Shades of 'NYPD Blue'
ABC's steamy cop series is drawing big audiences -- not to mention big protests
Until this week, there were only two ways to see naked cops on network TV in Dallas-Fort Worth: Move out of town, or drop by Abernathy’s Sports Grill, just off Berry Street, where every Tuesday is NYPD Blue Night. ”We pick up the show on our satellite dish,” explains manager Ann Diakis. ”Last week we had about 75 people in here watching it. And everybody had an NYPD Blue margarita. We make ’em with blue curaçao.”
Since Steven Bochco’s new taboo-busting ABC police drama, starring David Caruso and Dennis Franz as grittier-than-life Big Apple detectives, premiered on Sept. 21, Dallas’ ABC affiliate, WFAA, has refused to air the show, claiming its in-the-gutter dialogue and out-of-uniform love scenes violate community decency standards. But with Blue‘s Oct. 23 arrival on independent station KTXA, denizens of Dallas can at long last behold the wonders of bare butt in prime time.
That leaves about 40 small to midsize cities across the country where stations still consider Blue too blue to view. In fact, network TV’s first R-rated drama (as Bochco originally described it) has triggered what may be the biggest affiliate mutiny in TV history. Yet the show has still managed to pull in red-hot national Nielsens (21 million viewers a week) to become the most successful new drama of the season. Not since Mariel Hemingway dropped trou for an episode of Bochco’s Civil Wars has a smidgen of bare skin (Blue‘s nudity has thus far been mainly rearview) stirred up so much trouble. And hype.
”I knew this would polarize folks,” says Bochco, who can afford to be blase now that he has a hit on his hands. ”I knew it wouldn’t be some folks’ cup of tea. But when you’re doing a show like this, some people are going to love you and a lot of people are going to be very disturbed.”
Big surprise: The first to be disturbed were conservative media activists—notably Mississippi’s Rev. Donald Wildmon, who years ago crusaded against Bochco’s breakthrough cop drama Hill Street Blues (as well as Soap, Charlie’s Angels, Three’s Company, and many other sexual benchmark series). Throughout the summer, Wildmon’s American Family Association spearheaded a missive campaign to drum up anti-Blue sentiment, urging followers to picket ABC affiliates. To help AFA members know porn when they see it, Wildmon sent his supporters photos of Blue‘s sexiest scenes, taken from a preview tape. ”Look at the photos and make your own judgment,” he advised his flock.
In some parts of the country, AFA’s efforts clearly worked. ”The phone started ringing in early June,” says Craig Cornwell, program director for ABC’s WTVQ in Lexington, Ky., the only of the state’s three affiliates to air the show. ”I got called everything from a smutmonger to the Antichrist.” Local church groups and the AFA picketed the station several times during the summer. Advertisers started pulling out. To defuse the situation, WTVQ conducted a telephone poll last month. About 39,000 calls were received—42 percent pro-Blue, 58 percent against. ”It wasn’t exactly a scientific poll,” notes Cornwell. ”I’d say maybe 20 percent of the calls came from organized protest groups.” Nevertheless, WTVQ yanked the series after the second episode.
Other ABC affiliates are under similar pressure. Nashville’s WKRN has received more than 5,000 petitions asking it to keep its airwaves Blue-less, but it’s still airing the series. On the show’s premiere night the station received over 400 calls; one viewer told general manager Deb McDermott that on Judgment Day she would have ”a mark on her record.” Elsewhere, the protests have exploded in violence: Last month, one ABC affiliate (it asked for anonymity to avoid sparking copycat incidents) says gunshots were fired at its headquarters from a passing car during the show’s debut.
To many station chiefs caught in this Blue backlash, the intensity is a bit puzzling. The 10 p.m. drama (which usually airs with a viewer advisory) really isn’t much racier than, say, an afternoon with ABC’s All My Children. Although the language has been extra-salty (tits, whiz, fat ass, and douche bag have all made appearances), so far only three scenes have flashed any nudity. A few station managers believe the real problem is that Bochco’s preproduction hype worked too well (”There are things in it that have never been seen or heard on TV before,” the producer bragged to Entertainment Weekly in October 1992), giving irresistible ammunition to Wildmon and other raunch rangers. Says WTVQ’s Cornwell, ”By saying he was going to push the envelope of what’s been on TV, (Bochco) was pouring fuel on the fire.”
In Texas, where only 5 of ABC’s 17 stations carry the show, the anti-Blue movement hasn’t had to push very hard to keep it off the air. ”Some people tried to picket the ABC affiliate, but it was pathetic,” reports Ed Bark, TV critic for The Dallas Morning News. ”More people showed up at CBS when they tried to move Letterman a half hour later.” Still, WFAA wasn’t about to let Bochco do Dallas. ”We thought the sex, nudity, and violence went beyond our standards,” says Cathy Creany, general manager. ”We think the show is inappropriate for Dallas.”
Not every Texan agrees. ”The idea that the local affiliate can make the decision over what I can watch is more offensive to me than any TV show,” fumes Dallas attorney Arnold W. Jones Jr. ”I’ve made a pledge not to watch WFAA during that time slot. It’s my own personal protest.” Some Dallasites have gone to extremes just for a peek at Blue. ”My husband and I drove an hour and a half out of town to find a TV station that had it,” says Pat Cipolla, owner of an art gallery. ”It’s embarrassing to have the rest of the country think Texans are backwards because of this.”
ABC is diplomatically tight-lipped about its affiliate revolts. ”The local stations make the final determination about what they air” is about all spokesperson Janice Gretemeyer will say out loud. ”We respect their decisions.” But the network is talking tough in other ways: It has taken the unprecedented step of farming out the show to competing independent or Fox stations in markets where affiliates refuse to air Blue. So far, in addition to the contract with Dallas’ KTXA, seven other stations have struck deals—among them KZIA in Las Cruces, N.M.; KBSI in Cape Girardeau, Mo.; and WTVZ in Norfolk, Va.
”Our job is to provide programming that viewers can’t get anywhere else,” says KTXA general manager Walter DeHaven. And if he finds himself swamped by phone calls and letters, he says he’ll live. ”They’re already coming in,” he notes chirpily. ”We’ve gotten about 500 calls. So far it’s 40 percent negative and 60 percent thanking us for picking up the series.”
One thank-you call he definitely won’t be getting is from Ann Diakis over at Abernathy’s Sports Grill. ”It’s going to cut into business, for sure,” she concedes. ”But we’ll still keep doing NYPD Blue Night every Tuesday. We’ve gotten used to it.”
You can bet your spurs plenty of others in Dallas will too.