Can they say that?

Times Staff Writer

The first day of 2004 was Ted Cordes' last working for NBC, the end of an association that, notwithstanding a five-year hiatus in the late '60s, spanned four decades.

Cordes began in 1963 as a page, squiring celebrities and leading guided tours of the network's Burbank studios and is retiring as vice president in charge of broadcast standards, West Coast.

He was the censor.

In a nation where everyone believes in at least his own right to free speech, the censor is typically seen as the enemy not only of expression but of fun -- one pictures him black-clad, pinched and mean, armed with a big pair of scissors and an inviolable list of shalt-nots. But this is not Cordes, a friendly, youthful sort, who prides himself on flexibility and sees himself not as a spoiler but a facilitator.

"Nobody believes more in free expression than I do," says Cordes, sitting for a valedictory interview in what would in a few days become his former office, but still sounding very much on the job. "I try to work with a producer -- 'Tell me what you want to say and I'll do everything I can to get you to be able to say it.' We try to help get something across, not prevent it.

"We're no longer nannies to the nation," he says. "At one time we were. We worried about what is good for everybody. But now we more reflect society."

That means that television nowadays does not blanch, nor blush, at many words still deemed unprintable even by the paper you hold in your hands. Within universally accepted limits of grossness, nothing human is so alien to TV that it can't be used on "Law & Order."

Cordes' replacement is Ken Samuel, currently vice president, compliance and standards, who has been in broadcast standards on and off since 1995.

The present-day broadcast censor, far from being a dour guardian of public morals, is a kind of mediator between the network, its affiliates, its audience and the FCC. His job is to keep the company out of trouble, while making as many people as possible as happy as possible, not only regarding matters of sex and violence, but of creed, color and even species, as in a recent flap over the eating of horse rectum on NBC's own "Fear Factor."

"We are broadcasters after all," Cordes says. "That's a real term. We're not narrowcasters. It's a big country out there, with a lot of diverse tastes, and they don't seem to like extremes."

Over his tenure -- he joined broadcast standards in 1972 and has been in his current position since 1991 -- Cordes has "provided coverage" or other oversight for every sort of TV program. Game shows and children's shows. "The Tonight Show" and "Tomorrow" show, where for live broadcasts he would personally oversee the 10-second delay. ("I was sitting next to the guy who actually had his finger on the button, and I'd hear the word and tap him on the shoulder -- I wasn't allowed [by union rules] to touch the machinery.") He vetted lyrics and costumes for "The Midnight Special" ("Most of the costume problems on that show were male, not female") and worked on countless TV series and movies, all the way into the age of so-called reality.

"My first job was answering fan mail to 'Bonanza' and the last job I worked on was 'Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.' What a span that is."

Cordes met recently with a Times television critic and offered these reflections on a most challenging and misunderstood profession.

Teamwork

I didn't grow up wanting to be in broadcast standards -- that's not anybody's goal, I don't think. The first person I'm not going to hire is somebody who says "I have to be in broadcast standards." Because then they have an agenda, and that's not what we're here for.

It's not following a rule book. You have to have a general knowledge of literature and culture, you have to have an openness. We're all different, the staff: some of us are lawyers, some of us were educators, some were actors. We're of varied background, different ethnicities.

You get pinned by being a censor. The minute you walk in the room people stop talking, and they don't want to know you. So you have to establish yourself as a human being. I ask people that work here, "Go to [the producers] before you have a problem. Go to them when you first get the assignment, before they've even started writing, and show them that you're on their team." You're their liaison to the network, and you argue their case. That's why lawyers do so well here.

You get to know your producers and they love you or hate you accordingly. We get very loyal to our shows. We feel part of the team, we really do. I'm in awe of these people, of the ["Law & Order" producer] Dick Wolfs of the world. I can't challenge him on his judgment of the audience. I wouldn't even try. What I can do is bring a different perspective. But if you're reading a script from a well-thought-of producer, somebody who has made it in this business, and you question something, you always reexamine yourself. "Am I right?"

Someone said a good standards person is somebody who can argue all week with a producer and then get invited to his pool on Saturday.

A question of context

In spite of what George Carlin said, there's never been a list of forbidden words. There are some obvious words that are forbidden, but if you give me that list, I bet you all but maybe one have been on the network at one time or another -- and even the one word has been on the network, recently, by mistake, when Bono said the f-word on the Golden Globes.

Somebody will come in and ask "Can we say this word?" and I'll say, "Well, what's the context?" That's always my first question. How is it said? What is the show? Who's saying it? Why are they saying it? What's the reaction to it? We used a four-letter word on "ER" last season [when lead Anthony Edwards' character was dying], and we were prepared for a reaction. We had a huge reaction -- we had phone calls and they all asked, "Who was singing 'Over the Rainbow'?"

Sensitivity

When I started the focus was on violence, because of the [Kennedy] assassination. Television was very nervous about depictions of murders. You could shoot somebody in the heart, but you couldn't shoot them in the head. It was very specific. The country was sensitive, it was a painful time.

And people get hurt by television, they take it personally. You can't have an agenda in this job, but I don't want to hurt people. Ethnic humor, anything that puts a person down for whatever reason has always been a problem. Other things come and go. Sometimes you can be sexier, sometimes you can't; sometimes you can be more violent, sometimes you can't. We get conservative then we get more liberal. Everything is a reaction.

We try to be watchdogs for special interest groups. Special interest groups really have a value in this world, they sensitize the rest of us as to their ... special interests. They educate the world as to the way things should be. I don't mean political correctness, I mean [they] just sensitize people to the way other people think. The Muslim world, for example, is a difficult place to be right now. You have to be sure that what goes out is fair. It doesn't mean everybody has to be a good guy; but there should be a balance, a statement made that there's good and there's bad, there are extremists and there's the middle of the road.

'You are correct, sir'

I was covering material for Johnny Carson, and they did Carnac. The way the gag worked, Ed McMahon would give the answer and Johnny would divine the question. The answer to this question was, "Bitch, horny and ass." And Johnny replied, "What three words can they say on 'Saturday Night Live' that we cannot say on 'The Tonight Show.' " I said, "Wait a minute, he's right, you can't say those words on 'The Tonight Show.' "

I went up to the producer, Fred de Cordova, and said, "We have a problem." Fred, who was very amenable usually, said, "Can't discuss it. Johnny Carson wrote this, and if you have an issue with it you have to take it to Johnny Carson."

So we went up to Johnny Carson's office, and I started giving him the company line as to why he couldn't do it, the affiliates and the sales and all that. And I could see that he just wasn't buying it, his eyes were almost glazing over. So I interrupted myself and said, "Besides, it really isn't funny. It's funny to me and it's funny to you cause we're in the business, but it's not going to be funny to some guy in Arkansas."

He didn't even take a beat; he turned to Fred de Cordova and said, "He's right, take it out."

I learned such a lesson there, by instinct: You discuss these things on [the artist's level], not your level. Because your level is rules. And nobody wants to hear rules. You have to have a reason.

A change is going to come

I don't know that there's a "too far." I think too far is what the public tells you is too far. We do learn lessons. We listen, and we react. Networks are very reactive. We don't lead the world, we follow.

Audience input does cause change. Not necessarily organized letters -- 10,000 Xeroxed letters have less influence than one well-written letter from a parent about what this did to my kid.

Going back in the early days of television, they used to use "Bruce" as a code word for homosexual -- like Bruce the hairdresser, or Bruce the interior decorator. It became a joke. And we got a letter from this woman that said, "I have a little boy, his name is Bruce, and he keeps asking me, 'Why do they keep laughing when they say my name?' " And that was the end of Bruce jokes on the network.

We don't do everything that people want us to do. People usually think that we don't listen at all. We do listen. But we don't take orders. We do what we think is right.

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