An Abortion That Shook Prime Time : Television: Twenty years ago this week, Maude faced the dilemma of an unplanned pregnancy--and an estimated 65 million people tuned in.
She was a 47-year-old grandmother with a dilemma: an unexpected pregnancy. It was 1972, the year before Roe vs. Wade made abortion the law of the land. Even though she lived in New York state, where the procedure was legal, the decision of whether to carry the baby to term wasn’t an easy one. She thought her husband wanted the child; he thought she did. Then they realized that at their ages they did not want to raise a second family.
Twenty years ago this week, Maude, the title character on one of television’s most popular shows, opted to get an abortion.
Today, Maude’s decision stands as a watershed in TV history, an event that brought the battle over choice into the prime-time arena.
In the current political and economic climate, with the networks besieged by special-interest groups and competition from home video and cable, Maude, like Murphy Brown, might very well bow to reality and give birth. But “Maude’s Dilemma,” the two-parter that presented the abortion question, chose a more controversial tack--although, ironically, the program wasn’t conceived with abortion in mind.
“The funny thing is that initially we weren’t even thinking abortion,” says Rod Parker, “Maude’s” producer. “The group Zero Population Growth announced they were giving a $10,000 prize for comedies that had something to do with controlling population, so everyone came in with ideas for vasectomies.”
“Maude,” starring Bea Arthur, was in its premiere season. It was the latest entry from executive producer Norman Lear, who had already changed TV the year before with “All in the Family.” With its loud, overweight protagonist and her messy family life, “Maude” was presented as a realistic contrast to the perfection of such TV mothers as Donna Reed and Harriet Nelson.
Population planning seemed to fit perfectly into this scheme. “Maude” intended to deal with the pregnancy of Maude’s neighbor (played by Rue McClanahan), leading into a discussion of contraception and whether Walter, Maude’s husband (Bill Macy), would get a vasectomy.
But after reviewing the first draft of the script, Lear felt “the wrong woman is funny"--and decided that Maude herself would become pregnant. He also decided that a false pregnancy would be a cop-out, and a miscarriage was out of the question since Gloria Stivic (Sally Struthers) already had lost a baby in that manner on “All in the Family.”
“The more interesting story seemed to be, what would this 47-year-old woman really do in her life?” Lear recalls. “And the conclusion we reached was that her family would be thoroughly involved in the deepest concern about all this. We knew where the daughter would be on all this (Adrienne Barbeau played Maude’s daughter, a committed feminist who first brings up the idea of abortion on the show), and that Maude would be absolutely torn, but that she’d come down on the side, given her age, of not having a child.”
Maude was not the first TV character to have an abortion. In 1964, a woman on the soap opera “Another World” had what was referred to as an “illegal operation” that left her unable to bear children. But Maude’s abortion was the first by a leading television character; it represented a breakthrough for prime-time TV, and served as a lightning rod for enormous criticism.
The two-part “Maude’s Dilemma” was broadcast on Nov. 14 and 21, 1972, although not without some network trepidation.
“They were very nervous, to say the least,” says producer Parker. “The thing we had going for us was that ‘Maude’ was a hit, so the network said OK. But they requested we give another side, so we (wrote) in a neighbor who had a lot of children and was very happy.”
Despite this compromise, CBS developed cold feet at the last minute and threatened not to pay for the taping of the episodes. But Lear told network executives that if the shows were not taped and aired, they would have to find another program to fill “Maude’s” time slot. The network backed down.
The first showing of “Maude’s Dilemma” was carried by all but two of CBS’ nearly 200 affiliates, and attracted nearly 7,000 letters of protest. By the time the shows were repeated in August, 1973, a campaign against them had been organized by the United States Catholic Conference. The shows were broadcast, but nearly 40 affiliates opted not to transmit them, not one corporate sponsor bought commercial time, and CBS received more than 17,000 letters of protest.
“The amount of mail was incredible,” Bea Arthur says. “I can’t call it hate mail, although there were a few that said, ‘Die, die,’ but most were intelligent people who were deeply offended, and very emotional about it. I think the problem was I had become some sort of Joan of Arc for the middle-aged woman. People were saying it was so refreshing a woman who came along who was a real woman, not like Donna Reed, and I think when I came out with this, it was almost treasonous, a personal attack.”
Despite the protests, the shows were a hit. In an era before cable TV and home video, the episodes together attracted 41% of the available audience and were not only No. 1 in their time period but also catapulted the series into the Top 10 of the Nielsen ratings. CBS estimated that as many as 65 million people watched at least one of the episodes, either first-run or in rerun.
Twenty years later, the people involved with “Maude” aren’t certain they could get a similar show on network TV.
The reasons are two-fold: the economic concerns of the networks, which have suffered because of increasing competition and the recession, and the presence of organized special-interest groups threatening to boycott the products of advertisers who sponsor shows they disapprove of. NBC said that it lost $1 million in advertising revenue due to sponsor withdrawals from its 1989 abortion movie “Roe vs. Wade,” and it took another hit when “Law & Order” dealt with the bombing of abortion clinics.
“You automatically think, ‘Of course it could be done today; look what we did 20 years ago,’ ” says Susan Harris, who wrote the “Maude” abortion shows and went on to create “Soap,” “Benson,” “The Golden Girls” and “Empty Nest.” “But we have a very interesting (political) climate today, with the influence of the religious right. The economy is different today, and the networks would feel less likely that they could take a stand.”
Parker agrees: “There are a lot of things we did (that) the networks would not touch now. I don’t think they have the courage. They are frightened of pressure groups.”
Lear is not so sure. Once the most powerful producer on TV, he remembers a time when one person could stand up to a network.
“We are still working in an industry where clout matters,” he says.