Where were we? Oh, yes: Scrappy finally had a voice and my pilot script was recorded...and that was the end of it. Or so I thought, having failed to anticipate problems with the ABC Standards and Practices division. I know of no such oppressive force in children's television today...but back then, each network had this department that had to approve everything that got on the air. In other words, In-House Censors. In most instances, these folks had a simple, understandable function: Prevent the network from getting into trouble.
TV networks, because they reach so many people, are always being sued and/or protested, often over things you could never imagine would create problems. Most of the time, the network position is defensible and the outrage falls into the "nuisance" category...but even nuisance suits and protests can be a nuisance. And expensive to defend against. In kids' television, the stakes seem higher. A protester yelling, "This show is poisoning our children" will usually get more traction than someone bitching about a show for general audiences. The sponsors of kidvid are especially frail and known to atomize over very little negative feedback.
Censorship of broadcast television has declined greatly in the era of HBO, Showtime and DVDs...but in the early eighties, if you were creating a show for CBS, NBC or ABC you usually found yourself in the following dilemma. You had to please the Programming People who bought the show and prayed for ratings. They wanted your program to be edgy and sexy and full of action and excitement. And then you had to please the Standards and Practices People. They wanted your show to be nice and quiet and non-controversial. The two divisions rarely spoke with one another. In fact, in some cases, they hated each other too much to converse. Either way, they fought their battles by playing tug-o'-war with you and your show.
We quarrelled often and usually unproductively with these folks over what we called "action" and they called "violence." Sometimes, their definitions were insane. You'd write a scene where the good guy grabbed the fleeing bad guy and held onto him until the police could arrive and the Broadcast Standards people would react like your hero had chopped off someone's head. Criminals could rob banks and cops could stop them but neither could brandish weapons. One time, a writer friend did a script (a pretty good script, I thought) where the climax depended on the hero cutting a rope at a precise moment. The hero, it had been established, was a former Boy Scout...so my friend had the hero whip out his Boy Scout pocket knife and use it to cut the rope.
Well, that couldn't be allowed. Encouraging children to carry knives, even though the Boy Scouts do? You might as well have them packing howitzers and blowing bodies away on the playgrounds of America. There was much arguing and the scene ended up being staged with the rope being cut by the edge of a sharp rock, which was just silly. The rope was being used to lower a car. Given how sturdy it would have to be to do that, it was already stretching reality for it to be cuttable with a pocket knife. A sharp rock was ridiculous.
At times though, the bickering went beyond Broadcast Standards trying to prevent the network from being sued or having its advertisers shrink from advertising. Every so often, someone there got it into their heads that childrens' television could mold the youth of today into the good citizens of tomorrow. That's a questionable premise but let's say it's so. The question then becomes what you teach, how you mold. I found that those who approached the arena with that in mind had some odd ideas of what we should be trying to impart to impressionable viewers. Acts of extreme violence — like carrying a pocket knife — weren't as big a problem as what they called "anti-social behavior" and what I called "having a mind of your own."
Broadcast Standards — at all three networks at various times — frowned on characters not operating in lockstep with everyone thinking and doing as their peers did. The group is always right. The one kid who doesn't want to do what everyone else does is always wrong. (I rant more on this topic, and show you a cartoon I wrote years later for another show just to vent, in this posting.)
Scrappy Doo was intended, as per his name, to be scrappy — scrappy and feisty and in many ways, the opposite of his Uncle Scooby. Faced with an alleged ghost, Scooby Doo would dive under an area rug and you'd see the contours of his doggie ass shivering with fear beneath it. Scrappy, as I wrote him in his first script, would go the other route: He'd say, "Lemme at him" and go charging after the bogus spirit of the week.
Shortly after the last of many recordings of "The Mark of the Scarab" (that first script), it dawned on ABC Broadcast Standards that maybe Scrappy was a bad role model for the kiddos. He was — and one person in that department actually used this term to me — "too independent." Weeks after I thought that script was out of my life, I got a call: Joe Barbera needed me in the studio, tout de suite, to discuss rewrites the network was demanding. I hopped in the car, zoomed up to the H-B plant on Cahuenga and was directed into a meeting with Mr. B and a covey of censor-type people.
Scrappy, they said, had to be "toned down." He was too rebellious, too outspoken...I forget all the terms they used but I vividly recall the "too independent." I made all the counter-arguments you'd have made. Mainly, I pointed out that Scrappy, as written, was an effectual character. He got things done, always (eventually) for the better. Our heroes, Scooby and Shaggy, fled from danger, panicked, hid, trembled, etc. If they contributed to the resolution of the problem and catching the villain, it was only by accidentally crashing into him. "Why," I asked, "do you want to make that the role model Scrappy and our viewers should emulate?"
The debate went on for maybe half an hour...and usually in these, no one scores a TKO and you wind up compromising. In fact, a compromise is so often the resolution that we often write with some wiggle room, inserting more sex 'n' violence than we really want to put on the screen. That's so that when the censors censor and we wind up compromising, it gets us down to the level we wanted all along. This time though, I had not done that. I'd written what I thought the cartoon oughta be. And this time, I thought, I'd won the argument.
Suddenly, everyone in the room had said everything three or more times and my talking points somehow prevailed. One of the Standards and Practices people shrugged and mumbled, "Well, maybe Scrappy can stay as he is." Another said to me, "You sure talked us out of what we had in mind."
Mr. Barbera, who'd been largely silent throughout the mud-wrestling, leaned forward in his chair and said, "That's because Mark didn't grow up on shows that you people f*cked up." I think he even pronounced the asterisk.
I left the meeting in the warm glow of triumph. I had saved Scrappy Doo's testicles, small though they might be.
The next day, someone (I don't know who) had another writer (I don't know who) rewrite a couple scenes in that first Scrappy script to tone him down, and the affected lines were re-recorded. The other writers working on Scrappy Doo scripts were told to adjust the character accordingly. Scrappy was still somewhat scrappy but nowhere near as scrappy as I thought he should be. For what it's worth, I suspect that the decision to capitulate was made within Hanna-Barbera. Someone, I theorize, feared that even if ABC would now accept Scrappy my way, at some point down the line, they might change their minds. And if they changed their minds, they might not rerun the episodes we were now doing and H-B would lose out on those revenues.
That's just a hunch based on other experiences. I never found out for certain. At Hanna-Barbera, those kinds of decisions would be made and you could have put everyone who could possibly have been involved under oath and they would all swear convincingly they hadn't done it. It had just been changed, apparently by no one. I used to think maybe the janitors at night would stop mopping floors for a while and do surreptitious rewrites on my work.
Anyway, that's how I lost the battle and Scrappy lost a little of his scrappiness.
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