Setting standards for a new era

Oct 8, 2001  •  Post A Comment

The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 have TV’s standards and practices departments intensifying their watch for potentially objectionable dialogue or visual material. That’s particularly true at NBC, which is the only network so far to directly weave terrorism issues and rescue efforts into the story lines of two of its shows, “The West Wing” and “Third Watch.”
Alan Wurtzel, chief of NBC’s standards
and practices department, said the network is also sensitive to making sure it does not look as if it is trying to capitalize on the sensational nature of the terrorism attacks by incorporating those themes into story lines.
“I know the intention of the producers of `Third Watch’ [is] to do something that is not offensive or inappropriate in any way, because of the timeliness of the topics and people’s heightened sensitivities,” Mr. Wurtzel said. “These are obviously hugely dramatic events, and it is going to be a challenge to do it well, but I think they are up to the task at hand. Personally, I don’t think any other producers will want to explore these themes because the proportions are so great and the risks are greater of offending viewers if it either trivializes the events or exploits them in any way.”
Oct. 3’s special episode of “The West Wing,” titled “Isaac and Ishmael,” proved viewers are interested in watching scripted dramas tackle the topic-the episode averaged 25.2 million viewers, the show’s largest audience ever, according to Nielsen Media Research.
If anything, the biggest challenge the episode presented NBC’s standards and practices executives was in turnaround time. With “West Wing” creator Aaron Sorkin penning the rough script on Sept. 21 and wrapping post-production Oct. 1, NBC’s censors had little time to read the first draft and send their creative notes back to Mr. Sorkin.
“This thing was clearly done very quickly and presented somewhat of a challenge, but we turned around the script notes in just a matter of hours,” Mr. Wurtzel said. “They FedEx’ed the script and asked for standards’ point of view, but we really only made minor changes in some dialogue as it largely pertained to making sure there was the correct handling [of] topical and historical references.”
Mr. Wurtzel, who is also NBC’s president of research and media development, said making minor revisions on the first draft of a script is actually much easier than dealing with making suggested creative changes in final-draft shooting scripts or finished episodes. But the ripped-from-the-headlines nature of a special “West Wing” and an upcoming three-episode story arc of “Third Watch” dealing with fire and police rescue efforts after the Sept. 11 terrorist attack in New York presents standards executives with a unique set of challenges.
For “Third Watch,” location shooting in New York had already delayed production for several weeks because the show had lent power generators to rescue efforts at the demolished World Trade Center. That has left little advance time to ready a “nonscripted tribute” episode-featuring interviews with New York’s real-life fire and police rescuers-that will open the show’s third season on Monday, Oct. 15, four weeks later than its originally scheduled Sept. 17 debut date.
From there, the two subsequent scripted episodes-titled “September 10th” and “New Beginnings”-will feature “Third Watch’s” fictional rescue and paramedic characters dealing with the life-altering changes and psychological toll they have faced in the wake of the tragedy.
Mr. Wurtzel said he had yet to see first-draft scripts of the three episodes and said he was not sure how deep “Third Watch” was into production last week. But he didn’t seem concerned about the challenge of screening “Third Watch” for potentially sensitive content.
“Again, like `West Wing,’ the producers of `Third Watch’ are in the unique situation of being able to deal with these issues where it makes some sense out of the tragedy and, hopefully, will provide viewers with some answers,” Mr. Wurtzel said. “It just happens that the events are organic to these two programs, and it really gives both a chance to deal with issues and concerns currently tugging on the nation’s interest.”
NBC and other networks have cast a wider net on what they consider to be potentially offensive dialogue or visual content in the weeks since the terrorist attack.
In the past few weeks, CBS made the pre-emptive move of replacing the pilot of the CIA-themed drama “The Agency,” which featured a pair of terrorist bombings and a reference to suspected terrorist leader Osama bin Laden; and Fox excised the climactic end-of-episode scene of a female terrorist blowing up a commercial airliner from its yet-to-debut “24” drama.
Fox executives said the plane explosion scene is not critical to maintaining the structural integrity and story arc in the premiere episode, whose debut is now delayed to Nov. 6. However, industry insiders said the network is still working with series producer 20th Century Fox Television on making some modifications to “24’s” scripts for subsequent episodes.
“Truly, we are going episode-by-episode and making lifts where necessary,” said Roland McFarland, Fox’s VP of broadcast standards and practices. “There are not necessarily any new guidelines, but there is a heightened sensitivity to what might offend our viewers’ tastes. And it is not just limited to our programming but also to PSAs [public service announcements] and on-air promotional spots as well.”
Mr. McFarland said the monitoring of PSAs has extended to where he and other network standards officials have helped “craft messages” regarding “tolerance and respect of other religions and cultures,” making the point of including references to the Muslim faith in new campaigns airing on Fox.
The network censors have also gone to great lengths-some TV critics say too far-to modify the content of several high-profile sitcoms, such as NBC’s “Friends” and “Will & Grace” and CBS’s “The Ellen Show.”
In one episode of “Friends,” a joke about the long waiting time at an airport was excised from the show. “Will & Grace” took out a line about “hunky firemen.” And CBS trimmed a line from the “Ellen” pilot in which lead Ellen DeGeneres talks about her “collapsed” online business, and her mother responds, “Oh well, thank your lucky stars you weren’t there at the time.”
Mr. McFarland said monitoring the content of comedies is often more difficult than dramas, largely due to the “inadvertent, often casual humorous references that were considered innocuous before [and] now have to be gone through with a fine-toothed comb.”