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Controversial issues on network television

Controversial issues on network television — Why TV execs avoid programing that addresses AIDS and homosexuality

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When the movie Our Sons airs later this season on ABC, network television will once again confront a subject it has avoided since NBC’s An Early Frost in 1985 — AIDS among homosexuals. ”It’s not a topic that’s easy to get done,” says Robert Greenwald, who will produce and direct the drama of two mothers (Julie Andrews and Ann-Margret) who come together when one of their sons is diagnosed as having the disease. ”In this climate,” he adds, ”it’s not a subject that sponsors rush to embrace.”

Although made-for-TV movies have depicted AIDS in recent years, the films have focused either on blood-transfusion cases or cases of children born with & the disease, not on sexual transmission. (While in production, a 1989 CBS movie about pediatric AIDS, The Littlest Victims, was pointedly titled Innocent Victims.) ”Unless you’re dealing with kids or heterosexual women, there’s been a real stigma,” says Greenwald.

Last season, NBC quietly canceled its plans for a mini-series based on San Francisco journalist Randy Shilts’ And the Band Played On, an authoritative medical and social history of AIDS. And ABC was stung when advertisers defected from two prime-time programs dealing with homosexuality: According to ABC entertainment president Robert Iger, the network experienced a ”severe” falloff in sponsorship for an episode of thirtysomething in which two men were seen in bed together, and lost over $1 million in advertising revenues in January 1990, when it ran the TV movie Rock Hudson.

Nonetheless, ABC was quick to approve Our Sons. ”There’s a belief on the part of networks that you can’t feel sympathy for someone with AIDS who’s gay,” says Karin Schwartz, spokeswoman for the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. But she adds, ”ABC, more than any other network, has done a commendable job in breaking through that squeamishness.”