"Annie Hall" will eventually be just a footnote in the history of TV censorship, but at the moment it seems more like a new chapter.
Woody Allen's comedy about sex and love, aired recently by ABC, contained more strong language than any nationally televised theatrical movie since "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" And unlike almost all other PG-rated films, it survived the censor's shears without a scratch.
"We did not change anything in that picture," sayd Alfred Schneider, the ABC vice president in charge of standards and practices. "The picture ran as is," confirms Charles Joffe, co-producer of the film.
It just goes to show what kind of sanity can surface when a movie has won four Oscars, including Best Picture, and its director and co-author refuses to sell it unless TV shows it the way he made it. Despite the many naughty words that polka-dotted "Annie" and went out over ABC stations, there has been virtually no negative public reaction.
More than 150 calls of complaint were logged at ABC in New York after the movie aired, but these were concerned with the continuity of the film. People thought ABC had juggled reels. "Annie" jumps around in time on purpose, however; viewers conditioned to TV's chronological, linear narratives were disoriented by this simple artistic device.
Almost unmentioned was the repeated use of "Jesus," "Christ" and "God" as expletives -- normally a near-absolute taboo in television -- as well as references to "sodomy" and "humping" and a scatological term used by a little boy to describe his obnoxious uncle.
None of this had even the tiniest salacious or ferocious intent, but that usually doesn't stop the picket-liners and bluenoses from raising hell. Or whatever it is that bluenoses raise.
"Annie Hall" might have gone through the same extensive TV laundering as other films if Allen hadn't maintained control over it. Unlike other directors, he was not contractually forced to provide alternate footage -- duplicate scenes shot with milder language -- so that the movie company could make an easy TV sale after the picture's theatrical life.
"It took months of discussion" to get Allen to agree to a TV sale at all, Joffe says. Known either reverentially or derisively as a "purist," Allen and his producers have jurisdiction over the TV sale of all Allen films after "Sleeper," released in 1973.
Why did ABC risk viewer backlash with an unedited "Annie Hall?" Schneider says the film was preceded by a printed and spoken advisory warning of its explicit dialogue, "and people accept Woody Allen for what he is. There was nothing visually problematic in the film, and because of the awards and the literary quality, we thought it merited special treatment."
There could be another reason for the relaxed standards, though, as suggested by one line of copy in newspaper ads for the film "Another Outstanding Movie on Free Television!" they tooted. With millions of homes now receiving uncensored films through cable or over-the-air pay television, networks are getting more nervous about defecting audiences than about citizens for "decency" and their ever-ready angry stationery.
Schneider says the two things are unrelated. But before leaving NBC, executive vice president Paul L. Klein complained that prior exposure on pay TV has already lowered the rating of the average theatrical movie on network TV by three points.
The networks have a long and bloody history of movie massacres. Earlier in this dizzy decade, CBS took 25 minutes out of "The Damned" and slotted it for late night, but many network stations still refused to carry it. NBC added a whole new character and a half-hour of new footage to "Three Into Two Won't Go" to make it a more "moral" film.
When asked why she had removed all suggestion of bisexuality from the movie musical "Cabaret," a now-retired ABC censor explained, "Oh, everybody knew they were fags (sic)." And as recently as Sept. 2 of this year, the word "damned," as in, "I'll be," was bleeped out of "True Grit," because ABC carelessly showed a print it had censored for the standards prevailing when the film was first televised, in 1972.
Thus John Wayne's Rooster Cogburn not only didn't cuss a blue streak, he didn't even cuss a puce streak.
"Annie Hall" hardly represents a landmark or revolution, but it does indicate that the viewing nation will not go to pieces upon hearing realistic language in an intelligent, adult film. People are always accusing television of failing to grow up, but it really can't grow all the way up until the audience does.
"If you look at it as a progression," says ABC's Schneider, "and visualize 10 steps, then we're on maybe the seventh step, and holding."