The Battle For the Living Rooms of America : Network Censors: They Decide What’s In and What’s Out
How much sex and violence should we be allowed to see on network TV? What kind of obscenities can we hear? The censors at the three major networks and the producers of prime-time series often come up with different answers. As the new fall TV season approaches, the battle continues over the boundaries of good taste and stark realism.
The censors at NBC, CBS and ABC all are guided by one overriding principle: Free TV is an ubiquitous guest in people’s homes and, as such, it must behave itself.
That behavior does not always mirror reality as much as it does a code that is largely based on the censors’ gut instincts and is remarkably uniform across the three networks.
Consider their handling of graphic violence:
--A car chase. Two vehicles careen through traffic and take to a winding mountain road, where they screech around hairpin turns. One of them jumps a guard rail, nose-dives over a cliff, bounces several times on the rocks and bursts into flames.
But if “there’s a guy cooking in there, we say, ‘No, you’ve got to get the guy out of there,’ ” explained Tom Kersey, vice president of ABC’s West Coast department of broadcast standards and practices.
--Slow-motion violence. The kind that film director Sam Peckinpah made a cinematic standard is proscribed by CBS on the theory that it too often glorifies an instance of pain or death. The network made a partial exception in its showing of the theatrical release “The Long Riders” by editing out all the “squibs,” the bursting capsules used to simulate the impact of bullets, but retaining the remainder of a lengthy and violent slow-motion sequence.
--Falling bodies. NBC doesn’t necessarily mind if a body goes flying out the window, but doesn’t want the camera to track the fall. “It magnifies the horror of that particular moment,” said Maurie Goodman, West Coast vice president for broadcast standards. “Our guideline on violence, regardless of what any special-interest group has to say, has always been avoid the graphic, avoid the excessive. If it isn’t relevant, it doesn’t play.”
So goes the job of the network censor, a position increasingly caught in a philosophical cross-fire between producers who consider the approval process a kind of open warfare, special-interest groups critical of the medium and the home viewer.
The censorship departments--officially called broadcast standards or program practices--remain stalwart in the face of these external pressures. But some standards appear to vary wildly from show to show, even on the same network.
“Miami Vice,” for example, can depict a shotgun blast so brutal that it shoves its human target across the floor trailing blood, something you’ll never see on “Remington Steele.”
That’s because of “audience expectation,” the notion that each show’s particular audience will accept a different level of sex, grit and realism. “You expect a certain type of behavior from a J.R. Ewing or an Angela Channing that you wouldn’t expect from, say, a Mary Tyler Moore,” said Carol Altieri, CBS vice president for program practices in Hollywood.
Thus, policewoman Chris Cagney of “Cagney & Lacey” could mouth a line that the leading ladies of “Kate and Allie” would never dare utter. About to take a pregnancy test, Cagney, in the original script, said to a male friend: “I’d really love to keep talking to you, but I have to go pee in a bottle.”
At first, “we were concerned about the taste factor,” said Altieri, puffing on a cigarette at CBS’ sprawling Fairfax-district complex. Though the line was never filmed--the subplot with the male friend was dropped--CBS eventually had given its nod of approval.
Altieri cited the new “Twilight Zone” series as one that her department considers to have “tremendous respect for its audience” in delivering powerful themes and a “sophisticated tone.”
NBC’s Goodman, a good-humored fellow who frequently comes to work in jeans and open-collared shirt, emphasized that what is allowed on one show may not be properly executed on another. One glaring problem for the new season: Producers are trying to emulate “Miami Vice” by giving their shows “a harsher edge” while omitting other qualities pertinent to that show’s appeal.
“They think that violence is what sells ‘Miami Vice,’ and that isn’t true at all,” Goodman said. “My fear is that a lot of producers might say, ‘Hey, let’s break open two or three cases of Uzis . . . and waste a lot of people.’ I anticipate a lot of work for our department.”
But he added that with each passing season viewers “become more and more tuned into a particular program,” allowing it to push the bounds of good taste.
In “Hill Street Blues’ ” fourth season, for example, Goodman approved the dramatization of what he calls “the old chicken joke.” (An old woman goes into the butcher shop to buy a chicken, presses her nose between the drumsticks to ascertain freshness and rejects one bird after another. Finally the butcher, who is really Det. Mick Belker on undercover assignment, says, “Lady, could you pass that test?”)
Goodman correctly assumed that no one who got the joke would be offended.
That’s one of the happier scenarios. One prominent producer recently telephoned Goodman and called him a “chicken"--followed by a string of unprintable oaths. “They’ll say, ‘Now don’t take this personally . . . ' and within three minutes they’re getting so personal I want to walk over there and wind their clock!” Goodman said, his easy manner temporarily fading.
One or two producers purposely exceed the bounds of what the network considers good taste, he said, just so they can “stick it to the censor.” NBC seems to get this kind of treatment more than CBS or ABC because, in its attempt to appeal to an upscale urban audience, shows such as “Miami Vice,” “Hill Street Blues” and “St. Elsewhere” are more grittily realistic than most other network fare.
This is where the doctrine of audience expectation starts to lapse. “The stuff we ask to come out of ‘Hill Street’ "--he will not reveal specifics--"transcends whether the viewer wants it or not. It’s a question of whether NBC wants it.”
At some point, network restrictions simply become a brick wall.
“It’s not very near in the future you’re going to hear four-letter words on any major commercial network,” Altieri said. The same goes for overt sexuality. “People can go to the local movie theater or get their pay-TV and see what they choose to see. But when they turn on that television set we automatically are perceived as a guest in their homes and we must behave accordingly.”
“I think there is a wall, and a very real one, with regard to language and nudity and the presentation of violence in an excessive manner,” Goodman added.
Kersey made it three for three: “There’s no doubt in my mind that viewers do not want commercial, advertising-supported free TV in the privacy of their home to become theatrical in the way you see on cable or in the R-rated videocassettes my wife brings home.”
TV censorship clearly has taken a quantum leap since the days when Lucy Ricardo couldn’t say she was pregnant and Rob and Laura Petrie slept in separate beds. The networks have demonstrated their willingness to explore topical fare in dramatic TV movies such as “Something About Amelia” (incest), “A Question of Love” (lesbianism) and “Silence of the Heart” (teen suicide). “There is no subject that cannot be treated if it is done in . . . a responsible, responsive way,” Altieri said.
But how do the censors determine what is or isn’t responsible?
The networks have guidelines on program standards--CBS this year became the last of the Big Three to adopt a written document on the subject--but the censors acknowledge that those guidelines are very vague.
Under the heading of “Obscenity and Profanity,” for example, the document “NBC Broadcast Standards for Television,” the descendant of a Code of Broadcast Standards adopted for radio in 1934, states simply that “Obscene, indecent or profane material is prohibited.”
So how is good taste judged on behalf of America’s TV-watching families
--by Altieri, 36, a single woman who was a professional rhythm-and-blues singer before becoming a secretary at CBS and rising through the ranks;
--by Kersey, a liberal-minded but no-nonsense type who declines to reveal his age but whose work in radio predates the television era;
--by Goodman, 56, a tournament gin rummy player and father of two young daughters who once earned his pay writing TV scripts and spent it partying in Las Vegas?
The most obvious answer is time: Altieri, the youngest of the three West Coast censors (each of whom reports to an East Coast superior), has been in program practices for 13 years. During that time, she said, she has cultivated a “golden gut.”
“You just get an instinct,” explained Goodman, who joined the department in 1963 and has spent much of his time since “listening to people and getting letters and spending a lot of time on campus.”
While broadcast standards and practices once was a white male-dominated department, the staffs today--numbering between 15 and 27 on the West Coast alone-- represent “myriad backgrounds and cultural persuasions,” Altieri said. “That allows us a very healthy and heated exchange in regard to judgment.”
The job actually goes beyond censorship, which is why all three networks shy away from that term. Broadcast standards and practices departments function as a quality control, from concept to final cut, over issues ranging from the handling of a rape situation by TV characters (“I have consulting psychiatrists up my elbow,” Kersey said), to a telephone number seen on screen on a passing cab (it should have the fictitious exchange 555), to the security of questions and answers on game shows (a barrier was inserted between husbands and wives on the original “Newlywed Game” when it was discovered they were knocking knees to signal answers).
Though they are in touch with special-interest groups and resist having those groups stereotyped on-screen, the censors are less receptive to the conservative and right-wing groups protesting TV.
“They’re already turned off and there’s no way to satisfy them,” Kersey said. “The viewer brings a set of something when he turns the tube on. If he wants to be entertained, he will be entertained.”
“Parental responsibility is vital in using this tool to the potential it can be utilized,” Altieri added. “It’s called ‘discretionary viewing.’ ”