The rise to popularity of any new entertainment medium is inevitably followed by editorials decrying its inordinate influence on the public (usually for the worse), especially among children (also for the worse). Films, radio programs, comic books, pop music, television series, and video games have all been cited, at one time or another, as prompting socially unacceptable and criminal behavior among their youthful consumers. Such analyses are typically followed by others disclaiming the medium as the issue rather than the message, opining that all forms of entertainment can have either beneficial or deleterious effects on their audiences, depending upon the material presented rather than the medium used to convey it.
Perhaps the most well known counter-example to the “television is bad for children” argument is one which was prompted by the 1970s sitcom Happy Days (which was set in the 1950s). In a fifth-season episode of that show (“Hard Cover,” also known as “Fonzie Gets His Library Card,” original air date
We have no idea whether Happy Days sparked an increase in library-founded romances, but by the start of the series’ seventh season the rumor was afloat (largely spurred by the series’ producer) that its “Hard Cover” episode had prompted a tremendous rise in the issuance of library cards to youngsters:
The logline for the episode is quintessential Happy Days: “Richie goes to a local college and Fonzie takes him to the library to meet some girls.” For a sitcom in the 70s, this is standard stuff, but what happens after this episode airs on
September 27,1977 is far from standard. Millions of kids watching the show see the Fonz take out a library card — hisfirst, mind you, which is a big deal by Happy Days standards. Younger viewers are duly impressed. In the days that follow, according to the series creator, Garry Marshall, requests for library cards zoom by more than 500% nationwide.
Surely this phenomenon was undeniable proof that a favorable message, presented appealingly in an entertainment medium, could have a positive effect. Parents (and educators) could hardly have hoped for a better outcome than that a TV show would prompt children to start spending more time reading (and, preferably, less time watching television):
[Producer Garry Marshall says] “Our characters have identities and powers all their own, and a couple of lines from Richie or Fonzie can alter the thinking of millions of kids.”
(This was borne out last season by an episode called “Fonzie Gets His Library Card.” After the show — where Fonzie told how important it was to read — the American Library Assn. (ALA) reported that the number of library cards among kids 9 to 14 increased 500%.)
But did an episode of Happy Days really produce that beneficial result?
Search as we might, we found no documentation that the American Library Association (or any other similar organization) reported a large increase in library card requests across the U.S. in the aftermath of a September 1977 Happy Days episode, and the earliest mention of this purported phenomenon came in a September 1979 Los Angeles Times article (quoted above) about the show’s upcoming seventh season, in which it was routinely presented as fact. Moreover, the ALA itself notes in their online FAQ that not only were they unable to verify that any library organization or publication had reported such a claim, but that the data necessary to document that type of occurrence wasn’t even available to them:
As discussed in the Happy Days 30th Anniversary Reunion television special that first aired on the ABC network on
February 12,2005, the Fonzie character did encourage his buddies to get a library card, but the American Library Association has been unable to document an increase in signups of the magnitude suggested by [actor Henry] Winkler. Only a few states track the number of library cards held with any reliability, and there is no report in ALA’s American Libraries or in any other library press periodical telling of a surge in signups in the months following the episode.
The number of library cards in the United States is one statistic that isn’t collected for the Public Libraries in the United States federal survey series by the Institute of Museum and Library Services. Neither does a number appear in The Bowker Annual Library and Book Trade Almanac. There’s a hesitation to collect and present such numbers, due to the fact that the accuracy of them would vary from library to library.
Where did this alleged statistic come from, then? Maybe a clue can be found in the Los Angeles Times article in which it apparently first appeared. The subject of that
“Happy Days” (Richie, Fonzie, Potsie and the Cunningham family) [has] been locked into soda-fountain issues for most of its history. The price of a hamburger, the outcome of Richie’s basketball game, Fonzie’s hottest date, Joanie’s new
figure — thesehave been the staples of the most highly rated show (on a regular basis) since 1972.
“It’s a new territory and it’s heavy territory,” said producer Garry Marshall, “but we are committed to it. This is a semipermanent change.”
“We could be taking a chance, but I don’t think so,” said Marshall. “It is time for this show to stretch its wings and move into the uneasy years of the ’60s. We’re going to take on the little things like longer hair and espresso coffee along with the appearance of the first hippies and the disappearance of the happy innocence of the ’50s.”
“We just can’t sit still and not use the enormous power that this show has achieved, and we can’t get frozen in the ’50s.”
Several officials at Paramount Television told The Times that there are also other reasons for the change. “Marshall and a lot of other people connected with the show are sick of the show’s achievements being dismissed by the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences and other groups,” said one executive. “It is routinely passed over for Emmys and other awards in spite of the level of its acting. No show has been ignored like this since the early days of television.”
If a television producer were planning to take his formerly innocent sitcom into darker territory, to use it to get across some socially relevant messages to its audience, and to garner the respect and recognition of industry figures who were seemingly ignoring it, perhaps what better way to promote and justify those changes than to float a little stat supposedly demonstrating how tremendously influential the show had already proved itself to be?
Or maybe (as was apparently the case with a legend associated with a Happy Days spinoff, Joanie Loves Chachi) the show’s producer and actors innocently picked up a bit of apocrypha and repeated it as fact without any real knowledge of its veracity (or lack thereof). Either way, although it’s possible that Fonzie’s obtaining a library card inspired some young Happy Days viewers to do the same, the ALA reported no 500% nationwide increase in library card requests, nor did it have the means to have compiled or verified such a number.