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Content controversy goes 'South.' (graphic violence in 'Brooklyn South')

WASHINGTON

The fall season is still a month away, but Steven Bochco's "Brooklyn South" has already earned the distinction of becoming the first primetime pilot headed for the adults-only TV-MA content rating.

"Brooklyn South" is also the first fall show to be targeted by a petition drive, which is urging CBS affiliates to boycott the show.

For some television producers, the boycott organized by Donald Wildmon's American Family Assn. confirms their worst fears about the new rating system.

Producers Dick Wolf ("Law & Order" and "New York Undercover"), Marta Kauffman ("Friends") and John Wells ("ER") have all said publicly that the content code makes them sitting ducks for morality warriors who will use the ratings to target sophisticated shows. By definition, shows tagged with a TV-MA are for "mature audiences only."

See no evil

Although nobody at American Family Assn. has seen the "Brooklyn South" pilot, the org's petition declares it to be "the most violent CBS program in history."

The AFA's press release is headlined, "CBS promotes first TV-MA drama," and goes on to say that CBS is "advertising" the TV-MA rating. Of course, nobody at AFA has seen that advertisement, either.

Although CBS expects to tag "Brooklyn South" with the adults-only rating, the decision is not yet official.

Despite its imperfect press release, AFA is not to be taken lightly. It hopes to repeat with "Brooklyn South" its initial success with a similar boycott of "NYPD Blue."

Back in 1993, the AFA played a leading role in an effort that resulted in more than 50 ABC affiliates refusing to air the first few episodes of "NYPD Blue."

The boycott was a short-lived success; most of the defectors came online once it was clear that "NYPD Blue" was the top-rated new series of the season. One station even celebrated its decision to begin airing the controversial show with an "NYPD Blue" marathon. Although the show eventually landed 100% clearance, its advertising rates remained depressed for several seasons.

Violence on purpose?

Wildmon claims that CBS is trying to build interest in "Brooklyn South" by touting its violence.

A CBS spokesman found that assertion particularly aggravating, claiming that the TV-MA rating is the network's honest effort to live by an industry agreement to label shows accurately.

Presumably, a lower rating would have led to criticism that the network was trying to soft-pedal the graphic violence in "Brooklyn South."

The pilot, which will not air until Sept. 22, already has become well-known for a bloody scene in which one character is brutally shot in the head.

At last month's gathering of television critics in Los Angeles, both CBS prexy Leslie Moonves and "Brooklyn South" executive producer David Milch were asked the "exploding head" question.

No soft-pedal

While he calls "Brooklyn South" the best new series on television, Moonves did not try to play down the violence, which he called "extreme" and "shocking."

Tim Wildmon, son of Donald and vice president of AFA, interpreted Moonves' statement almost as a boast. "He seems to be bragging on the fact that it is going to be gory and violent," Wildmon said.

According to a transcript of the press conference, Moonves went on to say the violence "is done for a reason. It's trying to show that violence is not pretty."

Of course, it is impossible to determine if there is truth in Wildmon's claim that CBS is doing all it can to drum up buzz for its show by fanning the flames of controversy.

Certainly, Bochco is no stranger to that game. As Moonves himself told the critics, "If anybody in America does not know that 'Brooklyn South' is a very violent show, then they're not living here."

Brutal icon

For his part, Milch denied a reporter's suggestion at the critics tour that the exploding head was an effort to flaunt the new content code. He went on to explain that the writers and producers plan to use the graphic scene to underpin an entire season.

And ultimately Milch knows from his experience during "NYPD Blue's" inaugural season that even when it comes down to image-conscious network affiliates, content rating labels are no match for Nielsen rating points.
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Author:Stern, Christopher
Publication:Variety
Date:Aug 18, 1997
Words:692
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