Upon Further Review: A Brief History of Instant Replay

Steven Branscombe, Getty Images
Steven Branscombe, Getty Images

© Ron Sachs/CNP/Corbis

Instant replay in sports has sparked about as much controversy as it has eliminated since the feature was introduced more than 50 years ago, but it's hard to imagine watching games today without it. Here's a look back at the men behind the invention and how various sports have incorporated the use of instant replay through the years.

Instant Replay Pioneer

George Retzlaff, a Toronto-based producer for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's wildly popular "Hockey Night in Canada," used a hot processor to produce a wet-film replay of a goal during the 1955-56 season.

Retzlaff annoyed the advertising agency that sponsored the show by not providing advanced notice that he was planning to employ this innovative technique, and the program's other production studio in Montreal didn't have the equipment to replicate the method, so Retzlaff never used it again. Still, Retzlaff's not-quite-instant replay was a seminal moment in the history of sports broadcasting and ranks No. 24 on the CBC's list of the greatest Canadian inventions of all time.

The Origins of Videotape-Based Replay

Tony Verna, who was hired as a director at CBS by future Dallas Cowboys general manager and NFL innovator Tex Schramm, had experimented with videotape while working the 1960 Rome Olympics. Verna spent a lot of time directing football games and was determined to find an interesting way to fill the lulls in the action between snaps. He also wanted to be able to show viewers the game that was taking place away from the ball on a given play. "If it didn't happen on TV, it didn't happen," Verna told Joe Starkey of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review in 2003. Verna eventually developed a system—using audio tones added to the cue track of the videotape—that enabled him to rewind to the point just before the ball was snapped on the previous play for instant playback.

Instant Replay's Big Debut

Verna debuted his instant replay technique on December 7, 1963, during the annual Army-Navy football game. While technical glitches with the 1,200-pound videotape machine that Verna had transported to Philadelphia's Municipal Stadium prevented him from using the feature in earlier in the game—one replay camera was focused on Navy quarterback Roger Staubach and another on Army quarterback Rollie Stichweh throughout the day—it was finally introduced on Stichweh's one-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter. As the touchdown was replayed at full speed, and therefore indistinguishable from live action, play-by-play man Lindsey Nelson declared, "This is not live! Ladies and gentlemen, Army did not score again." According to Verna, the first replay tape, which has since been lost, was recorded over a tape that included episodes of I Love Lucy. Verna went on to a distinguished career in television and detailed the invention of instant replay in a 2008 book.

Early Spread and Opinions of Instant Replay

Instant replay slowly became more ubiquitous. In 1965, the New York Times reported on a new feature of baseball broadcasts on ABC, which was the first network to use slow motion replay. "At least one station plans to introduce 'instant replay' and also a 'stop motion' or 'freeze' technique that could prove whether a base umpire's call on a runner was in reality right or wrong," Val Adams wrote. "The day of reckoning for umpires may be near." Former baseball slugger Ralph Kiner, a commentator for the Mets, had a different opinion. "I never saw the camera yet that could countermand an umpire, considering that the camera angle is just as prone to error as anything else," Kiner said. "In fact, video tapes seem to show how few mistakes umpires make."

A Costly and Useful Innovation

Instant replay, especially in the early days, was an expensive production. In 1966, the Pacific 8 college football conference voted to outlaw the television device that enabled football coaches to view instant replays on the field. Most of the schools that voted against the device, which provided a competitive advantage, did so because of the cost associated with purchasing one. There were other instances when coaches wondered when instant replay would be adopted to improve the game. One such example came in 1966, when Florida defeated rival Florida State in a game that featured a controversial finish. Officials ruled that FSU receiver Lane Fenner was out of bounds when he caught what would have been the winning touchdown. "I know it's a judgment call and there is nothing I can do about it," Florida State head coach Bill Peterson said. "But with all the electronic devices we have in football, why don't we have videotape or something like it to help officials?" Dave Nelson, a secretary for the NCAA, replied, "It is not true that pictures don't lie." College football wouldn't adopt a form of instant replay to determine calls until 2004.

In-Stadium Discretion

While leagues didn’t initially adopt instant replay for use by umpires and officials, teams took advantage of the technology to improve the in-stadium experience for fans. In April 1977, the four-man umpiring crew of a game between the Braves and Astros in Atlanta left the field in protest of the scoreboard operator’s decision to show a controversial replay. Predictably, the crowd began to boo the umpires after the replay revealed that they had made an incorrect call. The umpires received word from Braves management that close plays would not be replayed in the future before returning to the field. In fact, the Braves installed a former major league umpire in the press box to decide whether a specific play was too controversial to show.

One year earlier, the New York Yankees were fined $1,000 and reprimanded by the league after using their instant replay scoreboard to “produce fan reaction against the umpires.” A Yankees team spokesman responded in The New York Times, “We would like to point out that we have only the fans in mind when we use our scoreboard for instant replays. The board cost us $30 million and we see no reason why fans at the ballgame should see any less than the fans at home.” Today, most leagues have policies about what replays can be shown in stadiums and arenas. In the NFL, only the broadcast feed is shown on video screens and it must not be shown after the referee makes his call. You’re unlikely to see a replay of a close play on the scoreboard at a baseball game, especially a questionable ball or strike call.

The NFL’s Trial Run and Instant Replay Adoption

The NFL implemented a trial run of instant replay during seven preseason games in 1978. “We’ll do a dry run on the replay on officiating decisions,” Commissioner Pete Rozelle told reporters. “We’re not going to implement anything, but it will be part of a study.” In 1986, the NFL approved replay for use in regular season games. A game official in the press box reviewed plays on the same feed that viewers at home saw and had the authority to reverse any call that was “totally conclusive.” The league mandated that any replay decision be made within 15 to 20 seconds so as not to disrupt the flow of the game. “It will be expensive,” Tex Schramm said at the time. “But money doesn’t make any difference to this league.”

Communication between the replay official and the on-field was initially a problem. During a Monday night game early in the season, the on-field officials nullified a Denver Broncos touchdown because of what they ruled was an illegal forward lateral. The official in the replay booth reviewed the play and determined that the call was wrong, but by that point the Broncos had already run another play. Toward the end of the season, The New York Times and CBS Sports conducted a poll about the system. Sixty-six percent of fans thought it improved the game; 20 percent thought it made the game worse. Coaches and owners voted to drop replay in 1992, complaining that it slowed the pace of games, but voted 28-3 in favor of reinstating it as a challenged-based system before the 1999 season.

Baseball Resists

Perhaps in the interest of preserving the heritage of America’s national pastime, baseball has been the most hesitant of the major sports to adopt replay. In 1988, MLB Commissioner Peter Ueberroth declared, "There will not be instant replay of any sort. We're just not going to do it. The umpires making split-second decisions is part of the flavor of the game. We don't want to lose that flavor. You can make a dish so bland that it's not worth sitting down at the table." Ueberroth’s announcement came one week after an umpire used a scoreboard replay to reverse one of his calls.

In 2008, the league instituted replay of disputed home run calls. This season, Armando Galarraga’s imperfect perfect game, in which first base umpire Jim Joyce botched a call on what should have been the final out of the game, brought baseball’s replay debate front and center once again. The Little League World Series began using instant replay in 2008 and switched to a challenge-based system this year. Each manager receives one challenge per game, and if the umpire's call is overturned, the coach retains his or her challenge.

Replay Rules and Systems in Other Sports

Here is a sampling of how replay is currently used in other sports:

National Hockey League: The NHL began using instant replay in 1991. In 2003, the league adopted a replay system that took the responsibility of making controversial calls out of the hands of an in-stadium replay official and bestowed it upon NHL staffers watching every game live from a Toronto office often referred to as the “War Room.” In addition to reviewing disputed goals, the office staffers, who have access to every television broadcast of every game, watch for illegal hits that may warrant a suspension or fine.

National Basketball Association: The NBA began using instant replay to review last-second shots after the 2001-2002 season. Since then, instant replay has been expanded to include reviews of flagrant fouls and to determine if a field goal attempt was a 2-pointer or a 3-pointer. Replay is also used to review possible 24-second shot clock violations and to determine which player last touched the ball before it went out of bounds during the last 2 minutes of regulation and overtime.

Tennis: The Hawk-Eye computer system, which processes the trajectory of a ball using several video cameras and displays a computer rendering of the ball’s path, has been used to review disputed tennis calls since 2006. In 2008, the sport’s various organizing bodies developed a uniform system of rules for utilizing the technology and decided a player would be allowed three unsuccessful challenges per set. Cricket uses the Hawk-Eye system to help determine difficult calls as well.

Soccer: Instant replay isn’t used, though some fans would like to see that change, especially after some of the disputed calls at this year’s World Cup.

Instant Replay Outside of Sports

In 1967, the Federal Highway Administration announced that it would repurpose Verna’s innovation and use video and replay capabilities to monitor busy intersections. According to an article in The New York Times, the FHWA developed a video device that would be triggered by the sound of a crash at a busy intersection. The resulting signal would preserve the video from 20 seconds before impact, which aided in the investigation and analysis of collisions. Today, the U.S. military uses the same technology the NFL uses for instant replay to analyze thousands of hours of video from Afghanistan and Iraq.

100 Years Later: 50 Facts About Prohibition

The sheriff of Orange County, California, dumping bootleg booze during Prohibition
The sheriff of Orange County, California, dumping bootleg booze during Prohibition
Orange County Archives, Wikimedia // CC BY 2.0

For 13 years, the United States had a constitutional ban on booze. By 1920, the chorus of citizens who didn't want the "corrupting" effects of alcohol ruining society had grown loud enough that the government acted to shut down booze-based business—and on January 17, 1920, Prohibition in the U.S. officially went into effect. The 18th Amendment to the Constitution prohibited the "manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors."

Try considering what life might be like without a local pub or easy access to bottles of wine while you read these 50 not-at-all-dry facts about Prohibition.

1. Prohibition's roots are as old as the colonies.

November 1931: Evening dressed revellers buying their drinks at a bar at the time of prohibition
Revellers buying their drinks at a bar in 1931, when Prohibition was in full effect
Keystone/Getty Images

Distilled spirits were the first domestic product to be taxed by the nascent federal government, led by President George Washington, as a way to raise a significant amount of money from a popular luxury item. The tax also found support with social reformers, who hoped this "sin tax" would stop people from drinking as much.

2. Early Americans protested prohibition back then, too.

Farmers and distillers refusing to pay the tax led to the Whiskey Rebellion, which saw armed resistance challenge Washington's militia. The resistance ultimately fell apart, and two men were convicted of treason. (Washington later pardoned them.)

3. Maine got an early start on prohibition.

The first state to outlaw alcohol was Maine, which passed its law in 1851 thanks largely to the local Temperance movement leader and Quaker mayor of Portland, Neal Dow. After four years under the law, a mob of 3000 stormed city hall in 1855 when "[t]he city’s Irish working-class residents found out their teetotaling, saloon-raiding mayor was storing $1600 worth of liquor at City Hall," according to Smithsonian.com. Oops.

4. Kansas prohibited alcohol in its constitution.

Maine's prohibition test led to several other states adopting similar laws, but Kansas was the first to have a constitutional ban on alcohol manufacturing and sales. Voters passed the amendment in November 1880, and their state legislature made manufacturing alcohol a misdemeanor shortly after.

5. The Supreme Court once called alcohol "evil."

Peter Mugler set up a brewery in Kansas in 1877, and the constitutional ban made his business worthless. So when he was indicted on charges of violating the new ban, he appealed all the way up to the Supreme Court ... where he lost. In the 8-1 decision, Associate Justice John Marshall Harlan wrote that the court had to consider the social deterioration caused by alcohol and that "idleness, disorder, pauperism, and crime existing in the country are, in some degree at least, traceable to this evil."

6. Prohibition had a trial run during WWI.

Americans got a taste of prohibition when the Wartime Prohibition Act passed and took effect June 30, 1919. The idea behind the act was to preserve grain for the war effort.

7. The Prohibition Party mascot was a camel.

A photo of a camel looking into the camera
Servet TURAN/iStock via Getty Images

Republicans have the elephant. Democrats have the donkey. The Prohibition Party had the camel, a perfect symbol for not drinking.

8. Economists were in favor of Prohibition.

Many economists, including the former president of the American Economic Association, Dr. Irving Fisher, thought prohibiting alcohol would have a positive effect on the nation's economy. One major target was "Blue Monday," the wasted day of productivity following a Sunday of heavy drinking.

9. Prohibition was entangled with nativism and anti-immigrant sentiments.

While alcohol was the main enemy, communities that favored alcohol (like Catholic immigrant groups) also came under fire. Nativist rhetoric was used alongside anti-alcohol arguments that railed against alcohol as an agent of social corrosion, and at least one national Prohibition figure, Bishop James Cannon, openly used anti-Catholic language.

10. Income tax partially made prohibition possible.

Congress generally refused to consider prohibition because taxing alcohol was so lucrative. But after the income tax was established in 1913, representing two-thirds of the taxes the federal government took in by 1920, the fiscal incentive for denying prohibition was almost completely wiped out, paving the way for genuine consideration of the ban.

11. Some people believed alcohol turned your blood to water.

Odd beliefs and misinformation were common while Prohibitionists fought to get the law on the books. One belief was that your blood would become water if you drank, a notion popularized by the "Department of Scientific Temperance Instruction." But it's not the only such strange belief.

12. Prohibition rebooted the KKK.

Members of the Ku Klux Klan gather for a ceremony in the 1920s
Topical Press Agency, Getty Images

Because of the connection between Prohibition and anti-immigrant sentiment, the then-diminished Ku Klux Klan used the 18th Amendment and its social backers as a means of resurgence. The racist organization recruited from Protestant Prohibition groups and provided foot soldiers for raids where law enforcement lacked funds and people.

13. Anti-German sentiment gave prohibition a boost during WWI.

With its connection to nativism and anti-immigrant sentiment, the Prohibition movement got a big boost when the United States entered WWI against Germany. Since German Americans ran a majority of the breweries, dry activists argued that buying alcohol was akin to supporting the enemy.

14. President Wilson vetoed the Volstead Act.

While the 18th Amendment made Prohibition the law of the land, the Volstead Act defined what "intoxicating liquors" were and set the parameters for enforcing the new rule. Although publicly agnostic on the wet vs. dry issue, President Wilson vetoed the bill and declared that "personal habits and customs of large numbers of our people" should be legislated with greater caution. However, Congress overrode his veto.

15. Anti-alcohol groups claimed wine was made with cockroaches.

Dry pastor T. P. Hunt warned people off Madeira wine by saying it was "common practice" to make it with a bag of cockroaches.

16. Prohibition supporters also claimed your brain could catch fire …

Prohibition fan George McCandlish said that he'd seen a dead man's brain burst into flame when doctors tested it for alcohol with a lit match.

17. … And that your liver would grow to be 25 pounds.

Drinking does damage the liver, no doubt, but Prohibitionists exaggerated its effect in a bizarre direction when claiming the organ (which is normally about three pounds) could swell up to as much as 25 pounds while drinking.

18. Prohibition proponents also claimed that second-hand alcohol smelling would hurt unborn children.

Alfred Ploetz was a German who moved to Massachusetts in 1890 and wrote in The Influence of Alcohol Upon Race that pregnant women who merely smelled alcohol risked giving birth to deformed babies. He later moved back to Germany and joined the Nazi party as a prominent eugenicist.

19. Prohibition helped women get the vote.

Members of the Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) who marched on Washington DC to present a petition supporting prohibition.
Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

Women were major leaders of the temperance movement, arguing that alcohol made men waste money, become violent, and destroy families. Frances Willard of the Women's Christian Temperance Union called the movement a "war of mothers and daughters, sisters, and wives." Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton also created the Women's State Temperance Society. In nationalizing a cause women cared about, Prohibitionists saw their success as working hand-in-hand with progress toward allowing women to vote. They managed to succeed without that, but the 19th Amendment, which granted women's suffrage, was ratified only seven months after the 18th.

20. The 18th Amendment didn't actually make drinking alcohol illegal.

As you can tell by the prohibitive language on manufacturing, selling, and transporting, the 18th Amendment didn't outlaw drinking hooch per se. There was just a lot less of it to go around.

21. There were 1520 federal agents focused on battling booze.

The Department of the Treasury and the Coast Guard were responsible for enforcing Prohibition, and 1520 agents—many with little training—combated breweries, home operations, and smugglers on land and sea.

22. Doctors had a medical loophole during Prohibition.

Medical professionals lobbied to prescribe alcohol for medicinal purposes while the drug was illegal. Thousands of doctors and pharmacists got official licenses and created a lucrative side gig. Still, there were limits on how much a patient could get: A pint every 10 days.

23. Clergy could also serve sacramental wine during Prohibition.

In 1922, IRS head and main Prohibition regulator David Blair lifted the ban on wine for religious use. It's likely that most local officials let churches use wine even before then.

24. The British refused to help crack down on illegal smuggling.

During Prohibition, British-run Nassau in the Bahamas became a smuggling hub, so the American government repeatedly asked the British government to help shut it down. They did not—probably because alcohol imports to the Bahamas jumped from 5000 quarts to 10 million between 1917 and 1922, and the government collected tariffs on all of it.

25. Winston Churchill had a doctor's note for alcohol so he could drink in America during Prohibition.

Winston Churchill takes a drink at a luncheon
Fox Photos/Getty Images

Prescriptions for medicinal alcohol were a luxury, and there was that pesky cap on how much you could get—unless you were Winston Churchill. Not only was his prescription for an "indefinite" amount of alcohol, the doctor put a minimum limit of 250 cubic centimeters (a little more than 8 ounces) on it.

26. Breweries started making ice cream and pottery during Prohibition.

While the church helped keep the wine industry afloat, beer brewers had to transition to survive. The equipment, right down to the refrigerated trucks, made ice cream a lucrative change for Anheuser-Busch and Yuengling, and Coors built and expanded their bottling company to make pottery and ceramic tubing for the military.

27. They also made beer without the alcohol.

It probably can't technically be called beer, but Anheuser-Busch also predicted Prohibition passing and launched a cereal-based, non-alcoholic drink called Bevo in 1916.

28. Anheuser-Busch had beer ready when prohibition ended.

In another sign of the company's forward-thinking, Anheuser-Busch got approval from the government to brew 55,000 barrels of beer in anticipation of Prohibition's end, which is why people could raise their glasses when they heard the law was dead.

29. People bought bread-making ingredients to make beer at home.

Basement Stills to Produce illegal Whiskey was a great way to augment or supplant family income.
Buyenlarge/Getty Images

Sorry, homebrewers: During Prohibition, it was illegal to make beer at home. Fortunately, breweries also shifted to selling malt extract to the public as a baking additive that no one actually used to bake with. One newspaper reckoned that enough malt extract was sold in an Ohio town each week to make 16 loaves for every person who lived there.

30. You could also buy a brick of grapes during Prohibition.

In a similar pivot, winemakers began selling bricks of dried grape juice that came with a warning label with explicit instructions on how not to let it soak and ferment into delicious wine.

31. Prohibition encouraged the Waldorf-Astoria to create the modern kids' menu.

Oases of adult fun, hotel restaurants used to keep children out, but with the threat of losing money during Prohibition, the famous Waldorf-Astoria in New York turned to the youth market with a special menu featuring Little Jack Horner and broiled lamb chops.

32. Medicinal booze really helped Walgreen's.

The burgeoning pharmacy credits milkshakes, but selling booze when it was illegal arguably helped Walgreen's expand from 20 stores to 525 in the 1920s.

33. Men and women started drinking together during Prohibition.

Before Prohibition, men and women were largely separated socially. The pub was a men-only domain. Once alcohol became illegal, speakeasies that were already breaking the law saw no real need to discriminate who they sold to, so women joined in the fun. Over time, men and women drinking and listening to music together in a crowded, sweaty room became the norm.

34. Prohibition gave birth to NASCAR.

Race cars speeding around a track
PICSUNV/iStock via Getty Images

The connection between illegal hooch and the sport of driving incredibly fast is a pretty obvious one: Moonshiners transported their illicit wares in the fastest cars they could build to evade police. Since driving fast is fun, people kept doing it even without cops on their tail, and by 1947, NASCAR was founded.

35. Brand-name booze became a big deal during Prohibition.

Moonshine was cheap, but it could blind you. Or kill you. So, if you had the money, you'd order something with a familiar name and a comforting label. Foreign liquor manufactures created brands specifically for the U.S. market to capitalize on the consumer desire to not be killed by unregulated hooch.

36. There was an explosion of slang during Prohibition.

Bathtub gin. Juice joint. Whale. Blotto. A lot of words sprung from the collective imagination while hooch-makers served white lightning to booze hounds on the sly.

37. Enforcement during Prohibition was tragically uneven.

While Congress and the president kept drinking, and the wealthy got by with pricey "medicinal" alcohol from pharmacies, police enforced the law to dramatic effect among urban immigrant and African American communities.

38. There was a lot of hooch at the White House.

Prohibition, schmohibition. President Warren Harding (who voted for the Volstead Act as a senator) kept a fully stocked bar in the White House and had frequent poker nights where everyone drank whiskey.

39. Congressmen kept drinking and had their own supplier.

Bootlegger George Cassiday brought bottles of alcohol to Congressional buildings in a briefcase, making an average of 25 trips a day. He became widely known as "The Man in the Green Hat" when he was arrested while wearing, ahem, a green hat, and banned from entering the Cannon House Office Building (so he switched to the Russell Building). Capitol Police largely let him go through unchecked, but the Prohibition Bureau initiated a sting operation that sent Cassiday to prison for 18 months.

40. George Cassiday estimated that 80 percent of congressmen drank illegally.

George Cassiday, bootlegger to Congress, in 1930
George Cassiday, bootlegger to Congress, in 1930
Library of Congress, Wikimedia // No known copyright restrictions

The bootlegger wrote articles for The Washington Post and claimed that 80 percent of Congress broke their own law during Prohibition. Apparently, they also left bottles lying all over the place.

41. Prohibition turned public sentiment around on tipping.

Before Prohibition, the public looked down on tipping as an outdated specter of the aristocracy. But with alcohol sales disappearing overnight, a lot of businesses suffered, so they cut corners by not paying servers as much—and encouraged customers to tip servers to make up the difference.

42. Drinking went down during Prohibition.

In the earliest days of the Volstead Act's implementation, alcohol use dropped to 30 percent of pre-Prohibition levels. It jumped back up while the 18th Amendment was still in place, but only to 60 to 70 percent of the original level.

43. Ending Prohibition took doing what had never been done.

In the United States, there are two methods of ratifying amendments to the Constitution: One is sending the amendment to state legislatures; the second is sending it to state ratifying conventions. The second method had never been used before the 21st Amendment repealed the 18th, and it hasn't been used again since. On December 5, 1933, Utah became the 36th state to approve the repeal of Prohibition, making the amendment official. Maine passed it the following day, and Montana, purely symbolically, passed it the following August.

44. Two states rejected the repeal of Prohibition outright.

Both South Carolina and North Carolina did not ratify the 21st Amendment. Even more drastically, Georgia, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Oklahoma didn't even call a convention.

45. FDR drank a martini to mark the end of Prohibition.

Prohibition lasted for 13 years, and when Utah put repeal proponents over the mark, President Franklin Roosevelt celebrated with a martini and said, "What America needs now is a drink."

46. Some states stayed dry after Prohibition was repealed.

As you might guess from the states who refused to even consider the 21st Amendment, not everyone was happy about going back to imbibing. Kansas, for example, prohibited alcohol until 1948. In Kansas, Mississippi, and Tennessee, counties have to opt-in to legalizing alcohol. About 18 million American now live in "dry" areas.

47. The black market made $3 billion per year during Prohibition.

A haul of illegal liquor found during Prohibition
A haul of illegal liquor found during Prohibition
National Photo Company Collection, Wikimedia // No known restrictions

Prohibition Commissioner Dr. James Doran estimated in a 1930 interview that the illicit alcohol industry pulled in $3 billion a year, with 25 million gallons of booze a year coming from "distillation in large, hidden stills." That's $45 billion in today's money considering inflation. It also cost the government $11 billion in lost tax revenue and more than $300 million to enforce.

48. Seventy percent of Americans now drink.

Despite Prohibition, Americans never fell out of love with alcohol. According to the 2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, about 70 percent of Americans over the age of 18 had consumed alcohol in the past year. More than half reported having a drink within the past month.

49. Almost one-fifth of Americans think drinking is morally wrong.

According to a 2019 Gallup poll, 19 percent of Americans said drinking alcohol was morally wrong, and a 2014 CNN poll [PDF] found that 18 percent believed alcohol shouldn’t be legal. So it may not be a surprise that ...

50. The Prohibition Party still exists.

Their platform is still rooted in Christianity and supports assisting vineyard operators to switch their crops.

When Mississippi Once Banned Sesame Street

Children's Television Workshop/Courtesy of Getty Images
Children's Television Workshop/Courtesy of Getty Images

Since it began airing in the fall of 1969, Sesame Street has become an indelible part of millions of children's formative years. Using a cast of colorful characters like Big Bird, Bert, Ernie, and Oscar the Grouch, along with a curriculum vetted by Sesame Workshop's child psychologists and other experts, the series is able to impart life lessons and illustrate educational tools that a viewer can use throughout their adolescence. You would be hard-pressed to find anyone—even Oscar—who would take issue with the show’s approach or its mission statement.

Yet that’s exactly what happened in early 1970, when a board of educational consultants in Mississippi gathered, polled one another, and decided that Sesame Street was too controversial for television.

The series had only been on the air for a few months when the newly formed Mississippi Authority for Educational Television (also known as the State Commission for Educational Television) held a regularly scheduled meeting in January 1970. The board had been created by the state legislature with appointees named by Governor John Bell Williams to evaluate shows that were set to air on the state’s Educational Television, or ETV, station. The five-member panel consisted of educators and private citizens, including a teacher and a principal, and was headed up by James McKay, a banker in Jackson, Mississippi.

McKay’s presence was notable for the fact that his father-in-law, Allen Thompson, had just retired after spending 20 years as mayor of Jackson. Highly resistant to integration in the city during his tenure in office, Thompson was also the founder of Freedom of Choice in the United States, or FOCUS, an activist group that promoted what they dubbed “freedom of choice” in public schools—a thinly veiled reference to segregation. Mississippi, long the most incendiary state in the nation when it came to civil rights, was still struggling with the racial tension of the 1960s. Systemic racism was an issue.

Entering this climate was Sesame Street, the show pioneered by Joan Ganz Cooney, a former journalist and television producer who became the executive director of the Children’s Television Workshop. On the series, the human cast was integrated, with black performers Matt Robinson and Loretta Long as Gordon and Susan, respectively, appearing alongside white actors Jada Rowland and Bob McGrath. The children of Sesame Street were also ethnically diverse.

Zoe (L) and Cookie Monster (R) are pictured in New York City in November 2009
Astrid Stawiarz, Getty Images

This appeared to be too much for the Authority, which discussed how lawmakers with control over ETV’s budget—which had just been set at $5,367,441—might find the mixed-race assembly offensive. The panel's participants were all white.

The board pushed the discussion aside until April 17, 1970, when they took an informal poll and decided, by a margin of three votes against two, to prohibit ETV from airing Sesame Street—a show that came free of charge to all public television stations. (The decision affected mainly viewers in and around Jackson, as the station had not yet expanded across the state and was not expected to do so until the fall of 1970.)

The members who were outvoted were plainly unhappy with the outcome and leaked the decision to The New York Times, which published a notice of the prohibition days later along with a quote from one of the board members.

“Some of the members of the commission were very much opposed to showing the series because it uses a highly integrated cast of children,” the person, who did not wish to be named, said. “Mainly the commission members felt that Mississippi was not yet ready for it.”

The reaction to such a transparent concession to racism was swift and predictably negative, both in and out of Mississippi. Board members who spoke with press, usually anonymously, claimed the decision was a simple “postponing” of the show, not an outright ban. The fear, they said, was that legislators who viewed ETV as having progressive values might shut down the project before it had a chance to get off the ground. It was still possible for opponents to suffocate it before it became part of the fabric of the state’s television offerings.

The concern was not entirely without merit. State representative Tullius Brady of Brookhaven said that ETV exerted “a subtle influence” on the minds of children and that the Ford Foundation, which funded educational programming, could use its influence for “evil purposes.” Other lawmakers had previously argued against shows that promoted integration.

Grover is pictured at AOL Studios in New York City in May 2015
Slaven Vlasic, Getty Images

Regardless of how the decision was justified, many took issue with it. In an anonymous editorial for the Delta Democrat-Times, a critic wrote:

“But Mississippi’s ETV commission won’t be showing it for the time being because of one fatal defect, as measured by Mississippi’s political leadership. Sesame Street is integrated. Some of its leading cast members are black, including the man who does much of the overt ‘teaching.’ The neighborhood of the ‘street’ is a mixed one. And all that, of course, goes against the Mississippi grain.”

Joan Ganz Cooney called the decision a “tragedy” for young people.

Fortunately, it was a tragedy with a short shelf life. The following month, the board reconvened and reversed its own informal poll result, approving of Sesame Street and agreeing that ETV could air it as soon as they received tapes of the program. Thanks to feeds from Memphis, New Orleans, and Alabama, Sesame Street could already be seen in parts of Mississippi. And thanks to the deluge of negative responses, it seemed pointless to try to placate politicians who still favored segregation.

In the fall of 1970, the Sesame Street cast appeared in person in Jackson and was met by representatives from the board, which helped to sponsor the live performance, though it’s not clear any apology was forthcoming.

Sesame Street would go on to win numerous awards and accolades over the proceeding 50 years, though it would not be the only children’s show to experience censorship on public television. In May 2019, ETV networks in Alabama and Arkansas refused to air an episode of the PBS animated series Arthur in which a rat and aardvark are depicted as a same-sex couple getting married.

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