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The Battle For the Living Rooms of America : 3 Producers Who Regularly Push at TV's Boundaries

September 04, 1985|Morgan Gendel | Times Staff Writer

Rosenzweig said that he handles issues like these, as well as sex and violence, responsibly. But, he added, "I don't trust a lot of my peers. I don't like a lot of the things I see on screen. If there were no restrictions, there would be some ultimate abuses and the restrictions would become even greater than they are today."

"There has to be some watchdog for what gets on the air," Paltrow concurred. He wishes, however, that there weren't so many areas "you just know aren't going to get by so you don't even attempt to do them."

"St. Elsewhere," he said, would be an even better show if he could depict nudity and locker-room humor as they really are in hospitals. On a series of episodes about breast cancer, for example, the censors "virtually had to walk us around the nipple." The same forbidden territory has prevented the show from ever showing a woman heart attack patient being defibrillated.

When testicular cancer was the subject, Paltrow added, "We had to fight for days, and finally they said, 'OK, you can use the word testicle three times." And, not surprisingly, Paltrow's staff had to rewrite to the censors' specifications an episode in which Dr. Caldwell (Mark Harmon) snagged himself in his pants zipper--a problem the segment's writer experienced in real life.

Bochco likewise believes "Hill Street Blues" would have been better under his command if phrases like "hair bag" or "scuz ball"--staples of the series' lexicon of euphemized street talk--did not have to always be substitutes for the real thing.

"You can't even say doody, you have to say poo. Well, can we say poo? And it becomes surreal ," he said, stalking around the room and tossing a football. "One gets this terrible feeling that one is getting told by a parent figure that this is a naughty word."

Bochco denied that he, like Paltrow, purposely tried to slip things by the censors. To which Paltrow, who worked on the same MTM lot as Bochco, said in a separate interview: "He's gonna go to hell for that." Indeed, there was a faint gleam in Bochco's eye when he was asked how he managed to get the "chicken joke" approved. "Just lucky, I guess," was his reply.

To the producers, it sometimes seems as if the censors are protecting people who don't need or want protection.

Case in point was CBS' demand that Barney Rosenzweig excise the following line by actress Sharon Gless as policewoman Cagney, talking about why she thought her new boyfriend was a sweet guy. "Sweet," she said, "is going out to the pharmacy in the middle of the night when you run out of tampons ."

So certain was Rosenzweig that CBS censors would relent, he filmed the line as written and included it in the final cut. When the network stood firm, it was too late to change the film, so the edit was made on the videotape version used to transmit the show to CBS' affiliate stations.

A year and a half later, after the canceled "Cagney & Lacey" was given a second life, the episode came up again in summer reruns--and nobody remembered that the infamous line was still on the film. The episode aired as originally shot, the tampons line was spoken, and neither the show nor the network received a single complaint.

"I have a different perception than CBS of what I think America is ready for," Rosenzweig concluded.

Bochco reached a similar conclusion many times, but especially while making a "Hill Street" episode titled "Ewe and Me, Babe," in which a man was found to be living with a sheep. A "nasty, extended fight" ensued, Bochco said, essentially over two lines of dialogue that made it clear the sheep was a female. Though one scene was reshot, the suggestion of bestiality still remained clear.

And NBC "didn't get a single letter, a single phone call about any of it," Bochco said.

"NBC understands about programming to a segment of their audience and broadcast standards does not," he said. "Those people so continuously misread their audience."

Bochco is adamant that the audience should be allowed to see the work he was hired to write--and thereby demonstrate by their viewership whether he's gone too far. "You shouldn't have to protect people from everything," he said. "Nobody ever died from an idea."

Despite the restrictions, all the aforementioned producers acknowledge that they have been allowed to go further than most network TV series.

"Certainly that is not a birthright," said Rosenzweig. "Through argument and example I have been able to convince them (CBS executives) that if they're going to take the bows for having this forward-looking show, then they're going to have to take the heat as well. They have bought that argument."

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