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More TV Hits Cutting Room Floor

February 11, 2004|Scott Collins and Maria Elena Fernandez | Times Staff Writers

As executives from Viacom Inc. and the NFL head to Washington today to answer questions about sex and profanity on TV, network censors are sharpening their scissors.

CBS, a unit of Viacom, last week deleted a brief scene showing a fleeing man's naked backside from "Without a Trace." The network has forced a trim from a coming episode of the missing-persons drama, this time a depiction of a couple having sex standing up, sources said. Edits also are affecting CBS' "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation."

At Walt Disney Co.'s ABC, executives said they had preliminary discussions about trimming a 15-second sex scene from "NYPD Blue," which returned to the schedule Tuesday night after a two-month hiatus. The footage would be deleted from telecasts in the Central and Mountain time zones, where the series airs one hour earlier than on the coasts and presumably is seen by younger viewers. The 10 p.m. hour is where virtually all envelope-pushing dramas run on the broadcast networks.

General Electric Co.'s NBC last week trimmed a shot of an elderly woman's breast from an episode of "ER." The network acted under pressure from affiliate stations that were nervous after the hubbub over Janet Jackson's breast being bared during the Feb. 1 Super Bowl halftime show on CBS.

The networks' newfound skittishness about nudity is in sharp contrast to their practice of the last few years, when they all took halting steps to match cable networks in pushing edgier, more-explicit programming.

The premiere last year of the NBC mid-season drama "Kingpin" showed a crime lord's pet tiger being fed a victim's severed leg, and nudity and salty language are staples on "NYPD Blue."

Battles have flared up periodically in the last decade about the prevalence of sex, profanity and violence on TV. When "NYPD Blue" premiered in 1993, some stations refused to carry the show because of its partial nudity and rough language.

Despite objections from members of Congress about the changing standards on TV, federal regulators have been reluctant to punish networks. But executives at two networks said that when Justin Timberlake pulled off part of Jackson's costume during the Super Bowl halftime, it changed the equation.

The stunt spurred network standards-and-practices departments -- which effectively operate as censors for both programming and advertising -- to be far more aggressive in policing the decency issue. And it added an air of urgency to today's hearings by the Senate Commerce Committee and a subcommittee of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce.

Viacom President and Chief Operating Officer Mel Karmazin and National Football League Commissioner Paul Tagliabue are expected to be grilled by committee members, who are considering increasing the maximum fine for violations of decency rules from $27,500 per occurrence to $275,000.

"The standards-and-practices departments are being much more vigilant about what's going through," one network executive said on condition of anonymity. "I think everybody's been put on notice" since the Super Bowl.

Much of the pressure is coming from Washington. And the contretemps is fraying tempers among censors, producers and the network executives who manage current programming.

Some TV veterans worry that chiseling away controversial material may make series "so vanilla, we'll drive away the audience," as one network executive put it. "There are conflicting forces within our own hallways."

"NYPD Blue" co-creator and executive producer Steven Bochco said he was outraged when ABC executives proposed trimming the sex scenes for certain time zones, as was first reported Tuesday in USA Today.

"It's a hysterical overreaction," he said. "It violates an 11-year-old broadcast agreement and the implicit contract we have with our audience. There's a general taste level we impose on what we do, and that's what our loyal audience has come to expect. Nobody who watches 'NYPD' has a problem with it."

Bochco said he would rather pull the show off the air than allow the network to alter its style or content.

Another producer who asked not to be identified, calling censors "literal-minded," pointed out that network executives in charge of programming frequently side with writer-producers in pushing for edgier material.

Not every producer has encountered problems. Neal Baer of NBC's "Law & Order: SVU" said the series had not run into any recent problems with network censors, perhaps because the writers deliberately try to approach the subject matter of sex crimes in delicate, "artful" ways.

Producers for broadcast TV have to worry about another force far more powerful than censors or even senators: advertisers. The people who buy time on networks traditionally avoid anything that reeks of controversy.

John Rash, of the ad firm Campbell Mithun, called the Jackson incident "a crystallizing event of continuous cultural concern."

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