The first scene in NBC's new fall sitcom "Whoopi" begins with the star, Whoopi Goldberg, puffing on a cigarette, ignoring a nearby "No Smoking" sign.
"You know, secondhand smoke kills," says an irritated guest of the hotel Goldberg's character owns.
"So do I," she shoots back, glaring at the guest.
Scheduled to premiere Sept. 23, the show is designed to be a Norman Lear-like commentary on American society, in the same vein as the groundbreaking "All in the Family." That show was built around bigoted jokes that boomeranged on Archie Bunker, while "Whoopi," featuring a relationship in which her brother is dating a white woman, takes a swipe at everything from fears about terrorism, Arab American stereotypes, kids who talk in exaggerated street slang to mispronunciations by President Bush.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday August 06, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 1 inches; 48 words Type of Material: Correction
Smoking on TV -- An article in Monday's Business section about the title character's smoking habit on the new fall TV sitcom "Whoopi" misidentified Dave Hackel as executive director and creator for Paramount Network Television's "Becker," which airs on CBS. Hackel is executive producer and creator of "Becker."
But the topic that's catching fire is Goldberg's smoking.
It is "extraordinary when you have an interracial couple in the show, and the thing that people are freaking about is that I'm smoking," Goldberg said recently. "I love it."
Goldberg's unapologetic attitude flies in the face of a prime-time trend. The American Lung Assn. just last month applauded television networks and producers for increasingly snuffing out smoking scenes on network TV.
In contrast, a study by the association documented an increase in smoking in movies, including films rated PG-13. It found that more than 40% of leading actors smoked in the 145 movies sampled.
Teenage volunteers, recruited by the association's Sacramento chapter, spent March watching movies and TV shows. They recorded each time they saw cigarettes or other tobacco products in a scene, and found smoking in more than a third of the 77 television shows they watched.
The youths viewed 271 prime-time programs from ABC, CBS, NBC, WB and Fox Broadcasting. They documented 2.1 incidents of tobacco use for each hour, project director Kori Titus said. Five years ago, the survey found an average of four incidents of smoking an hour.
"This is the lowest rate we've ever seen it on TV," Titus said. Her group has been conducting the survey for eight years.
The "smokiest" shows last season, she said, were "Becker" on Viacom Inc.-owned CBS; "The Simpsons" on News Corp.'s Fox; and three shows on General Electric Co.'s NBC -- "American Dreams," "Boomtown" and "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit."
Since then, Becker has quit.
"What could be worse than a doctor who smokes?" asked Dave Hackel, executive director and creator of the Paramount Network Television series that stars Ted Danson. "This was something I put in the pilot because I wanted to give him as many foibles as possible. I was trying to have a very good doctor who was a very damaged person."
Viewers responded with angry letters. The anti-smoking mail hasn't stopped, as the show is scheduled to enter its sixth season this fall.
"It was never our intention to glorify smoking. If anything, we took pains to make it look disgusting," said Hackel, who smoked for two decades before quitting 14 years ago.
It wasn't pressure by upset viewers, advertisers or network executives that ultimately led Dr. John Becker to quit last season. "We decided to keep alive his battle to be a nonsmoker," Hackel said. "We can get a lot of stories out of this. So far, we've already written an episode where he runs around holding candy cigarettes."
In real life, Danson doesn't smoke -- unlike Goldberg, his former love interest. The comedienne, an executive producer on her show, told television writers recently that she has never tried to kick her longtime nicotine habit.
Goldberg opened a Television Critics Assn. session last month by smoking on stage at the Hollywood Renaissance Hotel, in violation of state law. It wasn't a gag, say show producers who were with Goldberg when she grabbed a cigarette and announced she needed to light up just before they went on stage.
Although anti-smoking advocates say they haven't seen any episodes of "Whoopi," they have been bracing since reading in the Hollywood Reporter in May that Goldberg's character would be a "chain-smoking innkeeper."
Indeed, Goldberg puffs away in three scenes during the 22-minute pilot. Health advocates say they are alarmed by the amount of smoking and that NBC is airing the show when young children probably would be in the audience: 8 p.m. in the Eastern and Pacific time zones, and 7 p.m. in the middle of the country. They want NBC to move the show to a later time slot.
"Whenever you see a cigarette used as a prop, kids pick up on that," said Melissa Havard, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Los Angeles-based entertainment initiative on smoking and health. "Children don't understand the nuances or see the humor that adults do."
NBC Entertainment President Jeff Zucker said he was comfortable with the show in an early time period. The series won't glamorize smoking, Zucker said, adding, "I would caution people not to jump to conclusions until they've seen the show."