Prime-time sparks

Pressure groups try to sanitize TV shows

VICTOR DWYER March 2 1992

Prime-time sparks

Pressure groups try to sanitize TV shows

VICTOR DWYER March 2 1992

Prime-time sparks


Pressure groups try to sanitize TV shows

In his three years on the air, the lead character of the popular NBC series Quantum Leap has landed in some pretty tight situations by employing his peculiar ability to travel through time—and into other people’s bodies. Played by Scott Bakula,

Sam Beckett has thrown himself into a Vietnam soldier and a Mafia don’s girlfriend, all in his continuing efforts to influence the course of history for the better. But on the evening of the show’s Jan. 15 episode, when he found himself in a fictional Michigan military academy in 1964, and in the body of a cadet whose homosexual friend and former roommate was contemplating suicide, Beckett placed NBC in a difficult position. Just days before the episode aired, clearly uncomfortable with such a controversial theme, several advertisers whom NBC has declined to name informed the network that they were withdrawing commercials worth a total of $575,000 from the episode.

The response from TV producers and writers in the United States was swift.

Said Del Reisman, president of the industry group Writers Guild of America, West: “The Quantum Leap incident has put a real chill in the air.

More than ever, writers are asking themselves, ‘Should I be avoiding certain subjects?’ ”

Quantum Leap is not the first series dealing with homosexuality that advertisers have boycotted. In 1989,

ABC lost $1.15 million when sponsors withdrew from an episode of the drama thirtysomething that featured two homosexual men talking in bed. And other controversial themes, including birth control and extramarital sex, have driven American sponsors away from ABC, NBC and CBS. According to Betsy Frank, senior vice-president of television information and new media at Saatchi & Saatchi Advertising rn New York City, many advertisers are also becoming more sensitive about abortion in dramaêfÈ, programs because that issue and homosexuality “continue to polarize the country.”

In Canada, however, television writers, producers and executives contend that advertiser skittishness has had little effect on the domestic TV landscape and that, in general, viewers are open to increasingly bolder plot lines. Said James Burt, the creative head of movies and

mini-series at the CBC: “Canadian audiences are better at dealing with grey areas—and I guess Canadian advertisers realize that.” Such groundbreaking shows as Street Legal, E.N.G and the now-defunct Degrassi Junior High have routinely dealt with controversial subject matter—and attracted sizable audiences— while retaining advertising. But the creators of Canadian shows like the mini-series Conspiracy of Silence and Degrassi Junior High say that when their agents try to sell their scripts in the

United States, network executives there sometimes request cuts of what they say is objectionable material (although such cuts do not affect what is shown in Canada).

Experts across the industry point to the decline of the so-called big three U.S. networks as one of the main factors behind the new nervousness over program content in the United States. Since 1975, because of competition from cable and specialty services, as well as VCRs, the three major networks have seen their combined share of the prime-time audience plummet by almost 30 percentage points, to 64 per cent of viewers. Meanwhile, the three networks’ share of advertising fell 12 percentage points to 47 per cent between 1975 and 1990. During that period, cable stations and the upstart Fox Broadcasting Co. lured away advertising dollars. At the same time, the economic recession appears to have made advertisers especially sensitive to issues that might turn audiences away from their products.

The problem is compounded in the United States by the existence of several small but well-organized pressure groups. One of the most vocal is the American Family Association, based in Tupelo, Miss., which in recent years has organized corporate boycotts and letter-writing camrpaigns targeting, among other companies, Burger King Corp. The association criticized the hamburger chain for sponsoring such shows as thirtysomething, which it scorned for an episode in which a legally separated couple have sex, and NBC’s L.A. Law, for an episode in which a Roman Catholic priest considers absolving a woman who confesses to using birth control. Association president Donald Wildmon said that his group encourages shows that are “clean, wholesome and family-oriented”—and that the way to achieve such programming is through “economic boycotts of the companies that spon-

One theme to which several such groups have taken exception is abortion. Their concern over that issue intensified last fall when three different American prime-time series introduced plot lines involving unmarried characters who thought—in some cases mistakenly—that they were pregnant. None of the three chose abortion. Still, when the lead character in the popular CBS comedy Murphy Brown, played by Candice Bergen, chose to keep her child after discovering that she was pregnant, the Media Research Center, based in Alexandria, Va., criticized the show’s producers simply because Brown openly discussed the possibility of terminating the pregnancy. In a newsletter sent to its 7,000 members across the United States and Canada, the association declared: “All arguments regarding the decision centred on the impact a baby would have on Murphy’s career and the quality of the child’s life, ignoring the child’s right to life.” As the debate over abortion has heated up in recent years, writers themselves have become divided about the appropriateness of having a popular prime-time character elect to undergo the procedure. Although Reisman of the writers guild praised the creators of Murphy Brown for “giving a positive sign to all writers that we can deal with this issue,” he added that it would have been asking too much of viewers to have Brown opt for an abortion. Pointing to the debate that raged after the lead character in the popular 1970s series Maude, played by Bea Arthur, had an abortion,

Reisman added: “Many viewers could rightly say, ‘Wait a minute, you writers, we tuned in to get entertainment, and you’re giving us something much heavier.’ ”

For his part, Peter Lower, executive producer of drama at Toronto-based CTV, said that although he sees “an extreme need to present both sides” of the issue, he thinks that it would be possible for E.N.G’s fictional news producer Ann Hildebrandt (Sara Botsford) to have an abortion.

“I think we’re at the point,” said Lower, “where a mature, responsible character could make that decision.”

Still, Lower acknowledged that treating controversial themes in a way that will not offend viewers is difficult.

“Because things like abortion and gay rights are in the news,” he said, “people are more aware of them—and that cuts both ways. On the one hand, viewers are more sensitized and respond more quickly if something bothers them. But at the same time, as broadcasters, we are allowed a certain frankness that wasn’t there before.” The Canadian response to Quantum Leap illustrates a greater openness than in the United States. According to officials at Global TV, which carries Quantum Leap in Canada, not a single advertiser pulled commercials or lodged complaints about the recent homosexual-

themed episode, even though the show was identical to the one that aired in the United States. Two months earlier, CTV ran an episode of E.N.G in which one of the show’s regular characters, TV producer Eric MacFarlane (Jonathan Welsh), publicly acknowledged his homosexuality. The show drew 1,237,000 viewers, garnering E.N.G's highest ratings of the season—and no advertisers pulled out or complained. According to Ann Boden, vice-president of McKim Advertising Ltd. in Toronto, that is because Canadian companies are gener-

ally much less sensitive about the shows on which they advertise. “You don’t have those watchdog lobby groups stirring everyone up,” she said. “In Canada, viewer response tends to trickle in letter by letter, and it just doesn’t have the same force.”

The different attitudes prevailing in the two countries are demonstrated most starkly when American networks request Canadian produc-

ers to sanitize Canadian-made shows for U.S. audiences. The CBC’s Burt recalled that when officials at the network sent a copy of its miniseries Conspiracy of Silence to their counterparts at CBS last fall, the American network asked for changes. Several months earlier, CBS had bought the rights to the show, which deals with the 1971 murder of native Helen Betty Osborne in The Pas, Man. But after it received a copy, the American network asked CBC producer Bernard Zuckerman to remove two scenes that included jokes about native people by racists. After further negotiations, CBS dropped the request.

Linda Schuyler, executive producer of Playing with Time Inc., the company that made Degrassi Junior High, said that she once had to cut scenes from an episode dealing with abortion when the show was airing on PBS in the United States. She added that her company made two versions of one scene in the recent movie School’s Out! The Degrassi Feature—one for the CBC and another one, with less profanity, for potential sale to PBS.

Despite the objections of several sponsors to the recent episode of Quantum Leap, at least some advertisers appear to be coming to terms with the power of provocative programming. Indeed, in recent months some commentators have criticized the networks for airing too many made-forTV movies involving rape and other violent crimes against women. Wrote New York Times columnist John J. O’Connor: “Network executives and researchers, mostly male, have evidently concluded that female viewers, a majority for this type of fare, like it that way.”

And the popular NBC drama Law & Order, since it premiered in the fall of 1990, has included stories about abortion-clinic bombings and assisted suicide for AIDS patients. As a result, the series lost a number of advertisers. But its strong ratings have since helped to stem the tide. Said executive producer Dick Wolf: “What the advertisers finally realized was that the audience watched Law & Order for the very reasons they were pulling out of the shows.” Receiving a multitude of mixed signals, TV networks are clearly having to work harder than ever to stop viewers and advertisers from tuning out.