Category: Cycle of Self-Regulation


The Fourth Wave

by Chris A. Blair, Ph.D.

Thomas Doherty states in his book, Pre-Code Hollywood: “The currents that flowed together in 1933–34 have identifiable names—the National Legion of Decency, the Motion Picture Research Council, and the New Deal—but what they represented was part of a stronger centrifugal force” (1999, p. 320). These three forces managed to generate public consensus concerning the direction Hollywood should pursue. Doherty (1999) states, “Where pre-Code Hollywood vented the disorientation and despair of America in the nadir of the Great Depression, Hollywood after 1934 reflected the restoration of cultural equilibrium under FDR” (p. 320).

In 1933, the Catholic Church formed the National Legion of Decency as a response to the preceding years of non-compliance to the Production Code written by Lord and Quigley. The code was viewed by the industry as merely an advisory document, and with no means of enforcement it went unheeded from 1930 to 1934. In October 1933, Monsignor Cicognani, in an address to the Catholic Charities Convention in New York, proclaimed:

What a massacre of innocence of youth is taking place hour by hour! How shall the crimes that have their direct source in immoral motion pictures be measured? Catholics are called by God, the Pope, the Bishops, and the priests to a united and vigorous campaign for the purification of the cinema, which has become a deadly menace to morals. (Jowett, 1976, p. 248)

In an editorial in America magazine on October 28, 1933, Father Wilfred Parsons added, “It is perfectly clear that letters and other written protests to Will Hays or anybody else will do little good. . . . Since they have made it perfectly clear that they have no intention whatever of heeding these protests, something else will have to be thought up” (Jowett, 1976, p. 248). Martin Quigley, one of the authors of the Production Code, wrote that the code would not have any effect unless “sufficient pressure and support of public opinion to encourage or compel the industry at large to conform with the letter and spirit of the regulations” (Randall, 1968, p. 186). The Legion of Decency was able to generate the level of pressure Quigley mentioned, by not only enlisting the support of Catholics across the nation but by generating the support of numerous Protestant and Jewish groups. In Catholic churches nationwide parishioners were encouraged to pledge to avoid objectionable movies as determined by the Legion of Decency. Going a step further, in June of 1934, Denis Cardinal Dougherty of Philadelphia called for all good Catholics to avoid motion pictures altogether, claiming that a “vicious and insidious attack is being made on the very foundation of our Christian civilization” (Doherty, 1999, p. 321).

Protestant churches would rally behind the Catholic Legion of Decency, despite attempts from the Hays Office to line up support from their previous allies. The Protestants, feeling that the MPPDA and the Hays Office had taken advantage of them, rejected the overtures and joined forces with the Legion of Decency. Doherty (1999) summarizes the unity between the Catholics, Protestants, and Jews, stating:

As Protestant clergy urged their congregations “to unite with Catholics in their campaign to raise the moral standards of pictures,” the Central Conference of American Rabbis called for cooperation “with other religious and civic bodies in bringing home to the picture producers their responsibility for taking immediate steps to elevate the standards of pictures.” (p. 322)

Boycott the MoviesThough those not wishing to see the Catholic view of morality imposed on all areas of society opposed the crusade by the Legion of Decency, the majority response was of support for their crusade. In addition to Protestant and Jewish churches, other civic organizations joined in support of the Legion of Decency. The National Education Association, the Knights of Columbus, the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai Brith, the Elks, the Masons, and the Odd Fellows all joined in support of the Legion’s pledge to boycott of objectionable movies (Jowett, 1976). The Legion succeeded in collecting over 3 million pledges in 1934 (Jowett, et al., 1996).

The Legion of Decency represented only one source of pressure for the motion picture industry, however. In 1933, the Motion Picture Research Council (MPRC), funded by the Payne Fund, began releasing the findings of their extensive, six-year research on the effects of motion pictures on children. The MPRC released seven volumes of their findings in 1933 and an eighth volume in 1935. The volumes included works entitled, Motion Pictures and Youth, Getting Ideas from the Movies, Motion Pictures and the Social Attitudes of Children, The Emotion Responses of Children to the Motion Picture Situation, Movies and Conduct, and Movies, Delinquency, and Crime. Additionally, the work of the MPRC was summarized in the popular book, Our Movie-Made Children by Henry James Forman (Jowett, et al., 1996).

The Payne Fund Studies, as they have become to be known, were lauded and criticized at their release. They have been both praised as the beginning of media studies in America and condemned as unscientific indictments of the motion picture industry (see Jowett, et al., 1996). One of the MPRC’s primary researchers criticized some of the research, claiming that the MPRC was not completely unbiased in its approach. W. W. Charters stated that he had been told that the MPRC “had been formed by . . . persons who were disturbed by the practices and policies of the motion-picture industry and were apprehensive about the harmfulness of the influence exerted by the movies upon the American public and particular upon the children and youth of the nation” (Jarvis, 1991, p. 129).

Our Movie Made ChildrenTheir influence in the crusade for significant regulation of the motion picture industry, however, is undisputed. While the scholarly volumes released by the MPRC would sell slowly in 1933, the summary volume, Our Movie-Made Children, was an instant success. Additionally, Forman wrote three articles for McCall’s magazine providing sensational stories and summaries of the studies that had been diluted in the editorial process for his book (Jowett, et al., 1996). These articles will be discussed in detail in the following chapter. According to an internal history of the Payne Fund, the MPRC studies were as influential on the formation of the Production Code and the Breen Office as any other factor:

The publication of the Payne Fund Studies of the influence of motion pictures on children and youth has had effects which were perhaps no less amazing to the Fund than to the motion picture industry. While it was expected that the findings would result in action by many organizations interested in the social effects of motion pictures, no such movement as that which swept the country had been foreseen. As stated by the New York Times, criticism of motion pictures, once carried on by isolated groups, became a national barrage from church, civic, and educational organizations. The Motion Picture Research Council initiated the organized campaign, but within a few months was overshadowed by the Legion of Decency, which enlisted millions of persons in a nation-wide movement threatening the general boycott of films. (Jowett, et al., 1996, p. 93–94)

While both the Payne Fund Studies and the Legion of Decency crusade were powerful forces in the formation of stringent self-regulatory measures by the motion picture industry, it can easily be argued that the most powerful contributing factor was the threat of government censorship, specifically federal censorship of the motion picture industry.

National Recovery ActThe closest the federal government came to the regulation of the motion picture industry came in 1933, when the National Recovery Act imposed a series of “codes of fair competition” on numerous industries including the motion picture industry (Jowett, 1976). The Supreme Court would eventually declare this part of Roosevelt’s New Deal unconstitutional in 1935, but its legacy would frighten the motion picture industry into imposing its own self-regulatory code in an effort to avoid any additional federal measures. The NRA Motion Picture Code covered all areas of the motion picture industry, from film content to ticket prices and the hourly wages of employees. Though the moral codes on film content were not as strict as the Production Code, the studio heads were afraid to offend the federal censors and risk receiving fines or having their film banned (Doherty, 1999). The NRA Motion Picture Code delegated most of the questions of content to the MPPDA, though it set up a number of industry “courts” across the nation to hear complaints over movie content, with the final decision resting with the Code Authority. For fear of further intrusion by the federal government, Will Hays approached Roosevelt with his plans for a stricter, more involved self-regulatory scheme, to which Roosevelt agreed not to pursue plans of instituting a federal regulator as long as the self-regulatory plan was working as well “as any other plan could work” (Jowett, 1976, p. 246).

On July 12, 1934, soon after the release of the MPRC findings, six months after the NRA Motion Picture Code was introduced, and just a few months after the Legion of Decency’s boycott pledge began, the MPPDA established the Production Code Administration (PCA), headed by former Studio Relations Committee chairman and staunch Catholic, Joseph I. Breen. The PCA was given enforcement powers over motion picture producers. No film could be distributed by MPDDA members unless it first received the PCA’s seal of approval. In addition, the MPPDA approved a $25,000 fine for noncompliance, the first such penalty in the history of the motion picture industry. In another move to ensure compliance to the Production Code, the MPPDA eliminated the Producers Appeal Board, which had given the studio heads the ability to overrule any of the Studio Relations Committee’s decisions. In essence, the PCA replaced the Producers Appeal Board in the hierarchy, and if a studio wanted to challenge a PCA decision, it would have to appeal to the full board of the MPPDA in New York.

Summary

The PCA under the authority of Breen ruled the motion picture industry for several decades, determining what was and what was not appropriate to show on America’s movie screens. This final stage of self-regulation continued in this form until the MPAA dropped the Production Code in favor of the current ratings system in 1968. Through the history of motion picture content regulation one can see the formation of the cycle of self-regulation that was repeated several times throughout the century, sometimes more precisely and other times with even more complications. The first stage began almost as soon as the first film was projected, but culminated into the events of 1907 to 1909, ending in the formation of the National Board of Censorship. This National Board of Review became the first half-hearted attempt at pacifying the critics—the second stage—followed by the formation of the MPPDA in 1921. But scandals and controversial films caused tension between the MPPDA and the people it sought to pacify, which would eventually force the movie industry to enter the final stage, creating a significant and enforceable regulatory code and an agency to enforce that code.

The arguments for movie censorship developed during the first three decades of the twentieth century, from arguments against the influence of the motion picture in general to one specifically focused on the negative influences of the content of movies on children. Historians note the Progressive movement to protect traditional Protestant values from the vast influx of non-Protestant immigrants as the motivation behind film censorship (Cripps, 1997; Jowett, 1976; Randall, 1968; Sklar, 1975). But a brief examination of the arguments during the early history of motion pictures shows that arguments for the protection of children against the negative influences of the movies appear as early as the mid-teens and are continually refined throughout the 1920s and 1930s. The addition of social science research to support the claims of the effect of movies on children, though not conclusively, significantly strengthened the arguments for censorship or regulation to protect children.

The history of the film industry in this area is complicated and marked by a number of failed attempts to strike a balance between self-regulation and government censorship. However, it provided a template for later media to follow when trying to strike a similar balance, making later instances less complicated and easier to follow. The arguments used against the motion picture industry would also provide a template for later reformers to follow. The combination of scientific research and examples of an increase in juvenile delinquency would prove to be a powerful message again in the late 1940s and early 1950s in the case against crime and horror comic books, in the 1970s and 1980s against radio and popular music, in the 1980s and 1990s against broadcast and cable television programming, and is currently with videogames and the Internet.

References:

Cripps, T. (1997). Hollywood’s high noon: Moviemaking & society before television. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Doherty, T. P. (1999). Pre-code Hollywood. New York: Columbia University Press.

Jarvis, A. R., Jr. (1991). The Payne Fund reports: A discussion of their content, public reaction, and affect on the motion picture industry. Journal of Popular Culture, 25(2), 127–140.

Jowett, G. S. (1976). Film: The democratic art. Boston: Little and Brown.

Jowett, G. S., Jarvie, I. C., & Fuller, K. H. (1996). Children and the movies: Media influence and the Payne Fund controversy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Randall, R. S. (1968). Censorship of the movies: The social and political control of a mass medium. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Sklar, R. (1975). Movie made America: A cultural history of American movies. New York: Vintage Books.

The Third Wave

by Chris A. Blair, Ph.D.

King of KingsThe third wave in the cycle for motion pictures would climax during the late twenties, when several controversial films tore apart the weak alliance between the MPPDA and religious and reform organizations. At the same time, the stock market crash of 1929 forced Hollywood to fall under the control of Wall Street investors (Shindler, 1996). Films such as Cecil B. deMille’s King of Kings (1927) offended many of the religious leaders, while an MGM comedy, The Callahans and the Murphys (1927), caused Irish-Catholics to protest the negative, stereotypical portrayal of Irish immigrants (Couvares, 1996a; Miller, F., 1994). In addition, the connection between movies and juvenile delinquency began to be articulated in the late twenties, as shown in Robert Lynd’s study, Middletown:

One working-class mother frankly welcomes the movies as an aid in child-rearing, saying, “I send my daughter because a girl has to learn the ways of the world some how and the movies are a good safe way.” The judge of the juvenile court lists the movies as one of the “big four” causes of local juvenile delinquency, believing that the disregard of group mores by the young is definitely related to witnessing week after week of fictitious behavior sequences that habitually link the taking of long chances and the happy ending. (Jowett, 1976, p. 142)

Strained relations prompted Hays to investigate the implementation of stricter guidelines than his “Hays Formula.” After gathering information on what type of material local and state censors cut most often, Hays drafted a “Purity Code,” most often referred to as the “don’ts and be carefuls” (Cook, D. A., 1990; Miller, F., 1994). The list of eleven subjects to avoid and twenty-five subjects to treat with caution was stricter than the previous guidelines. Hays, however, had little success in implementing the new code throughout the industry.

Production CodeThe Purity Code was ineffective and short lived, as the pressure mounted against the movie industry and the MPPDA. In late 1929, shortly after the stock market crash, Hays enlisted the aid of Martin Quigley, Motion Picture Herald publisher and devout Catholic, to draft a new comprehensive code that focused less on negative things to avoid—like the list of “don’ts and be carefuls”—and more on an overall statement about what messages the movies should be sending its audiences (Miller, F., 1994). The generic statement later became the introduction to the Production Code. But Hays needed something concrete that could be enforced fairly and consistently. Hays worked with Father Daniel A. Lord from Saint Louis University to draft what later became known as the Production Code. The MPPDA adopted the Code on February 17, 1930, but industry-wide implementation of the Code would not happen for four years, when yet again cries against the effects of movies—most notably the results of the Payne Fund Studies—and the threat of federal censorship prodded the industry to yield to the Code and hire Joseph I. Breen, a Catholic businessman, to enforce it (Cook, D. A., 1990; Jowett, et al., 1996).

References:

Cook, D. A. (1990). A history of narrative film (2nd ed.). New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

Couvares, F. G. (1996a). Hollywood, main street, and the church. In F. G. Couvares (Ed.), Movie censorship and American culture (pp. 129–158). Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press.

Jowett, G. S. (1976). Film: The democratic art. Boston: Little and Brown.

Jowett, G. S., Jarvie, I. C., & Fuller, K. H. (1996). Children and the movies: Media influence and the Payne Fund controversy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Miller, F. (1994). Censored Hollywood: Sex, sin & violence on screen. Atlanta: Turner Publishing, Inc.

The Second Wave

by Chris A. Blair, Ph.D.

In the early twenties movie attendance increased drastically, as did criticisms of the films with such titles as Lying Lips (1921, John Griffith Wray), Red Hot Romance (1922, Victor Fleming), Sex (1920, Fred Niblo), A Virgin Paradise (1921, J. Searle Dawley), and The Fourteenth Lover (1922, Harry Beaumont). Hollywood scandals followed one after another in the early twenties, leading a Senator to conclude that Hollywood was “a colony . . . where debauchery, riotous living, drunkenness, ribaldry, dissipation, free love seem to be conspicuous” (Schumach, 1964, p. 19). In 1921, Fatty Arbuckle was charged with the rape and murder of a little known actress, Virginia Rappe, at a party in Arbuckle’s honor at the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco. The first two trials both ended in a mistrial with one jury favoring acquittal and the other favored a guilty verdict. The third trial ended with an acquittal for the popular comedy actor, but it was not enough to save his career or the struggling film industry. Arbuckle was unable to find work after being marked by such headlines as “Arbuckle Orgy” and “Orgy Death” (Schumach, 1964, p. 23).

In 1922, one year after Fatty Arbuckle’s scandal, Hollywood director William Desmond Taylor was found murdered in his home. He had been shot in the back twice, and soon two suspects surfaced—Mabel Normand, a famous comedy actress, and Mary Miles Minter, who had been marked as the next Mary Pickford. The circumstances around the murder and the facts uncovered concerning their personal lives made for a great scandal (Schumach, 1964).  Other scandals, such as the divorce of Mary Pickford from her first husband to marry Douglas Fairbanks and the drug related death of actor Wallace Reid, contributed to the sense that Hollywood was out of control (Jarvis, 1991). The combination of personal scandals and public controversy over films increased the pressure placed on the new Hollywood.

MPPDAThe motion picture industry struggled with the scandals and formed its own regulatory board, the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA), in response to the criticisms and with the hopes of avoiding further government censorship. In 1921, as the MPPDA was being formed, New York joined Pennsylvania, Ohio, Kansas, Maryland, and Virginia as states with organized boards of censorship (Couvares, 1996a; Sklar, 1975). At the beginning of 1922, thirty-six state legislatures, as well as Congress, were considered varying types of censorship legislation (Cook, D. A., 1990). The formation of the MPPDA marked the climax of the second wave in the cycle leading to systematic self-regulation. The perceived threat of government censorship caused the industry to act, naming a movie “czar” charged with cleaning up Hollywood. Will H. Hays, former Postmaster General under the Harding administration and powerful Republican lobbyist, became head of the MPPDA (Couvares, 1996a; Miller, F., 1994). The MPPDA issued a press release stating the purpose of the association: “The object for which the corporation is to be created is to foster the common interests of those engaged in the motion picture industry in the United States, by establishing and maintaining the highest possible moral and artistic standards in motion picture production” (Schumach, 1964, p. 67).

Will HaysThe Hays Office, as it became to be known, worked ardently to stave off any government censorship and did so successfully for over a decade. Hays insisted that the titles of the films be less sensational and that all scripts be submitted to his office. He would make suggestions as to what material should be removed or changed so as not to offend any particular group. Often production companies would make several different cuts of the same movie. Each one fit the standards of the state or city in which it was shown. Hays and the industry came to a “gentlemen’s agreement” over a thirteen point list of things to avoid in their films, which came to be known as the “Hays Formula” (Miller, F., 1994, p. 38). Also, Hays was active in suppressing any scandals that might arise with the actors. Hays created a blacklist of actors banned from productions, due to some inappropriate aspect of their personal lives (Cook, D. A., 1990). He placed pressure on the studios to keep their actors away from situations that were potentially scandalous.

But Hays and the MPPDA were more concerned with improving the tarnished image of Hollywood and avoiding governmental censorship than with enacting any form of substantial change in the Hollywood system. One of Hays’ first goals was to establish formal relationships with the various religious and reformist organizations that criticized the movies. Hays contacted the Federal Council of Churches, the YMCA, the YWCA, the General Federation of Women’s Clubs, the National Congress of Parents and Teachers, the National Education Association, the Boy Scouts of America, and the Campfire Girls to enlist their participation in the newly formed Committee on Public Relations (Couvares, 1996a). Hays traveled around the nation promoting the efforts of the MPPDA and often brought leaders of various organizations to Hollywood to be “wined and dined” and to meet with the stars.  But the Hays Office would be short lived after that, for again scandal and public criticism would cause the motion picture industry to react.

The formation of the MPPDA and the “Hays Office” marked the end of the second wave of self-regulation, where the industry begins to act to prevent government intrusion, but focuses more on improving their public image and pacifying special interest groups than “cleaning up their act.”  Thomas Cripps (1997) described the achievements of the Hays Office, stating, “The MPPDA got through the 1920s by placating but not pleasing themselves, their fans, or their critics” (p. 78). This half-hearted effort at self-regulation, though generally unsuccessful, would be imitated by comic book publishers in the late 1940s.

References:

Cook, D. A. (1990). A history of narrative film (2nd ed.). New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

Couvares, F. G. (1996a). Hollywood, main street, and the church. In F. G. Couvares (Ed.), Movie censorship and American culture (pp. 129–158). Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press.

Cripps, T. (1997). Hollywood’s high noon: Moviemaking & society before television. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Jarvis, A. R., Jr. (1991). The Payne Fund reports: A discussion of their content, public reaction, and affect on the motion picture industry. Journal of Popular Culture, 25(2), 127–140.

Miller, F. (1994). Censored Hollywood: Sex, sin & violence on screen. Atlanta: Turner Publishing, Inc.

Schumach, M. (1964). The face on the cutting room floor: The story of movie and television censorship. New York: William Morrow.

Sklar, R. (1975). Movie made America: A cultural history of American movies. New York: Vintage Books.

The First Wave

by Chris A. Blair

The first moving picture was presented in the United States in 1895, and controversy over film content soon followed. Protests over the film Dolorita in the Passion Dance led the owners of the kinetoscope parlor to pull the film to avoid interference from the local authorities. Some historians have stated that the early crusade against the movies reflects the struggle between the growing immigrant population and the “urban, bourgeois Progressivism” movement at the turn of the twentieth century (Cripps, 1997, p. 73). However, a look at some of the arguments from that era reveals a different motivation. While some later expressed their concern over such a powerful medium as motion pictures in the hands of Jewish immigrants, the industry was primarily under the control of east coast Catholics at the beginning of the century. And though the tension over the cultural control of the nation divided Catholics and Protestants throughout the first half of the century, early arguments against motion pictures reveal a unified message.

The first movie censorship law was enacted in Chicago in 1907, and from 1907 to 1909 the powerful Chicago Tribune waged an editorial campaign against motion pictures. One editorial from early 1907 argued that the “Five Cent Theatre” tended to the “lowest passions of children” and said, “[It is] proper to suppress them at once. They cannot be defended. They are hopelessly bad” (Cook, D. A., 1990, p. 35). Another editorial criticized the content of motion pictures, saying:

One’s regret for such exhibitions is deepened by the reflection that just as much time and effort have been spent in preparing the films for these pictures, as would have been in producing others of a more desirable character. . . . And all the thought, time and energy have been expended for the portrayal of the realism of bloodshed, crime and brutality.

There are, of course, many exhibitions in the moving picture line that give praiseworthy entertainments; but there are very many more that pander to low passions and have nothing but the film that will draw the biggest crowd without actually pulling the house into the policecourt. (Jowett, 1976, p. 44)

New York Mayor George B. McClellan, Jr. shared the sentiments in these editorials and shut down all movie theaters in New York on Christmas in 1908, in response to numerous complaints of indecent material on the screen (Couvares, 1996a; Cripps, 1997).

National Board of CensorshipThe initial protests of indecency in movies, combined with the growing political pressures, prompted the industry to form the National Board of Censorship (later the National Board of Review), a private reform organization committed to influencing the filmmaking process, yet with no legal authority over the movie industry. This lack of power over the movie industry, along with the fact that they were being payrolled by the motion picture industry, eventually led to its downfall. The regulatory board reviewed films, and approved films received their Seal of Approval, which appeared at the beginning credits. This pacified some critics into the twenties, but a combination of internal dissent among the Board of Review and a number of highly publicized scandals in Hollywood stimulated renewed cries for censorship, causing the motion picture industry to take action.

State and local censorship boards increased in power from 1915 through 1919, due in part to the empowering ruling in Mutual v. Ohio, discussed in the previous chapter. With the Supreme Court’s blessing, states and cities approved the censorship of movies. The rationale began to narrow from the general protection of community morals to the specific goal of protecting children from the pervasive influences of the movies. This narrower rationale can be seen in the statement of the Chicago Motion Picture Commission, after unanimously voting for the censorship of all motion pictures in Chicago:

Heretofore, throughout all ages, the best thought, the most learned minds have been devoted to educating the youth along lines of betterment, and protecting the weak and thoughtless from the inroads of designing exploiters. It cannot be that in this progressive age we should silently consent or concur in having our wives and children, our homes, our schools and our churches turned over to the entertainer in order that he may make a profit regardless of the consequences to the individual . . . It seems absolutely essential that the exhibitions should be publicly controlled in the interest of the education and good morals of the children. (Jowett, 1976, p. 143)

The organized campaign for motion picture censorship would take a back seat to the war effort in the late 1910s, as the motion picture industry would rise to support the war efforts and the public’s attention was diverted elsewhere. But in the years following the war, the popularity of the movies would boom, as would cries for its censorship (Randall, 1968).

References:

Cook, D. A. (1990). A history of narrative film (2nd ed.). New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

Couvares, F. G. (1996a). Hollywood, main street, and the church. In F. G. Couvares (Ed.), Movie censorship and American culture (pp. 129–158). Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press.

Cripps, T. (1997). Hollywood’s high noon: Moviemaking & society before television. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Jowett, G. S. (1976). Film: The democratic art. Boston: Little and Brown.

Randall, R. S. (1968). Censorship of the movies: The social and political control of a mass medium. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

The Cycle of Self-Regulation in the Motion Picture Industry

by Chris A. Blair, Ph.D.

The cycle of self-regulation, as seen through various mass media in the past century, follows the pattern first seen in the motion picture industry. The tension between censorship and self-regulation in the film industry during the first quarter of the twentieth century provides a blueprint for the future struggles in the comic book industry in the fifties, the radio industry in the seventies, and the television industry in the late nineties. The pattern is always complicated by the circumstances and cultural context surrounding the fight for content control, yet the simplicity of the steps leading to the self-regulation is striking.

The cycle of self-regulation in mass media is as follows: first, content included in the medium or conduct within the industry offends or otherwise provokes an individual or a group to protest. Second, protests intensify and begin to impact the success of the medium, often when state and local officials begin to investigate the complaints and consider taking action against the medium. Third, the industry responds to the threat of censorship with an initial attempt at self-regulation that often is more of a public relations campaign than an attempt at “cleaning up” its act. This effort at self-regulation often pacifies the majority of protestors temporarily. Fourth, some event or combination of events leads to disillusionment with the current system, causing the protests to resume with new vigor.

Finally, the fear of federal intervention—or in some cases the actual act of federal intervention— causes the industry to form a self-regulatory body that exerts substantial influence over the content of the medium. This five-step pattern is seen first in the motion picture industry, then with the comic book industry, and to a lesser degree within radio broadcasting. In the 1990s, the television industry took a step further toward organized self-regulation with the Television Parental Guidelines and the implementation of the v-chip.

This article contends that the pattern leading to self-regulation traverses specific circumstances and cultural contexts to provide a better understanding of the struggle between censorship and regulation in mass media in the United States. This article argues that self-regulation was inevitable in these specific cases and was not the result of one person or one group’s crusade to regulate the medium. This pattern, however, is not conclusive or exhaustive, as is evident in the radio industry, the music industry and the video game industry at this time. This article does not assume that all media will follow the same pattern, but at the same time argues that this cycle toward self-regulation cannot be ignored when investigating content control of a mass medium. A closer historical look at the different examples in mass media should provide a better understanding of the steps leading to content self-regulation.

Through a brief sketch of the motion picture industry from its beginnings to 1934, one can identify the patterns leading to the strict implementation of the Production Code by the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA). These events set the standard that would be followed by other media in later decades, as is evidenced in the situation surrounding the crime and horror comics and the comic book industry in the late forties and early fifties, leading to the formation of the Comics Code Authority (CCA) and their code, which closely resembles the MPPDA’s Production Code. These examples also shed light on the current regulatory situation, though American culture and its view of censorship have changed over the past decades. The pattern of self-regulation can also be identified in the 1990s with the federally “encouraged” Parental Guidelines and v-chip technology, and more recently with calls to address the “problem” of videogame and Internet addiction. Though some of the circumstances and approaches have changed, the basic arguments and reactions seem to have changed very little.