By MARK MCGUIRE, Staff writer
First published: Friday, October 15, 1999
"Chicago Hope'' broke new television ground Thursday night, not with a striking story line or its major cast changes or new gore, but with four little letters. I'll spot you the "s'' and the "h,'' but that's it.
Just not on network television. At least until now.
The producers of the show -- the omnipresent David E. Kelley, Michael Pressman and Henry Bromell -- successfully lobbied to have the s-word included in the script. The historic profanity was said by Dr. Jake McNeil (Mark Harmon) as he talked to lawyers after a botched operation. "S--- happens,'' McNeil said.
"The producers felt strongly the line was important for artistic truthfulness,'' CBS spokesman Chris Ender said Thursday. "It's not a statement, it's not a sign, it's not a symbol of things to come.''
It is a word, a word many of us hear if not say every day. It's only in the bizarre fantasy world of network television where the majority of people say "golly,'' "shoot'' and "dang-gummit.''
(You will notice the word is still out of bounds for this newspaper.)
Howard Stern was vowing Thursday morning to start using the s-word on the air if "Chicago Hope'' can get away with it. He also notes that many rock songs played on the radio are full of curses. Howard is no longer the most shocking, and he also has a point: What is the difference?
Another question: If the word is "artistically truthful'' in this instance, certainly it is applicable in context in other instances. So how can the network say this is a one-time-only deal?
FnkD ledeiN Harmon's curse is not the first time profanity has been uttered on television: Cable is replete with unbleeped bleeps. And anyone watching a sports broadcast, especially one employing a sideline or courtside microphone, does not have to be a world-class lip reader to make out the curses of athletes.
But never before has a network ventured this far into the seven-dirty-word territory in an entertainment show. And if you had been taking bets which network would have been the first to do so, you probably would have gotten 500-to-1 odds on CBS (as opposed to 1-to-5 on Fox and even money on UPN).
"Needless to say there has been considerable debate about it,'' Ender said. "We see it as an isolated incident. This does signal the change in standard at CBS. This won't happen on a weekly basis.''
Coincidently, CBS was also the network to break a language barrier earlier this decade. In 1990, the short-lived "Uncle Buck,'' an 8 p.m. comedy based on the John Candy movie, made history in the first of its few moments on the air when a young girl said "you suck.''
And there have been numerous other shows, most notably "NYPD Blue'' on ABC, that have taken the concept of permissible language and nudity on a network to the extreme. At least to what was thought was the extreme.
FnkD ledeiN But Ender acknowledges the obvious: There is an acute double-standard between cable and the networks regarding content, one that allows cable to go further in terms of language, violence and nudity than over-the-air networks, which are governed by the Federal Communications Commission.
And as the networks lose viewers, and more people at home don't make the distinction between cable and broadcast networks -- they are all just channels coming through the box -- it's clear it's not a fair fight.
"There is a little bit of a double standard,'' Ender said. "The press showers praise on 'The Sopranos,' 'Sex and the City' and 'South Park' (all cable shows) for pushing the envelope, but if the network does this we get burned at the stake.''
So should that double-standard be eradicated? Should all walls be taken down? "I don't want to go there,'' Ender said.
The spokesman said early Thursday that a couple of affiliates expressed concern. WRGB, Ch. 6, General Manager Tom Long said he had some reservation with the language, especially since the show ends in the 9 p.m. hour, but added he had no plans of pulling the episode.
"It's one line and I think it comes late in the show,'' Long said. "CBS has assured me it's a one-time-only and doesn't represent a trend.''
But there is a trend out there, of networks losing ground to cable, the Internet and elsewhere. And even staid CBS appears willing to test any and all boundaries to try to get them back.
Mark McGuire is the Times Union TV/radio writer. His column generally appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Call him at 454-5467 or send e-mail to email@example.com.