Reaction goes on

NBC removes scene of breast on `ER'

February 05, 2004|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

The fallout from the Janet Jackson-Justin Timberlake Super Bowl fiasco continued yesterday as NBC executives decided to delete a scene depicting an elderly female patient's breast from tonight's episode of the hit drama ER. The decision was made in the face of growing pressure from the network's local affiliates.

The National Football League, meanwhile, canceled a half-time performance by JC Chasez, a member of Timberlake's band, scheduled to air Sunday on ESPN's Pro Bowl.

"We thought it was over the top," Brian McCarthy, an NFL spokesman said of the performance, which included Chasez singing "Blowin' Me Up (With Her Love)," which appeared in the soundtrack of the 2002 movie Drumline.

"It was because of the song and how we thought it was going to be choreographed. We wanted it to go in a different direction."

The NFL, which insisted that its decision was made unilaterally and not at the request of the television industry, instead plans Hawaiian-themed entertainment in celebration of the 25th anniversary of the Pro Bowl all-star game being played in that state.

Last Sunday as 90 million people watched the Super Bowl halftime festivities, singer Timberlake ripped Jackson's outfit near the end of their routine to reveal her right breast, shielded only by a small metal ornament.

Both announcements reflect concern among the television industry that the Jackson-Timberlake performance might cause the Federal Communications Commission, which oversees broadcasting, to crack down.

NBC's decision, in particular, is an attempt to show Washington - FCC Chairman Michael Powell has launched an investigation into CBS' role in the Super Bowl incident - that the industry can be trusted to regulate itself.

Statements issued late yesterday by NBC and John Wells, the executive producer of ER, showed the intensity with which the industry and Hollywood are reacting to the halftime incident.

""In consultation with our affiliate board, we have asked ER to remove a shot of an exposed breast of an 80-year-old woman receiving emergency care. Though we continue to believe the shot is appropriate ... we have unfortunately concluded that the atmosphere created by this week's events has made it too difficult to air this shot."

Wells, president of the writer's guild and one of the most powerful producers in Hollywood, issued his own statement saying, in part, "While the unexpected exposure of Ms. Jackson's breast during the Super Bowl halftime show was inappropriate and deplorable on a broadcast intended for viewers of all ages, ER's incidental exposure of an elderly woman's breast in the context of a medical trauma is not comparable."

Blaming NBC's action on "affiliate over-reactions," he added: "Adult viewing audiences at 10 p.m. who have been warned appropriately of a show's adult content are more than capable of making the distinction and adjusting their viewing habits accordingly."

There is no doubt that NBC was reacting to what it was hearing from its affiliates around the country.

"In light of what happened at Sunday's Super Bowl, I think NBC's decision is right on," said Bill Fine, president and general manager of WBAL (Channel 11), Baltimore's NBC affiliate.

"I'm sure when they first produced the ER episode, it was done in good taste and had artistic merit. But given what happened at Sunday's Super Bowl, the debate has moved way beyond that to a very different place," Fine said.

Fine was one of many NBC affiliate managers who earlier in the week had asked NBC to reconsider airing the episode. But until yesterday, it appeared that NBC was going to force each local affiliate to choose whether to air the scene.

At WBAL, executives were considering digitally scrambling the image or covering it with a blue dot, though it would be distracting to viewers, Fine said.

Although ER has shown bare breasts of female patients before, NBC was concerned enough about tonight's scene to screen it for station managers last month at an affiliates advisory board meeting. At the time, station managers expressed "concerns" about the scene and the way it was handled, according to Television Week, an industry trade publication.

"These types of affiliate over-reactions have a chilling effect on the narrative integrity of adult dramas," Wells said yesterday. "This type of network behavior is one of the primary reasons that so many of today's producers and viewers are increasingly tuning to HBO and other cable outlets that do not censor responsible storytelling."

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