David R. Henderson  

Smothers Brothers: The Missing Story

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For decades, I believed, as I think almost everyone who followed the issue did, that the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour was yanked by CBS because of CBS's objection to the Smothers Brothers' edgy commentary about social issues. Various "public" television stations, in their December fund-raising, are showing a documentary special that pushes that view. WGBH in Boston, for example, will show it on December 11. The documentary is entitled Smothered: The Censorship Struggles of the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.

It is true that CBS had a lot of difficulty with the Smothers Brothers' edgy looks at politics and religion. But that's only part of what got the show yanked. The other part was a humorous bit done by guest Dan Rowan. Rowan gave the "fickle-finger-of-fate" award (i.e., the finger) to John O. Pastore, a U.S. Senator from Rhode Island. Why did Rowan single out Pastore? Pastore was the chairman of United States Senate Subcommittee on Communications. In that role, he had a great deal of power over the Federal Communications Commission, the federal agency that censors radio and television. In other words, Rowan "fingered" a man who had a great deal of power over television content.

That man was not even mentioned in the documentary. Why not? Here's my "public choice" speculation. Pastore is also known for pushing hard for subsidies to public broadcasting. Indeed he did so only about a month after CBS yanked the Smothers Brothers show. He became a hero to those who believe in tax-financed subsidies to public television. So the stations have probably never wanted to look at the truth because it would mean admitting that their hero was a nasty censor who, like most politicians, couldn't stand being made fun of. Ironically, while the various public broadcasting stations try to come across as open-minded people who want the truth to come out, by trumpeting this movie and not mentioning one important thing left out, they are not trying to broadcast the whole truth at all.

[Thanks to Brian Schwartz for catching the broken link. Now fixed.]


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COMMENTS (6 to date)
Jacob Oost writes:

Meh, PBS ain't good for much. Even their "HD" channel is only about one-quarter HD content. Much of their program is a snore-fest, and I don't mean just because it's "educational" or packed with information. I just mean it's dull.

I tried watching Nova in HD and it nearly put me to sleep. Compare that to Planet Earth, a feast for the eyes, ears, and intellect of a nature/animal enthusiast.

The best things on PBS are History's Mysteries and British shows like BlackAdder, AYBS?, As Time Goes By, and Cadfael. :-)

Interesting story.

FYI, there's a broken link in: "the chairman of United States Senate Subcommittee on Communications."

mjh writes:
So the stations have probably ... they are not trying to broadcast the whole truth at all.
To quote Jayne Cobb: "I smell a lot 'if' coming off this plan".

My point: it seems quite a leap to go from saying what the stations "probably" did, to concluding what they are trying to do.

I don't mean to defend public television or government activity. I'd *prefer* to believe that public broadcasting is prone to manipulate facts in order to support public funding policies which do not require them to actually win viewers. I think that story's probably true. But I can't make the same leaps that this post does. Is there more that would support this conclusion?

Mr. Econotarian writes:

I can attest that PBS itself is not a hard-core hotbed of socialism.

To a large extent, they put together programming that is acceptable to the 360 independent PBS member stations, some of which are state-owned networks (like Maryland Public Broadcasting), other are university owned stations, and some are independent non-profits.

PBS isn't like "Air America", in part because of its ties to government.

PBS got into a really nasty mess with the Bush Department of Education a few years ago over funding for an educational program where a cartoon character visited people around the country, including one episode visiting kids from Vermont who "had two mommies". PBS backed off and sidelined the show.

PBS also tends to distribute "clean" versions of shows with various "nasty language" or scenes removed to meet the needs of stations in less liberal parts of the country.

PBS has done fairly orthodox economic stuff like "WSJ Report", "Commanding Heights", and of course (a long time ago) "Free to Choose".

But if a program (like "WSJ Report") isn't getting enough PBS member stations excited (say it doesn't help their local fundraising & local underwriting), it gets canceled.

NPR has a similar structure, although they do produce much of their own content (PBS produces none, they only help productions occur). NPR stations can also afford to run more pointed programs because their costs are lower.

Randy Carter writes:

The PBS/WGBH link Davis is referring to is broken in the body of his post it should be this

Randy Carter writes:

David too, whoops. I apologise for the typo.

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