Washington just can't stop hammering the TV industry. In Hollywood, though, the fear is less about what's happening now than about what could happen later. In football terms, the industry is deeply committed to a prevent defense.
Suddenly nervous networks are asking writers and producers to make relatively small changes in scripted programs—blurring a butt here, obscuring a breast there. They are instituting video and audio delays in all live programming, and CBS is including delays in sports programs, as well. Network executives have asked some producers to tone down sexual innuendo, which has long been a regular part of such shows as Friends
and Will & Grace.
The Big Four broadcast networks hurriedly teamed with the Ad Council on a campaign to encourage parents to block potentially offensive programming with the V-chip, a device and legislative invention they (especially NBC) once fought.
Writers, producers, and directors are worried that a little blur here and tiny clip there could turn into full-blown censorship. "Everything that's been asked has been relatively minor," says David Janollari, executive producer of such shows as UPN's One on One
and HBO's Six Feet Under.
But Janollari and others fear: It could get a lot worse.
The broadcast networks, which are federally regulated, face more scrutiny than basic- and premium-cable networks since Jackson bared her breast at the Super Bowl and the FCC stiffened its indecency rules. Although cable isn't regulated by the FCC, cable players are worried, too.
"I can tell you there is industry gossip, and that's usually the predecessor of concern," says Court TV CEO Henry Schleiff. "I think, right now, a lot of networks are taking another look [at their programs]. I'm not saying they're making changes, but there does seem to be a chilling effect."
Most network executives attribute the frenzy over indecency (read: nudity and sex) to this being an election year. But some say that might not be the end of it.
"The meat tenderizer that allowed Congress to be mad at the networks was the growing sense of unease that the broadcast networks are becoming too powerful in too many ways with deregulation," says Mickey Gardner, a Washington attorney who often works on issues near and dear to Hollywood power brokers. "Congress has this sense that the networks have too much power so they can get away with programming garbage."
An attempt to curry favor with Congress, the FCC, and disgruntled viewers, the V-chip campaign is the networks' way to show concern.
Getting the public to use it will take some campaign: According to the Ad Council, about 80% of parents with the V-chip don't even know they have it. Virtually no one uses it although it has been built into most TV sets since 2000.
ABC Television President Alex Wallau took the idea to Ad Council President Peggy Conlon just prior to testifying before Congress in February. CBS quickly jumped on board, bringing NBC and Fox along. Fox has had such a campaign in place for a while. ABC started running its PSAs last week.
Cable seems to be avoiding scrutiny. For example, there will be no time delays on Court TV, where witnesses sometimes say words or describe acts that are graphic and lewd. "We feel the court coverage is a live news event," Schleiff says. "Our viewers are hearing it just as the jurors are hearing it. Our viewers seem to understand that."
For cable and broadcast scriptwriters, though, uncertainty over the indecency flap is a real issue that could be used as a bizarre bargaining chip. Writers say that, if networks face increased fines for incidents of indecency, they could factor that into upcoming contract negotiations.
"Nervous executives who have trouble enough justifying their decisions now have a host of new constraints and a new climate to further trouble them," says Carl Gottlieb, vice president of the Writers Guild of America, West. "The companies will use any level of constraint as an excuse to bargain harder because they don't know what these changes are going to cost them ultimately."
The future may be downright scary, but the present is no picnic for the broadcast networks.
"We have to be perfect. There's no margin for error," says one network executive. "Things that had been standard network fare now are being questioned."
CBS has asked the producers of upcoming miniseries Helter Skelter
to tone down the violence in two well-known Manson murder scenes, and the network plans to run parental advisories on all promos for the show and during its run.
Even things that seem relatively minor, such as Richard Hatch's pixelated nudity on Survivor, has earned a second look. CBS asked Mark Burnett Productions to add more pixels to Hatch's private parts as he ran around the island naked.
That's not the only change on the CBS hit. The reunion telecast in May will include a video and audio delay.
NBC will do a delay on the live finale of The Apprentice
on April 15 and on the upcoming Miss USA pageant. It's also boosting its parental rating on all live shows.
Alan Wurtzel, head of NBC's standards and practices division, explains, "The Super Bowl is the most-viewed show in the world, and you are watching with your family and friends and have no expectations that anything like that would occur. We don't want to violate your expectations. We understand that there are programs you don't want to watch with your kids."