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CBS, NBC REFUSE TO RUN ‘SMOKING FETUS’ : CANCER SOCIETY SPOT CREATES FUROR

We hear the sound of a heartbeat. A human fetus appears on the television screen. In voice-over, a woman asks: “Would you give a cigarette to your unborn child? You do every time you smoke while you’re pregnant.”

The pink, fleshy, realistic-looking fetus (actually made of foam latex) then takes a thumb away from its mouth, replaces it with a cigarette and inhales deeply. Smoke fills the fetus.

The voice-over pleads: “Pregnant mothers, please do not smoke.”

This 30-second public-service announcement by the American Cancer Society is visually compelling, but it is proving too strong for at least two of the major networks. ABC will begin airing it the week of Jan. 28, in a rotation with about 600 other public-service spots. CBS and NBC have refused to broadcast it.

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George F. Schweitzer, vice president of communication for the CBS Broadcast Group, said: “As much as we agree with the message, we felt the spot was far too graphic. CBS has had a long and fruitful relationship with the American Cancer Society and I want to emphasize we recognize their concern. We plan to run other American Cancer Society spots. Over the years, there have been public-service announcements from other groups that did not meet our standards and practices. Most were later revised and aired. This is not an isolated case. Our most important concern is to serve our audience.”

An NBC spokesman said the network’s decision to reject the spot was based on “a matter of taste. It was the sight of the fetus that was especially shocking and we felt it was potentially offensive to our viewers.”

Jerry Angert, director of broadcasting with the American Cancer Society, said: “We considered the fact it would be controversial and the networks might not show it, but counted on the local stations to take it. Many requests are now coming in from around the country after the spot was seen on (various) news programs.”

Angert plans to distribute the spot to several hundred local TV stations nationwide.

Los Angeles independent stations KTLA, KHJ-TV, KCOP and KTTV have yet to receive the spot for review and spokesmen at those channels could not comment on whether they would air it. A KABC-TV executive said that station would more than likely go along with the network and include it in its programming.

“We usually show the networks the story boards for our public-service announcements,” Angert said. “In this case, we did not because we liked it so much. It certainly drives home the message on the dangers of smoking to the unborn child. We’re not angry with CBS and NBC. We accept their decision. Life goes on.”

Calling the ad “one of the most powerful we have done,” Angert said the American Cancer Society has received several telephone calls favorable to the spot but only one letter of dissatisfaction.

Alan Wurtzel, vice president of broadcast standards and practices at ABC, said viewer response to the spot has been light but supportive and seemed surprised by the controversy.

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“The news media has picked up on this,” Wurtzel said, “not the public. ABC found it to be a strong public-service announcement and the message warranted showing it. It’s an attention-getting ad and not done in poor taste.”

Last summer, the American Cancer Society paid $25,000 to San Francisco-based Joseph Vogt Productions to film the spot. From preproduction to final editing, it was completed in two months with the help of some crew members from Industrial Light and Magic, the technical unit of George Lucas’ Lucasfilm.

As an independent producer, Vogt has made several short films, including the Rick Springfield video “Bop ‘til You Drop.” An art and film graduate of San Francisco State University, he is currently a producer with Eveslage Film and Video in San Francisco.

Vogt said the American Cancer Society responded quickly to the idea of the fetus, which he said was originated by art director Chris Green.

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Although Vogt is a reformed smoker and his crew was made up of non-smokers, he said: “We filmed the spot not because we are anti-smoking. We wanted to do something that would blow people away and prove us as film makers.”

BD Avalos is an editorial assistant on the Times.


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