TELEVISION : When Does TV Cross the Line ? : Censorship vs. good taste--the debate continues as the networks get pressed tighter in the iron triangle of viewers, advertisers and the folks who create those prime-time shows

Twenty-one years ago, the producers of "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" lost a fight with CBS to present their star as a divorced woman; she was simply single. Seven weeks ago, in the season premiere of CBS' "Murphy Brown," the divorced lead character, who once had a problem with booze, confirmed that she was pregnant and decided to have the baby out of wedlock. It was the most-watched program of the week.

Progress? By some standards. Yet in taking that course, the producers conveniently sidestepped the controversial choice that "Maude" made on CBS in 1972: to seek an abortion.

A step backward? By some standards. Yet some conservatives complained that "Murphy Brown" delivered a pro-choice message anyway--by referring throughout the program to the "choice" that was hers to make, rather than focusing on whether the fetus might have its own inherent right to life.

In the 1980s, the producers of "Dynasty" had to fight ABC over whether to portray one of its principal characters, Steven Carrington, as openly gay. Two weeks ago, in a two-part reunion movie, "Dynasty" showed Steven as a positive character who lived harmoniously with a male lover.

Progress? By some standards. Yet the producers seemed careful not to depict physical contact between the two men, in contrast to the overt affection that the heterosexual couples showed each other.

A step backward? By some standards. Yet some gays found it a positive portrayal nonetheless because of the acceptance of Steven's lifestyle by his father and even his ex-wife.

Defining what is acceptable to the American people in the name of prime-time entertainment has always been a touchy matter at the networks. One person's boundary on good taste is another person's censorship. But the question of where to draw the line has perhaps never been more difficult than it is at present. It requires the wisdom of a Solomon, the balancing ability of the Flying Wallendas and the diplomacy of a Disraeli.

"It's a line," says producer Steven Bochco, "that has dollars all over it."

For in a reversal of fortune, ABC, CBS and NBC seem trapped as never before by conflicting pressures--all of them flashing dollar signs--at a time when the Big Three, for the first time, are facing red ink. On one side are writers, producers and directors, pushing for ever greater freedom in the language and themes they may use. On another side are advertisers, reeling from the recession and increasingly sensitive to complaints from viewers about what programs they choose to sponsor. And on yet another side are viewers--two sides, actually: some protesting that the networks have gone much too far, others asserting that they haven't gone far enough--and registering their displeasure by turning in ever greater numbers to alternatives, such as Fox, cable and VCRs.

The networks are caught in a vise. Even as some producers complain that the networks are more conservative today than a few years ago, a group called Concerned Viewers for Quality Television inaugurated a "Turn Off the TV Day" last Tuesday to complain that the networks aren't conservative enough in such matters as sex and violence. Among the supporting organizations was the American Family Assn., whose executive director, the Rev. Donald Wildmon, has been a constant thorn in the side of the networks with his boycott threats against sponsors.

Just days ago, Mazda, a Wildmon boycott target, canceled its advertising on "Saturday Night Live" because some material "did not meet our own internal guidelines," according to Jack Pitney, spokesman for the auto firm. Pitney says the fact that Wildmon had generated the boycott against Mazda for sponsoring "Saturday Night Live" had nothing to do with the withdrawal. The spokesman notes that although "we saw the scripts," the live, on-air material sometimes "deviated." In any case, Wildmon dropped his boycott against Mazda when it withdrew from "Saturday Night Live."

Assessing the various pressures on the networks, Peter Tortorici, executive vice president of CBS Entertainment, acknowledges that the network has ongoing "advertiser pullouts. We've had plenty--a significant amount of money. One national advertiser pulled out of 'Murphy Brown' (the pregnancy episode). One pulled out of 'Moonstruck.' One pulled out of 'Northern Exposure,' saying too much sexuality was discussed and the gay lifestyle was presented. 'The Trials of Rosie O'Neill' has always been a favorite because some advertisers feel that the subject matter is too controversial.

"The network viewpoint is complicated by the fact that it's a collection of local stations that are broadcasting a program. And our concerns are not of any one point of view, but national--not only how it plays in Los Angeles but in Pittsburgh and Des Moines. And trying to come up with something acceptable to all markets is difficult. It's a delicate balance. On the one hand, we don't want to antagonize our customers. But what we worry about is a small group of people in a small office somewhere becoming those who set public morality."

"At one point, it got easier," says Bochco, who has produced such series as "Hill Street Blues," "L.A. Law" and "Doogie Howser, M.D." But now, he says, "the networks are in a panic. When you cut through all the bull, it's money."

That's why the networks draw their lines in sand, not concrete: The standards are always changing. Indeed, they differ from one show to the next on the same network, depending on such factors as what time the program airs and whether it is an established hit with an audience that knows what it's in for.

According to TV and advertising executives, abortion, religion and homosexuality remain the touchiest areas of program content. But language--as any viewer knows--has definitely loosened up.

Not long ago, the producer of a TV series at a major studio was told by a network that he had to eliminate the word Christ --used as an exclamation--from his script. Well, asked the producer, what about the word bitch --referring to a woman--in the same script? "Oh, that's OK," said a network representative, according to the producer.

Such words as bastard and bitch are just a few of the once-taboo expressions that now find their way into network prime time.

But "if it's anything of a religious nature, they quake in their boots," says Bochco, whose series constantly push at the limits of TV. "You can say damn . You can say damn it . But goddamn is an absolute verboten (because of the religious connotation). We used it once in 'L.A. Law,' and there was such an outcry it was excised from the rerun.

"You can't say Jesus or Jesus Christ as an expletive of any kind. And they still tell you that if you say Oh God , it has to be in reverence."

But every way they turn, the beleaguered networks find new factors to consider. For example, the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill Senate hearings, with their explicit discussions of alleged sexual harassment--transmitted by six national TV networks--could open the door to more frank language in prime time.

Yet, while TV language has come a long way, the new pressures on the shaky networks are felt even in this area. Not long ago, CBS reran half a dozen episodes of the 1970s series "All in the Family," and, says Tortorici, "there was some concern over the language in a promotion" in which the bigoted central character, Archie Bunker, used his patented offensive slang for minorities.

Observing that "some of the things 'All in the Family' used to do might not get on the air today," Tortorici says he nonetheless gave the promo the go-ahead: "I said, 'This was on the air 20 years ago. The ship has sailed.' "

Sexual matters, however, clearly seem touchier overall to the networks than the more liberated language.

In its season premiere, "Roseanne," TV's highest-rated comedy series, managed an episode in which daughter Becky sought her mother's help in obtaining birth control. And in another season premiere, the title character of "Doogie Howser," also a hit, lost his virginity. However, says Bochco, while "ABC had no problem about Doogie losing his virginity . . . they would have had a problem if I had shown it."

The networks are aware that others, besides Wildmon, are keeping an eye on the directions they take. In a monthly newsletter about TV, for instance, the conservative Media Research Center, based in Alexandria, Va., cites such series as "Roseanne," "Doogie Howser" and "Beverly Hills, 90210," and says: "Teen-age hormones are breaking out all over the small screen, sending a message to young audiences: Teen-age sex is acceptable and inevitable, while abstinence is embarrassing and abnormal."

Earlier this year, meanwhile, a Gallup Poll commissioned by the Family Channel found that 58% of the American public said they are offended frequently or occasionally by current television programming. Only 3% believed that TV portrayed very positive values. In addition, 74% of viewers who are offended by TV programming said they either turn off the set or switch to a different channel.

Betsy Frank, of the Saatchi & Saatchi advertising firm in New York, says that the two subjects that are most controversial for sponsors are "probably abortion and homosexuality" because they are "two of the biggest issues that continue to polarize the country." Tortorici agrees that "abortion and sexual preference" are the most sensitive subjects.

That the ratings have remained high for "Murphy Brown" following the lead character's decision to give birth to the baby fathered by her former husband indicates that creator Diane English not only made the right decision commercially, but also read much of the audience correctly in its changing tastes of what is acceptable to many TV viewers in the 1990s.

But not all viewers. The newsletter of the Media Research Center responded to the pregnancy episode this way:

"The entire plot of this series' opener deliberately advanced the pro-abortion cause: Murphy's unplanned pregnancy resulted in a one-hour proclamation replete with pro-choice rhetoric--she and her co-workers made over 15 references to the 'choice' or 'decision' she had to make. Throughout the show, all arguments regarding the decision centered on the impact a baby would have on Murphy's career and the quality of the child's life, ignoring the child's right to life."

English says that during the summer, when "Murphy Brown" fans were wondering what the popular TV character would do, letters from viewers expressed more concern that she might get married than about whether she would have the baby.

"I have a lot of letters saying, 'Please don't let her get married,' " says English. "They were afraid that if she got married, she'd become a different person, lose her edge."

But would advertisers and viewers have remained as loyal to "Murphy Brown" if she had had an abortion? Tortorici says CBS never told English that Murphy, played by Candice Bergen, could not take that route. But asked what the network would have done if English had decided that an abortion was the right step, he replies:

"I don't even want to think about it. It would have been a very difficult decision."

Just how sensitive the issue of homosexuality is on TV depends on whom you talk to.

The Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) sees a lessening of advertiser sensitivity to gay characters and themes since a $1-million, 1989 sponsor pullout from an ABC "thirtysomething" episode that showed two men in bed.

Yet Robert Iger, president of ABC Entertainment, declined to rerun the episode and then said the network took another hit of $500,000 last year for airing another "thirtysomething" segment that involved the same two characters at a party. And NBC reported a similar loss last year for a "Lifestories" episode about a gay TV reporter and his battle against AIDS that finally was broadcast after a delay that brought criticism to the network.

GLAAD is trying to deflate the notion that advertisers fear gay themes. Ellen Carton, executive director of GLAAD's New York branch, attacks "the myth of advertiser defections. The message is incredibly damaging to the lesbian and gay community and does all of us a great disservice." The organization also notes that "a number of highly successful series on all networks have included lesbian or gay characters in the past two years. The list includes 'Northern Exposure,' 'Designing Women,' 'The Golden Girls,' 'Roseanne,' 'L.A. Law,' 'Beverly Hills, 90210' and the new series 'Roc.' "

And just last Tuesday, an episode of ABC's "Coach" about a gay college football player earned the highest ratings in the show's history, attracting 30% of the audience.

Nonetheless, the issues of sensitivity and pressure erupted recently into a new furor over a planned episode of "Quantum Leap" about a gay, former military cadet who contemplates suicide.

After much back and forth over why NBC was really sensitive to the story line, the network said its main concern was not the homosexual aspect but the teen-age suicide possibility and its impact on impressionable youngsters. "Quantum Leap" creator Don Bellisario promised to make the character a few years older so that he would no longer be a teen-ager. NBC spokeswoman Sue Binford says the network refused to pay for the show until seeing a rough cut and being satisfied with the changes it demanded, including the deletion of "stereotypical remarks about gays."

But Bellisario says flatly that the homosexuality aspect of the story seemed to be NBC's main concern, even more than teen suicide. He says he was shooting the episode for two days when NBC, "up in arms," called for a meeting at which he was told that the network sales department felt it was "at risk with this show for potentially a million dollars" in advertising.

Bellisario says NBC complained that it didn't have time to approve the script that he already was filming, and he responded: "We always turn scripts in late." He says he was then told, "Yeah, but we didn't know you were making a homosexual show." Saying he sympathized with NBC's "very tough economic position," he adds that he was also told, "What if we have two other series that same week that are dealing with homosexuality? We've got to use a little discretion."

Binford, however, reiterates that the matter of teen suicide was NBC's main concern.

Commenting on the dispute, Warren Littlefield, president of NBC Entertainment, pointed to such shows as the network's AIDS drama "An Early Frost" and its abortion story "Roe vs. Wade" and said: "NBC has never shied away from presenting controversial issues. . . . Our primary concern is that the subject matter, whatever it may be, is handled sensitively and that it is a balanced representation of the issue."

What concerned TV creators was that the "Quantum Leap" controversy had raised the specter of economic censorship--the possibility that NBC had expected the show's studio, Universal, to cover the network for advertising losses on the gay story, up to $750,000. Binford says this was not the network's position. Bellisario says:

"What they (NBC) said is, 'We can't take a million-dollar hit. What are you going to do if we take a hit like this?' You could argue the semantics of it. . . . What's happening in the economic climate today is that advertisers are exerting more and more pressure. They're more and more fearful of any pressure group and don't want to be associated with any program that is controversial. They pull out and you homogenize TV even more, and you have more audience erosion."

"It's almost a game with the creative community," says ABC spokesman Bob Wright. "They're always trying to stretch the rules, which they should be.

"If it's an abortion story, standards and practices (the network censors) will insist that other viewpoints be presented. The same with homosexuality. If it's presented as an acceptable lifestyle, with other people feeling the opposite, somewhere in the story that view will be expressed."

"The history of TV," says Bochco, "has always been that, little by little, we have pushed at the boundaries of what has been acceptable and dragged this medium, kicking and screaming, into the latter stages of the 20th Century, so at least it begins to simulate--if not emulate--the real world.

"It bothers me that we're giving any credibility at all to the notion of art by consensus. I'm not naive. Television is a selling medium. If they could sell soap by showing hangings, they'd find a way to put hangings on. But some of us have done pretty well swimming upstream through the years."

Delbert Mann, one of the great directors in TV history, with a multitude of credits including "Marty," "The Bachelor Party," "Our Town," "The Petrified Forest," "The Man Without a Country" and "Playing for Time," goes back to the days of live television, and he speaks with unique perspective on changing standards of the home medium.

In the years of live TV drama, he notes, "Obviously not even a damn or hell was heard on television. Open-mouthed kissing was highly frowned upon. But some network censors didn't intrude as much as they do now because shows went out live, and all they could do was complain afterward. In the early days, it was the sponsors and their agencies that we had to keep happy even more than the networks themselves.

"Love was pristine. It was done by indirection, which has many advantages to it--letting the audience's imagination take them as far as they wanted to go. I think that there's more artistry in that than hitting the nail right on the head."

Directing into the 1990s--in short, through most of the years of TV's existence--Mann says, "The advantage nowadays is reality. On the other hand, I get a real sense of America being turned off by the network television we see, and that the language is one reason for the lost network audience. The language is still important to people in this country."

And now along come the Thomas-Hill Senate hearings--live TV reflecting a whole new age of standards.

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