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Putting heat on the networks

Putting heat on the networks — Special interest groups push the networks to trim out offensive material, like mock stuttering in ”A Fish Called Wanda”

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When ABC recently aired the 1988 comedy A Fish Called Wanda, the network cut scenes that showed Kevin Kline mocking Michael Palin for his stuttering. Wanda producer Michael Shamberg and executive producer John Cleese publicly protested the influence of pressure groups. The episode signaled a new chapter in television self-censorship. PCTV, Politically Correct Television, had come out in the open.

Of course, PC has long been on network patrol. Special-interest groups — representing everyone from the physically and emotionally handicapped, er, challenged, to gays and lesbians to nurses and bankers — have always surveyed TV for instances of insensitivity and mounted write-in campaigns when offenses were spotted. But what’s new about PC is its pumped-up muscle, which has gained heft from the networks’ weakening ad revenues.

”The networks have been a great buffer between us and Madison Avenue, but that’s begun to change,” says a major producer. ”An advertiser goes into a show at the start of the season hoping for a hit. If the economy is bad and the advertiser wants out of the contract, their only loophole is for reasons of content. Negative letters about content can create that loophole.”

While few will admit they’ve bowed to PC sway, there are exceptions. Barney Rosenzweig, executive producer of CBS’ The Trials of Rosie O’Neill, acknowledges that he recently took into account the risk of provoking the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. When planning an episode about a defendant who’s tried for an act that isn’t a crime in his native culture, Rosenzweig chose a Laotian over an Arab character, although the Arab would have been more topical and easier to cast. ”I veered away because I feel vulnerable to the accusation of stereotyping,” says Rosenzweig, who was criticized by the ADC for the character of a reckless Arab playboy on his Cagney & Lacey. ”I got a lot of letters on that one,” Rosenzweig says. ”I think they were right.”

Fox’s In Living Color stands firmly on the opposite side of the PC spectrum. Its skits have managed to draw ire from all parts of the special-interest universe. ”Men on…” has angered gays; Handy-Man, though a superhero, has slighted the handicapped; Anton, the homeless man (Damon Wayans), has sparked angry letters; and Fire Marshal Bill (James Carrey), a bumbler who inadvertently starts fires, has prompted protest from a New Jersey fire-prevention group. None of the acts have been toned down.

Sometimes, however, a network can overreact to PC pressure, which is what seems to have happened with ABC and A Fish Called Wanda. Ira Zimmerman, a spokesman for the National Stuttering Project, says his group never asked the network to cut even a second of the movie: ”We asked ABC to run a disclaimer, written by Michael Shamberg and approved by John Cleese, that they did not intend to leave viewers with false impressions about why people stutter in real life.” ABC, which declined to comment, chose cuts over the disclaimer, and Shamberg and Cleese wound up blaming the stutterers’ group for the artistic violation of their film. Says Zimmerman, ”I regret that the producers were misinformed about what happened, but the broadcast itself turned out to be a major victory.”

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