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NBC Takes a Second Look at 'And the Band Played On' : Television: The network, which once had the rights to Randy Shilts' landmark book about AIDS, airs the HBO film tonight.

March 28, 1994|STEVE WEINSTEIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

About 6 1/2 years after NBC first began trying to turn Randy Shilts' landmark book on AIDS into a TV movie, "And the Band Played On" finally makes it to the network tonight.

Only the movie isn't really NBC's at all. It's HBO's, which picked up the ball when NBC abandoned the project about four years ago. The film debuted on the pay-cable channel last September. NBC has edited about 40 minutes from the original to fit it into a two-hour time slot and make room for commercials.

"I think it's great that we get to air this now," said Warren Littlefield, president of NBC Entertainment. "Our desire has never changed. We thought it was an important book and we always wanted to see that property on our air. Why would we want to change that goal? So what, that it left us; the fact is, it's still an outstanding property and we feel it is still important to get the message out to the American public."

NBC dropped the project in 1989 after two years of work that included buying the rights to the book and commissioning scripts. At the time, there was speculation that the network was fearful that there would not be advertiser or viewer support for what were--at least by network TV standards--the controversial elements of Shilts' book, which tracks the medical, scientific, political and societal saga of the first five years of AIDS in the United States, culminating in the announcement in 1985 that Rock Hudson was suffering from the disease.

The 613-page book, written by a San Francisco Chronicle reporter who was the first journalist assigned full time to the AIDS beat, is considered one of the quintessential depictions of gay life in America. (Shilts, who consulted on the movie's script, died of AIDS last month.)

Littlefield, however, dismissed the idea that NBC chickened out because of the gay content or fears of an advertiser boycott. He said the network had planned from the start to transform the book into a four-hour, two-part miniseries and ultimately decided that the material "did not hold up in that form."

Aaron Spelling, the producer behind such network series as "Dynasty" and "Beverly Hills, 90210," then picked up the project and, after overcoming myriad obstacles--including three directors and at least 15 drafts of the script--made a 2-hour and 15-minute film with HBO that focuses primarily on the medical, scientific and political elements of Shilts' book. The movie does feature gay characters, but the central character is a heterosexual doctor who directed laboratory efforts for AIDS research at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta.

Spelling said that no matter the reasons it shied away from the project originally, he considers NBC courageous for making the film available to millions of people who were not able to watch it on HBO. Only about 2% of U.S. homes subscribe to HBO, and for the nine showings on the cable channel last fall, HBO estimates a cumulative audience of about 10 million homes. That leaves at least 80 million that didn't see it.

"There are a lot of people who can't afford cable, a lot of low-income groups and ethnic groups who didn't have a chance to see it," Spelling said. "And we want everyone to see it because everyone is affected by this catastrophe."

*

Neither Spelling nor Littlefield believes viewers will miss any of the scenes cut from the movie to make way for commercials. Spelling said NBC gave no directives to reduce any of the gay content or to eliminate any specific scene because it might be controversial. The only requested trims, Littlefield said, were to avoid a couple of potentially offensive words.

Littlefield said NBC decided to broadcast "And the Band Played On" to heighten public awareness about AIDS. Advertisers have strongly supported the decision, he said, and the program will be a financial success for the network.

"We're not holding a fire sale because this is an AIDS movie," Littlefield said. "And that is a terrific message for all the networks--that we can tackle tough social issues and deal with AIDS without being afraid."

He conceded that he did not know if advertisers were more inclined to support this particular movie because it had been test driven, in a sense, on HBO.

Despite a number of bad-to-lukewarm reviews when the film played on HBO--some of which criticized it as being out-of-date for condemning the policies of the Reagan Administration when he was long out of office and his successors had not done a great deal more than he had--Spelling said the film is still critically relevant today.

"Randy's band is still playing," he said. "We haven't yet done a damn thing about it and the message is exactly the same as when the book came out (in 1987). Maybe this can help get some people off their ass. Maybe they will say, 'OK, (Reagan) didn't do anything about it, but we haven't either.' Maybe it will alert some people that we have to do more than just pay AIDS some lip service. Imagine what could have been done, what could be done in research and care with just the price of one stealth bomber."

* "And the Band Played On" airs at 9 tonight on NBC (Channels 4, 36 and 39).

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