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THE DECENCY DEBATE

Pulled into a very wide net

Unusual suspects have joined the censors' target list, making for strange bedfellows (wait -- can we say that?).

March 28, 2004|Scott Collins, Lynn Smith, Randy Lewis, John Horn, Bob Baker, Dana Calvo

Janet JACKSON'S bare breast was one thing. But for a real sign of how sensitive the broadcast indecency issue has become, consider the case of Raquel Smashenburn.

The sight of her bare bottom was too much for executives at UPN, who ordered it obscured in the first episode of their new sitcom "Game Over." Oh, and for the millions who didn't see it, Raquel is an animated character.

Hoping to avoid millions of dollars in fines and protect their licenses, the networks' gatekeepers are now rushing to cover naked body parts, cut foul language and monitor anything that smacks of poor taste ... except when they're not. The only consistent thread running through the current crackdown -- which has ensnared culprits ranging from a chronic provocateur like ousted radio personality Bubba the Love Sponge to an accidental offender like NBC's "ER" -- is how wildly inconsistent it all seems.

ABC's venerable "NYPD Blue" had to darken one of its trademark sex scenes, yet cops still utter one common barnyard epithet every episode, and the bloody corpses pile up. Radio giant Clear Channel Radio dropped Howard Stern's show from six stations, citing its "inappropriate material"; Viacom's Mel Karmazin, Stern's employer, told a U.S. senator that Stern's show "does not fall within the ... indecency definition." MTV, which produced the Super Bowl halftime show in which Jackson's wardrobe "malfunctioned," has relegated some racy videos to late-night hours, yet FX's gritty, often obscene cop drama "The Shield" is back for its third season in prime time.

In 2001, NBC chief Bob Wright sent a memo to TV executives urging them to ponder the long-term effects of HBO's "The Sopranos." For all the series' success, Wright wrote, "we could not and would not air [the show] on NBC because of the violence, language and nudity."

Staking a position is one thing, but withstanding the audience erosion caused by cable's aggressive programming is something else. Since Wright's memo surfaced, NBC has aired "Kingpin," a hard-hitting series about a Mexican drug lord, as well as envelope-pushing unscripted series such as "Fear Factor" and "Meet My Folks."

Stern has used his show to decry what he calls censorship in the culture. But it's important to note that at least so far, the media companies are censoring themselves -- mostly from fear that the indecency debate will end up affecting their balance sheets. As always, it's the bottom line -- and not so much a naked bottom -- that gets the attention of the big media companies.

-- Scott Collins

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Caught in the maelstrom:

Josh Schwartz

Creator and executive producer, Fox's "The O.C."

Busted for: Attempted sexual relations between Ryan (Benjamin McKenzie) and Marissa (Mischa Barton).

Punishment: Ryan and Marissa engaged in some grab-fanny last November but, post-Janet Jackson, were told by Fox to chill; the TV couple will stay celibate through the end of the season. Some double-entendres have been scrapped too.

Prior offenses: Quick snippets of hot tub threesomes, background cocaine use, underage keg parties.

His reaction: "It's kind of scary what's going on now. But the show was never going to be about drugs or sex. Because you can never get away with that much on network television anyway."

Going forward: "We've had to pull back on some of the more extreme behavior the kids do over the course of the season. There's not nearly as much drinking. There's not nearly as much drug use."

What else: "I still can't believe that we got away with this, but in the pilot, our hero and heroine, Ryan and Marissa, bonded over a cigarette. It was true to the characters, but something we were never going to be allowed to do again."

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'Raquel Smashenburn'

Character on "Game Over," a UPN prime-time series

Busted for: The March 10 premiere of this computer-generated, animated sitcom featured a female character's bare backside.

Punishment: Network executives forced the producers to blur the image.

The reaction: The producers were reportedly not pleased but declined to comment. The network likewise declined to comment. But then, few people noticed anyway; that debut episode attracted fewer than 2 million viewers.

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Tyra Banks

Creator and executive producer, UPN's "America's Next Top Model"

Busted for: A March 16 "orgy episode" that depicted four female contestants engaged in a late-night tryst with men in Milan, Italy.

Punishment: UPN reportedly ordered the producers to cut certain scenes deemed "inappropriate for broadcast." But as one of UPN's biggest hits, it has been renewed for two more seasons.

Her reaction: Banks wouldn't comment for this story. But she told Conan O'Brien in January that the women "were doing the nasty ... I don't want to say 'orgy' -- but I just said it."

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John Wells

Executive producer, NBC's "ER"

Busted for: A Feb. 5 episode of the hospital drama contained a glimpse of an 80-year-old patient's breast.

Punishment: Under pressure from its affiliate stations, NBC forced the producers to obscure the shot.

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