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.
Bruce Paltrow, executive producer of "St. Elsewhere," has what he considers a legitimate reason for slipping off-color humor and nudity by the censor. "We do it now just for sport," he said.
So last season, a woman with a bare behind walked across the screen for about a second-- twice . It wasn't noticed in the final cut and by the time a video switcher in New York caught it, it was too late.
Another time, the series' writers cleverly got around NBC's proscription against a derogatory term for homosexual. In a scene where Dr. Craig (William Daniels) accompanies Dr. Westphall (Ed Flanders) house-hunting, an English realtor assumes they are an elderly gay couple. When she proffers a cigarette box to the doctors, she inquires using the British slang for cigarette, "fag?"
Paltrow eagerly described a scatological double-entendre due in the new fall season that the censors didn't catch when they read it in the script. But this admission came only after it was agreed not to print the details; he doesn't want to risk having the censors go back and delete the line.
"These are things that get my creative people's juices going; I can't suppress it," Paltrow said. "I also have tremendous respect for my audience; they are so hip and bright. The people who get it aren't offended."
But it isn't always fun and games. Paltrow and NBC censor Maurie Goodman didn't speak for a year over their differences regarding "St. Elsewhere's" content. Only recently did they sit down with executives from NBC and MTM Enterprises, the production company responsible for the show, and patch up their differences.
Paltrow, along with Steven Bochco, co-creator and former executive producer of "Hill Street Blues," Barney Rosenzweig of "Cagney & Lacey" and "Miami Vice's" Michael Mann, are among the handful of television producers who continuously push the boundaries of a traditionally limited medium: network series TV.
However, getting their shows' gritty realism in sex, language and violence approved by the network censors, some of them say, is tantamount to open warfare.
"It's a terrible war too," said Bochco, easing back in a brand-new couch in his office on the 20th Century Fox lot. "It's a terrible grinding war that threatens, even when you win, to cut away all the sharp edges of the work. It's a war that shouldn't have to be fought."
Bochco was asked to leave "Hill Street Blues" by MTM at the end of last season. He currently is scripting the pilot episode of a new ensemble show about lawyers that is expected to air on NBC next spring. His undisguised anger with the censorial process suggests that producer and censor will again be donning the flak vests they wore during Bochco's five seasons with "Hill Street."
"Let me put it to you this way: All those things that you look at on 'Hill Street' and you say, 'Holy mackerel! Boy, I haven't seen that before!' represent maybe an hour or a day or a week of trench warfare to get them to say 'OK.' And that's an hour or a day or a week I should have been spending on 100 other things relevant to the creative sensibility of the show."
Should the viewer be able to see anything on network TV?
"Damn right. Absolutely," he said. "It's a free country. You don't want to watch it, turn it off."
Bochco acknowledged that there is a wall in regard to nudity and language, but he also says that "part of my job as I see it is to expand those boundaries."
Not all of his fellow producers want to take a sledgehammer to censorship's wall. Rosenzweig learned the hard way that restrictions could be greater on a local level if the network didn't provide a "higher authority" for both the public and producers to appeal to.
In 1982, an episode of "Cagney & Lacey" was banned in several cities, including Chicago, after viewers complained to their local stations just on the basis of the advance blurb in their newspapers' TV sections. The plot line dealt with the show's working-women heroines being assigned to protect an anti-women's movement Phyllis Schlafly type. "They'd assumed we'd done a hatchet job, which we had not," Rosenzweig said, sitting in his office at the downtown warehouse where the show is filmed.
He is concerned about a similar reaction to a new episode scheduled to air in November in which both Cagney and Lacey will make known their pro-abortion stands--and one of them will reveal that she once had an abortion.
Rosenzweig said that he handles issues like these, as well as sex and violence, responsibly. But, he added, "I don't trust a lot of my peers. I don't like a lot of the things I see on screen. If there were no restrictions, there would be some ultimate abuses and the restrictions would become even greater than they are today."
"There has to be some watchdog for what gets on the air," Paltrow concurred. He wishes, however, that there weren't so many areas "you just know aren't going to get by so you don't even attempt to do them."
"St. Elsewhere," he said, would be an even better show if he could depict nudity and locker-room humor as they really are in hospitals. On a series of episodes about breast cancer, for example, the censors "virtually had to walk us around the nipple." The same forbidden territory has prevented the show from ever showing a woman heart attack patient being defibrillated.
When testicular cancer was the subject, Paltrow added, "We had to fight for days, and finally they said, 'OK, you can use the word testicle three times." And, not surprisingly, Paltrow's staff had to rewrite to the censors' specifications an episode in which Dr. Caldwell (Mark Harmon) snagged himself in his pants zipper--a problem the segment's writer experienced in real life.
Bochco likewise believes "Hill Street Blues" would have been better under his command if phrases like "hair bag" or "scuz ball"--staples of the series' lexicon of euphemized street talk--did not have to always be substitutes for the real thing.
"You can't even say doody, you have to say poo. Well, can we say poo? And it becomes surreal ," he said, stalking around the room and tossing a football. "One gets this terrible feeling that one is getting told by a parent figure that this is a naughty word."
Bochco denied that he, like Paltrow, purposely tried to slip things by the censors. To which Paltrow, who worked on the same MTM lot as Bochco, said in a separate interview: "He's gonna go to hell for that." Indeed, there was a faint gleam in Bochco's eye when he was asked how he managed to get the "chicken joke" approved. "Just lucky, I guess," was his reply.
To the producers, it sometimes seems as if the censors are protecting people who don't need or want protection.
Case in point was CBS' demand that Barney Rosenzweig excise the following line by actress Sharon Gless as policewoman Cagney, talking about why she thought her new boyfriend was a sweet guy. "Sweet," she said, "is going out to the pharmacy in the middle of the night when you run out of tampons ."
So certain was Rosenzweig that CBS censors would relent, he filmed the line as written and included it in the final cut. When the network stood firm, it was too late to change the film, so the edit was made on the videotape version used to transmit the show to CBS' affiliate stations.
A year and a half later, after the canceled "Cagney & Lacey" was given a second life, the episode came up again in summer reruns--and nobody remembered that the infamous line was still on the film. The episode aired as originally shot, the tampons line was spoken, and neither the show nor the network received a single complaint.
"I have a different perception than CBS of what I think America is ready for," Rosenzweig concluded.
Bochco reached a similar conclusion many times, but especially while making a "Hill Street" episode titled "Ewe and Me, Babe," in which a man was found to be living with a sheep. A "nasty, extended fight" ensued, Bochco said, essentially over two lines of dialogue that made it clear the sheep was a female. Though one scene was reshot, the suggestion of bestiality still remained clear.
And NBC "didn't get a single letter, a single phone call about any of it," Bochco said.
"NBC understands about programming to a segment of their audience and broadcast standards does not," he said. "Those people so continuously misread their audience."
Bochco is adamant that the audience should be allowed to see the work he was hired to write--and thereby demonstrate by their viewership whether he's gone too far. "You shouldn't have to protect people from everything," he said. "Nobody ever died from an idea."
Despite the restrictions, all the aforementioned producers acknowledge that they have been allowed to go further than most network TV series.
"Certainly that is not a birthright," said Rosenzweig. "Through argument and example I have been able to convince them (CBS executives) that if they're going to take the bows for having this forward-looking show, then they're going to have to take the heat as well. They have bought that argument."