Barry Diller's USA Networks Inc. continues to insist that it pulled the plug on the TV production of "Who Killed Sue Snow?" in the name of social responsibility.
Denying it bowed to pressure from drug company advertisers, USA says a docudrama about two cyanide-laced-Excedrin deaths in 1986 could have inspired a copycat crime. As USA spokesman Ron Sato said: "We don't have to worry about a crazy individual finding the subject matter much too compelling for our comfort."
This is a new tack for USA. On Sunday, the network will air "Every Mother's Worst Fear," a movie about a teenage girl who is abducted by a wacko she meets in an online chat room.
The "ripped from the headlines" crime stories of the acclaimed "Law and Order" series it produces include episodes based on crimes such as the Unabomber killings. Thursday night, USA aired the Charles Bronson film "Death Wish II," which celebrates vigilante street justice.
And until USA lost the contract three months ago, the network's ratings juggernaut was campy professional wrestling, often criticized as inspiring children to imitate the wrestlers' body slams and bone-crushing stomps.
Johnson & Johnson, which has received wide acclaim for reacting quickly to the crisis that followed the deaths of seven Chicago-area residents in 1982 from cyanide-tainted Tylenol, acknowledges that it raised concerns about the content of "Snow." The company denied, however, that it threatened to pull its ads from USA if the network went forward with the production.
On the surface, USA's response looks like a public-relations coup in an industry criticized for usually putting profit over ethics.
"This example of corporate responsibility should be commended," said Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.). "My hope is that it will also be extended. Entertainment executives know that their products can affect the behavior of their consumers, especially youngsters--whether they showcase drug tampering or violence."
USA's sudden concern with a repeat of the kind of drug-package tampering that terrorized the country in the 1980s comes at a time when the problem has largely been contained, thanks to strict anti-tampering safeguards that were adopted after Snow's death. Drug tampering hasn't made headlines in years.
In addition, the Snow case has already been well publicized on several major TV programs, including popular crime-reenactment shows.
The History Channel sells its "Perfect Crime" series on its Web site, including a segment that ran in March on the poisoning deaths of Snow and the husband of the convicted killer, Stella Nickell. "We didn't hear anything from any pharmaceutical companies regarding this. Even if we did, the History Channel controls its own editorial content," said channel spokeswoman Debra Fazio.
Learning Channel spokeswoman Lynn McReynolds said the channel repeatedly ran a segment on the Nickell killings during the 1997-'98 season of its "Medical Detectives" forensics show. Drug company objections? "None that I'm aware of," she said. Likewise, HBO producers say they haven't received complaints about a segment on the murders scheduled to air in March as part of its popular "Autopsy" documentary series.
Johnson & Johnson spokesman John McKeegan declined to say why the company voiced objections to the USA movie and not the others. "We don't want to get into a debate about that. We didn't feel the movie was appropriate. We contacted the network and let them know how we felt," he said.
Members of Snow's family, who over the years have talked about the case in part to raise public awareness of drug-tampering crimes, said they believe the pressures on the cable network had little to do with safety concerns.
"The pharmaceutical companies are way out of line in trying to stop the show," said Snow's daughter, Hayley Klein.
Added Snow's twin sister, Sarah Webb: "They don't want any bad publicity. I don't think they need to worry about copycat killings."
Author Gregg Olsen, whose book "Bitter Almonds" became the basis for the movie, called USA's reasons "a smoke screen. What we have here is a case of the drug companies exercising considerable power to avoid their own history. This is about public relations, not public safety."
Olsen's book was optioned for less than $50,000, and he said he has no financial stake in whether the movie gets made.
When USA management halted the project Thanksgiving eve, it made no secret that it was bowing to pressure from major advertiser Johnson & Johnson--whose subsidiary company makes Tylenol--said sources involved in the project.
"There was a discussion about it," one source said. "USA was concerned about the sponsors."
While declining to comment on the USA decision, CBS Television President Leslie Moonves said, "We've never pulled a show because of advertising pressure."