Television censors use situational standards

March 12, 1995|By Michael Blowen | Michael Blowen,Boston Globe

Remember Priscilla Goodbody?

She was the fictional, invisible network censor trotted out every time Johnny Carson wanted to take a jab at the prim and proper Broadcast Standards and Practices office at NBC. She was a humorless schoolmarm type who objected to the word "toilet," demanded that married men and women on TV inhabit separate beds, if not separate rooms, and was constantly on Mr. Carson's case for his legendary double-entendres. She even wanted to censor his devilish smirk.

Things change.

Last month on NBC's "ER," a patient's bare rear end stuck out from one of those stylish hospital gowns.

Jimmy Smits, replacing David Caruso on ABC's "NYPD Blue," wasted no time in displaying his derriere. A recent CBS "Chicago Hope" episode on breast reconstruction included views of the operation and a shot of the patient's breasts. "Homicide: Life on the Street" includes quick glimpses of nude murder victims.

So what are the standards, and how are they practiced?

"Our standards are very fluid and it's not easy," said Christine Hikawa, the hip, no-nonsense head of ABC's Broadcast Standards and Practices Department, in an interview in her office, just a stone's throw from Lincoln Center. "There are no hard-and-fast rules. We take each situation as it comes up. I hate the word 'censor,'because that's not what we do. We advise." She smiled -- a wry smile, not unlike Mr. Carson's.

The popular misconception is that the heads of the CBS, NBC, ABC and Fox network standards and practices offices look at all programming when it's completed and delete objectionable scenes. Oh, and that the position is inevitably held by a prig. Neither is the case.

"We're involved from the concept stage onward," said Ms. Hikawa.

Her counterpart at NBC concurs. "We're involved from the time an idea for a show comes to the network until it gets on the air," said Rosalyn Weinman, senior vice president of broadcast standards at NBC. "Then we look at the scripts and all the revisions. Then there's a rough cut, and, by then, we have a pretty good understanding with the creators."

Ms. Hikawa says that many times her department's work, like that at CBS, NBC and Fox, involves more than sex and violence warnings.

"There was a recent show about witches that was under consideration for a series here at ABC," she said. "It was a serious drama about witches, and we suggested they avoid any Satanic connections and stick to the characters as natural healers. We have all our stories checked for accuracy by our legal department, and we try to be very accurate when it comes to the details of our programs. After all, people really do get their information from television. It's scary. We really appreciate our position as a resource for correct information."

Ms. Hikawa says that aside from preventing libelous statements and outright lies (which are unacceptable under any circumstances), her job is to make judgments about taste. "Our audience tells us where the line is."

CBS entertainment president Peter Tortorici told a recent meeting of the International Radio and Television Society that viewers tuning into a late-night, adult drama have "a presence of mind" to know what the show is about. He referred specifically to the "Chicago Hope" scene, saying that the context made it clear the exposure of the woman's breasts "wasn't put there for ratings purposes or to be exploitive."

Since late-night, adult audiences are more willing to accept a brief glimpse of a woman's breast or a man's buttocks, the networks are more likely to push the envelope in the 10 p.m. time slot, right?

"I don't think we're pushing the envelope," said NBC's Ms. Weinman. "We're actually behind the country at large when it comes to social values and mores. Television is actually lagging behind."

Her boss agrees. NBC president Warren G. Littlefield said that NBC showed a scene similar to the "Chicago Hope" breast-surgery sequence on "St. Elsewhere" nine years ago. "I don't think we've pushed the envelope here. I don't think we've pushed any boundaries."

If there's any pushing to be done, it's often between the producer and the standards and practices department.

One of Ms. Hikawa's first brushes with a recalcitrant filmmaker came with writer-director David Lynch over the first scene in "Twin Peaks," when Laura Palmer's nude body is found washed up on the shore. "David Lynch insisted on a nude body," said Ms. Hikawa. "We were just as adamant that he couldn't show it. It was a new show. You have to be fairly careful with a new show. We sent David a note and, in response, he shot a lasting image of a body wrapped in plastic. It worked better."

Often a determination is made on sex, language and violence based on a program's time slot. But even that rule of thumb has its exceptions.

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