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Keaton's use of obscenity adds fodder to TV debate

How far should the networks go in trying to prevent certain words from airing?

January 18, 2008|Martin Miller | Times Staff Writer

At CAA's Century City headquarters on Wednesday evening, a panel of notable entertainment officials gathered -- not to agonize about the ongoing writers strike that has crippled television production -- but rather to examine a suddenly refreshing issue as old as mass communication itself: the tension between TV's artistic freedom and social responsibility.

Diane Keaton's apparently inadvertent use of the f-word during a segment of "Good Morning America" this week served as a timely jumping-off point for the panelists, who included former NBC President Warren Littlefield; Olivia Cohen-Cutler, who oversees ABC's standards and practices department; Shawn Ryan, creator of FX's "The Shield"; and Tim Winter, head of the L.A.-based watchdog group the Parents Television Council. The roughly two-hour discussion was presented by the Junior Hollywood Radio and Television Society and the American Civil Liberties Union.

While promoting her new film "Mad Money" Tuesday morning, Keaton complimented host Diane Sawyer's beauty and in particular her thick lips, adding that if she had lips like that she wouldn't have to work on her -- throwing in the obscenity -- personality. ABC officials apologized for the obscenity, which aired uncensored on many ABC affiliates on the East Coast but was bleeped in later feeds for the Central, Mountain and Pacific time zones.

The obscenity prompted Winter to rally his estimated 1.1 million PTC membership, and he urged them to log official complaints with the Federal Communications Commission, which has the power to impose heavy fines upon broadcasters who violate decency standards. In a press release issued that day, Winter said America's families and children had been "sucker punched."

At Wednesday night's panel, Winter was asked what harm was truly done to America by Keaton's flippant word choice. Winter said: "The Earth didn't fall off its axis." But, he added, the verbal mishap is a symptom of a much larger problem of the networks failing to prevent inappropriate material from airing during times when children could be watching.

FCC Chairman Kevin Martin said it's unlikely the federal agency would take action against ABC in view of recent court cases. Last year, in a clear victory for the TV networks, a federal court ruled that broadcasters couldn't be penalized for impromptu expletives. The Bush administration is appealing that decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The evening's hottest moment flared between Winter and Ryan over a PTC-supported proposal to offer consumers a la carte cable choices. Instead of having to buy multiple channels bundled in one package, the PTC supports legislation that would allow consumers to cherry-pick and pay for only the channels they want to watch.

"Why should I have to pay for FX when all I want is the Disney Channel?" argued Winter.

But Ryan, whose award-winning, gritty cop drama "The Shield" broke new ground for language and violence on basic cable, said that proposal would stifle creativity.

"I'd prefer you be honest about this," Ryan said to Winter, whose nonprofit group originally referred to "The Shield" as "filthy trash" when it debuted. The a-la-carte proposal is a "backdoor way to censor shows and networks," Ryan added.

While scripted television and comedies have yet to employ the "f-word," coarse and colorful language has been rising dramatically over the last decade across the prime-time schedules of all the major networks, according to PTC research.

From 1995 to 2005, the percentage of shows that threw around sexually derived vulgarities shot up from 41% to 64%, while shows that incorporated scatological vulgarities rose from 58% to 83%, according to the PTC.

But Littlefield said that what audiences find offensive hinges largely on a show's context and an audience's expectations. For instance, when he was the head of NBC, a pair of "Seinfeld" advertisers withdrew their support in protest over an episode titled "The Contest." In one of its more famous story lines, the episode revolved around a bet among the show's characters to see who could go the longest without masturbating.

While acknowledging the potential for controversy, Littlefield said the episode was inventive and fresh without being offensive. To prove it, NBC offered the vacated "Seinfeld" advertising spots to others but at a 30% higher rate than usual. The network easily filled them, he said.

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martin.miller@latimes.com

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