Rod Serling On Speculative Fiction And Censorship

Mike Wallace – “You’ve come a long way since those early days, and perhaps more than any other writer your name is figured in the classic battle — that is television writer — the battle of the writer to be his own man. What happens when a writer like yourself writes something that he really believes in, for television?”

. . .

RS – “Well, depending of course on the thematic treatment you’re using, if you have the temerity to try to dramatize a theme that involves any particular social controversy currently extent, you’re in deep trouble.”

MW – “For instance?”

RS – “Um, a racial theme, for example. My case in point, I think, a show I did for the Steel Hour some years ago, three years ago, called Noon On Doomesday, which was a story which purported to tell what was the aftermath of the alleged kidnapping in Mississippi of the Till boy, the young Chicago negro. And I wrote the script using “black” and “white,” uh, initially. Then it was changed, uh, to suggest an unnamed foreigner. Then the locale was moved from the South to New England, and I’m convinced they’d have gone up to Alaska or the North Pole [using] Eskimos as a possible minority, except I suppose the costume problem was of sufficient severity not to attempt it. But it became a lukewarm, vitiated, emasculated kind of show.”

MW – “You went along with it?”

RS – “All the way. I protested, I went down fighting as most television writers do, thinking, in a strange, oblique, philosophical way that ‘better say something than nothing.’ In this particular show, though, by the time they had finished taking Coca-Cola bottles off the set because the sponser claimed this had southern connotations, suggesting to what depth they went to make this a clean, antisepticly, rigidly, ah, acceptable show. Ah, why, it bore no relationship at all to what we had purported to say initially.”

MW – “Paddy Chayefsky has talked about the insidious influence of what he called ‘pre-censorship.’ How does that work?”

RS – “Pre-censorship is a practice, I think, of most television writers. I can’t speak for all of them. This is the prior knowledge of the writer of those areas which are difficult to try to get through and so a writer will shy away from writing those things which he knows he’s going to have trouble with on a sponsorial or an agency level. We practice it all the time. We just do not write those themes which we know are going to get into trouble.”

MW – “Who’s the culprit? Is it the network? The sponsor? It sure is not the FCC.”

RS – “No, it’s certainly not the FCC, ideally speaking, of course. It’s a combination of culprits in this case, Mike. It’s partly network. It’s principally agency and sponsor. In many ways I think it’s the audience themselves.”

MW – “How do you mean?”

RS – “Well, I’ll give you an example. About a year ago, roughly eleven or twelve months ago, on the Lassie show — this is a story usually told by Sheldon Leonard who was then associated with the show — Lassie was having puppies. And I have two little girls, then aged five and three, who are greatly enamored with this beautiful Collie and they watched the show with great interest. And Lassie gave birth to puppies, and Mike, it was probably one of the most tasteful and delightful and warm things depicting what is this wondrous thing that is birth. And after this show, I think they were many congratulations all around because it was a lovely show, the sort of thing I’d love my kids to watch to show them what is the birth process and how marvelous it is. They got many, many cards and letters. Sample card, from the deep South this was: ‘if I wanted my kids to watch sex shows, I wouldn’t have them turn on that. I could take them to burlesque shows.’ And as a result of the influx of mail, many of the cards, incidentally, as Sheldon tells it, were postmarked at identical moments all in the same handwriting, but each was counted as a singular piece of mail. And as a result, the directive went down that there would be no shows having anything to do with puppies, that is in the actual birth process. Well, obviously, it is this wild lunatic fringe of letter-writers that greatly affect what the sponsor has in mind.”

MW – “You can understand the position of the sponsor, can’t you?”

RS – “In many ways I suppose I can. He’s there to push a product.”

MW – “He has a considerable stake, thus, in what goes on the air.”

RS – “Most assuredly, and in those cases where there is a problem of public taste, in which there is a concern for eliciting negative response from a large mass of people, I can understand why the guys are frightened. I don’t understand, Mike, for example, other evidences and instances of intrusion by sponsors. For example, on Playhouse 90, not a year ago, a lovely show called ‘Judgment At Nuremberg,’I think probably one of the most competently done and artistically done pieces that 90’s done all year. In it, as you recall, mention was made of gas chambers and the line was deleted, cut off the soundtrack. And it mattered little to these guys that the gas involved in concentration camps was cyanide, which bore no resemblance, physical or otherwise, to the gas used in stoves. They cut the line.

MW – “Because the sponsor was…”

RS – “Did not want that awful association made between what was the horror and the misery of Nazi Germany with the nice chrome wonderfully, antiseptically clean beautiful kitchen appliances that they were selling. Now this is an example of sponsor interference which is so beyond logic and which is so beyond taste — this I rebel against.”

MW – “You’ve got a new series coming up called ‘The Twilight Zone.’ You are writing, as well as acting executive producer on this one. Who controls the final product, you or the sponsor?”

RS – “We have what I think, at least theoretically, anyway, because it hasn’t really been put into practice yet, a good working relationship, where in questions of taste and questions of the art form itself and questions of drama, I’m the judge, because this is my medium and I understand it. I’m a dramatist for television. This is the area I know. I’ve been trained for it. I’ve worked for it for twelve years, and the sponsor knows his product but he doesn’t know mine. So when it comes to the commercials, I leave that up to him. When it comes to the story content, he leaves it up to me.”

MW – “Has nothing been changed in the…”

RS – “We changed, in eighteen scripts, Mike, we have had one line changed, which, again, was a little ludicrous but of insufficient basic concern within the context of the story, not to put up a fight. On a bridge of a British ship, a sailor calls down to the galley and asks in my script for a pot of tea, because I believe that it’s constitutionally acceptable in the British Navy to drink tea. One of my sponsors happens to sell instant coffee, and he took great umbrage, or at least minor umbrage anyway, with the idea of saying tea. Well, we had a couple of swings back and forth, nothing serious, and we decided we’d ask for a tray to be sent up to the bridge. But in eighteen scripts, that’s the only conflict we’ve had.”


MW – “Is pre-censorship, though, involved? Are you simply writing easy?”

RS – “In this particular area, no, because we’re dealing with a half hour show which cannot probe like a 90, which doesn’t use scripts as vehicles of social criticism. These are strictly for entertainment.”

MW – “These are potboilers.”

RS – “Oh, no. Un-uh. I wouldn’t call them potboilers at all. No, these are very adult, I think, high-quality half hour, extremely polished films. But because they deal in the areas of fantasy and imagination and science-fiction and all of those things, there’s no opportunity to cop a plea or chop an axe or anything.”

MW – “Well, you’re not gonna be able to cop a plea or chop an axe because you’re going to be obviously working so hard on ‘The Twilight Zone’ that in essence, for the time being and for the foreseeable future, you’ve given up on writing anything important for television, right?”

RS – “Yeah. Well, again, this is a semantic thing — ‘important for television.’ I don’t know. If by important you mean I’m not going to try to delve into current social problems dramatically, you’re quite right. I’m not.”

– Excerpts from Mike Wallace interviewing Rod Serling on The Mike Wallace Interview in anticipation of Serling’s new series, The Twilight Zone, 1959.


Whether Serling realized it or not in the midst of this smoke clouded interview, he would find his most memorable avenues for social commentary through the less “important for television” resource of speculative fiction. He would also continue to bump heads with McCarthy-Era censorship, having episodes banned from the air for racial and war themes raised among other ethical and philosophical questions.

While this interview remains cordial, it is hard not to recognized a self-censoring vehemence from Serling. Having been in the television industry for about a decade by this point, he is one of the most lauded and heavily censored figures on the stage as he prepares to create The Twilight Zone. Although I can’t say for certain, I would argue that this interview was a very intentional opportunity for Serling to make a public statement that defends his position while promising to toe the line with the censors. On the latter point, I am happy to say he would go on to fail tremendously, creating some of the most immortal and poignant sci-fi television ever made.

I would highly suggest that you watch his previously award-winning tv film “Patterns.” It is probably impossible to find on DVD, but it should be easy to find via YouTube or the like. It’s one of the best films I have ever seen, a commentary on corporate life and ethics that seems prophetic in the current age.


Recommended Reading

C.S. Lewis and Kingsley Amis On The Value Of Science Fiction

Kurt Vonnegut’s Pessimistic Social Commentary

Frankenstien And Human Nature