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Critical Studies in Media Communication
ISSN: 0739-3180 (Print) (Online) Journal homepage: https://www.tandfonline.com/loi/rcsm19
â€œWe’re the young generation and we’ve got
something to sayâ€: A Gramscian analysis of
entertainment television and the youth rebellion
of the 1960s
To cite this article: Aniko Bodroghkozy (1991) â€œWe’re the young generation and we’ve got
something to sayâ€: A Gramscian analysis of entertainment television and the youth rebellion of the
1960s, Critical Studies in Media Communication, 8:2, 217-230, DOI: 10.1080/15295039109366793
To link to this article: https://doi.org/10.1080/15295039109366793
Published online: 18 May 2009.
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Critical Studies in Mass Communication
8 (1991), 217-230
“We’re the Young Generation and We’ve Got
Something to Say”: A Gramscian Analysis of
Entertainment Television and the Youth
Rebellion of the 1960s
Using Grama’s theory of hegemony to examine a growing crisis of authority erupting
within American culture, this paper focuses on three popular, youth-based television programs of
the 1960sâ€”The Monkees, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, and The Mod
Squadâ€”and on how their themes of youthful disaffection, countercultural values, and political
rebellion circulated and were made meaningful in the popular press. Although conflicts and
struggles manifest themselves within other sectors of the social order, the field of popular culture is
particularly valuable in showcasing breakdowns in consensus, the unmasking of coercive power,
and the process of incorporating rebellious social formations back into a reconfigured hegemonic
XPLAINING crisis of authority within a ruling hegemonic order, Gramsci (1971, p.
276) described the situation as one in which “the old is dying and the new
cannot be born”. This description, along with Gramsci’s hegemony theory of social
and political relations, seems particularly useful in making sense of the crisis that
erupted through American culture in the 1960s. It has become a commonplace to
describe that period as a rebellious decade, characterized by protest and confrontation, turmoil and social division. What has been lacking in the recent avalanche of
commentary on the sixties is a systematic attempt to theorize the cultural politics of
this tumultuous period.1
Gramsci’s theory of hegemony is helpful here because it considers power relations
not only within such “coercive” state apparatuses as government, law, and judiciary,
but also within such “consensual” civil institutions as the family, the church,
cultural and political associations, and institutions of popular entertainment (Simon, 1982, pp. 68â€”69). These latter institutions are particularly important in
Aniko Bodroghkozy is a doctoral candidate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Earlier versions of this
paper were delivered at the Popular Culture Conference, Toronto, March 1990, and at the International
Communication Association Conference, Chicago, May 1991. The author would like to thank fohn Fiske
and Lynn Spigel for their assistance and insights.
Copyright 1991, SCA
TV AND THE YOUTH REBELLION JUNE 1991
examining the youth rebellions of the sixties, since it is within them that these
rebellions manifested themselves with particular force.
To examine how the youth revolt, and the crisis of authority it helped engender,
were made meaningful within the cultural sphere, I focus on two consensual
institutions of American societyâ€”entertainment television and the popular press.
Popular culture is one of the crucial fields upon which dominant or elite groups
attempt to organize and naturalize consent to their dominance. But paradoxically,
popular culture, in order to be popular, must negotiate both the interests of the
dominant and the discourses of the subordinate. Consequently, in a period of crisis,
popular culture can showcase the breakdown of that consent. By examining popular
culture as an institution, as well as a body of texts, we also can see to what extent
hegemonic forces must cede to the discourses of the subordinate during periods of
Entertainment television programming in the United States in the 1960s has
been stuck with the appellation, “the vast wasteland”. FCC chairman Newton
Minow’s description and the oft-repeated charge that network programs constructed a comic book world with no hint of the turmoils ripping through the
cultural landscape is not without foundation. While protests against the escalating
war in Vietnam began growing in the mid-sixties, TV viewers were watching
top-rated “war-is-fun” comedies like The Wackiest Ship in the Army (fifth in the
Nielsen ratings for the 1965-1966 season), F Troop (rated eighth), and Gomer Pyle
(rated tenth) (Barnouw, 1982, p. 375). However, if we look at television as a cultural
institution articulating ideology as it broadcasts programs, even the so-called vast
wasteland was not immune to the effects of social strife,
I looked at the reception in the popular press of three successful television
programs that were targeted toward a youth audience and dealt openly with
disaffection, protest, rebellion, and countercultural values. The Monkees, which aired
from 1966, until 1968; The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, which premiered in 1967
and was forceably removed from the air in 1969; and The Mod Squad, which began in
1968 and ran till 1973, spanned the most intense period of turmoil in post-war
American society. This analysis explores that turmoil as it worked through the three
programs’ circulated meanings in popular magazines like TV Guide (the most widely
read magazine in the United States), Time, Newsweek, Saturday Review, and Look.
These magazines, some vaguely liberal, others vaguely conservative, articulated
dominant viewpoints and preferred opinions within the white, middle-class social
formation to which they were mainly addressed. I focus on these readings rather
than on the shows themselves to examine how the programs were read and made
meaningful in the late sixties.2
The critical reception of these shows can also
illustrate how dominant groups attempted to reconfigure consent around a new
hegemonic order by the late sixties and early seventies.
Initial critical response to The Monkees, which joined the NBC lineup in the fall of
1966, focused on the fact that adults would hate the show but kids would love it.
Broadcasting, an industry trade journal, offered assessments such as this from critic
Laurence Laurent of the Washington Post: “Adults will scream in outrage .. . will
CSMC ‘ BODROGHKOZY
delight the young” (“Critics’ Views of Hits, Misses”, 1966, p. 64). Television
Magazine, another trade journal, found the same response among critics. Bob Brock
of the Dallas Times-Herald observed: “Some adults may not understand The Monkees, but I think the teenagers will get the message loud and clear” (“Consensus”,
1966, p. 68). The self-consciousness about a generational gap, about American
youth breaking the familialâ€”and by extension the socialâ€”consent associated with
the post-war era was a theme emphasized by producers Bert Schneider and Bob
Rafelson in press interviews. They “understood that you don’t capture the wild,
sweet, for-real spirit of today’s rock’n’roll kids with the same net you use for Father
or Mother, or U.N.C.L.E. Knows Best” (Rollins, 1966, p. 93).
These rumblings of a rift between the tastes of youth and the tastes of adults are
significant in helping to chart how the crisis of authority escalated in the 1960s. The
post-war years, and the fifties in particular, saw remarkably little dissent from most
middle- and working-class white Americans. American foreign policy objectives
meshed with an ideological consensus of anti-communism; industrial expansion
meshed with a celebration of a consumerist life-style. The watchword of the era was
“conformity”. And while some voices in the suburban split-level wilderness warned
against the dangers of the Organization Man ethos, the era was characterized by an
“end of ideology” sentiment.3
The belief in a consensual society in which all strata of the population were united
within a normalized system of shared values and goalsâ€”a system that provided the
state with the cohesion it needed to operateâ€”began to break down in the 1960s.
The civil rights movement forced many Americans to acknowledge that not all
members of society were equally represented within the common value system.
Middle-class American youth formed a second group to crack the hegemonic armor,
through civil rights work, anti-war activism, and the construction of a countercultural life-style.4
The first major rally against the Vietnam War in April 1965, organized and
attended primarily by students and young people, heralded the public birth of the
anti-war movement as a youth movement. Gitlin (1980) analyzed how The New York
Times constructed its story of the march within a hegemonic frame by focusing on a
youth/adult split, discussing the long hair of some demonstrators, and adopting a
trivializing and patronizing tone to the whole notion of youth protest.
A similar tone was evident in the press reception of The Monkees television show.
Along with the youth/adult split, press accounts of the show detailed the problem of
the actors’ long hair and the rock music they played. Many of the press stories also
affected a patronizing tone. Long hair, weird clothing, and rock music had become,
by the mid-sixties, cultural signs of youth disaffection from the consensual Establishment of their parents’ generation. A Newsweek article in October 1966 indicated how
anxiety-producing these countercultural signs could be:
Several rural NBC affiliates refuse to carry the show. “There is a grand resistance to kids
with long hair,” says Rafelson. “The TV reviewer on the Portland, Ore. paper won’t even look
at the show. There’s also conservative resistance by adults to the music” (“Romp! Romp!”
A 1967 story in TV Guide expounded further on the conflict between the affiliates
and the long-haired Monkees: “the affiliates are conservative, skeptical men known
TV AND THE YOUTH REBELLION JUNE 1991
to be opposed in principle to anything long haired” (Whitney, 1967, p. 8). The
article described a gala thrown by the network for its affiliates to introduce the new
stars and shows for the fall lineup. The Monkees apparently engaged in some hijinks
and jokes so displeasing to affiliates that some failed to pick up the show, thus
undermining its national ratings.
Clearly the “threat” the show posed was not overtly political. No press reports
linked the show to anti-war protest or to any social change movements. But the
show was troublesome in a way similar to the nascent anti-war movement. The
reception of the show can be located within a growing adult perplexity and alarm at
youth cultureâ€”a counterculture of bizarre fashions, tastes, artifacts, and practices.
The Monkees may have been a rather scubbed-down version of this counterculture;
nevertheless, enough signs of the new youth movement remained to make some
uneasy. The New York Times reporter who covered the 1965 March on Washington
had attempted to trivialize and contain the marchers’ threat by focusing on their
long hair, beards, and guitars; by 1966 and 1967 those signs themselvesâ€”even
outside a clear political context or discourseâ€”were being read as rebellion and
threats to hegemonic control.
With The Monkees, however, it wasn’t only the hair and music that indicated a
breakdown in consensual politics; the very style of the show indicated anarchy. The
actors playing the Monkees didn’t act or perform in any conventional manner.
According to the Newsweek article, they “romped”. Anarchism also reigned on the
set. A January 1967 cover story in TV Guide detailed the rather unorthodox methods
used to film the series. Scenes were underlit or overlit; the camera kept running
after a scene was supposedly over. Young, inexperienced directors were used
because older professionals refused to work the way Schneider and Rafelson
demanded. The article quoted one disgruntled director: “If you don’t care about
your focus or your lighting, and if you’re going to let four idiots ad-lib your dialogue,
you don’t need a director” (Raddatz, 1967, p. 19). The bewilderment and contempt
evident in this remark paralleled much adult response to the burgeoning hippie
movement, with its anti-authoritarian, non-hierarchical values and “let it all hang
out” philosophies. The Monkees was also refusing to obey the rules of the (popular
culture) Establishment. Like the hippie movement, the show refused to conform,
refused to function within the prescribed boundaries of professional competency
and deference to authority figures. The Monkees thus enunciated its own discourse of
disaffected youth and their alternative cultural stance.
Network television’s next stab at attracting a youth audience was CBS’s The
Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. The show was scheduled into the coveted 9:00 p.m.
Sunday slot; however, it had to do battle with NBC’s top-rated Bonanza. Surprisingly, the show prospered. It was always in the top twenty and frequently among the
top ten highest-rated shows in the 1966-1967 and 1967-1968 seasons (Kerby, 1968).
Initially the show and the brothers were not seen as representations of the
rebellious youth generation. With their short hair, suits, traditional folk music, and
whimsically loving references to “mom”, the Smothers carried none of the disturbing countercultural signs that had made The Monkees troubling. A number of press
accounts played up the fact that the Smothers’ father had been a military officer
who had valiantly given his life during the Second World War. Press accounts also
played on the brothers’ consensual appeal. A June 1967 piece in Time magazine
quoted Tommy Smothers, the duo’s highly articulate spokesperson, saying: ” ‘We’re
so college-looking and clean-cut, . . . The American Legion likes us and so does the
left wing’ “. The article added, “And so does every wing of the younger generation”
(“Mother’s Brothers”, 1967). Here, it seemed, were two performers who identified
with the disaffected younger generation but who would offend nobody.
This noncontroversial state of affairs did not last for very long, however. By 1968,
the Smothers Brothers found themselves repeatedly clashing with CBS brass. The
battles were waged over the network’s censoring of skits and guest performers it
considered too political for an entertainment show and the network’s demand to
preview and approve all shows before airtime. All these battles received ample play
in the popular press and may have escalated the atmosphere of crisis as the
brothers, particularly Tommy, hurtled toward an eventual showdown with their
This situation led inexorably to CBS resorting to censorship and cancellation to
manage its youthful entertainers. The crisis can be analyzed as an enactment within
the institution of network television of similar crises abounding in other sectors of
the social order in 1968. The events of that year exposed a full-blown crisis of
authority, a general crisis of the state. In Policing the Crisis, Hall, Critcher, Jefferson,
Clarke, and Roberts (1978) used Gramscian theory to explain a similar crisis in
Britain in the late sixties and early seventies. During a crisis of authority, they
maintain the very foundation of political and cultural leadership becomes exposed
and contested. The hegemonic forces of the state shift from relying primarily on
consensual institutions to maintain control and begin relying more on coercive
mechanisms. These coercive mechanisms are part of the state’s legitimate arsenal
but are hidden from view except at times of crisis (p. 217).
In the United States in 1968, the increasing use of the police and National Guard
to deal with protests on campuses, on streets, and in ghettoes revealed with utter
clarity the breakdown of consent and the shift to coercive methods of control. But
the coercive mechanisms weren’t being used only by law enforcement agencies. The
contesting of power relations was also working its way through the realm of popular
culture. One such site was The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.
The show was unusual for a prime-time variety program in that the brothers were
committed to showcasing talent associated with the counterculture. The Jefferson
Airplane and The Doors, for example, brought psychedelic acid rock into millions of
households. However, CBS decided to step in when the Smothers invited Pete
Seeger onto the show to sing “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy”.5
Seeger had been
blacklisted from appearing on television since the House Un-American Activities
Committee hearings, but CBS was primarily concerned about the lyrics to the song
he wanted to sing. A narrative about a gung-ho military officer who forced his men
to ford a river until they all drowned, the song was a fairly transparent comment on
President Johnson’s Vietnam policy:
Now every time I read the papers That old feelin’ comes on We’re waist deep in the Big
Muddy And the big fool says to push on. (Metz, 1975, p. 298)
TV AND THE YOUTH REBELLION JUNE 1991
When CBS responded by censoring the performance, press criticism of the
decision was widespread, with many articles reprinting portions of the lyrics. A few
months later, the network acquiesced to pressure and allowed Seeger to reappear
on the show to sing the song in its entirety.
Folk singer Joan Baez wasn’t as fortunate. Baez appeared on the show dedicating
a song to her husband, a prominent anti-war activist who had recently resisted the
draft and been sentenced to prison. In her dedication she mentioned first that her
husband was going to prison, and then, in a politically forthright manner, she
explained why. CBS deleted the explanation from the aired version of the program.
Saturday Review quoted the network’s rationale: “her remarks on the Smothers
Brothers show were ‘editorial’ and not suitable for entertainment programs”
There were other run-ins with the network, not all concerning overtly political
issues. In October 1968, comic David Steinberg delivered a vaguely sacrilegious
sermonette that resulted in a flurry of protest. CBS banned Steinberg from ever
delivering a sermonette on the program again and at that point instated a policy
unique to The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour: All episodes would have to be made
available to affiliates to preview before airing (Metz, 1975, p. 301).
A DIFFERENT KIND OF REBELLION
Over and over again in the press accounts of the controversy, Tommy Smothers
was quoted aligning himself and his show with the youth movement. In a Time
magazine piece titled “Snippers v. Snipers” (1968), Tommy affirmed to the CBS
Program Practices department, “Dick and I are the only ones who really know what
young people want”. The article went on to say:
The overriding problem, as far as the brothers are concerned, is that CBS with its large
commitment to the blandest sort of family shows is out of touch with the times and with its
audiences. “The whole country’s in trouble,” exclaims Tommy, “and we’ve started getting a
kind of renaissance in the arts, in living. Painters can reflect their society. And writers can.
Why can’t TV comedians?”
The show and its battle with CBS was likened to a rebellious youth going against
the Establishment power structure. Like The Monkees, The Smothers Brothers Comedy
Hour was not playing by the rules; the difference was in how they articulated the
rebellion. In the case of The Monkees, the discourse of rebellion worked primarily on a
stylistic levelâ€”the look of the show, its method of production, the look of the
Monkees themselves. The rebellious discourses associated with the Smothers
Brothers show were more troubling and went far deeper, befitting a growing crisis of
authority. The latter show, by pushing the bounds of acceptable political speech
within the entertainment TV format, forced the network to reveal what those
bounds were and to unmask its own coercive manner of operation. By characterizing
network executives as totally ignorant about youth culture and CBS shows as
blandly family-oriented, Tommy Smothers helped set up an antagonistic power
struggle between the old that was dying and the new that couldn’t be born, to
paraphrase Gramsci. The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour functioned as the rebellious
politicized youth in CBS’s conformist, middle-class neighborhood. And to keep this
youth in line, the network was acting more and more like an over-zealous cop,
metaphorically billyclubbing the show whenever it asserted its rebellious stance.
In April 1969, CBS suddenly cancelled the show, charging that the brothers had
not delivered a tape of the upcoming episode on time for preview. The cancellation
garnered headlines and a Look magazine cover story. Many story titles punned with
the word “smothering” to foreground the censorship issue surrounding the show’s
If we can liken the CBS cancellation to a process of unmaking of coercive power,
then what occurred within the institution of entertainment television was also a
crisis of authority. While this crisis played itself out in the popular press, there were
attempts by some accounts to defuse or deny the coerciveness of CBS’s action.
Newsweek in its “Brothers Smothered” account said: “The brothers claim that they
are being punished for antagonizing the power structure with their irreverent
political and social comment.” In an attempt to contain the politically loaded
situation, the article ended by claiming that a slip in the show’s ratings (to an
apparent low of 47) may have been a more valid interpretation of the network’s
action (1969). Here and elsewhere, claims that the network cancelled the show
because of ratings, recast the conflict into a familiar free-market mold having
nothing to do with political coercion; cancellation on the basis of ratings was, thus,
constructed as a form of popular democracy the network was acceding to the will of
its viewers by ridding it from the airways.
CBS itself employed another strategy of containment. Look’s cover story, written
by First Amendment champion Nat HentofF, provided a very sympathetic platform
for Tommy Smothers. However, appended at the very end was CBS’s counter in the
form of a letter by network president Robert Wood. The Wood letter set up a
dichotomy between what was appropriate in news television and what was appropriate in entertainment television. Dissident and anti-establishment views, such as
that expressed in coverage of the Chicago Democratic Convention, were fine in
news. “On the other hand, the Smothers Brothers took the position that we must
abrogate the standards that we apply to all entertainment programs and make a
special exception of them” (HentofF, 1969, p. 29, italics in original). Wood claimed
that all views could be expressed on the network (thus appealing to pluralist ideals),
however, CBS could legitimately control their dissemination. Anti-establishment
perspectives on the news could presumably be contained by strategies of news
management. Such views were more problematic on a variety show where containment might be more difficult. The Wood letter attempted to render natural the
network’s control over televised discourses. It attempted to deproblematize the
definition of entertainment standards as though there was consensus on what those
TV Guide, in an angry and self-righteous special editorial, proudly took up the
To many good, sensible citizens of this Nation, the Smothers Brothers have been crossing
these lines [of sacrilege and affront] too often. . ..
The issue is taste. And responsibility. And honesty. And perspective. And a proper respect for
the views of others. . . .
TV AND THE YOUTH REBELLION JUNE 1991
The issue is: Shall a network be required to provide time for ajoan Baez to pay tribute to her
draft-evading husband while hundreds of thousands of viewers in the households of men
fighting and dying in Vietnam look on in shocked resentment?
We can only agree unreservedly with a network policy that is determined not to insult the
general mores of the country. (“Smothered Out: A Wise Decision”, 1969)
Although TV Guide’s position was somewhat more extreme than other press
responses, it crystalized a more typical rhetorical strategy that the popular press
used to represent a denaturalized ruling position under attack. The editorial
appealed overtly to consensual positions: “good, sensible citizens” who were outraged by the deviant opinions of the Smothers Brothers show. There was an appeal
to “general mores” that were somehow understood by allâ€”except the Smothers
and their disrespectful guests. However, by its very appeal to that consensual system
of “general mores”, the TV Guide editorial tended to expose it as a hegemonic
The editorial also attempted to defuse the political nature of the issue. The
question was not political speech, but “taste”. It was bad taste for Joan Baez to pay
tribute to her draft-evading husband, not because she was expressing a political
position but because she offended the general mores of a nation that supported its
boys in Vietnam. By so thoroughly repressing the actual crisis of legitimacy
shuddering through American society, the TV Guide piece itself became a marker of
Despite these and other attempts to contain the crisis, most press accounts
circulated Tommy Smothers’ discourse of youth rebellion. He intensified his alignment with the youth movement in the aftermath of the show’s cancellation. He also
intensified the sense of polarization between CBS as unjust authority and the show
as champion of anti-establishment youth culture.
Look magazine’s cover story on the show’s cancellation was constructed primarily
around Tommy’s discourse of polarization. At one point in the article he said:
Now, if we’re thrown off this easily, what will happen to someone who has something really
important to say? And also, what shows on television are in any way representing the
viewpoint of young people? They are used to controversy. They haven’t turned their heads off
yet. But they’re turning television off. (Hentoff, 1969, p. 28)
At another point the article described Tommy brooding in a chair in his hotel,
asking: ” ‘And CBS, where is that fear they have coming from? How are we so
dangerous?’ He paused. ‘Nobody bothers hawks like Bob Hope’ ” (Hentoff, 1969, p.
29). Unlike Bob Hope, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour provided discourse deeply at
odds with that of ruling elites. It was the circulation of such dissenting speech that
CBS rightly feared and that made the show, finally, so dangerous.
INCORPORATING THE MOD
While the Smothers Brothers were locked in their generational battle with CBS,
at ABC plans were afoot to introduce a disaffected youth show into the fall 1968
lineup. The Mod Squad generated its own brand of controversy, illustrating a new
turn in the crisis of authority.
The Mod Squad embraced both the countercultural hippie look and life-style
evident (in scrubbed-down version) on TheMonkees and the more politically dissident
youth speech associated with The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. However, the
meanings attributed to The Mod Squad were very different. The Mod Squad may be
seen as an attempt to incorporate aspects of dissident youths and blacks back within
a new alliance of ruling interests, thus changing the hegemonic order itself.
By the late 1960s and early 1970s, American society was increasingly responding
to the threat of dissident youth as a “moral panic”6
and was constructing this panic
as a clash between undisciplined, nihilistically rebellious young and the institutions
of law and order. At the core of the panic was the questionof how to make the young
obey these institutions, whose strictures they appeared to be rejecting wholesale.
We can see a playing out of this panic in events such as the Chicago Convention riots
and the subsequent trial of the Chicago Eight; the law and order campaign waged
by the Nixon/Agnew Republican ticket; and the shooting of anti-war protesters at
Kent State University in 1970. The insistent theme of these events was the need to
bring down harsh judicial or police force to rein in a youth generation gone out of
control. So while the crisis of authority, on the one hand, forced the state to reveal
its need to mobilize coercive forces to maintain power, on the other hand, it also
gave the state its excuse to use those forces. The moral panic, therefore, justified
The very premise of The Mod Squad was an attempt to work out this crisis. Three
disaffected young peopleâ€”an angry ghetto black, a blonde “hippie chick”, and a
rebellious young rich kidâ€”were recruited by the police department to work as
undercover cops. On the surface the show’s plot seemed a simple (if rather obvious)
solution to the youth problemâ€”encourage the young to join the system they felt had
been oppressing them. But discussions of the show in the popular press reveal a
much more ambivalent response to this plot and to the moral panic it represented.
A fairly long and in-depth article on The Mod Squadin the July 3, 1971, issue oiTV
Guide documented the initial response to the proposed show. In May 1968, according
to the article, the forthcoming series was advertised in The New York Times with copy
reading, “The police don’t understand the now generation and the now generation
doesn’t dig the fuzz. The solution: find some swinging young people who live the
beat scene. Get them to work for the cops” (Hobson, 1971, p. 24). The response was
immediate and negative. According to series producer Aaron Spelling, the show was
saddled with the “stigma .. . of kids being undercover dragnets, kids finking on
kids”. Eventual series star Michael Cole refused to read for the part, and the
network received an avalanche of mail condemning the show.
The controversy surrounding The Mod Squad suggested that entertainment
television’s attempt to reconfigure a consensus around issues of law and order was
not entirely successful. The attempt at incorporation was being read as yet another
unmasking of coercive powerâ€”and it was being rejected.
The article went on to discuss the repercussions of the controversy:
The initial brouhaha about kids finking on kids made the producers hypersensitive on the
subject. Subsequent scripts have been routinely furbished with lines like, “I do not fink on a
soul brother”. Youth crime, in fact, has been avoided. Most of the heavies have been adults
with power. (Hobson, 1971, p.)
TV AND THE YOUTH REBELLION JUNE 1991
Apparently the show was retooled in the face of protest. To make the premise at all
palatable (and popular) the series had to encompass a range of different and
The theme of powerful-adults-as-villains appeared in numerous accounts. In his
October 5, 1968, TV Guide review, Cleveland Amory (1968) discussed how neither
the show nor the main characters were sell-outs. In one episode, for instance, “the
seemingly bad-guy young fry were just pawns in the hands of the evil adults”. In its
March 21, 1969, review, Time magazine compared the treatment of young people in
such popular cop shows as Adam-12, Hawaii Five-O, and The Name of the Game, where
the young were frequently portrayed as psychotic hippies or crazed radicals wreaking havoc on their elders, and the treatment of young people in The Mod Squad,
which “consistently take[s] the attitude that contemporary kids can be heroes”
(“Telling It Like It Isn’t”, 1969). Press accounts also repeatedly noted that the Mod
Squad carried no weapons and made no arrests.
In the Time article, producer Aaron Spellingâ€”echoing Monkees producer Bob
Rafelson and Tommy Smothersâ€”emphasized how The Mod Squad gave voice to the
legitimate views of disaffected youth:
“We’re telling it like it is,” he says. “Somebody has to help adults understand young people.
They’ve got so many hangups and nobody seems to care. Love is the answer. Those hippies
are right. Those kids are so totally involved with life they’ve involved me” (“Telling It Like It
Unfortunately Spelling had neither Tommy Smothers’ eloquence nor his air of
sincerity. The middle-aged Spelling’s affectation of youth lingo appeared forced and
slightly ridiculous. The article reinforced Spelling’s dubious sincerity byjuxtaposing
his quote with a counter from one of the show’s youthful stars, Clarence Williams
III, who claimed that there was nothing realistic about kids working for cops.
A PROCESS OF NEGOTIATION
How can we make sense of the recurring questions about the show’s premise of
kids as cops as well as the hypersensitivity to depicting adults as bad guys and young
people as innocent pawns or outright heroes? One way to theorize the situation is to
see it as a process of negotiation. To reassert hegemonic control, elites may attempt
to incorporate aspects of the very forces arrayed against them.7
The Mod Squad
showcased that complex and contradictory process of incorporation at work. To
begin incorporating disaffected youth back into “the system”, major concessions
needed to be made to this particular group. The Mod Squad indicated this concession
by, for instance, portraying adults as villians.
In 1966, the Monkees’ long hair and their rock music had created major problems
for the series. By the time The Mod Squad aired, these signs of countercultural
life-style and values no longer carried such negative connotations.8
In fact, crucial to
the show’s premise was the assumption that kids could look like hippies, talk like
hippies, and express countercultural values, yet still be good kids; they could even be
cops. Unlike The Monkees, which expressed an anarchic, anti-authoritarian vision,
The Mod Squad situated these countercultural values and tastes within the institu-
tion of law and order. The series tried to show that even this institution could be
changed, remolded along new lines. The crucial point was that the police department needed to change to accommodate Pete Cochran, Julie Barnes, and Line
Hayes, not that these three needed to change themselves to become good cops. The
very fact that they were described as “three young social outcasts” (“New Series”,
1968) was what made them valuable.
The clearest shift toward accepting and incorporating positions associated with
rebellious youth involved not primarily their styles and tastes but rather their values
and political positions. Incorporating an alternative position should not be read as a
sign of hegemony triumphant. It reveals, instead, hegemonic change.
When Joan Baez had sought to dedicate a song to her draft-resisting husband, she
had been censored by CBS; TV Guide had castigated her and the Smothers Brothers
for offending the mores of the nation. The situation had changed markedly by the
1970-1971 season of The Mod Squad, as revealed by TV Guide’s July 3, 1971, article on
the series and the movement toward “relevance” in popular television. Harve
Bennett, the second of the series’ two producers, said: “I thought we were in
trouble, but if you can do a show where a draft resister is the sympathetic character,
you have done something worth doing” (Hobson, 1971, p. 23). From censorship and
editorial outrage we have moved to the sympathetic portrayal of a draft evader.
The article went on to document other socially relevant topics the program
tackled (although it carefully alternated each relevant episode with a straight
cops-and-robbers episode). Shows produced by Harve Bennett dealt with such topics
as militant black priests, campus unrest, slum lords, Indian life, and the My Lai
massacre. None of these topics would have been considered appropriate for entertainment television when CBS’s Bob Wood fired the Smothers Brothers in 1969.
Ironically Wood became the main proponent of the turn toward relevance in the
early 1970s as CBS began to woo the very audience the Smothers had appealed to in
their embattled show. The turn toward relevanceâ€”with The Mod Squad being one of
the movement’s most successful productsâ€”revealed the process of incorporation at
work. Programs like The Mod Squad began to treat seriously issues of concern to
disaffected young people, using a discourse associated with their movements for
One way to explain the change is to suggest that the reliance on coercive force to
reassert hegemonic control was less than entirely successful. The unmasking of
authoritarian force, whether on network television or in the streets, seemed to have
only given the rebellious movements of blacks and young people more ammunition
for their struggle. A new tacticâ€”the formation of a new consensusâ€”finally succeeded in effectively incorporating dissident social forces back into a reconfigured
hegemonic structure. We can see how this new consensus worked by comparing the
themes of confrontation that circulated around CBS and the Smothers Brothers
over issues of program practices with the manner in which Harve Bennett dealt with
program practices at ABC.
Bennett, quoted in the July 3, 1971, TV Guide, explained his initial worries about
how to get an episode dealing with the My Lai massacre past the network’s Program
TV AND THE YOUTH REBELLION JUNE 1991
Standards and Practices department. He said he expected to be told to jump out a
I said, “Dorothy [the head of the department], I would like to do this show for one reason
only and this will be the theme of the showâ€”that a country which is capable of admitting
there’s a possibility that we kill innocent civilians and is capable of putting it in print and
talking about it cannot be a bad place to live” (Hobson, 1971, p. 23).
Bennett got the go-ahead with the proviso that he soft-pedal the killing of children.
Network authority was no longer a coercive force that refused to entertain
alternative viewpoints. Alternative views were permitted (and were ultimately not
that threatening) because the appeal was made to a consensual notion of liberal
pluralism. While there may not have been consensus on the content of the various
alternative views, there was consensus on the desirability to let them circulate. The
construction of the network as a liberal pluralist consensual institution, instead of
the authoritarian institution associated with the Smothers Brothers crisis, eased us
away from the crisis of authority that so threatened hegemonic control. The fact
that such institutions did finally exert the authority of ruling elites was blurred by
this new appeal to consensus. The face of hegemonic power and authority was
rendered invisible by the reconstruction of American society as a plurality of
different perspectives and points of view.
The face of hegemonic authority was further rendered invisible by the shifting
and retooling of institutions associated with coercive state apparatuses to incorporate dissident social formations. The networks reconfigured their notions of appropriate entertainment to include the discourses of youth in their move toward
relevant programs. In The Mod Squad, the police department reconfigured itself to
include hippie cops. In the arena of “legitimate” electoral politics, the Democratic
party reconfigured itself in 1972 to embrace anti-war positions with the candidacy of
To avoid wholesale social breakdown and disintegration and to avoid authority
resorting to coercive state powers, dominant groups needed to embrace change.
This is what happened in American society in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Hegemonic authority reasserted itself and the economic basis of the social order
remained unchanged, but certain cultural concessions needed to be made to those
groups who had instigated the crisis in the first place.
By looking at entertainment television and the social circulation of a number of
shows targeted to dissident young people, we can chart the process of cultural clash,
negotiation, concession, and incorporation. At the end we find a new landscape of
discourses saying that to oppose the war in Vietnam and resist the draft were noble
and honorable things to do. The acceptance of such a discourse came only through
struggle, it was not granted from above, it was won from below. The various
rebellions of the 1960s may not have changed American society as much as the
rebels wanted, but they did change it. CH
1Gitlin (1980) has shown the usefulness of Gramsci’s theories in his ground-breaking book, The Whole
World Is Watching: Mass Media in the Making and Unmaking of the New Left. While my application of
hegemony theory differs somewhat from his, this paper is clearly indebted to his work.
2Another useful way to examine popular meanings attributed to television programs at particular
historical moments is to look at audience response letters. My work on the late sixties TV show Julia
indicates that viewers, while frequently aware of opinions circulating within the mainstream press,
often challenged those interpretations and came up with their own readings. These readings helped
viewers negotiate changes reverberating through the social order, such as changes in definitions of what
it meant to be black and what it meant to be white (Bodroghkozy, in press). By focusing only on
discourses in the popular press in this article, I am necessarily examining elite opinion. However, such
opinion frequently set the agenda or defined the boundaries of debate for viewers.
I am not suggesting that there were no contradictions or instances of social strife in this period.
However, as indicated by contemporary best-sellers such as Daniel Bell’s The End of Ideology, David
Reisman’s The Lonely Crowd, and William Whyte’s The Organization Man, along with popular films like The
Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit, and Rebel Without a Cause, the white,
middle-class Zeitgeist of the era was more a preoccupation with conformity, normality, and the fears as
well as benefits of consensus than it was a preoccupation with the rending of that consensus.
4Women, many coming out of the youth-based New Left and civil rights movements, formed yet a
third social formation to shatter the hegemonic armor in the late 1960s and early to mid-1970s (see
See Spector (1983) for an overview of the Seeger censorship controvery.
6Hall, Critcher, Jefferson, Clarke, and Roberts (1978) have described a moral panic as “one of the
principal surface manifestations of the crisis”. It is a site where the crisis of authority is experienced and
played out (p. 221).
7Gitlin (1982) argues that incorporation is a routine function of hegemony. Hegemonic orders remain
hegemonic precisely because they can absorb and domesticate alternative views of social reality.
It has been argued that aspects of countercultural life-style were easily divested of any threat,
rendered politically meaningless, and offered up as fashion by a consumer capitalist system that can
absorb almost anything. But even within the process of absorption and incorporation, dissident signs
and discourses retain some politically charged meanings. Long hair, whether worn by the Monkees or by
Mod Squadder Pete Cochran, was not primarily a fashion statement in the 1960s; it connected its
wearer, however tenuously, to a rebellious and dissident social movement. The strategy of the
hegemonic system is not to evacuate a movement’s meanings, but rather to incorporate elements of
that movement into a new hegemony that is not too radically at odds with the old.
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