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ABC’s Response to ‘Roseanne’ Episode: The Kiss Is Still a Kiss : Television: Sitcom explores sexuality, but network execs think two women’s embrace is inappropriate for children. What will air tonight remains unclear.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A fresh-faced Roseanne Arnold beams at readers in a full-page TV Guide ad this week touting a “very special must-see episode” of her high-rated “Roseanne” in its regular 9 p.m. slot tonight.

But what viewers will see tonight in the “must see” episode was still unclear Monday at ABC, where the installment has been the source of bitter finger-pointing and heated words for several weeks between network executives and the show’s executive producers, Roseanne and Tom Arnold.

And through much of the controversy--in which the Arnolds have been accused by industry insiders of staging yet another of their infamous publicity stunts and the network has been charged by advertising executives with shamelessly hyping one of its shows to get higher ratings during sweeps--Roseanne Arnold’s expression has been far from beaming. The debate is the latest chapter in the widening rift between ABC and one of its most popular stars.

At issue in the episode is a kiss in a gay bar between Arnold’s character, Roseanne Conner, and a new character named Sharon (guest star Mariel Hemingway), a stripper who is the lover of Roseanne’s gay friend, Nancy (Sandra Bernhard). The kiss lasts about five seconds.

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Tom Arnold has complained for weeks that ABC has balked at showing the kiss, even though, in a rough cut of the show made available to The Times, lip contact is obscured because of the camera angle. Executives, he said, felt the moment was inappropriate for a prime-time situation comedy that is likely to be seen by many children.

Arnold argued that the kiss is presented tastefully, and that the dispute has overshadowed the real point of the episode--that Roseanne, who has gay friends but has never questioned her own sexuality, finds out that she was more intrigued by the encounter than she would have expected.

“ABC has been so cool with us for six years, and then this comes up,” Arnold said last week. “There seems to be no one in charge there, no set of rules. You can have nudity on shows like ‘NYPD Blue,’ you can show a woman getting beat up, but for a woman to be kissed by another woman is too much.”

Arnold added, “It’s not like they’re tonguing each other. My whole thing wasn’t about showing the kiss. It’s about Roseanne’s response to it. Her reaction is one of the funniest things she’s ever done. It’s like a ‘Lucy’ moment. We’re not trying to be lurid. We’re not selling out our gay characters.”

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He said that while executives at the network, including ABC Television Group President Robert Iger and ABC Entertainment President Ted Harbert, approved the kiss after viewing the episode, Steve A. Weiswasser, president of Capital Cities/ABC Multimedia Group, has told him repeatedly that the kiss will not be shown.

“He told me that kids who watch the kiss think it will be OK for people of the same sex to kiss each other,” Arnold said.

ABC executives would not comment officially on the episode or on the Arnolds’ complaints, other than to say that the matter “is being discussed.” Regardless of how the episode is edited, the network said it will carry a disclaimer advising parental discretion.

The furor apparently has not scared away sponsors for the popular series. ABC said all advertising time for the episode was sold at its usual rate, which has been estimated at $300,000 per 30-second spot.

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As late as last week, there was speculation in New York advertising circles that the controversy was ABC’s attempt to heighten interest in the episode, which is competing against the Grammy Awards on CBS. “There’s a lot of speculation about ABC just wanting to hype this show,” one agency executive said.

Network concern over the depiction of gay behavior on prime-time shows is not new. In 1989, two male characters on ABC’s “thirtysomething” were shown talking in bed after having sex, and advertisers largely declined to purchase time on the show. ABC said the sponsor defection cost the network more than $1 million, and it omitted the episode during summer reruns.

In 1991, a bisexual attorney played by Amanda Donahue gave a female co-worker a good-night kiss on NBC’s “L.A. Law.”

But rarely has affection between the same sexes been displayed so openly on a prime-time network comedy.

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Tom Arnold said he and the show’s co-executive producer, Rob Ulin, came up with the idea for the episode several months ago.

“We have gay characters on the show, and we were thinking, ‘What else can we do with them besides jokes?’ ” Arnold said. “We wanted to develop storylines with these characters. We also wanted to show Roseanne thinking she was so cool, then put her in a situation where she finds out she’s not as cool as she thinks. We wanted to show a crack in her.”

But the network was not as pleased with the show’s content, Arnold said. Executives sent back several notes on the scripts, stipulating that the network would not show an episode that depicted two women kissing. The original script also had another kiss at the end of the show in which Roseanne’s sister, Jackie, who has been teasing Roseanne about her reaction to Sharon’s kiss, gets kissed by Nancy.

“The network is always rejecting things we write, but then we always come back and show them we can do it in good taste,” Arnold said. “We’ve done that time and time again.” But he agreed to cut the second kiss.

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Arnold said the kiss was shot from four different angles, including a view from behind Sharon’s head that highlights Roseanne’s startled reaction: “We felt this was the most appropriate way--it was the safest kiss possible while still being a kiss. It was important to get Roseanne’s reaction immediately.”

The show also contains other potentially explosive elements. There are jokes about vibrators and pierced nipples. Roseanne flirts with a female bartender, and several couples in the bar are shown being affectionate. Later in the episode, Roseanne’s husband, Dan (John Goodman), gets aroused when Roseanne tells him about the encounter in a post-coital conversation in bed.

But the kiss is the only aspect that has the network up in arms, said Arnold.

The debate comes at a time when relations between the Arnolds and ABC have been increasingly strained. Tom Arnold said there was still bitterness because of the network’s cancellation last year of his “The Jackie Thomas Show.” And Roseanne Arnold said last week that she had not signed a new agreement with ABC or the show’s producers, the Carsey-Werner Co., for the renewal of “Roseanne” for three more seasons, despite an earlier announcement by ABC and Carsey-Werner.

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