Concerned about the recent decision by the Federal Communications Commission to fine television networks for material deemed indecent, the WB network will broadcast a new drama next week that it has censored over the objections of the program's creator.
But first, the network will offer the uncut version of the pilot episode on its Web site, starting today - a further example of the new strategies network television may be pursuing, both to escape government-imposed restrictions and to find alternative ways of reaching viewers. It is the first time a network has offered on another outlet an uncut version of a program it has censored.
The show, The Bedford Diaries, was created by Tom Fontana, whose long resume includes award-winning shows such as St. Elsewhere and Homicide for network television and the far more graphic prison drama Oz for HBO, a pay-cable channel with no content restrictions.
The pilot episode of The Bedford Diaries, which concerns a group of college students attending a class on human sexuality, had already been accepted by WB's standards department. After the FCC decision last week to assess millions of dollars in fines against broadcast stations, the network's chairman, Garth Ancier, contacted Fontana and asked him to edit a number of scenes, including one that depicted two girls in a bar kissing on a dare and another of a girl unbuttoning her jeans.
"I said no," Fontana said in an interview yesterday. "I told him I found the ruling incomprehensible. He said the censor would do the edit."
The decision, network executives said yesterday, could represent a further step in the spread of alternative means for television programs to reach viewers, including iPods and computers. It could also increase the risk that network television will be seen as passe by some of its audience, especially younger viewers.
"The message here is that they'll be forced to go alternative ways of looking at shows if they want to see the real thing," Fontana said. "It's like they're telling people that broadcast television now has much less interesting stuff than you see on the Web or cable."
WB executives acknowledged that the decision to censor Fontana's new show was driven by concerns raised by the fines the FCC levied last week against television stations for broadcasting programs it called indecent. The commission assessed the biggest fine, $3.6 million, against 111 stations affiliated with or owned by CBS, for an episode of the crime drama Without a Trace that contained a scene depicting teens engaged in sex. CBS protested the fine and said the show was not indecent.
Fontana praised Ancier for being "a thorough professional and complete gentleman" about the issue. He said he had no problem with WB's decision, conceding that the network had to do what it believed necessary to avoid being fined.
But he added, "In more than 20 years in the business, this is the most chilling thing I've ever faced."
In a statement, Ancier said: "The WB takes its responsibility as a broadcast network very seriously, and we have always been mindful of the FCC's indecency rules. While we believe that the previous uncut version of The Bedford Diaries is in keeping with those rules, out of an abundance of caution, we decided to make some additional minor changes to the premiere episode of the series, which is set to debut next Wednesday, March 29. We also decided to make the original version available on the Internet at TheWB.com, which allows those interested in seeing the producer's creative vision to do so while at the same time recognizing the special rules that apply to the broadcast medium."
In a telephone interview, Ancier said the network respects the effort Fontana made to produce a show that was both creatively interesting and socially responsible. "Our feeling was that Tom had worked very hard with our standards people and they came up with a final edit of the show which we all had found acceptable," he said.
The uncut version of The Bedford Diaries pilot will be available on the WB site beginning at 3 p.m. today. The decision to offer it on the Web was less complicated for WB because it has twice before offered previews of new series on the Internet. In both cases the network versions were identical to the Web versions.