TODAY IN HISTORY:
Major Advertisers Boycott Controversial “Marcus Welby., M.D.” Episode: 1974. By the early 1970s, the National Gay Task Force had positioned itself as the primary watchdog of the national media’s portrayal of gay people, and because of that, some producers and networks began soliciting advice from the group whenever plots involved gays and lesbians. But whether they accepted the advice from the NGTF or not was another matter altogether, as evidenced by one of the earliest consultations from ABC. The network was planning an episode of Marcus Welby, M.D. called “The Outrage,” which depicted a junior high school boy named Ted who was forcibly raped by a male science teacher. The storyline was unusually graphic for its time, describing Ted’s intestinal damage and hemorrhaging. Ted refuses to talk about what happened, fearing that being raped meant that he was gay. While Ted is in surgery, police arrest the teacher for trying to molest another boy. Ted awakes from surgery ready to testify, and the investigating officer congratulates him for handling the situation like a “real man.” ABC defended the episode by saying it was about pedophilia, not homosexuality. But the storyline played much too closely to the old stereotype of gay men forcibly preying on children.
This wasn’t the first time Marcus Welby, M.D. had drawn the ire of gay activists. The year before, an episode titled “The Other Martin Loring” featured a man whose alcoholism, weight problems, depression and diabetes were blamed on his repressed homosexuality, which itself was depicted as a mental illness. By the end of the episode, Dr. Welby advised Loring to see a psychiatrist so that Loring will win his “fight” to live a “normal” life. About three dozen gay activists occupied ABC’s offices, but the network refused to alter the episode.
With “The Outrage,” ABC may have wanted to avoid a repeat of that noisy experience, but why they decided to consult with the NGTF is a mystery since the network refused to take the NGTF’s concerns seriously. The only positive outcome of that consultation was that it gave the NGTF, along with the Gay Activist Alliance, a head start in organizing a massive national campaign aimed not only at the network itself, but also at its affiliates and advertisers. On that last point, the GAA had a particular advantage: one of its members worked in ABC’s computer room and had access to the network’s advertising accounts. Whenever an advertiser cancelled, the employee would pass the information on to the GAA, and it would soon appear in major newspapers — sometimes before the network’s vice president knew about it.
Meanwhile gay advocacy groups around the country staged noisy protests outside of stations in Los Angeles, San Francosco, Chicago, Denver, and Washington, D.C., along with several smaller market stations in Ohio, Iowa, Mississippi, Texas and Idaho. The first station to announce it was dropping the episode was Philadelphia’s WPVI, which was under intense pressure from the city’s very active gay community. Mark Segal, who had already established himself as a masterful “zapper” of live television when he interrupted Walter Cronkite’s CBS newscasts (see Dec 11), may well have been a strong motivator behind WPVI’s decision. “We are gratified by Channel 6′s decision,” he told the press.” It is the first time they have made such a decision in regard to us and we salute them. We hope it will be the first step between us and the station that will result in a better understanding of our position.”
Altogether, seventeen ABC affiliates ended up dropping the episode, and at least seven major sponsors had pulled out, including Colgate-Palmalive, Lipton, Breck and Gillette. The protest was marked as a success in newspapers across the country, but it proved to be a very temporary one: just one month later, NBC would air an episode of Police Woman titled, “Flowers of Evil” (see Nov 8), which TV Guide called “the single most homophobic show to date.”
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