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Editorial: Television Fuzzy on Appropriate Content

Mar 1, 2004  •  Post A Comment

As Washington scrambles to redefine what’s acceptable on broadcast television following Janet Jackson’s Super Bowl stunt, broadcasters are scrambling to play it safe even before new rules are in place. The problem is no one is quite clear on what the rules are or how far they extend. NBC’s decision to trim and blur brief glimpses of an elderly woman’s breast on a recent episode of “ER” and the decision by CBS censors to increase the size of the pixelated area concealing Richard Hatch’s private parts on “Survivor: All-Stars” are just two high-profile examples.
Meanwhile, the repositioning of HBO’s racy hit series “Sex and the City” for a lucrative syndication run on cable and eventually on broadcast stations, even in a substantially toned-down form, proves there’s a place on television for adult-oriented programming.
Programming executives would be wise to keep that idea in mind during the current development season as they make decisions that will impact broadcast television not only next season but in future years as well. With puritanical sentiment running high at the moment in some circles, it would be all too easy to lean in the direction of programming that is deemed “safe.” That would be unfortunate. And in an odd way, it would be risky.
With competition increasing from cable, video-on-demand, the Internet and other new technology, broadcast television can no longer afford to water down its schedule with bland, risk-averse and lowest-common-denominator programming. If broadcasters insist on taking what they see as the safe path, they run the risk of diluting their single biggest asset-their programming. If what they air no longer reflects the complex and often salty reality of our world, the cost of avoiding FCC scrutiny will be to drive away viewers as well as top creative producers and, ultimately, advertisers.
“ER” executive producer John Wells summed up the situation succinctly in a statement released after NBC altered the shots of the elderly woman’s breast: “This type of network behavior is one of the primary reasons that so many of today’s producers and viewers are increasingly turning to HBO and other cable outlets that do not censor responsible storytelling.”
Broadcast television as a whole is not known for showing backbone, but at this pivotal point in the evolution of the media landscape, broadcasters can’t afford to play it safe. Television must continue to find a place on the schedule for good programming that pushes boundaries and reflects the diversity of the real world.