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CBS Allows Four-Letter Word on 'Chicago Hope'

October 13, 1999|BRIAN LOWRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Another barrier related to the so-called "Seven Dirty Words You Can't Say on TV" will fall in Thursday's episode of "Chicago Hope," when a character says the phrase, "S--- happens."

Broadcasters have gradually relaxed their standards regarding language, from "NYPD Blue" to Fox's new Hollywood satire "Action," which uses potentially offensive words and bleeps them out, as cable network Comedy Central does on "South Park."

Still, certain four-letter words--including the one that will be heard on "Chicago Hope"--have remained taboo, and CBS' decision to allow this particular expression to stay in may be unprecedented.

The exchange occurs in a scene featuring Dr. Jack McNeil, played by Mark Harmon, being interrogated by a medical board after something has gone terribly wrong with one of his patients.

Executive producer Michael Pressman went to CBS officials and fought to keep the line as written, and the network ultimately agreed.

"It comes down to a phrase that embodies the feeling of the whole hour," Pressman said. "There's no other way to express it."

CBS stressed that this does not reflect a wider change in policy. "The producers felt strongly that the line was important for artistic truthfulness," a network spokesman said. "We wanted to support their creative vision, but clearly, this is not something that will happen on a weekly basis."

Many producers have lobbied for more latitude in their use of language to make their shows more realistic, citing the lack of such restrictions on critically acclaimed cable series such as "The Sopranos." By contrast, advocacy groups have expressed dismay about the slackening of broadcast standards contributing to a general coarsening of society.

Asked about what sort of reaction he anticipated from viewers, Pressman said, "I think it'll go by without a blip."

Contacted about CBS' use of the word, Steve Schwalm--a spokesman for the Media Research Center, a conservative group based in Alexandria, Va., that has railed against current TV standards--said, "I'm dismayed but not surprised. We've seen it coming. This season has opened the floodgates."

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* "Chicago Hope" will be shown Thursday night at 9. The network has rated it TV-14-L (may be unsuitable for children younger than 14 with special advisories for coarse language).

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