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CBS ahead of curve on ‘Helter’

Times Staff Writer

When conservatives raised a ruckus last year over “The Reagans,” CBS ended up dumping the TV movie about the former first family. Then Janet Jackson’s impromptu strip during CBS’ Super Bowl halftime show reignited a national debate about broadcast indecency.

Now the network finds itself with another potentially troublesome project, this one involving mass murderer Charles Manson.

One of CBS’ main events for the critical May ratings sweep is “Helter Skelter,” a new three-hour adaptation of former Los Angeles County Deputy Dist. Atty. Vincent Bugliosi’s bestseller about the 1969 Manson murders. But with CBS seemingly always in the media hot seat, Chairman and Chief Executive Leslie Moonves is evidently taking no chances that the Manson film will become the latest flap for his network, which nevertheless remains the nation’s most-watched broadcaster and has enjoyed a strong season so far.

Moonves, who screened the director’s cut Thursday evening with other top CBS executives, has asked the producers to scale back the violence in the film, which depicts the notoriously gruesome slayings of actress Sharon Tate and her house guests, and grocery magnate Leno LaBianca and his wife, according to several people familiar with the situation. The murders became linked to larger cultural anxieties in the late 1960s, abetted by numerous grisly, widely reported details (for example, the killers scrawled “death to pigs” and other messages with the victims’ blood).

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Moonves and other CBS executives are said to be especially concerned about the depictions of the murders themselves, which are rendered in graphic terms, at least by broadcast standards, according to some who have seen the film. Neither the film nor the script were available for review.

This version of “Helter Skelter” stars Bruno Kirby as Bugliosi and Jeremy Davies as Manson. The original version, starring Steve Railsback as Manson, was nominated for three Emmy Awards.

Moonves does not always screen the CBS movies before they air, and the fact that he has carefully considered the possible problems with “Helter Skelter” suggests how thorny the issue of provocative content has become for broadcasters.

John Gray, writer-director of “Helter Skelter,” said Friday that it was not unusual for a network to order trims of particularly explicit scenes. But CBS’ recent imbroglios have likely given the network a heightened sensitivity to controversial material.

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“From the time that CBS ordered the movie, things have changed a lot,” Gray said. “They’ve been beaten up pretty badly.”

Gray -- a well-known TV-movie director who made last season’s “Martin and Lewis” movie for CBS -- added that he did not yet know exactly which scenes the network wanted trimmed. Gray said he was headed back into the editing room on Friday afternoon to begin working on the changes CBS requested. However, he’ll resist any attempt to cut the gore entirely, he said.

“I know there is concern about the violence, [but] we’re trying hard not to lose that because we feel it’s not gratuitous,” he said, adding that Manson has over time been twisted by some people into a sort of cult hero. “It’s important to show the victims, how these people suffered.... I’m hoping they’ll see the value of portraying this realistically.”

A CBS spokesman declined to comment.

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The stakes for the network are high. The fiasco surrounding the Super Bowl has made Moonves and his network an inviting target for critics. But the movie franchise has proven a particular flashpoint for CBS, which recently has been moving away from typical TV movie fare about ordinary people triumphing over adversity, and instead has been trying to tackle edgier topics.

In addition to “The Reagans,” CBS last year weathered a controversy over its two-part miniseries “Hitler: The Rise of Evil,” which some initially worried would go too far in trying to humanize the Nazi dictator. The controversy over “Hitler” may have helped the film, particularly in increasing awareness of the miniseries. But “The Reagans” proved highly embarrassing to the network, which found itself on the defensive because of leaked details from the script that seemed to disparage President Reagan. Moonves eventually handed the film off to Showtime, incensing critics who accused CBS of pandering to conservatives.

Yet “Helter Skelter” could pay off. The first version of the film -- a two-parter on CBS in 1976, just seven years after the crime -- remains one of the highest-rated TV movies ever, although it ran at a time when broadcasters did not yet face withering competition from cable networks.

Moreover, the CBS Sunday movie franchise -- the last bastion of regularly scheduled made-for-TV movies among the four major broadcast networks -- has recovered in the ratings this season after stumbling badly last year. According to figures from Nielsen Media Research, the total audience for CBS’ Sunday movies is up 28%, to an average of 13.2 million viewers, aided by such widely seen original films as “The Elizabeth Smart Story,” “Fallen Angel” and “Undercover Christmas.” The movies have also benefited from a strong lead-in with the crime drama “Cold Case.”

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The new “Helter Skelter” -- which anticipates the 35th anniversary of the murders this summer -- was envisioned by producer Mark Wolper as a sort of prequel to the 1976 version, according to Gray (Wolper did not return calls seeking comment).

While the earlier movie focused mainly on the police investigation and subsequent trial, the upcoming film concentrates on life among Manson’s cult “family” and his seductive power over followers, as well as the crimes themselves.

“There’s an enormous amount of material that didn’t make it” to the 1976 movie, Gray said.


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