LOS ANGELES - Artistic freedom versus the prudish mood of the Federal Communications Commission was an overwhelming theme at the Television Critics Association winter press tour.
Much of the blame goes to the Janet Jackson "wardrobe malfunction" at last year's Super Bowl, which galvanized the FCC and actually got the commission interested in enforcing long-standing indecency rules.
It's also led to "gotcha!" press coverage every time a mindless rock star blurts out a profanity during a live broadcast. And it has led to an overreaction, from the blurring of a woman's breasts in a clinical setting on ER to Fox's revelation last week that it blurred an animated baby's behind on Family Guy. The same episode aired on Fox without blurring about four years ago.
Fox Entertainment president Gail Berman said the decision to blur baby Stewie's rear end followed the FCC levying an indecency fine for the show Married by America. (A $7,000 fine was levied on all Fox affiliates for a bachelor party scene.)
"[The current guidelines] are not clear, and we need clarity from it," Berman said. "We don't want to be irresponsible, but it is difficult, and we are attempting to do our best to find our way in this very complicated issue and very complicated landscape."
NYPD Blue executive producer Steven Bochco said he's felt greater pressure from ABC since the Jackson incident, more so when it comes to nudity than language.
"Scenes were modified after the fact, and then at some point, you're told you just can't do certain scenes the way you used to do them, so you stop doing them," Bochco said.
ABC Primetime Entertainment president Stephen McPherson said he was surprised to hear Bochco's take on it. "We really haven't changed anything we're doing," he said. "We adhere to the same broadcast standards regardless of the climate."
"I'll call Steve and pitch him something next week with a lot of [bare rear ends]," Bochco said, "and we'll see what happens."
McPherson said the furor over the Monday Night Football promo for Desperate Housewives last fall surprised him. "I thought it was a whole lotta nothing," he said. "I was surprised by the amount of play that it got."
Leslie Moonves, co-president of Viacom and CBS chairman, remains furious at the FCC for fining the company $550,000 over the Janet Jackson "nipplegate" incident on last year's Super Bowl telecast and refuses to pay the fine. But he said there's been no crackdown on CBS.
"We're not changing our content," Moonves said. "But by the same token, we have to be aware of what the world is out there. It is not having a chilling effect on our shows."
The WB Entertainment president David Janollari said his network hasn't felt it either.
"I don't feel we need to be naughty or risque in any way to attract an audience," he said.
"What we're saying to our producers is, 'Guys, let's not be stupid about this,'●" CBS' Moonves said. "Clearly there's a change in how the FCC is looking at us."
And that could change again with Friday's resignation of FCC chairman Michael Powell.
"That gives us hope that there can actually be a new agenda at the helm of the FCC," said Jeff Zucker, NBC Universal Television Group president, expressing concern about multiple issues. He hopes the new chairman will "bring some common sense and some uniformity to the issues of indecency that just have not had any semblance of uniformity at the FCC. If everybody understood what the rules were, that would be a step in the right direction."
If you don't want to know what's likely to happen in the presidential race on NBC's The West Wing, stop reading now. Not that I know for sure, but logic and an understanding of network priorities make it pretty clear.
West Wing executive producer John Wells and cast members responded to reporters' questions with savvy spin that would make a real politician proud.
Both Jimmy Smits, who plays Democratic candidate Matt Santos, and Alan Alda, who plays Republican candidate Sen. Arnold Vinick, claim they'll be back next season, and Wells said he's not yet decided which one will win the election.
"I'll do as many episodes as it takes to accomplish our goals," Alda said.
"We're there for next season," Smits said, ducking questions about the duration of his contract. "What's wrong with suspense? The possibilities are endless!"
But let's be realistic: If NBC can choose between the younger Smits and older Alda for the lead in a show, NBC executives, with their desire to draw younger viewers, are going to demand the younger guy wins.
Wells dismissed that argument. "It depends on so many factors: Is it dramatically compelling? Who are the people surrounding that person? We have ignored the gods of demographics for many years on this show."
In my mind, there's no question that Smits' Santos will be the next president. Of course, NBC has yet to renew West Wing for a seventh season, but Wells is convinced it will be back and NBC honcho Jeff Zucker said ongoing renewal negotiations have been amicable.
The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Rob Owen is the TV editor for the Post-Gazette.