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These shows broke barriers

Thursday, December 11, 2003

By Barbara Vancheri, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Tom Hill can tell you which TV couple first shared a bed (no, their names aren't Flintstone or Munster), but he finds other watershed moments more intriguing. "In some ways, I think the sort of sexual things are not really as interesting as the ones about race that reflect the way our society was changing and the way television had to keep up, had to reflect reality or they would just risk being stuck in the wonderful world of TV Land," he says.

Not that there's anything wrong with the safe havens of TV Land and Nick at Nite, which employ Hill as vice president/creative director. "Lots of people still want to go there, but with a sense of irony, with a sense of knowledge that this is not only an idealized world, but a world that really never did exist."

Looking to the future, Hill thinks technology will become increasingly important in allowing viewers to choose "the channels, shows, levels of appropriateness they want. It will be easier and easier. ... With TiVo or TiVo-like technology on the horizon certainly, people who want an HBO-level of sexuality and nudity, etc., can find it. I think the broadcast networks are going to stay where they are.

"The fact CBS moved 'The Reagans' to cable is more evidence that broadcast channels aren't really in the business of pushing barriers. They do great entertainment and, frankly, the level of appropriateness that most of America wants, but those taboos, I think, will find their place in smaller venues."

That isn't to say TV hasn't had its share of firsts, as documented by Hill, TV Land, TV Guide and other sources:

First TV show with a married couple sharing a bed was "Mary Kay and Johnny," starring real-life wife and husband Mary Kay and Johnny Stearns. It aired on the DuMont network from 1947-50.

With the 1968 debut of "Julia," Diahann Carroll broke several barriers by playing a professional, single, African-American mother whose husband had been killed in Vietnam.

TV's first interracial kiss, in 1968, came courtesy of aliens who forced Capt. Kirk (William Shatner) and Lt. Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) to kiss on "Star Trek."

After debuting in January 1971, "All in the Family" tackled bigotry, prejudice and previously unspoken topics with humor, honesty and exquisite acting.

"All in the Family" spin-off "Maude," which premiered in fall 1972, featured a title character who -- in a move that drew heavy protest mail -- underwent an abortion.

"The Jeffersons," another spin-off launched in January 1975, featured the first interracial married couple in prime time. Tom and Helen Willis were neighbors of the Jeffersons.

On a 1991 episode of the sitcom "A Different World," a young woman taking a public speaking class revealed she contracted AIDS through unprotected sex in high school.

Candice Bergen's "Murphy Brown" famously had a baby out of wedlock in 1992.

"NYPD Blue" debuted in 1993, but a quarter of the ABC affiliates refused to air the pilot because of violence and vulgarity.

"Ellen" made news in 1997 when its title character announced she was a lesbian.

Pay channel HBO broke new ground with such shows as "Sex and the City" and "The Sopranos."

Barbara Vancheri can be reached at or 412-263-1632.

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