July 18, 2004

You Can't Do That on Television!

Clockwise from lower left: Marge Simpson, David Caruso, Donald Trump, Tyra Banks and Jon Stewart, protected by nothing but their networks.
Lara Tomlin
Clockwise from lower left: Marge Simpson, David Caruso, Donald Trump, Tyra Banks and Jon Stewart, protected by nothing but their networks.

By SCOTT ROBSON

STEVEN BOCHCO is a little anxious. In a few weeks, the multiple Emmy Award-winning writer-producer will start sending scripts for the coming season of "N.Y.P.D. Blue" to ABC executives for their input. It's something Mr. Bochco has done for years, a first step in every episode's journey from writing room to living room.

But Mr. Bochco is still smarting from lost battles with network censors last season, when he was forced to alter or delete four scenes with partial nudity after Janet Jackson's overexposure at the Super Bowl. "I'm not doing anything particularly different this year than I've done in the past," he says. "But I'm not going to do something I know is going to be really provocative either. If I do, they'll blur it. They'll cut it. They'll perform artless surgery."

Six months after the Super Bowl, writers, producers and network executives are in a state of confusion about what they are allowed to say and show on television. Some contend that election-year posturing in Washington along with Jackson fallout, residue of Bono's celebratory expletive during the 2003 Golden Globes and even regulatory moves against Howard Stern and other radio shock jocks is resulting in the most conservative television environment in years. Others say they barely feel the chill.

As television's creative community reconvenes in studio bungalows and office towers across Los Angeles, prepping the dozens of shows that will make up the fall's prime-time schedule, Congress is considering legislation that could raise the penalty for indecency against networks from a four-figure maximum for each violation to $3 million a day.

Meanwhile, nearly everyone is wondering just how to spot the elusive line they're not supposed to cross. "The problem is the F.C.C. is trying to enforce a standard that doesn't exist," says Jeff Filgo, executive producer for "That 70's Show." "It's almost like they're saying: `What's indecency? That's for us to know and for you to find out.' You don't know if you've done anything wrong until you get letters." Damon Lindelof, a former co-producer of "Crossing Jordan" and a creator and executive producer of the new series "Lost," is equally perplexed. While "you can't say `goddamn it' on network TV," he says, some expletives are fine: "You can't say `Jesus Christ' as an exclamation, but you can refer to him as someone who made wine out of water. Where is the line? I wish I knew."

Unlike the film industry, which regulates all American releases with a single ratings board, television has always been governed by informal consensus. Networks reluctantly adopted a ratings system in 1997, but it has yet to catch on with viewers. Internally, the networks rely on watchdog standards and practices departments to vet shows. But these divisions have few, if any, hard-and-fast rules. "Many people think in my drawer I've got a list of 30 words you can't say, but that doesn't exist," says Alan Wurtzel, who as president of research for NBC oversees the network's standards and practices unit. "We're more focused on ensuring that each show works in the viewing context and with audience expectations."

Until last year, the power of these departments was generally considered to be on the wane. After all, throughout the 1990's network content had steadily been getting racier in response to changing social norms and competition from edgier fare on basic and pay cable. ABC showed teenage lesbians kissing on "Once and Again" and David Caruso's naked behind on "N.Y.P.D. Blue"; CBS showed youthful cannibalism on "C.S.I."

Which makes the current round of restrictions feel all the more startling. Just this week, Richard Dreyfuss, star and executive producer of the new PBS show "Cop Shop," complained to a gathering of television critics about the deletion of three expletives from the show. As to one of the words in question, his fellow executive producer David Black added: "I stand with Vice President Cheney, who recently used the word on the Senate floor." Mark Burnett, creator of "Survivor" and "The Apprentice," ran afoul of network censors at Fox this summer with his Las Vegas show "The Casino" (the problems included partial nudity and a "Crying Game" incident in which a male character discovered that his sexual partner offered more than he bargained for). NBC's "E.R." famously clipped a shot of an elderly cancer patient's breast. Fox told producers of "The O.C." not to show Summer (Rachel Bilson) having an orgasm, but Seth's (Adam Brody) was approved. And a March installment of "That 70's Show" was preceded by a parental warning because of a scene in which Donna (Laura Prepon) catches an off-camera Eric (Topher Grace) masturbating. The episode's fate in syndication is also in doubt. Of course, one of the most famous "Seinfeld" story lines revolved around a similar theme. But that episode had its debut in 1992. Today, writers are not always the masters of their domain.

Some writers say they are unaffected by the industry's newfound caution. "Day to day we're still doing the same show we've always done," says Jonathan Littman, who as president of Bruckheimer Television oversees the "C.S.I." franchise. "We haven't gotten any notes from the network." "C.S.I.," however, is already a titanic success. Several producers of existing shows say they feel grandfathered in: if their series weren't already established, they would have little chance of finding a slot on today's prime-time schedule. "Certainly, new shows have to earn their ability to push the envelope," says Jeff Zucker, president of NBC Universal Television Group.

That said, several new fall series have violent or racy pilots, and the eventual fate of these shows may serve as a benchmark for the next stage of the standards debate. The first episode of ABC's "Lost" features stunningly gory images of a plane crash and its aftermath, including a man being sucked into a jet engine. The ABC teen dramedy "Life as We Know It," adapted by two "Freaks and Geeks" creators from a British series about male puberty, opens with funny but frank dialogue about sex by the three central characters, all male high school students. "Jack and Bobby," a family drama on WB from the creators of "West Wing" and "Everwood," starts with a plot line about marijuana addiction in which the mother, played by Christine Lahti, lights up 15 minutes into the pilot. And yes, she inhales.

These three shows will all make it onto the air. But many fear the onset of a kind of television self-censorship, in which writers anticipating resistance from standards and practices departments, which are anticipating inquiries from the Federal Communications Commission don't even pitch their most challenging shows or plot lines. "I know a lot of working writers on network shows, and I think most of them are worried about what's going to happen," says Shawn Ryan, executive producer of the unapologetically graphic cop show "The Shield" on FX. "If they're doing something that's pushing the boundaries, are ABC or NBC or CBS open to doing that? Or will the networks say that in this environment it won't be worth trying? Those are the stories you'll never hear, the censorship behind the scenes, before the shows are even made." One veteran producer, who declined to be named because of previous encounters with networks over sensitive content, said: "Fear has crept into the artistic community. Everything is under the microscope. The creative process has always been fragile. It's about taking chances and being brave. But if you give the networks an excuse, they won't take a chance."

Greg Berlanti, executive producer of WB's "Jack and Bobby" and "Everwood," says that writers and producers can feel "squeezed from both directions," working within network limitations while trying to capture viewers whose expectations have been raised by basic and pay cable. "I don't want to exploit just to grab an audience," he says. "But as a show runner, I'm a lot more threatened by the kind of stories people can tell on cable, in terms of how contemporary and edgy they are, than I am by the Janet Jackson debacle."


Comedy Central
Because it's on cable, "South Park" can put ninja stars in its characters' eyes with no fear of being fined.

Cable networks are not regulated by the F.C.C., which means they are not held to the same public decency standards as broadcasters, and they are exempt from the possibility of sanctions. That's why HBO's "Deadwood" and "The Sopranos" are allowed to depict graphic sex and violence and why "South Park," on Comedy Central, can portray facial gunshot wounds, not to mention Saddam Hussein enjoying a homosexual relationship with Satan. Still, members of cable's creative universe find themselves deeply vested in the struggles of their network brethren. Many cable writers and producers came from on-air networks, and some aspire to return there someday, even if they view their current jobs as the medium's last bastions of artistic integrity. Some cable writers even fear that the F.C.C. might one day seek to expand its oversight into cable.

Writers frustrated with the industry's new conservatism tend to blame election-year grandstanding the same, familiar variety that is assumed to have motivated Dan Quayle's 1992 criticism of "Murphy Brown." "People who know more than me say this sort of thing comes around every four years," Mr. Ryan says. "But this feels different." A new administration might change that. Then again, as one network executive puts it, "What politician is going to vote against decency?"

And writers are suspicious of media consolidation as well. Until the mid-1990's, most broadcast networks were independent companies. Now, every broadcaster and virtually all cable networks, basic and pay, are part of larger conglomerates. That means that small issues a gunshot wound here, a bare buttock there can grow tangled up with larger ones. "Quite frankly, there's much more to this than Janet Jackson," Mark Burnett says. "This depends upon what current approvals a corporation is seeking in Washington. There are factors with licenses, business mergers and other things most people aren't even aware of."

At least one show is tackling the decency debate head-on. "The Simpsons," television's longest-running comedy, will offer its take on the controversy next season on Fox. In an episode to be broadcast after the Super Bowl, Homer finds himself in charge of the game's half-time show. Writers won't say exactly what kind of havoc Homer will wreak, but surely there will be something to offend and amuse everyone.

Scott Robson is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.


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