ABC chief programmer Fred Silverman went on closed circuit television to ABC affiliates yesterday to assure them they had nothing to fear from "Soap," the network's already controversial new fall comedy series.
Silverman called "completely absurd" published reports on the alleged sexual explicitness of the show and insisted that "Soap" will have a "redeeming social aspect."
His speech, becamed to all 195 ABC stations, was clearly a response to criticism of the program from religious groups and some industry figures and an attempt to head off a movement by local stations frightened of carrying the series. "Soap" is considered a showpiece in the ABC fall lineup.
"No character in 'Soap' is ever rewarded for immoral behavior," Silverman said. "In the final analysis, there will always be retribution for such behavior" when characters transgress on the program.
"Soap," which Silverman called "an adult character comedy with a continuing story line," deals with members of two fictitious families, the Tates and the Campbells. The network began hearing squeals of protest episodes were screened for affiliates and members of the press in Los Angeles earlier this summer.
Alfred Schneider, head of the network's standards and practices department, told the affiliates yesterday that portions of those first two shows have been refilmed, but declined to cite what changes were made. One of the scenes changed, he said, was the one in which a teenage girl has a romantic rendezvous with a tennis pro not long after her mother has left the man's apartment.
Silverman discussed several points in the plot that he said would work themselves out inoffensively after the opening episodes. The mother who has the affair with the tennis pro "is afflicted with unremitting guilt" and "undergoes extreme suffering," in future chapters, Silverman promised.
And the homosexual son who is considering a sex-change operation in the opening episodes "eventually meets a girl and suddenly finds himself in the midst of an identity crisis," Silverman said. He did not say whether the young man is transformed by the crisis into a practicing heterosexual.
Silverman lashed out at purveyors of "misinformation," about the show, citing a Newsweek article in particular and also blaming "self-serving comments of a competitor" for the "Soap" furor.
Though he was not specific, industry insiders believe Silverman's "competitor" reference was directed at CBS, the company he left to become the programmer who made ABC the number-one network for the first time in its history last season.
CBS president Robert Wussler has been quoted as saying, reply to a question about "Soap" on ABC, "It's not right for me to comment on another network, but it seems taste levels have diminished below the level I think proper for our network."
ABC beat the pants off CBS in the ratings this past TV season.
Although, there have not been mass affiliate defections over "Soap," Westinghouse Broadcasting Chairman Donald H. McGannon notified ABC last week that Westinghouse station WJZ-TV in Baltimore, an ABC affiliate, would not carry the first two episodes of "Soap" and implied that other episodes might also be preempted.
McGannon, reached in Philadelphia yesterday, said he had not seen or heard Silverman's remarks. Asked if they might change his mind about banning the first two shows, McGannon said, "I doubt it, but I don't want to prejudge." He said changes in the first two shows would have to be "substantive" for him to reconsider.
Silverman, who sat behind an ornate desk on a New York set during the closed-circuit telecast, taped his remarks in New York Wednesday night, finishing about an hour before the blackout that momentarily shut down all three networks. Silverman was "tinkering" with his speech until the last minute before taping, a network source said.