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Can they say that?

Television

Just ask Ted Cordes, the gatekeeper who helped decide what could and could not be broadcast on NBC for more than 30 years.

January 18, 2004|Robert Lloyd | Times Staff Writer

The first day of 2004 was Ted Cordes' last working for NBC, the end of an association that, notwithstanding a five-year hiatus in the late '60s, spanned four decades.

Cordes began in 1963 as a page, squiring celebrities and leading guided tours of the network's Burbank studios and is retiring as vice president in charge of broadcast standards, West Coast.

He was the censor.

In a nation where everyone believes in at least his own right to free speech, the censor is typically seen as the enemy not only of expression but of fun -- one pictures him black-clad, pinched and mean, armed with a big pair of scissors and an inviolable list of shalt-nots. But this is not Cordes, a friendly, youthful sort, who prides himself on flexibility and sees himself not as a spoiler but a facilitator.

"Nobody believes more in free expression than I do," says Cordes, sitting for a valedictory interview in what would in a few days become his former office, but still sounding very much on the job. "I try to work with a producer -- 'Tell me what you want to say and I'll do everything I can to get you to be able to say it.' We try to help get something across, not prevent it.

"We're no longer nannies to the nation," he says. "At one time we were. We worried about what is good for everybody. But now we more reflect society."

That means that television nowadays does not blanch, nor blush, at many words still deemed unprintable even by the paper you hold in your hands. Within universally accepted limits of grossness, nothing human is so alien to TV that it can't be used on "Law & Order."

Cordes' replacement is Ken Samuel, currently vice president, compliance and standards, who has been in broadcast standards on and off since 1995.

The present-day broadcast censor, far from being a dour guardian of public morals, is a kind of mediator between the network, its affiliates, its audience and the FCC. His job is to keep the company out of trouble, while making as many people as possible as happy as possible, not only regarding matters of sex and violence, but of creed, color and even species, as in a recent flap over the eating of horse rectum on NBC's own "Fear Factor."

"We are broadcasters after all," Cordes says. "That's a real term. We're not narrowcasters. It's a big country out there, with a lot of diverse tastes, and they don't seem to like extremes."

Over his tenure -- he joined broadcast standards in 1972 and has been in his current position since 1991 -- Cordes has "provided coverage" or other oversight for every sort of TV program. Game shows and children's shows. "The Tonight Show" and "Tomorrow" show, where for live broadcasts he would personally oversee the 10-second delay. ("I was sitting next to the guy who actually had his finger on the button, and I'd hear the word and tap him on the shoulder -- I wasn't allowed [by union rules] to touch the machinery.") He vetted lyrics and costumes for "The Midnight Special" ("Most of the costume problems on that show were male, not female") and worked on countless TV series and movies, all the way into the age of so-called reality.

"My first job was answering fan mail to 'Bonanza' and the last job I worked on was 'Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.' What a span that is."

Cordes met recently with a Times television critic and offered these reflections on a most challenging and misunderstood profession.

Teamwork

I didn't grow up wanting to be in broadcast standards -- that's not anybody's goal, I don't think. The first person I'm not going to hire is somebody who says "I have to be in broadcast standards." Because then they have an agenda, and that's not what we're here for.

It's not following a rule book. You have to have a general knowledge of literature and culture, you have to have an openness. We're all different, the staff: some of us are lawyers, some of us were educators, some were actors. We're of varied background, different ethnicities.

You get pinned by being a censor. The minute you walk in the room people stop talking, and they don't want to know you. So you have to establish yourself as a human being. I ask people that work here, "Go to [the producers] before you have a problem. Go to them when you first get the assignment, before they've even started writing, and show them that you're on their team." You're their liaison to the network, and you argue their case. That's why lawyers do so well here.

You get to know your producers and they love you or hate you accordingly. We get very loyal to our shows. We feel part of the team, we really do. I'm in awe of these people, of the ["Law & Order" producer] Dick Wolfs of the world. I can't challenge him on his judgment of the audience. I wouldn't even try. What I can do is bring a different perspective. But if you're reading a script from a well-thought-of producer, somebody who has made it in this business, and you question something, you always reexamine yourself. "Am I right?"

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