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Alabama Station Says No to ‘Outing’ Episode of ‘Ellen’

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The ABC affiliate in Birmingham, Ala., has said it will not televise the “Ellen” episode in which the lead character “comes out” as a lesbian, calling the subject matter inappropriate for “family viewing.”

Few stations, however, appear to be following suit, and ABC said Thursday that it was unaware of any other affiliates refusing to air the April 30 episode.

A representative at WFAA-TV in Dallas--the largest ABC affiliate to initially balk at showing “NYPD Blue” when it premiered in 1993--said it will televise the upcoming “Ellen,” and outlets in such diverse cities as Salt Lake City; Little Rock, Ark.; Peoria, Ill.; and Knoxville, Tenn., all say they are planning to broadcast the show.

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Local religious leaders in Atlanta, Texas--where star Ellen DeGeneres attended high school--issued a statement condemning the plot turn, but the nearby Louisiana station that serves the market said it expects to leave a decision on the program’s propriety to its viewers.

“We’ll air it unless we spot something in the [preview] feed that would steer us in the other direction,” said program director Marvin Perry of KTBS in Shreveport. Because the show is still in post-production, ABC doesn’t expect affiliates to preview the episode until a few days before its scheduled air date.

Additional defections remain possible in certain regions. ABC has stations in more than 220 cities nationwide, with Birmingham representing the United States’ 51st-largest television market.

“If a station wants to preempt a program, it’s their prerogative to do so,” a network spokeswoman said.

The Birmingham station, WBMA, said it offered to run the program late at night, but the network rejected that idea. Though the one-hour episode will air at 9 p.m. locally, the program will play at 8 p.m. in Birmingham and other cities that begin prime time earlier.

WBMA general manager Jerry Heilman told Associated Press that future episodes will be evaluated individually and also may not air.

The concept of affiliates declining to carry network fare is far from unprecedented. More than 50 ABC stations refused to play “NYPD Blue” when that show premiered, amid protests regarding its use of partial nudity and stronger language than had previously been allowed in prime time. Two CBS stations also refused to air the drama “Picket Fences” for dealing with controversial themes.

As with “NYPD Blue” (now seen in every U.S. television market), executives anticipate that the furor will die down after media coverage of the initial episodes subsides.

“On any controversial episode of any television show, there’s always a few Bible Belt affiliates that don’t air it,” said an executive at another network, who added that reports about stations that won’t air “Ellen” will only help promote the show in the rest of the country.

DeGeneres has acknowledged in the current Time magazine that she is a lesbian, and she will be interviewed by ABC’s Diane Sawyer the week before the coming-out episode airs. On Thursday, ABC moved that interview, originally scheduled for April 23 on “PrimeTime Live,” to air two days later on sister newsmagazine “20/20.” That means the interview will now run during the next ratings period, which begins a day earlier.

The “Ellen” episode--which features Oprah Winfrey, Laura Dern and cameos by other celebrities--is being treated as an event within portions of the gay and lesbian community. The Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, for example, is sponsoring “Come Out With ‘Ellen’ ” parties in several major cities, including Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco.


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