After months of hand-wringing and fist-waving that has turned it into the most controversial television drama in years, “NYPD Blue” finally arrives on ABC tonight.
But don’t call Aunt Martha in Dallas, Tex., or Uncle Frank in Syracuse, N.Y., to ask them what they thought of the premiere. They won’t be able to watch it.
According to ABC, at least 30 of its 225 affiliated stations, most of them in smaller markets, have decided not to air the gritty police series tonight because of the unprecedented use of nudity and raw language in a mainstream network prime-time entertainment program.
Still more affiliates may join that list. ABC officials said Monday that they will not have an accurate count of stations that preempted the episode until Wednesday.
Rev. Donald Wildmon, a Tupelo, Miss.-based minister who has led a campaign against the show based on what he’s heard about it, said he believes the number of stations declining to air “NYPD Blue” is closer to 54. He termed the effort by his American Family Assn. to squash the show a success, saying that the network has had difficulty selling advertising for it and will fill the time with free and offbeat ads.
ABC spokesmen disputed Wildmon, maintaining that all of the program’s commercial slots are sold out. They said the ads were sold for “considerably higher” than the $115,000-per-30-second spot recently quoted by Advertising Age magazine.
While the network spokesmen refused to specify who the advertisers were, they insisted that the buyers “are all major national advertisers.”
Wildmon said his attack on the show won’t end with tonight’s premiere (at 10 p.m., Channels 7, 3, 10 and 42). “We’ll be going after those companies who did advertise, and those affiliates that aired it,” he said.
The fuss over the series’ content has cast a cloud over what some critics have called a quality police drama and one of the new season’s best shows. Even executive producer Steven Bochco, who did not shy away from defending the show’s sex scenes and profanity only a few months ago, said he has grown weary of all the attention paid to the show’s racier elements.
“You just can’t imagine how tired I am of talking about it,” Bochco said Monday. “It has diverted attention from what should properly be the focus of the show. On the other hand, I’m not naive. I knew there would be resistance. I just didn’t think it would be anything like this.”
Bochco, who created the series with David Milch and previously helped launch “Hill Street Blues” and “L.A. Law,” said he was relieved that “NYPD Blue” is finally getting on the air: “I think all these attacks will go away once the show is on. All this heat has been generated by people who haven’t seen the show. Once it’s out there, I think all the stuff will die away. The controversial aspects are just way overblown.”
But it’s the uproar that makes “NYPD Blue” attractive, advertising experts said.
“The ratings will go through the ceiling,” predicted Douglas Seay, broadcast program director of Hal Riney and Partners, a New York-based advertising agency. “All this talk has made it a lightning rod and will help the ratings. In reality, viewers are not as conservative as politicians make them out to be.”
Betsy Frank, senior vice president for Saatchi & Saatchi Advertising, said, “The premiere has become an event in and of itself. . . . But there are advertisers who are still nervous about it. They’ll want to review it on an episode-by-episode basis.”
Paul Schulman, president of the Paul Schulman Co., said, “This is the best show to come on since ‘L.A. Law.’ It will become more acceptable to advertisers as time goes on. My favorite saying about advertisers and shows like this is, when you hit a 25 share, sex and violence becomes love and action.”
“NYPD Blue” revolves around the professional and personal lives of New York detectives John Kelly (David Caruso) and Andy Sipowicz (Dennis Franz).
In one scene tonight, Sipowicz grabs his crotch and curses at a female district attorney. In another scene, a man is shot several times at close range. In the show’s most discussed sequence, a couple roll around nude in bed as they make love.
Bochco snipped 15 seconds out of the love scene after ABC station managers complained, but he said the nudity remains intact.
In the next two episodes, the raw language and violence are still present, but there is only a brief flash of nudity in the second installment. Still, Bochco said, future episodes will have nudity.
“What we’re doing would be legitimately suspect if we said there would be nudity in every episode,” he said. “Then we would be pandering. Some episodes warrant a certain treatment and some don’t.”
The screening of the first three episodes by executives at ABC affiliate WFAA-TV in Dallas, Tex., the eighth largest market in the nation, convinced them that the series was not for them.
“We feel the show goes against our company’s program standards,” said Cathy Creany, the station’s vice president and general manager. “It’s the concentrated combination of profanity, nudity and violence that concerns us.”
Creany said it was the first time the station had preempted an entire network prime-time series. The show will be replaced by locally produced documentaries and a news and information program.
WJKS-TV in Jacksonville, Fla., is not showing the first two episodes, but will pick up the series with the third installment. Some other stations said they may do likewise.
“It’s primarily because of gratuitous nudity,” said WJKS general manager Jim Matthews. “The language is a little rough, but the nudity was enough to cause preemption. There’s recapping at the beginning of each episode, and we felt a viewer could pick up the string of the story from the third episode, though they may have to stretch a bit.”
Yet future episodes could also get the ax, he noted. “Unless Bochco relents in his quest to stretch the boundaries, we might have to do it again. Because certain things are acceptable in Los Angeles doesn’t mean they’re acceptable in the rest of the country. I think it’s a well-done show, and it’s a crying shame that there’s one minute of time that separates this between clearance and non-clearance. And it’s an unnecessary minute at that.”
Bochco said of that strategy: “I just hope viewers in that area will get an opportunity to access those first couple of hours. It will help them understand what’s going on.”
He added, “I just want people to judge the show on its merits. I just wish all this hadn’t happened. I would have happily foregone all this controversy and let the show speak for itself.”