Certain Words Put TV on the Cutting Edge of Controversy


In 1990, a television series based on the movie “Uncle Buck” dominated the discourse between network officials and TV critics, all because a 6-year-old girl in the show uttered the phrase “You suck.”

Debate over the propriety of certain language in prime time has again become the centerpiece of this year’s television critics’ press tour, with CBS’ new Steven Bochco comedy “Public Morals” at its core.

Efforts to redefine content boundaries have been a fixture at these annual gatherings held before each new season, but the language question probably hasn’t gotten this thorough a working over since the “Uncle Buck” brouhaha.


Part of that may stem from the political backdrop to this year’s TV season. Election-year politicking has focused discussion on the V-chip and a TV ratings system as well as on reviving the family hour. There’s also concern in some quarters that introduction of a ratings system, which is planned in January, may actually allow broadcasters more license in expanding the parameters of taste.

Most of the comments have centered on “Public Morals,” a comedy about vice cops that among other things uses a colorful slang term for the female anatomy. But the discussion has included the language in other shows, including the new Scott Bakula CBS drama “Mr. & Mrs. Smith,” the new Rhea Perlman CBS comedy “Pearl” and the new Molly Ringwald ABC sitcom “Townies.”

NBC has also been questioned frequently about the appropriateness of language and themes in popular programs like “Friends” and “Mad About You” that air at 8 p.m., when children are apt to be watching.

CBS, which is touting “family-friendly programming” like “Touched by an Angel” every night at 8 as a marketing tool, has indicated that it sees “Public Morals” as a risk. Officials stress that the show won’t air until 9:30 p.m. and will carry, as entertainment President Leslie Moonves put it, “the most definitive rating on the [parental advisory] scale, whatever that will be.”

Network executives contend that they’re responsive to content concerns, and CBS has yet to decide whether the at-issue line will survive in “Public Morals.”

Even so, some officials privately wonder whether the critics group is actually a true reflection of public attitudes--in some ways being more permissive, in others more conservative. In fact, new CBS star Bill Cosby not only chastised the risque language on television but also criticized the critics themselves, saying they contributed to it by lauding as “irreverent” shows that “pushed the envelope.”


Bochco--who experienced a similar ruckus three years ago when ABC launched “NYPD Blue” (though the concern then was more with partial nudity)--insisted that he doesn’t welcome the publicity surrounding “Public Morals,” calling the controversy a “nonissue.”

As with “NYPD Blue,” Bochco reiterated during a question-and-answer session Monday that divisions between movies and television have blurred, with roughly two-thirds of Americans having cable and thus access at home to R-rated movies either uncut or lightly edited. By movie standards, he said, “Public Morals” would warrant at worst a PG rating.

Despite thematic similarities to “Barney Miller,” Bochco added, a show must reflect the culture today, not mores of 20 years ago.

“Television is losing its viewership hand over fist,” he said. “I don’t think anybody knows anything about this stuff anymore. Clearly a reliance on yesterday’s notions of what succeeds or doesn’t succeed isn’t serving us in the industry.”

Regarding Cosby’s criticism, Bochco said, “Bill has done really well doing the stuff that he does, and I’ve done really well doing the stuff that I do. And I think there is plenty of room for Bill Cosby . . . and Steven Bochco on a [TV] landscape.”

Both Bochco and his partner on “Public Morals,” producer Jay Tarses, maintained that the political climate has made it more difficult to take such chances. Television insiders, in fact, say only a few producers with Bochco’s influence and track record have the latitude to explore such boundaries.

“Maybe it’s controversial because of what’s happening politically this year and the family hour,” Tarses observed, joking, “I think that this is [appropriate] to the family hour, if your family is a bunch of transvestites, pimps and hookers.”


Next Monday’s summit is not likely to change the networks’ opposition to Clinton’s plans for TV. See Business section.