October 14, 1999
BY PHIL ROSENTHAL TELEVISION CRITIC
Guess what's hitting the fans of "Chicago Hope" tonight.
It's a certain four-letter vulgarity for manure that, it is believed, has never been uttered on a major-network prime time drama or comedy series.
Mark Harmon's Dr. Jack McNeil, who's under investigation by a medical board after failing in his heroic efforts to help a high school baseball star, says with resignation in the last five minutes of the 8 p.m. show on WBBM-Channel 2 that "[Bleep] happens."
Only there's no bleep.
"We sat down and went, `There's no other way to really express this,' " Executive Producer Michael Pressman explained Wednesday from Los Angeles. "It's a phrase that expresses this entire experience. I don't know of any other way to have said it without watering it down so the impact of the experience is not felt. . . . It culminates the whole hour. In a way, you've earned that moment."
We've earned . . . that?
CBS--which raised eyebrows earlier this week with Dan Rather's evening newscast airing security-camera footage from April's Columbine High massacre in Littleton, Colo.--claims this isn't the start of a trend at the one-time Tiffany Network.
"The producers felt strongly that the line was important for artistic truthfulness," the network said in a prepared statement. "We wanted to support their creative vision. But clearly, this is not something that will happen on a weekly basis."
In the end, it was Leslie Moonves, head of the CBS network, who signed off on the use of the word that the artists who work in TV had managed to avoid for more than 50 years.
"Les Moonves--and I have to give him credit for this--is saying, `I trust the creative judgment of my producers and I'm not engaging in censorship,' " Pressman said. "If it was exploitative, if it was unnecessary, if it was misused, he probably wouldn't have agreed to it."
The cynical among us might point out that "Chicago Hope" could use a stunt to goose its ratings this week. It finished a distant second in its time slot with just under 11.3 million viewers last week--a little less than half what NBC drew--and this week faces stiffer competition because a baseball playoff game is pre-empting Fox's regular programming.
Pressman said that had nothing to do with it.
Whatever the motive, it represents another loosening of broadcast standards. We're now to the point where George Carlin's '70s routine, "Seven Words You Can't Say on TV," seems downright quaint.
There now are only three or four words, tops.
And that's only on broadcast TV.
We've come a long way from the days when Lucy Ricardo couldn't say "pregnant" to describe her expectant condition, as media watchdogs always like to note whenever a new word breaks through.
But, heck, shows are in color now, and society has changed, too.
Network programs today have to compete head-on with cable, where a bleep-load of nudity, foul language and violence are de rigueur. ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, the WB and UPN are all trying to stop audience erosion, and broadcasters defend their tactics by saying viewers no longer differentiate between free broadcast TV and the TV they pay to get.
"Maybe that's where a network is coming from," Pressman said. "Creatively, it's about an honesty in the storytelling."
"Action," a new low-rated Fox comedy that normally runs opposite "Chicago Hope," created a furor earlier this fall by bleeping curse words--or more specifically, parts of curse words, the way it's done on Comedy Central's "South Park."
"These are colloquialisms and phrases that are part of our language," Pressman said. "This notion of when is it exploitive and when is it organic is the ultimate question."
No one is arguing that the word isn't organic.
It's more a matter of whether we want it in our living rooms, spewing out of our television sets.
"When you see the episode, you actually will not be thrown by it in any way," Pressman said. "It's actually like, `Yikes, what was the concern?' The bigger concern is how much do we show of the operation.
"I'm so surprised that this has created a reaction. I thought it would actually go unnoticed and was planning to let it go unnoticed because we weren't doing it to get attention. . . . But it's a first. And when it's a first, it has to get discussed."
Hey, stuff happens--or words to that effect."