The "Lou Grant" show, which seems to thrive on controversy, has a new one to thrive on: a sponsorship fight over an outspoken episode about nursing homes and the problems of aging.
The episode called "Home", which drew heavy mail pro and con when it was originally aired in February, is scheduled for a rerun on Aug. 27.
The American Health Care Association, the larges organization of nursing homes in the country, wants the rerun dropped. AHCA is contacting sponsors and CBS affiliates from its Washington headquarters, accusing the episode of "distortions about nursing homes." And it now claims that it got sponsors to drop their ads for the rebroadcast.
Five blocks away, but on the other side of the issue, are the American Association of Retired Persons and the National Retired Teachers Association, which this month gave the show their national public service award. They are accusing the AHCA of "economic censorship," and are contacting the same sponsors and CBS affiliates in support of the program.
CBS and MTM Productions, which produced the show, have refused to withdraw it from circulation, so now the controversy becomes a numbers game. How many of the 198 CBS affiliates involved will accept the position of the AARP and NRTA, with 12 million members? And how many will side will the AHCA, whose 7,500 institutional members care for nearly half of the 1.3 million nursing home patients in the United States?
AHCA began last week to contact the seven sponsors who advertised a total of nine products on the original airing, and says that it persuaded Oscar Mayer & Co., Kellogg's and one insurance company not to sponsor the rebroadcast. It is now contacting companies that have sponsored other "Lou Grant" episodes and might be asked to sponsor the rerun of "Home."
Ralph Davis, director of communications at Kellogg's, said that the company made its decision independently. "When it ran originally in Rebruary," he said, "we received a lot of letter, examined the show, and decided on our own that we would not sponsor a rerun."
A spokesman for Oscar Mayer said that his company had also received "a few letters on this show - not an awful lot, but enough to make us look at a videotape and decide that, yes, there were some questionable things in it."
In the script, on character says that "if you've got nursing homes, you've got problems," another that "we are willing to allow a million people in this country to exist in sub-standard nursing homes," and a third describes the homes as "a place to wait to die."
CBS and MTN Productions insist that there was a final scene in the show making it clear that a substandard nursing home shown in the episode was not typical and suggesting that private citizens should volunteer unpaid services to nursing homes and "blow the whistle" if necessary.
AHCA claims that no such scene is in its copy of the script (obtained from an unspecified source - not the network or producer. Gene Reynolds, executives producer of the show insists that these sections were broadcast and that he has received letters from viewers specifically responding to them. "Quite a few people are working as volunteers in nursing homes because of that show", he said.
Karl Luther, vice president-at-large of the AHCA, said that "there are things that happen in that program that could not happen today because of stricter regulation. The perpetuation of fear based on a few past scandals seems to be what grabs the headlines, and obviously that upsets us."
"Some people have suggested that we are trying to 'cover up' bad nursing homes," said Mike Codel, AHCA community relations director. "On the contrary, our policy is to improve the quality of care in all nursing homes."
He said that the episode was based on "information that is at best no newer than five years old, with the clear implication that what was exposed, continues to be the case today. The producers of the program gave no hint to the viewers that there had been any improvement in nursing-home care since the scandals."
MTM's Reynolds disagreed. "Home," he said, was based partly on a 1978 series of articles in Thr Los Angeles Times and partly on a series in the Chicago Tribune that ran at the end of last year, only a few months before the program was aired.