Barely a week after the Los Angeles Board of Education voted to distribute condoms in city schools, Fox Broadcasting's "Beverly Hills, 90210" brings the issue to national TV tonight.
In the episode scheduled for broadcast at 9 p.m., the show's teen characters petition their school board in favor of condom distribution on their high school campus. Unlike the Los Angeles decision, however, the teens--led by the character of Andrea, the editor of the school newspaper--lose their battle.
Nevertheless, the concept of the episode has won praise from advocates of safe sex education among teens.
"The fact that they raised the issue at all is commendable," said Jeff Horton, a member of the Los Angeles school board who supported the decision to distribute condoms. "The fact that it is raised in the context of the students taking the initiative and looking after their own health is even better."
But Fox executives, according to program insiders, have become increasingly skittish about the reaction they may get from opponents of condom use. "Beverly Hills, 90210" came under fire last year for an episode in which the character of Brenda decided to have sex for the first time.
On Monday, a screening of the episode that had been planned for that night was abruptly canceled. Fox also refused to make advance copies of the episode or its script available for review.
The organizers of the screening--show producer Spelling Entertainment Inc. and the Center for Population Options--were asked by Fox to cancel it because the network wanted to keep a tighter rein on publicity, according to a source involved with the program.
But Fox spokeswoman Betsy Wagner said Wednesday that the cancellation decision was mutual. "We discussed it and decided not to have a screening for the press in advance," she said. "It was not as if Fox said, 'Cancel it.' "
Wagner said that she "didn't see any reason to do a press screening" because most other episodes are not screened, and the episode was not quite finished on Monday.
Wagner said that the network did not encounter problems with advertisers over the episode. All of its available commercial time sold at regular prices, she said.
However, the network did require significant rewrites on the episode, according to executive producer Chuck Rosin.
A key element in the original script, Rosin said, involved a discussion of how advertising bombards youngsters with images of sex, making it difficult for many teens to determine appropriate behavior or define a healthy self-image. But Fox nixed Rosin's plan to have an example of a sexy ad as a recurring element in the show, Rosin said.
Also cut were a fantasy sequence in which a virgin character imagines what life would be like if she remained chaste forever, and a sequence in which the characters--frustrated over the loss of their cause at the school board--hand out safe-sex information packets that include condoms, Rosin said.
The script was also rewritten to make the character of a parent who opposed condom distribution more appealing, he said.
Wagner said that some of the changes were made to give the program more balance, and others as part of the normal creative process.
Rosin said he was willing to make the changes in order to get the show on the air.
"Truthfully, the rewrite in some areas probably was more fair and balanced than the original," said Rosin, who said the intent of the show was not to crusade for condoms in the schools but rather to encourage youngsters to think about issues regarding sex.
"The key message of the show is to be true to oneself, have the proper kind of information and not be afraid to address issues and express feelings," Rosin said. "We think parents should watch this with their kids and not be afraid to talk about the same issues that we talk about."
To that end, Rosin said, characters in tonight's show, which is titled "Everybody's Talking," discuss a number of issues regarding their sexuality, not just condom use. One character worries about whether she should remain a virgin, for example, and another fears that she has been too promiscuous.
Barbara Boudreaux, an L.A. school board member who opposed condom distribution, cautioned that unless the program includes all points of view, it will be of little help to teens, for whom "Beverly Hills, 90210" is the top-rated TV show in the nation. Fox estimates that 4.1 million teen-agers watch it each week.
"They would have to make sure that they get across-the-board representation of youngsters, and whoever is going to do it would have to be someone with a very balanced view in the presentation," Boudreaux said.
According to Rosin, the episode does feature such balance, including one regular teen character who is opposed to condom distribution and a "positive, good guy" parent who is also opposed. The character who leads the charge for condom availability, Andrea, is portrayed as a virgin, as are the characters of Donna and David.
The program's other five main teen-age characters, who are not virgins, come down in favor of condom availability, and after their loss at the school board they make plans to promote safe sex among their peers and in the community, Rosin said.
And if that makes some parents and advertisers uncomfortable, so be it, Rosin said.
"When (creator) Darren Star and (production company chief) Aaron Spelling and I in the first year talked about the show, we felt that if we could be true to the teen-agers' experiences, they would find us," Rosin said.
"I make it for that (teen-age) audience. And they are more important to me than the sponsors or certain affiliates in a network apparatus who may be uncomfortable with the fact that the parents of our audience may be uncomfortable talking to their kids about sexual issues."