad urging a boycott of El Salvadoran coffee. Asner’s ad targeted Folger’s Coffee, a product of Proctor & Gamble, the leading sponsor of network television shows.

Lou Grant’s termination was a warning to other actors not to get too involved with either the Screen Actor’s Guild or vocal public advocacy of progressive issues.

WKRP in Cincinnati was also cancelled in 1982 despite viewer popularity. One of its stars, Howard Hesseman, was also an outspoken critic of Reagan era policies and the show had a counter-culture feel that challenged the prevailing political mood.

Ongoing Censorship of the Weavers

It’s not that Americans are not told about television censorship; rather, this was all supposedly to have occurred during the McCarthy era of the 1950’s. For example, the legendary folk group, the Weavers (“Good Night Irene,” et al) were banned from appearing on television and eventually forced by commercial necessity to disband.

The Weavers enjoyed a significant comeback in the late 1950s, but on January 2, 1962, in advance of a scheduled appearance on The Jack Paar Show (the forerunner of Johnnie Carson’s Tonight Show), NBC told the Weavers that they had to sign a statement disavowing the Communist party. When they refused, their appearance was canceled.

The mid-1960’s brought a brief respite from corporate censorship of progressive voices. Watch DVDs of the top-rated Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In and you will see Dan Rowan talking to the audience wearing a large peace button, saying that he hopes the troops come home soon.

But those days soon passed, and progressive political views were soon largely barred from the airways. There were exceptions – most notably the Miami Vice episode that criticized U.S. involvement in Central American and used Jackson Brown’s radical Lives in the Balance as the soundtrack – but these comprised an infinitesimal fraction of all programming.

When NBC newscaster Tom Brokaw told Mother Jones magazine in April 1983 that he knew Reagan’s supply-side economics would be a “disaster,” he was publicly criticized by network bosses and almost lost his planned position as news anchor. Brokaw apologized for his comments and learned to obey his corporate masters; it was no surprise when his patrons at NBC brought him in to criticize Olbermann for allegedly biased reporting against Hilary Clinton during the 2008 primaries.

Corporate Control of Cable Television

Remember when we were told that cable television would open the airwaves to a more diverse set of views? Well, we do have Bill Maher, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, and Rachel Maddow and Ed Schultz still remain in place at MSNBC.

But if you measure the massive volume of available television programming, the lack of progressive content/voices is shocking. And, as Olbermann’s cancellation proves, it’s not a lack of audience interest that limits such perspectives – but rather that cable television is owned by the same corporate interests that censor network television.

Latino and African-American progressives are as off-limits on any television show with a potentially large audience as they were before cable. The same can be said for the continued absence from the airwaves of union leaders, environmentalists, feminists, and most of the groups whose activism won Barack Obama the presidency in 2008.

Republican politicians and their business allies dominated cable talk shows from the time Obama took office, despite the changed electoral calculus. And claims that CNN has a liberal bias have become laughable.

I think Olbermann’s departure will reduce ratings for all of MSNBC’s shows, and that the now Comcast-owned network will steadily shift away from its former progressive base. I can just hear those executives crowing that they do not care how much it costs, they want Olbermann off the air and they want him off the air now.

Keith Olbermann will get through this, but what others in the field are thinking is that if corporate censorship can bring him down, then nobody expressing progressive views is safe.

For hope and inspiration in these trying times, try Randy Shaw’s Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century. Shaw is also the author of The Activist’s Handbook.

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