Censorship in Television

Beginning with television, I would like to focus on the Ed Sullivan Show. A show with a history of memorable live acts consisting of more than just musical performances. One of the most noteworthy performances on the Ed Sullivan show was by a Rock and Roll artist known as Elvis Presley. Although, there were other notable acts who had similar controversy surrounding the censorship of their music in the limelight, this case serves as a good example of some of the reasons for the censorship of Rock and Roll on television.


            I would like to first begin with Elvis Presley’s performance of Too Much:


This performance is notable for one very important reason, albeit, to the uniformed viewer, it may be hard to discern. However, notice that throughout the video, all shots of Presley are shot from the waist up. There is never a moment in this performance where you are able to see his hips. The reason for this is that the network that aired the Ed Sullivan show was fully aware of the controversy behind Presley suggestive hip gyrations¹. They were in tune with the fact that, the Ed Sullivan Show was a family variety, meaning that they had to cater to a family audience and that Presley’s gyrations were just too much for a younger audience².

As a result of the controversy behind Presley’s performances, the network decided to censor Presley’s performance on the Ed Sullivan Show by filming him only from the waist up. Its interesting that when the camera switches over to the guitarist during his solo, we only get a shot of the lower half of his body, in a way compensating for the rest of performance’s focus on the top half of Presley.

This is a case of censorship that is quite subtle. The reasons for censorship lie not necessarily in the content of Presley’s art, but in the way that he chooses to perform that art. The issue of censorship in Presley’s case has to do less with content and more with the performance. When I mention content in this context, I mean not the content of the performance, but rather the content of the actual music. The lyrics, chords, harmony, and the like that make up the actual musical substance of Presley’s music is not what is at issue, again, it is the way in which he performs his content that results in Presley being censored.

This lines up pretty well with the point that Street makes as the an otherwise inoffensive piece of music is censored because of the intricate process that comes to deem Presley’s performance as offensive. In Right Here on Our Stage, a book detailing the many performances and staging of the Ed Sullivan Show, the author Gerald Nachman explains that, in general:

“Ed was notoriously wary of songs with sexual innuendoes and of fleshy female singers with revealing necklines. He ordered them to mask their décolletage with a fringe of tulle…Some performormers ­— Kim Novak, Jeanne Crain, Esther Williams, quietly removed the fringe just before going on camera, risking banishment; cameramen were quickly directed to focus on their faces, foreshadowing the later historic Elvis hip-wriggling episode. Ed’s battle cry was, ‘This is television, not burlesque.’ He felt he was protecting public morals.”

-Gerald Nachman, Right Here on Our Stage, page 216


He proceeds further to explain that in Presley’s case:

“Elvis Presley’s act posed its own cultural dilemma for Sullivan, secure in his belief that he knew what constituted good entertainment. Presley an his music clashed with Sullivan’s gut newsman’s instinct for what was hot, what people were yakking about: Elvis…Like most 54-year-old Americans in 1956, Ed Sullivan had to be dragged kicking and screaming into rock and roll. Rock produced a cultural-demographic midlife crisis in America, and Sullivan’s show helped trigger the nation’s so called youthquake. Even if he knew what music the public liked, the definition of what constituted ‘music’—or even the public—was shifting.”

-Gerald Nachman, Right Here on Our Stage, page 278


Nachman continues on to explain that, “‘the relationship of television and rock and roll was problematic from the very beginning. television really ill-served the music. First of all, in the sound quality. Also, the media didn’t understand rock and roll music at all. There was total disrespect by the media'” (Right Here on Our Stage, 279). These are key points in determining the reasons behind the censorship of Presley’s performance. For one, the fact that the media does not necessarily understand rock and roll seems to warrant a desire to control it. In essence, the reason that Presley and other Rock acts were censored, was because of the fact that the network feared that they would be evoking certain ideas and emotions out of the family audiences that watched Sullivan’s show. Ideas of sex and drugs, although in Presley’s case, leaning more on sex, came to be associated with Rock music. “Sex, Drugs, and Rock and Roll” became a mantra known by the youth of the 60’s and was something that television networks tried to control.

It is also important to note the rising importance of television in the United States during this time. Nachman explains that Sullivan is often time credited for bring Rock to the masses, even though he was not necessarily the first to book the acts that were so iconic of Rock music of the time. This shows the reach and power that Sullivan held and his decision to attempt to control the wildfire that was Rock music only went so far as acts like the Doors simply refused to comply with Sullivan’s demands to censor their music during their performance (as recreated in the following clip of a feature film about the band).



To tie Presley’s performance back into Street’s comment one final time, it is very clear that the act of labeling Presley’s performance as offensive is rooted in a larger scale process, a process involving several conflicting political interests. For one, the political interests of the station, which are represented by Sullivan, are at times hesitant to bend to the demands of their audience, but willfully do so in order to remain relevant. The result of this conflict of interest is censorship, in this case, and the labeling of an artist as offensive or suggestive. The label that Presley is associated with seems to correlate directly with Street’s assertion. It is interesting to also note that, in a way, Presley was seen as dangerous, much like certain modes of music for the Ancient Greeks, and, like the Ancient Greeks, Sullivan felt as though it was better if the youth were not exposed to such provocative music.

The other medium of censorship that I wish to observe is the medium of radio. It is interesting that as television rose to fame in the early 50’s and 60’s radio struggled to maintain its audience and had to begin to think of new ways to remain relevant in a society that was shifting more towards visual forms of entertainment.

On Censorship

Censorship in Radio

¹”Top 5 Most Controversial Performances From The Ed Sullivan Show.” Ed Sullivan Show. Web. 19 Apr. 2015. <http://www.edsullivan.com/top-5-most-controversial-performances-from-the-ed-sullivan-show/>.

²”HISTORY OF THE ED SULLIVAN SHOW.” Ed Sullivan Show. Web. 19 Apr. 2015. <http://www.edsullivan.com/show-history/>.