Family values are suddenly TV's hot topic

July 27, 1992|By James Endrst | James Endrst,The Hartford Courant

There's a debate going on in television over family values.

Nobody seems to be able to define these values, but they were certainly getting a lot of attention recently in Los Angeles at the annual summer TV press tour. And with Election Day '92 -- not to mention the November Sweeps -- not far off, the discussion is becoming more heated and political every day.

It all started a few months ago with the high-profile season finale of "Murphy Brown," in which the fictional TV newswoman played by Candice Bergen became a single mother, an event that apparently offended the sensibilities of real-life Vice President Dan Quayle. Though Quayle, a frequent target of "Murphy Brown," had not seen the episode, he used the show to launch an attack on what he called "the cultural elite."

But if the vice president was expecting a chastened response from the television industry, he obviously miscalculated -- particularly in respect to CBS.

"I think it was clearly political," said CBS Entertainment President Jeff Sagansky when asked at a news conference in Los Angeles recently about Quayle's comments. "I would also say that I don't think that CBS has anything to apologize for."

Sagansky stood by his network's programming, saying many shows -- from "Evening Shade" to "Brooklyn Bridge" -- espouse what many people might consider family values "although I think the term is] extremely nebulous and probably clearest in Dan Quayle's mind."

Diane English, who created the Emmy-winning "Murphy Brown" she and husband Joel Shukovsky have now left the series), also believes Quayle's motivations had more to do with election-year politics than television.

"Why did no one talk about [family values] last year or the year before?" she said at a news conference promoting her new CBS show, "Love and War," a sitcom starring Jay Thomas and Susan Dey set for Monday nights this fall. "That's what really angers me.

"I'm not even sure what that means," she continued. "If somebody can define it, then maybe we'll address it."

English, however, said that the controversy sparked by the episode and Quayle's reaction had its benefits.

"The great thing that came out of it was people began to talk about something very important in a way that they hadn't talked about it before," she said. "And I think it kind of galvanized a certain portion of the country that was happy to sit back and let another Supreme Court justice who's not the most qualified for the job put on the black robe and watch Anita Hill torn apart and another administration ignore the real problems of the people."

English, of course, isn't the only TV producer whose political point of view on- and off-screen is overtly at odds with the Bush administration.

Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, the creator and co-executive producer (with husband Harry Thomason) of the opinionated "Designing Women," is an unabashed supporter and close friend of Democratic presidential nominee Bill Clinton, for whom she created a special video televised at the Democrats' New York convention.

Bloodworth-Thomason, who, like Clinton, is from Arkansas, spent much time on the video, in fact, that it briefly interfered with her work on her new CBS series "Hearts Afire."

The new show -- a politically topical, romantic comedy starring John Ritter and Markie Post (headed for Monday nights this fall) -- is set in Washington and revolves around the chaos of a conservative Southern senator's office.

But Bloodworth-Thomason said she'll wait until after the election to dig in on national debates and controversies a la "Designing Women."

"I think I have to wait until after November to talk about really political things," she said, "just because a friend of mine is running for president."

That goes for Bloodworth-Thomason's other show, too, "Evening Shade," a sitcom set in Arkansas.

"I really wanted to do some shows in which they had some very strong feelings about the election, but I guess we'll have to do it afterward," she said, though she added, "We may do a show where Charles Durning runs for mayor and is accused of all sorts of heinous acts and he has to decide whether or not it's worth it to be in public life."

In the meantime, the debate continues in television on what is and isn't appropriate for television audiences, what constitutes family values and who decides.

Though he told critics he didn't think it was necessarily appropriate for the president of a television network to express political opinions about candidates, Sagansky didn't seem overly concerned about Quayle's role in his company's or country's future.

"From the looks of things," said Sagansky, "Dan Quayle is going to have a lot of time next year to discover all the family values that are in fact on television."

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