William H. Tankersley, Watchdog for CBS Taste Standards, Dies at 98
By Bruce Weber, The New York Times
- Feb. 18, 2016
William H. Tankersley, who defined broadcast standards for CBS during a volatile period of change in mores on television and in American society, doing celebrated battle with envelope pushers like Norman Lear and the Smothers Brothers, died on Feb. 5 in Scottsdale, Ariz. He was 98.
His death was confirmed by his daughter Marcy Scott.
From the mid-1950s until 1972, when he left CBS to become head of the national Council of Better Business Bureaus, Mr. Tankersley served as the firewall between the viewers of the network’s programs and those writers, producers and advertisers who might willfully or inadvertently offend their sensibilities. He was, in effect, the network’s chief censor, though he would not have labeled his role that way.
His job was not to protect the public, he said, so much as it was to guard the business and reputation of the company he worked for: “Mainly it was to make whatever came out of that tube on a CBS station be something you could be proud of,” he said in 2001 interview with the Archive of American Television.
Working for and with the trust of William S. Paley, the founder and chairman of the network, and Frank Stanton, the president and later vice chairman, Mr. Tankersley wielded great power. Under the Code of Practices, a set of ethical standards established in the early 1950s and voluntarily agreed to by broadcasters, things like profanity, sexual references, disparagement of religion and the depiction of drug use and drunkenness were closely monitored on all three networks. However, the standards at CBS, which was known, both admiringly and mockingly, as the Tiffany network, were considered stricter than the norm.
“I was a czar,” Mr. Tankersley said. “I wanted to be a czar, they wanted a czar, and I ran it that way.”
On Mr. Tankersley’s watch, Rob and Laura Petrie, the lovey-dovey suburban couple played by Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore on ”The Dick Van Dyke Show,” were consigned to twin beds. A laxative advertisement was rejected for the “CBS Evening News” with Walter Cronkite. Mr. Tankersley vetoed gunfight scenes on the long-running western series “Gunsmoke,” whose star, James Arness, once threatened to resign, Mr. Tankersley said, “if he can’t shoot more people.”
But that said, Mr. Tankersley was hardly inflexible as time passed, social attitudes toward ribald subject matter and language grew more relaxed, tolerance for violent imagery increased and entertainment programming veered more often into politics.
He gave the O.K. to Mr. Lear’s breakthrough series, “All in the Family,” with its sexual innuendoes, political debates, periodic sounds of a toilet flushing and frank (if comic) expressions of bigotry by the main character, Archie Bunker (played by Carroll O’Connor), whose declarations in 1971, the show’s first season, would have been anathema a decade or perhaps only a handful of years earlier.
“In my day nobody went around calling themselves Chicanos, Mexican-Americans, Afro-Americans,” Archie said in one fit of pique. “We was all Americans. After that if a guy was a jig or a spic, it was his own business.”
Perhaps Mr. Tankersley’s most famous battle was with the Smothers Brothers, whose variety show was on CBS from 1967 to 1969 — or, to be more specific, with Tom Smothers, who was generally considered more challenging to authority and more cantankerous than his brother, Dick.
“We had nothing but problems with the Smothers Brothers,” Mr. Tankersley said in the archive interview, recalling a variety of antics employed by Tom Smothers to get around network oversight, including withholding tapes of episodes for previewing by affiliates. “They had something to offend everybody. They brought more complaints than any show in history on CBS.
“They injected politics up to the sky, refused to do anything we asked, really, to the point that our affiliates rebelled. Tommy, as likable as he is — and I liked him, got along well with him — but he has never told the truth much in his entire life.”
“The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” proved popular and profitable for the network even though it was programmed on Sunday nights against the long-running NBC hit “Bonanza.”
The show featured rock acts including the Doors, the Who and Jefferson Airplane and often ventured into antiwar commentary and political satire (one regular bit was the faux presidential campaign of the deadpan comedian Pat Paulsen). In what turned out to be a last straw, the comedian David Steinberg was scheduled to deliver a mock sermonette in the guise of a clergyman, a character whose previous appearance on the show had elicited substantial viewer outrage.
In April 1969, after a dispute ostensibly over whether the brothers had fulfilled their obligation to allow the network affiliates to view a tape of the coming episode in advance, Mr. Tankersley encouraged Robert D. Wood, then the network president, to cancel the show and fire the brothers, which he did, just weeks after having renewed their contract for another season.
“It had to be done, no question,” Mr. Tankersley said to Allan Neuwirth for his book “They’ll Never Put That on the Air: An Oral History of Taboo-Breaking TV Comedy” (2006). He added: “I told Bob when I called him, ‘They’ll sue us, Bob, because nothing has changed that much since we re-signed them. Why did we re-sign them if they’re so bad? But we did, and now you have no choice. We’ll be sued, and we may lose. But we can’t go forward.’ ”
Mr. Tankersley was right. The Smothers Brothers sued CBS for breach of contract and won a reported $766,000 settlement.
William Howard Tankersley was born on Jan. 28, 1918, in Tankersley, Tex., a small town near San Angelo that had been founded by his grandfather Richard F. Tankersley. His father, Richard Jr., was a rancher; his mother was the former Annie Roll.
William went to public schools in nearby Knickerbocker and eventually graduated from the University of California, Los Angeles. During the Depression he worked as an accounting clerk at a copper mining company in Arizona before getting into radio, working as an announcer, programmer and administrator in Arizona, Utah and Montana.
In 1950 he joined CBS Radio in Los Angeles as manager of program promotion and merchandising for the regional network, and shortly thereafter became director of program operations for the national network. He made the move to television in 1955 as director of program practices, a job in which he had oversight of standards for a rapidly expanding menu of network offerings.
Mr. Tankersley married Velma Bowling, a sculptor, in 1944. In addition to her and their daughter Marcy, he is survived by another daughter, Jan Rowe; a sister, Maxine Wick; three grandchildren; and a great-grandson.
In spite of his role as enforcer and chief network spoilsport, Mr. Tankersley was generally well respected, even by his antagonists.
In his own television archive interview, Mr. Lear recalled going back and forth over the script of an episode of “Maude” in which the title character, played by Bea Arthur, ends up suspecting (mistakenly) that her husband (played by Bill Macy) had been unfaithful. To regain her good will, her husband has pretended to be enfeebled by a heart attack, but when Maude says she forgives him, he confesses that he’s fine. The episode ends with their embrace and Maude’s whispering into his ear, “You son of a bitch.”
Mr. Lear said he won the battle over the ordinarily objectionable expression when he challenged Mr. Tankersley to come up with a better line and Mr. Tankersley was unable to and so gave in.
“I loved Bill Tankersley — he was a terrific man, strong, sensible, articulate,” Mr. Lear said in a telephone interview on Tuesday. In a separate message, he said, “He understood the foolishness of some of his job just as well as I did.”