New TV ratings and casting changes on ''Homicide: Life on the Street'' made news the week of July 18, 1997

By Joe Flint
Updated July 18, 1997 at 04:00 AM EDT

THE RATING GAME: Dick Wolf, the outspoken executive producer of NBC’s Law & Order, already hates the little ”TV-14” that graces the opening of his show. So imagine his pique over proposed modifications — the additions of V (violence), S (sex), L (language), and D (dialogue) to the existing ratings system — which could saddle his drama with a TV-14 LSVD rating. ”It’ll look like alphabet soup up there,” he gripes.

Unfortunately for Wolf and other producers, it looks certain that the revised system will go into effect in the near future. Such children’s advocacy groups as the National Parents and Teachers Association and Children’s Defense Fund have been in negotiations with TV industry representatives for more than three weeks and are applying tremendous pressure for revision, with Congress’ support. Meanwhile, the people they forgot to include — TV show creators — are up in arms, fearing that another change just six months after the original ratings debuted can only open the door to more meddling down the line. The Directors Guild, Screen Actors Guild, and Writers Guild went so far as to release a statement branding the proposed modifications a ”thinly disguised attempt to drive certain programming of which they personally disapprove off the air.”

Those pressuring for change say they simply want clearer flags for adult-oriented shows like Friends, Seinfeld, NYPD Blue, and Law & Order. But one source close to the talks insists the CDF suggested canceling the well-respected Law & Order to make room for more family fare — a claim CDF assistant general counsel Kim Wade denies: ”Our only agenda is to get more information to parents.”

NBC is the network most resistant to revised ratings; in a recent speech to broadcasters, president Bob Wright said he was ”disappointed that our industry seems to have lost the sense of where to draw the line.” While ABC, CBS, and Fox are willing to play ball with some guarantees (like, if they agree to further alterations, the nets will be left alone for three years), NBC fears that giving in again can only lead to a worse fate: an enforced family hour between 8 and 9 p.m.

Of course, part of this scrutiny is the networks’ own doing. The decision to schedule racy shows such as Friends in the 8 p.m. slot gave advocacy groups plenty of ammunition. ”It was the muddying of the 8 p.m. hour,” says Bruce Helford, executive producer of The Drew Carey Show, which, if things progress apace, could get slapped with an EBD&BH rating for Excessive Beer Drinking and Bathroom Humor. ”Everyone has their own moral standards,” adds Helford, who sees nothing wrong with providing more info about content — in principle. The problem, as he sees it, will be, Who does the interpreting?

Wolf wants the networks to go to court to contest further changes, believing First Amendment rights are at stake. But such a legal battle is unlikely. The TV industry has far too many legislative needs in other areas to risk offending lawmakers over ratings. Says one Washington, D.C., observer of the networks’ willingness to fight: ”The line is drawn in quicksand.”

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