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TV season's greetings: %$!&*#&*!

Sunday, September 12, 1999

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

PASADENA, Calif. -- Once upon a time, way back when, TV networks attempted to avoid accusations that they aired rude, crude, socially unacceptable shows. Now they embrace crude content, seemingly the ruder the better.

    Parents group gives family hour failing grade

If you think TV's gotten more coarse in recent years, you're not alone.

The Parents Television Council issued a report earlier this month on the increase in profanity, sexual innuendo and violence in the first hour of prime time.

The study examined what was once "the family hour" (8 to 9 p.m.) during a two-week period in May and found more than two-thirds of the shows in that hour contained sexual material.

PTC compared numbers from May 1999 to a study the group conducted in February 1998 and found violent content nearly doubled and "foul language" jumped 58 percent.

Of course, defining objectionable material is subjective, and it should be noted the PTC is associated with the conservative Media Research Center.

Still, there's no denying that sex and sex talk on TV is on the rise, and profanity seems to be on the increase, too. The study found "ass" was the most frequently used profanity, followed by the F-word (including euphemistic uses or the word bleeped but understandable), sucks and others.

Whether some of the words on the list should be considered profanity is open to debate, as are some of the PTC's other findings. To see a complete copy of the group's report, visit www.parentstv.org.

-- Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor


This fall, viewers can tune to UPN for WWF wrestling, which UPN Entertainment President Tom Nunan considers "an incredibly mild form of entertainment."

Fox returns to its crude ways, and ABC's newest T.G.I.F. show wrings laughs from teen sex.

June Cleaver would be appalled.

But producers and network executives say the competitive environment makes it necessary to continue pushing the boundaries.

John Strauss, co-writer of the gross-out hit movie "There's Something About Mary," said competition drives the business. Strauss is executive producer of "Odd Man Out," ABC's new T.G.I.F. show that features its lead character, a 15-year-old boy, trying to lose his virginity in an early episode.

"In the marketplace today there are 500-plus cable channels and a shrinking audience for network television," Strauss said. "It's important to keep a show entertaining to people who have an increasingly short attention span. To make sure the show survives, we try to give it a bit of a voice and try to do something a little different."

Strauss rightly pointed out in July that critics had only seen one episode. He thinks "Odd Man Out" will appeal to parents and children.

"It will not be a sex-story-of-the-week show," Strauss said. "Edgy is not the only way we're going to. It's our taste, so that's one way."

Strauss acknowledged the perception that liberal Hollywood producers force risqué content on the viewing public, but he disagrees that it's an effort to alter anyone's perception of what's right or wrong.

"There are very conservative families and very liberal families, and I hope in some way we can speak to all of them," Strauss said. "Our job is just to entertain and hopefully do it in a somewhat responsible fashion. We're not trying to preach either way."

Sometimes, it's not just the program's content that's questionable but also the time slot. NBC's "Friends" is a critically acclaimed show but airing it at 8 p.m. is uncomfortably early for some parents.

ABC has shifted the funny but frequently coarse "Norm" to 8:30 p.m. this season, a move ABC Entertainment Group co-chairman Stu Bloomberg defended.

"It's an adult night," Bloomberg said. "If an audience coming in knows it's an adult night, then it's OK. If this were following 'Home Improvement,' that would be wrong."

Fox, the network that built its reputation on the questionable humor of "Married ... With Children," took on a more dignified mantle with quality programs such as "Party of Five" and "The X-Files."

That era is over as crude but innovative shows rejoin the ranks. Fox Entertainment President Doug Herzog offers no apologies.

"Not everybody is going to like what we do," Herzog said. "Networks are generally out of the business of trying to please everybody at the same time."

Part of Fox's retreat to the gutter has to do with a top-down decision to refocus on the network's core 18-49 audience.

"When they brought in football they thought they needed to be a big, broad network, and it didn't work," Herzog said. "They blinked. We're here to refocus it. The demo is all that matters."

Some critics took offense to Fox's "Malcolm in the Middle," which depicts Malcolm's mom shaving his dad's back while dad stands naked in the kitchen, a newspaper covering his body. Later in the pilot, Malcolm screams at a counselor about having red paint on his bottom, but he uses a three-letter word for derriere that's become common in prime time. In another scene, the harried mom runs around the house without a bra, laundry strategically covering her breasts.

That's child's play compared to "Action," an envelope-pushing comedy about an obnoxious Hollywood producer played by Jay Mohr. Premiering Thursday with two back-to-back episodes at 9 p.m. on WPGH, "Action's" lead character frequently spouts profanity, including the F-word, which gets bleeped. But it's obvious which curse words he's saying.

"When it comes to comedy and trying to do different things and push the envelope, you're going to offend some people," Herzog said. "It's a very subjective thing."

He pointed to the uproar that surrounded the debut of "Married ... With Children."

"You would have thought the world was ending when that show came on. And the world didn't end," Herzog said. "[The show] ran for 10 good years and became a TV classic. We can only hope the same thing may happen to 'Action.' "

Some press accounts have noted "Action" was originally developed for HBO, where anything goes. But Chris Albrecht, HBO's president of original programming, said HBO never filmed the "Action" pilot and the script was re-worked for Fox, which made both the lead character and his daughter younger.

"One thing Doug wants to do is get that reaction, 'Wow! This is outrageous! They're bleeping stuff in the show! It's cable programming on a network,' " Albrecht said.

And that's exactly what people who have seen the pilot are saying.

Critics are pretty unanimous in their praise of "Action's" sly take on Hollywood, but some question whether it should air on broadcast television, thinking it would be more suitable for a pay cable channel like, say, HBO. Herzog says critics can't have it both ways.

"The thing that frustrates me is if the show was on HBO, you guys would like it and say, 'Why aren't the networks doing this?' " Herzog said. "When the networks do it, all we hear about is the vulgarity and sex. It all comes through the same pipe. On some cable systems Fox might be next to HBO [in the channel lineup], and I have to compete with that. That's the bottom line."

NBC Entertainment President Garth Ancier disagreed, saying "over-the-air television is justifiably scrutinized more." A few years ago, he was shocked by an episode of the cable series "La Femme Nikita" in which he said four people were shot dead at point blank range during the show's first scene.

"I can't justify this, even on The WB," said Ancier, who used to head up that network. "The body count is too high and it's gratuitous. You have be very careful that violence is for a purpose and is not just there to titillate the audience."

The "Action" pilot contains no violence, but its extreme bleeped profanity is likely to get viewers' attention. "Action" executive producer Chris Thompson defended the swear words as realistically depicting life in Hollywood.

"It was important to me that the people in this world speak the way they [really] speak," Thompson said. "I don't know anybody who I've sat with in my office who says 'friggin' or 'kicked in the heinie' or 'that guy is a real doodie-head.' Those things aren't said in my world."

Thompson said he's had discussions with Fox about the length of bleeps, whether a beginning or end consonant of a curse word can be heard and how to work around "lip flap."

"When you say the F-word there's a specific lip flap and that can't be shown," Thompson said.

One scene in the "Action" pilot was choreographed with the camera circling Mohr so that when he utters the F-word his back is to the camera. In another scene there's a close-up on his eyes when he utters the profanity.

Thompson acknowledged the line for what's appropriate on TV and what's inappropriate is constantly moving and has been since he first entered the business working on "Laverne & Shirley."

"There's a big difference between wanting to entertain people and being an advocate of something," Thompson said. "I'm not an advocate of the coarsening of the culture. I'm not an advocate of any of the behavior that's displayed in this show. I am an observer of it, a chronicler of it."

Producer Steven Bochco, who has pushed the boundaries of language and nudity on "NYPD Blue," trusts his instincts on what's appropriate and what isn't.

"My responsibility, as an artist, first and foremost is to my own vision," Bochco said. "I trust my taste, I trust my sense of context. I think I know who my audience is and my primary responsibility is to be proactive artistically, and when you do that well, you are responsible."

Bochco, a 1966 graduate of Carnegie Mellon University, said people may disagree with his taste, just as he may disagree with theirs. He finds wrestling offensive and can understand people taking offense to the 6 p.m. news or professional sports, which he said is the most violent programming on TV.

"Over 20 years I've gotten enough mail to know that I cannot find a common sensibility," Bochco said. "You're always stepping on somebody else's toes. Once you accept that as a natural consequence, then your sense of responsibility goes inward, and I always look to my own meter."

TV producer David E. Kelley has been known to push the envelope, too. Last season on "The Practice," he wrote a scene for Judge Kittleson (Holland Taylor) in which she used a vulgar colloquialism for oral sex.

"It was very true to her character," Kelley said. "She is a person who would not mince words; she would just say it whether we like it or not. It's usually an afterthought to search for a euphemism."

Kelley said his writing was influenced by the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, in which the act in question was written about euphemistically or clinically in newspapers.

"[We had] a president who was a little evasive in his own testimony, and Judge Kittleson didn't go for that," Kelley said. "She subscribed to the notion that when under oath you might also tell the truth, so she just said it like it was."

Ultimately, ABC chose to air an alternate version of the scene that didn't contain the expression.

"I was disappointed, but I understood," Kelley said. "They were bleeping it at 11:30 on ['Politically Incorrect']. If they couldn't use it at that time, I couldn't make much of an argument for using it earlier."

While Kelley defends the use of language that's true to the characters in his programs, he's more concerned than some producers about its effect.

"You can't say, 'I'm an artist and I'll do whatever I damn well please.' You have to be cognizant of the fact what you're doing is going out to 10 million people and keep that in the back of your mind."

Kelley said writers should not censor themselves and write as if 6-year-olds are in front of the TV every moment of the day, but they should be wary of using gratuitous sex, language or violence just for the sake of improving a show's ratings.

"I'm always wary of condoning any kind of censorship, but I'm just as wary of stapling censorship to the flag and wagging it over your head as an automatic license to do whatever you want," Kelley said. "It's a nice little idea to say parents should supervise what their kids watch. The reality is, they don't."

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