Paramount is suffering another public-relations headache regarding "Dr. Laura," this time involving a fellow member of the studio's television family, "Frasier," with an episode of the sitcom that spoofed talk-show host Laura Schlessinger having been mysteriously yanked from syndication.
The episode in question first aired on NBC in April 1999 and featured Christine Baranski as a spiteful radio host named Dr. Nora who preached morals, had a terrible relationship with her mother and clashed with the program's namesake, played by Kelsey Grammer.
Schlessinger criticized "Frasier" on her syndicated radio program in March, saying it was unfair to satirize her mother, who is not a public figure. The producers of "Frasier" had joined in a rally outside Paramount urging the studio not to provide Schlessinger a forum in television, based on comments made by the host that gay-rights activists deemed homophobic and anti-gay.
The Dr. Nora episode--for which both Baranski and Piper Laurie received Emmy nominations--played in syndication last December but has since disappeared, coinciding with the window in which Paramount was preparing to launch "Dr. Laura" in September. By contrast, the episodes immediately preceding and following it have each been repeated three times this year.
"Obviously, someone has done this," said "Frasier" co-creator David Lee. "This is not accidental."
Both "Dr. Laura," which airs locally on KCBS-TV at 3 p.m. weekdays, and reruns of "Frasier" are distributed through Paramount's syndication unit. The Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, which has been campaigning against Schlessinger's program, called the chain of events "suspicious."
Keven Bellows, a spokeswoman for Schlessinger, said emphatically that the host had nothing to do with the episode being pulled. "It's totally ridiculous. . . . You'd have to be nuts to do that," she said. "[And] it's certainly not true that Laura had anything to do with it."
Sources within Paramount have speculated that syndication executives may have decided on their own not to run the episode for fear of offending Schlessinger. A spokesman for the studio's television division said Paramount "received no request from Dr. Laura" not to air the episode but declined to comment on its absence, saying only that the program would be broadcast when its next rerun cycle comes up in February.
"Frasier's" Lee suggested that studio officials--having defended their decision to go forward with Schlessinger's show on 1st Amendment grounds--appeared hypocritical. "If you're going to lecture me about freedom of speech, be consistent about it," he said.
"I find it curious that Paramount would yank the Dr. Nora episode, because this is the only Dr. Laura show Paramount has done that people want to watch," added Joe Keenan, the former "Frasier" producer who wrote the episode.
Ratings for "Dr. Laura" have been low, a trend that has plagued virtually all daytime series introduced this season. The current month--a rating sweeps period--could be crucial for new programs, with the threat TV stations may move shows with subpar ratings into less desirable time slots.
Facing an orchestrated pressure campaign, more than 90 sponsors across the country have dropped ads on "Dr. Laura," forcing Paramount to sell time at reduced rates. The studio has expressed confidence in the program but has also undertaken creative revisions seeking to make its format more similar to Schlessinger's radio show.