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Fox Slots Devilish Show at Early Hour

Television: Network defends airing 'Brimstone' at 8 p.m., but others say it's not appropriate.


Television standards have clearly relaxed since the days of watching "The Brady Bunch" on Friday nights, but is a show whose first episode implies pedophilia by a murderous priest appropriate for the hour networks once reserved for family-friendly programming?

Fox invites that question with "Brimstone," a macabre new drama starring Peter Horton as a dead cop dispatched to Earth by the devil to track down evil souls who escaped from hell. Originally scheduled at 9 p.m. Tuesdays, Fox made a strategic last-minute change after its Friday comedies flopped, meaning the series will instead play at 8 p.m. beginning tonight, leading into the gloomy third-year show "Millennium."

With many kids abandoning broadcasters in general to watch Nickelodeon, the Disney Channel and other dedicated children's cable services, the networks have moved more adult programs to lead off nights--including ABC's "Dharma & Greg" and NBC's "Friends" and "Mad About You," plus three editions of the newsmagazine "Dateline NBC."

Fox, however, has appeared least concerned among the major networks about guidelines that once governed the so-called family hour, with an 8 p.m. lineup that includes the sexy serials "Melrose Place" and "Beverly Hills, 90210," the reality series "World's Wildest Police Videos" and "America's Most Wanted," and two reasonably risque animated programs, "The Simpsons" and "King of the Hill."

While most network programs that might raise parental eyebrows at 8 p.m. do so because of language or sexual innuendo, "Brimstone" carries an advisory for violent content and is rated TV-14, meaning parents may not deem the program suitable for children under 14.

After the pilot, whose hellish refugee is a long-dead priest who kidnaps children, subsequent episodes deal with a woman who slays her lovers and the rapist Horton's character killed after the man assaulted his wife.

In defending their scheduling practices, Fox officials point out that there are plenty of viewing options for kids at 8 p.m. Fridays. In addition to the aforementioned cable channels, G-rated fare can be found on ABC, which airs the sitcoms "Two of a Kind" and "Boy Meets World"; CBS, with its tandem of "Kids Say the Darndest Things" and "Candid Camera"; and UPN's family drama "Legacy."


Network officials also acknowledged that the distinctions currently drawn between the first hour of prime time and later in the evening are no longer clear. The actual "family viewing hour" existed only briefly--introduced by the National Assn. of Broadcasters in 1975 before a federal court overturned it a year later--but networks voluntarily adhered to certain standards long afterward.

"The [difference] between 8 and 9 p.m. has become so muddled, there really is no safe harbor as far as this medium is concerned, especially with the emerging networks, because we don't have the liberty to program at 10 o'clock," said Roland McFarland, Fox's vice president of broadcast standards and practices. "If we look at Friday night from just a point of strategy, it's a wise counter-programming move, [but] we are conceding a substantial portion of the younger audience to ABC and CBS."

Critics say arguments about counter-programming and kid-friendly shows available elsewhere simply represent an example of networks passing the buck.

"To use the excuse [that] other networks are already programming [for kids] is shirking their responsibility," said Mark Honig, executive director of the Parents Television Council, a conservative group that has lobbied for the networks to reinstate a family viewing hour--a sentiment that has won favor among certain members of Congress.

While Honig acknowledged that sex is more prevalent than violence on the networks at 8 p.m., he also expressed concern that the violence that does air is becoming "more grisly and graphic. You're starting to see violence take a more intense turn."

From a practical standpoint, Fox feels "Brimstone" and "Millennium"--which both touch in varying degrees upon the supernatural--form a compatible programming block, providing a clear alternative to softer material scheduled that night. The network clearly hopes men who once flocked to "The X-Files" on Friday nights will tune in, heavily promoting the show during this week's World Series coverage.

"Brimstone" was developed and pitched to the network as an adult-oriented program the producers anticipated would air later in the evening. Even so, Fox's McFarland described the prototype viewers will see tonight as "atypical," saying subsequent installments are "not nearly as dark as the pilot."

Warner Bros. Television, which produces the show, added that the program will strive to incorporate more humor, but that such tinkering was a choice unrelated to when the program aired.

"The [creative] integrity of the show is something that has to remain," said Warner Bros. Television President Tony Jonas. "That is the undoing of television--every time you make unreasonable changes just because of the time period."

In the case of "Brimstone," Warner Bros. also has another dog in the fight, since the company also produces time-period rival "Two of a Kind," the new ABC comedy starring onetime "Full House" moppets Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen, which has quickly become an extremely popular program among kids.

* SATANIC SERIES: Howard Rosenberg finds "Brimstone's" premiere pretentious but intriguing. F28

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