LOS ANGELES, March 11 (UPI) -- ABC executives insist that the decision to excise references to Fox News Channel from an episode of "Boston Legal" comports with longstanding practice, but the story is bound to stoke a widely held perception that broadcasters have become timid about content issues in recent years.
The episode, titled "Let Sales Ring," is about a censorship controversy at a public high school where the principal, played by Chi McBride, decides to block student access to Fox News on all the TV sets in the school. A student accuses the principal of censorship and takes his case to the attorneys at the fictional law practice of Boston Legal.
The Los Angeles Times reported Friday that executives at The Walt Disney Co.-owned ABC ordered series creator-producer David E. Kelley to delete explicit mentions of Fox News. Instead, the episode will have characters referring to an unnamed cable news channel that promotes a conservative agenda.
The AlterNet Web site posted excerpts from the original script that included plain references to Fox News and at least one of its on-air personalities, Bill O'Reilly.
According to AlterNet, the original script called for the conservative student to say:
"It's called a Fox Blocker. Sold off the Internet. You attach it to the coaxial cable on your television and it basically blocks out all Fox News transmissions. ... My high school principal attached these liberal, left-wing devices to all the televisions in the building. Meanwhile, the kids are free to watch CBS, CNN, NBC, even ABC, but not Fox. It's censorship."
AlterNet reported that the revised script has the student making a similar argument -- but without a specific reference to Fox News:
"It's called a news blocker. Sold off the Internet. You attach it to the coaxial cable on your television and it basically blocks out news transmission. ... My high school principal attached these devices to all the televisions in the building. The problem is ... turns out it only blocks out one network, the most fair and balanced one. All the others, kids can watch."
In another scene, the original script has a character saying she watches Fox News.
"For starters, we're winning the war on Fox," says the character. "The economy's better there. And Brit Hume. Sometimes I close my eyes and ... go to him."
The revised script, according to AlterNet, has the character endorsing a generic idea of a news channel that will probably sound a lot like Fox to many "Boston Legal" viewers.
"I'd probably seek out the station where we're most likely to be winning the war," she says. "Where I can find a better economy. Maybe some weapons of mass destruction."
In a sense, Kelley may be having his cake and eating it too -- in much the same way as political organizations lately have learned that the simple act of releasing controversial ads to the media can give their message tremendous media exposure at little or no cost. Even if viewers have to read between the lines of Sunday night's episode, the publicity surrounding the show has allowed "Boston Legal" to argue in no uncertain terms that Fox's claim to fairness and balance is at least open to debate.
ABC issued a statement saying the decision was not based on politics.
"While real-life situations are often used as original inspiration for fictionalized programming story lines," said the statement, "it is a long-standing, industry-wide practice not to use real people or actual events."
Stacey Luchs, a spokeswoman for Kelley, told the Times that dropping the Fox reference allowed the story to be told in "an even more subversive and provocative way."
ABC's decision comes just two weeks after an ABC standards and practices executive forced Robin Williams to tone down a comedy song planned for the Academy Awards telecast. Williams and the song's writers said they were required to make so many changes they eventually threw up their hands and dropped the song altogether.
This is all happening as ABC bids farewell to "NYPD Blue," which the network had the nerve to premiere in 1993 over the protests of activists who objected to the show's rough language and partial nudity. As New York Times writer Frank Rich has pointed out, "NYPD Blue" creator Steven Bochco doubts whether the show could be brought to prime time today in the same form in which it was launched a dozen years ago.
Legislation is moving through Congress substantially increasing fines for broadcast indecency, and Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, is speculating about the possibility of extending the Federal Communications Commission's regulatory reach to cover indecency on cable and satellite programming.
ABC's decision on "Boston Legal" may or may not reflect timidity in the network's corporate suites -- but it's easy to see how it could give that impression.
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