Networks show unusual cooperation for child abuse documentary

August 27, 1992|By New York Times News Service

Because of unusual cooperation among broadcast networks, a documentary on child abuse next week will be the first non-news program to run simultaneously on three broadcast networks.

The program, "Scared Silent: Exposing and Ending Child Abuse," is an independently produced documentary paid for with a grant from the USAA insurance agency. It will be broadcast on Sept. 4 at 10 p.m. on CBS, NBC and PBS. ABC will delay the broadcast until Sept. 6, also at 10.

The program tapped into the intense interest in the subject among many television executives, including John Agoglia, the president of NBC Enterprises, and Jeff Sagansky, the president of CBS Entertainment, as well as the personal interest of Oprah Winfrey, who narrates the documentary. Ms. Winfrey, who has publicly talked of having been sexually abused as a child, said the program "may be the most important hour of television I have ever been a part of."

The program is based on interviews with both the victims and the offenders in child abuse. The cases are divided into physical, sexual and even psychological abuse of children. The victims and offenders discuss their case history on camera, and a therapist then appears and puts the case into context.

The program provides statistics on the pervasiveness of child abuse, how it touches every racial and economic group, and how it often repeats itself from generation to generation.

The support of network executives allowed the program unusual leeway by broadcast standards divisions on profanity and graphic descriptions of sexual abuse.

From the beginning the program's executive producer, Arnold Shapiro, who is also in charge of the weekly CBS program "Rescue 911," sought the agreement of every national broadcast network to run the program on the same night at the same hour.

"We set out to make this an event because the subject matter deserves to be an event," Mr. Shapiro said.

As a model he used an anti-drug program carried by every broadcast network and many cable networks two years ago, "The Cartoon All-Stars." That program was initiated by NBC and Mr. Agoglia. Carrying the program on multiple channels helped make it the highest-rated children's program television had carried.

Mr. Shapiro thought his own program could set a similar mark by being the first non-news event carried in prime time by every broadcast network.

But he fell victim to commercial concerns. The Fox network, which doesn't normally broadcast after 10 p.m., never agreed to carry the documentary.

More significantly, ABC refused to broadcast the special on Friday at 10 p.m. Mr. Shapiro said ABC would not pre-empt its news-magazine program "20/20," which is its most successful program in the summer.

After Ms. Winfrey, whose hugely successful talk show is crucial to the ratings of ABC's local stations, interceded with Daniel Burke, the ABC chairman, the network agreed to show the program Sunday night at 10. Mr. Shapiro said he was disappointed at first but now feels the Sunday broadcast can be valuable by giving viewers a second chance to see it.

But Ms. Winfrey said: "I'm still a little worried about '20/20' taking away from our audience on Friday. I feel like ABC is my own network, and this is one time I wish they would put aside considerations about revenue."

For the most part, revenue for that hour is not a major consideration for the networks that will broadcast the special on Friday. The documentary's budget, which Mr. Shapiro said was less than $500,000, was entirely paid by the USAA insurance agency, which has backed many of Mr. Shapiro's other documentary films. The company will get a brief mention in the film's credits.

The networks will receive the film completely free. They will then sell their own commercials in the broadcast (except for PBS, of course, which will run the film free of interruption). But both CBS and NBC, as well as ABC on Sunday night, will give up an hour of repeat entertainment programming to make room for the program.

Mr. Agoglia said the networks might still lose a little money because of that pre-emption, especially if the commercial time proves hard to sell. Advertisers are notoriously reluctant to associate themselves with sensitive subjects, such as child abuse.

The program will be preceded by a short disclaimer about its content and language. ABC insisted that the profanity be edited out, so its disclaimer is slightly different.

ABC also insisted that the disclaimer point out that the program is not a product of ABC News.

The program will refer to an "800" number viewers can call for further advice on child abuse. Mr. Shapiro also said that a videocassette of the documentary would be made available by the USAA agency at no profit. The cost will be $8.50.

"I think what we're doing here is unique," Mr. Shapiro said. "We think we have a chance to have a major impact on this problem."

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