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Not in business of policing TV, CBS exec says

Tuesday, April 04, 2000

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor


Contrary to various studies and popular sentiment, television networks do have standards. They still have standards and practices departments, too.

Just don't suggest they're the TV cops.

"I really don't like to use the word 'policing,' " said Carol Altieri, vice president of CBS Program Practices Hollywood. "That's not what we're here to do. We're not here to protect the American public. We're here for a business reason."

And that is to work with TV show producers when it comes to language, sexuality and balance on controversial issues.

"If there's something in a script we think will offend a significant portion of our audience, which is obviously what we do not want to do, we'll negotiate a change with the producers," Altieri said last summer at a CBS party.

Sometimes those negotiations are easy.

At a July press conference, "Falcone" (9 tonight, see review Page F-4) executive producer Mark Johnson said he was prepared to tone down scenes in the pilot episode of the drama.

At the time, CBS had just given the series a green light for midseason after not picking it up for the fall because of the pall cast by the Columbine shootings. The "Falcone" pilot features scenes of one mobster murdering another with an ice pick. In another scene a mobster guns down a rival.

"The pilot that you've all seen is much more violent than it needs to be and certainly more violent than will ever be aired," Johnson told TV critics. "Those scenes are not about the violence and not about the actual act. When [actor] James Russo is given the ice pick and starts to stab, I don't even think we have to see any stabbings. We know what he's doing and we can certainly cut to the other characters watching this guy -- sort of like a maniac -- killing one of his friends. Then you see the body fall to the ground. And I don't think we lose anything by not actually seeing the ice pick stabs."

Altieri said it's not unusual for a pilot to be re-edited before it airs. She said CBS lets producers pretty much do what they want with the pilot, which is in many respects a selling tool, and then discuss changes after the fact.

In a phone interview yesterday, Altieri said trims to the "Falcone" pilot were subtle.

"My feeling was the violence in the pilot was almost a tool to show people what kind of show it is," she said. "But it was done kind of craftily. The violence was implied rather than shown quite graphically. That particular scene was over the top and the production was quite cooperative in trimming it."

Johnson said there's not that much violence in each episode of the series. Instead, the threat of violence hangs over every hour of "Falcone."

At a January CBS press conference, Johnson and Bob Singer, another executive producer who joined the series after the pilot was filmed, said their interaction with CBS Program Practices was not fraught with contention.

"Just the usual. Mostly their caution notes," Singer said. "If someone is going to be shot in an alley, they'll say, 'Please make sure it's not too graphic' or 'Limit the number of gunshots that would be necessary.' We haven't found them to be obtrusive. We all kind of feel like we're working together."

Yesterday Altieri said the process of making "Falcone" has been more collaborative than most.

"Both entities are aiming for the same goal, which is a riveting, compelling, incredibly exciting drama that deals with a bunch of people about whom this country continues to be fascinated," she said. "But in a way that the drama is the focus, not the violence, which is endemic to such an enterprise; not the language, which is fairly far removed from that which is in 'The Sopranos,' which I think is fairly gratuitous a lot of the time."

Altieri said the country's social climate may in part be responsible for the closeness with which her department and the "Falcone" producers have worked. It hasn't been "us" vs. "them," she said.

"Obviously with the violence, everybody's sensitivities have been heightened over what's going on in the country in the past year," she said. "They've used their craft in way that leaves no mistake of the horror that's involved in term of the violence these people perpetrate. And by the same token, a lot is left to the viewers' imagination, which is more powerful than anything you can ever show."

Altieri compared the role of her department to an editor in the publishing world.

"We go through a script and [check to see] if certain material seems to us to be gratuitous -- how many times do you have to shoot the guy?" she said. "The audience will come to expect a certain level of whatever it may be. With 'Chicago Hope' it's the whimsicalness or the freakiness, and people are accustomed to that. On the other hand, if you do an on-camera rape in 'Touched By an Angel,' you're going to alienate the entire audience. Who wants to do that?"

But there are exceptions.

"I resoundingly reject the notion that I am going to not take a risk because I don't want to offend somebody," she said. As an example, she pointed to the opening scene of "Brooklyn South," Stephen Bochco's 1997 cop drama, which depicted a police officer being shot in the head.

"This particular violence is important for people to see that it hurts, that it's not pretty," Altieri said. "This guy's head was blown off by a semi-automatic weapon. This is what is required to engage the public in discourse about this kind of issue. We're not saying there should be blood and guts all over the place, but you have to be real. That's a battle I will fight any day with anybody."

After reviewing the script, Altieri's department then looks at the rough cut of every program to see if any other changes are required. In the script stage, producers will often add things they never intend to get on the air so they have bargaining chips to keep the few bits they deem most important.

"It's a game we've been playing for decades," Altieri said. "They put in [expletives deleted] knowing we're going to ask for it out. They think they get to keep six of the 'son of a bitches' and 14 'bastards,' which they don't. They'll keep a couple."

Altieri, who has been in CBS's program practices department for 25 years, said what the public considers acceptable language has changed the most in that time. Her department has had to adapt.

"There is no excuse for sticking your heels in the sand and saying, 'We've never done this before, so we're not going to do it.' That may be a good idea on occasion, but there's a difference between taking a calculated risk and being foolhardy."

Altieri points to the 1990 CBS sitcom "Uncle Buck," which included the phrase "You suck" coming from the mouth of a child in the pilot episode. Altieri didn't want it to air, but she was overruled.

"There was tremendous pressure to scrap the CBS identity, which is pretty much that of the most conservative network in the public's mind," she said. "And that's one of the big reasons so many people fled. They felt betrayed by being ambushed by material that was so alien to the CBS persona."

Altieri said that attitude changed for the better when Les Moonves joined the network in 1995 and set about recapturing CBS's core audience.

Language is still an issue, but one that can be defined in different ways.

"There's a difference in our minds between profanity and coarse language," Altieri said. "Profanity is things like, 'Oh, my God' or 'God almighty,' which we permit on significant occasions. A word like 'goddammit' just is not part of our vocabulary. It will not fly. It's extremely offensive to a lot of people."

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