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TV Drama Creators Compare Their Reality to Columbine's

Television: Producers of top network shows caution against blaming entertainment medium for tragedy.

May 19, 1999|JUDITH MICHAELSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The subject was "Ethics by the Episode," and the panelists were six of the leading writer-producers of drama on American television today.

So it was inevitable that exactly four weeks after the massacre of Colorado students by two classmates at Columbine High School, that event should strike a nerve among those onstage at the Museum of Television & Radio in New York on Tuesday, as they grappled with the matter of how the political, social and moral climate affects their work. The remarks were fed by satellite to an audience at the museum's Beverly Hills location.

When the panelists were asked by museum President Robert M. Batscha to cite difficult topics, Dick Wolf, creator and executive producer of NBC's "Law & Order," immediately mentioned teen suicide, suggesting that a statistical reality as well as a copycat mentality pervade teen culture.

"The one story we've never done is teen suicides." Particularly now, he said, in the wake of another school campus shooting like the one near Denver. Quoting an expert on teen behavior whom he heard on CNN, Wolf noted that "these are suicides. . . . You can commit suicide and go out in a blaze of glory--that's horribly attractive."

But moments later, Wolf added that "it's really troubling when we blame the images for the response. We can be responsible about teen suicide because we see the numbers, but the numbers are still microcosmic compared to the society at large. The real danger is when we blame entertainment or we blame images or we blame anything for what's setting off the sickest parts of our society."

Meanwhile Tom Fontana, executive producer of NBC's "Homicide: Life on the Street," said that people can choose to turn the television off and "talk to our children." He also disclosed that two episodes of "Homicide" were "juggled" because of Colorado, "and the network was being very sensitive, which I appreciate." The episodes, he said, had "almost nothing" to do with the event.

"What I found remarkable," he noted, was that when the network was fretting that "Homicide" could't be aired, the NBC newsmagazine "Dateline" did two minutes of news about Colorado and "50 minutes of music and graphics and music. They might as well have had showgirls on it. I find it very frustrating . . . that the news can get away with exploiting a tragedy, whereas drama guys are getting, 'Whoa, we got to be sensitive to that.' " Presenting a bigger picture, Steven Bochco, creator and executive producer of ABC's "NYPD Blue" and a 10-time Emmy winner, said that on the matter of content he sees "a medium that has matured significantly."

The discussion also encompassed the recent White House scandals, and David E. Kelley, creator of ABC's "The Practice," Fox's "Ally McBeal" and CBS' "Chicago Hope" said, with no small bite of humor, that he was unable to use a common colloquialism (for oral sex) on "The Practice" even while Monica Lewinsky was talking to Barbara Walters about her relationship with President Clinton. They weren't talking about fashion, he quipped.

After two of the museum's two-hour sessions, the A-list producers weren't taking one another to task--or themselves too seriously. When someone in the audience asked whether there were certain truths they were coming up with, Edward Zwick, creator with Marshall Herskovitz of "thirtysomething," replied: "There are no truths--only stories."

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