When the 1988-89 television season--better known as the year of trash TV--finally comes to a close, many viewers will undoubtedly be asking the same questions.
What happened to our standards? And where have all the censors gone?
Matthew Margo, CBS vice president of program practices, has a ready answer--at least to what happened to the censors.
"The reports of our death have been greatly exaggerated," he says, borrowing a page from Mark Twain and maintaining, as did his counterparts in recent telephone interviews, that the networks still have program standards and censors actively involved in judging the acceptability of programming.
It is indeed true that all three networks, contrary to popular opinion, still have censors. (The program and standards departments are reportedly about half as large, however, thanks to cutbacks during the last couple of years.) But there can be no whitewashing this television year, one in which the networks appeared to follow the worst instincts of cable and syndication.
Indisputably held to a higher standard--based on their pervasive reach, their free, over-the-air access and a long-term relationship with the American viewer--the networks are being scrutinized and criticized with a fervor perhaps exceeding their offenses.
Yet how far can too far be when NBC, the No. 1 network and former paradigm of quality, runs a gory, Geraldo Rivera prime-time special on Satanism and the miniseries "Favorite Son," in which the most memorable scene involves leading lady Linda Kozlowski's slow striptease and a game of sexual bondage?
How many series like NBC's "Nightingales," which, with the sound off, looks more like the changing room in ladies lingerie than a show about nursing, can we expect?
When the star of CBS' "Wiseguy," tiring of a low-life's double talk, slyly raises a finger to scratch his eye, should we take note of which finger he uses?
How much frank sexual talk is for our own good and how much is for the benefit of network ratings? Do we want, for example, sitcoms like "Roseanne" telling our daughters about their periods before we do? With the combined Big 3 share of the prime-time audience shrinking, and cable TV, home video and independent programming far more explicit, the networks are responding in kind.
It's one thing for such syndicated programs as "A Current Affair" and "Inside Edition" to bring viewers the most vile stories and lurid details from American life; for Morton Downey Jr. and Geraldo to incite TV riots; for independents to run uncut R-rated movies; and for Home Box Office to issue a soft-porn video covering every fleshy inch of Sports Illustrated's swimsuit issue.
But it's something else entirely when the networks go the same route.
"We can never afford to become a clone or surrogate to cable," says CBS' Margo.
Still, he notes, the boundaries of taste have advanced this year.
"It's obviously a more intensely competitive marketplace, and the options for viewers have proliferated," he says. "It would be duplicitous to suggest that CBS is not responding to the marketplace."
"Networks have always responded," agrees Alfred R. Schneider, ABC's vice president of policy and standards. "They respond to themselves, they're responding to cable. . . . As the table gets larger and more offerings placed upon it, there's obviously reaching for diversity, innovation and change."
But Alan Gerson, NBC vice president of program standards, says he's not sure what all the fuss has been about this year.
"People are reacting to television as if things are happening for the first time when that really isn't so," he says. "Television this year isn't much different than it was overall last year." (It should be noted that NBC has reorganized its program and standards department.)
Pointing to the 5-month-long writers' strike, which "put production pressure on the whole system of television," NBC's Gerson allows that some decisions were made to go ahead with programs on his network that "we might not have done or might have done differently."
Still, he says, the perception that the networks have abandoned their sense of decency in the name of ratings has been largely manufactured by the press.
"People have spent a lot of time criticizing the Geraldo (Satanism) special," he explains, noting that Rivera's syndicated version of the same topic contained far more blood and guts, making the NBC special "a tribute to network standards."
And as far as "Favorite Son" is concerned, Gerson says: "It was a six-hour movie, and people found three minutes in the movie that they objected to. And the scenes they objected to were certainly borderline. We made a judgment that they were important to the story, that they were character-driven . . . that they were appropriate."
When pressed, Gerson admits, "We probably went a little too far."
The Hartford Courant