How much sex and violence should we be allowed to see on network TV? What kind of obscenities can we hear? The censors at the three major networks and the producers of prime-time series often come up with different answers. As the new fall TV season approaches, the battle continues over the boundaries of good taste and stark realism.
The censors at NBC, CBS and ABC all are guided by one overriding principle: Free TV is an ubiquitous guest in people's homes and, as such, it must behave itself.
That behavior does not always mirror reality as much as it does a code that is largely based on the censors' gut instincts and is remarkably uniform across the three networks.
Consider their handling of graphic violence:
--A car chase. Two vehicles careen through traffic and take to a winding mountain road, where they screech around hairpin turns. One of them jumps a guard rail, nose-dives over a cliff, bounces several times on the rocks and bursts into flames.
But if "there's a guy cooking in there, we say, 'No, you've got to get the guy out of there,' " explained Tom Kersey, vice president of ABC's West Coast department of broadcast standards and practices.
--Slow-motion violence. The kind that film director Sam Peckinpah made a cinematic standard is proscribed by CBS on the theory that it too often glorifies an instance of pain or death. The network made a partial exception in its showing of the theatrical release "The Long Riders" by editing out all the "squibs," the bursting capsules used to simulate the impact of bullets, but retaining the remainder of a lengthy and violent slow-motion sequence.
--Falling bodies. NBC doesn't necessarily mind if a body goes flying out the window, but doesn't want the camera to track the fall. "It magnifies the horror of that particular moment," said Maurie Goodman, West Coast vice president for broadcast standards. "Our guideline on violence, regardless of what any special-interest group has to say, has always been avoid the graphic, avoid the excessive. If it isn't relevant, it doesn't play."
So goes the job of the network censor, a position increasingly caught in a philosophical cross-fire between producers who consider the approval process a kind of open warfare, special-interest groups critical of the medium and the home viewer.
The censorship departments--officially called broadcast standards or program practices--remain stalwart in the face of these external pressures. But some standards appear to vary wildly from show to show, even on the same network.
"Miami Vice," for example, can depict a shotgun blast so brutal that it shoves its human target across the floor trailing blood, something you'll never see on "Remington Steele."
That's because of "audience expectation," the notion that each show's particular audience will accept a different level of sex, grit and realism. "You expect a certain type of behavior from a J.R. Ewing or an Angela Channing that you wouldn't expect from, say, a Mary Tyler Moore," said Carol Altieri, CBS vice president for program practices in Hollywood.
Thus, policewoman Chris Cagney of "Cagney & Lacey" could mouth a line that the leading ladies of "Kate and Allie" would never dare utter. About to take a pregnancy test, Cagney, in the original script, said to a male friend: "I'd really love to keep talking to you, but I have to go pee in a bottle."
At first, "we were concerned about the taste factor," said Altieri, puffing on a cigarette at CBS' sprawling Fairfax-district complex. Though the line was never filmed--the subplot with the male friend was dropped--CBS eventually had given its nod of approval.
Altieri cited the new "Twilight Zone" series as one that her department considers to have "tremendous respect for its audience" in delivering powerful themes and a "sophisticated tone."
NBC's Goodman, a good-humored fellow who frequently comes to work in jeans and open-collared shirt, emphasized that what is allowed on one show may not be properly executed on another. One glaring problem for the new season: Producers are trying to emulate "Miami Vice" by giving their shows "a harsher edge" while omitting other qualities pertinent to that show's appeal.
"They think that violence is what sells 'Miami Vice,' and that isn't true at all," Goodman said. "My fear is that a lot of producers might say, 'Hey, let's break open two or three cases of Uzis . . . and waste a lot of people.' I anticipate a lot of work for our department."
But he added that with each passing season viewers "become more and more tuned into a particular program," allowing it to push the bounds of good taste.