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'America Censored' : Tv Looks At What Tv Has Taken Out

May 28, 1985|LEE MARGULIES | Times Staff Writer

Thirty-two years ago, "I Love Lucy" could not use the word "pregnant" to describe its expectant star's condition. Thirteen years ago, CBS refused to broadcast an episode of "The New Dick Van Dyke Show" in which a married couple discussed love-making with their 9-year-old daughter after she had caught a glimpse of them in their bedroom.

This year, the characters on "Cheers" openly joked about Carla's pregnancy--including the fact that she isn't married. And the four kids on "The Cosby Show" phoned their parents during a romantic weekend trip to tell them not to come home with another baby.

"Television," says producer-director Andrew Solt, "is the most reflective of the arts in terms of the public's attitudes. It changes with the times. It's a wonderful kind of prism through which we can see how we have shifted our values and morals over the years."

Some of those changes are on view in "America Censored," Solt's hourlong special airing at 8 tonight on CBS (Channels 2 and 8).

The program, which is hosted by John Denver, takes a light approach to a serious subject--stringing together clips and newsreel footage of TV shows, motion pictures and rock music stars who have been subjected either to outright or attempted censorship.

The examples range from Rhett Butler's famous line in "Gone With the Wind" ("Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn") to the Rolling Stones being forced to change the lyrics of "Let's Spend the Night Together" ("let's spend some time together") on "The Ed Sullivan Show."

Solt, 37, said his intention with "America Censored" was "to look at how we've changed over the decades, as reflected in TV, film and the arts."

Considering what is available on movie screens today in terms of sex, violence and language, for example, it is humorous to see what was excised from Hollywood films in the 1930s--scenes of people being eaten in "King Kong," of 6-year-old Shirley Temple dancing the hula topless in "Curly Top," of Cab Calloway singing about marijuana in "International House."

Not all of our changes over the years have gone in the direction of liberalization, however. "America Censored" includes clips of cigarette commercials, which were banished from the airwaves in 1971, and of an early beer commercial in which the product was actually consumed--something that broadcasters and advertisers now abstain from showing.

Despite the show's entertainment format, Solt said that CBS initially had some qualms about the subject because of its own role in enforcing broadcast standards. CBS, after all, was the network on which Elvis Presley had to be shot from the waist up when he appeared on "The Ed Sullivan Show" in 1956; it was also the network that abruptly canceled "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour" in 1969 after repeated conflicts with the stars over the show's topical humor.

"I argued that if we left CBS out, we would be targeted as having softened up the show because it was on CBS," Solt said. "So CBS swallowed hard and accepted it, because it was history."

The present didn't fare as well. There is no mention of the networks' current editing practices, even though Solt readily acknowledged that the same music videos that the program identifies as having been edited on MTV also could not be shown in full on the commercial networks.

Still, Solt said he came away from "America Censored" feeling that some censorship in television is necessary.

"When you go out for entertainment, you can see whatever you want--which is great," he said. "That's what the First Amendment is all about; that's what this country is all about. But in television, some standards are needed. Sometimes they are abused, sometimes they seem arbitrary, but I think it would be to the detriment of society to have any kind of outrageous act available to any member of the family at any time."

A veteran producer (his credits include the feature "This Is Elvis" and such TV specials as ABC's "Heroes of Rock 'n' Roll," NBC's "Those Wonderful TV Game Shows," CBS' "Donald Duck's 50th Birthday" and NBC's "The Honeymooners Reunion," which aired May 13), Solt said he hopes "America Censored" will be the first of perhaps six specials on the subject of controversy surrounding the popular arts.

If CBS does order additional shows, however, there are two clips he already knows he can't get.

One is Jack Paar's 1960 joke on "The Tonight Show" about a "WC" (the initials for water closet, a British synonym for bathroom). NBC deemed the material to be in bad taste and excised it from the broadcast, prompting Paar to quit as host of the late-night show for 25 days. Solt said his production team searched for that clip but found that it does not exist--kinescopes from that period having long since been erased or destroyed.

The other clip he was unable to obtain was an appearance by Abbie Hoffman on "The Merv Griffin Show" in the late 1960s, during which Hoffman's upper torso was blacked out because he was wearing a shirt made from an American flag. Griffin's representatives told him that the tape had been erased, Solt said.

"I wanted that real bad," he said. "Imagine: His head could be shown; his shirt was the problem!"

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