The producers of the new PBS drama series "Cop Shop" say they're "enormously grateful" to the FCC for an "absurd" new list of words it demands not be used on television no way no how, and to the vice president of the United States for using one of those words on the floor of the U.S. Senate, because they have given people "at last a battle we can all understand -- the forces of dark versus light."
PBS recently bleeped three words in the upcoming show's first two episodes, telling creator David Black and executive producer and star Richard Dreyfuss that under new Federal Communications Commission rules, the public broadcasting network as well as individual stations could be subject to hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines if they telecast the unedited version.
Although we'd love to let you know what the three words are, because you have the right to know what the FCC is up to these days, we have been told by higher authorities that we cannot repeat them in The TV Column but must instead explain them to you: One of the words, as mentioned, was used by the vice president on the floor of the U.S. Senate in reference to something he wished Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont to do to himself.
To the best of our knowledge, the vice president has not yet used the two other words on the floor of the Senate but, who knows, the year is still young. Those two words are a slang term for excrement and a commonly used two-word expression for fellatio. (To the countless little children who begin each day by poring over The TV Column: Go ask your parents. To the parents of the countless little children who begin each day by poring over The TV Column: Who said parenting would be easy?)
"We believe . . . that the new FCC regulations represent an unacceptable assault on our First Amendment rights -- on everyone's First Amendment rights -- an act unworthy of a free country, an act of censorship," Black told TV critics attending Summer TV Press Tour 2004 in the bowels of the Westin Century Plaza Hotel here on Friday.
Black, whose credits include "Law & Order" and "100 Centre Street," told The TV Column after the session that although Vice President Cheney's word is on the FCC's Unacceptable List, as is the word for excrement, the two-word expression for fellatio is not. The lawyers for PBS decided to throw it in anyway, he said, apparently thinking that the FCC must have forgotten to include it.
"Cop Shop," which premieres in October as a "Hollywood Presents" series, is about New York City police in an Upper West Side precinct; each episode was rehearsed as a play and then shot straight through, in a 45-minute take. In addition to Dreyfuss, who plays Detective Leonard Manzo, the show stars Blair Brown, Rosie Perez, Rita Moreno and Jay Thomas. The first episode tells the story of a community meeting between police officers and local residents who are panicked over a series of rapes in the neighborhood; in the second episode, Detective Manzo visits a neighborhood brothel to find a woman he can relate to on a personal level.
"In a show about life in a whorehouse, separating out a line about [slang for fellatio] from lines about lubricants, pornography, drugs and deviance might seem odd or silly, or more revealing about the censors than the censorship," said Dreyfuss, reading from a lengthy statement he'd prepared. He used it to open the Q&A session on the show -- to the surprise of PBS and KCET, the Los Angeles public television station that produces "Cop Shop," suits from both insisted. (Black read a statement, too, but his was much shorter and more to the point. You can always tell who's the writer and who's the actor by the length of their prepared statements.)
"But it is inescapably censorship under guidelines imposed after the fact by those who are in temporary political power, and so it should be treated as what it is -- a real-world moral and ethical battle with grimly wrongheaded un-American types who play pick-and-choose when they define our freedom of speech and religion as it fits their particular political needs," continued Dreyfuss, who appeared via satellite from New York.
He said he was uneasy with "negotiations about how many [Cheney words] you can have on a network or the amount of screen space you can give a nipple."
There are nipples on this show?
Mary Mazur, executive in charge of production at KCET, reassured critics that she had no idea whether, in this political climate, PBS could once again broadcast, say, the randy 1996 British production of "Moll Flanders." "I don't know how to answer that," she said.
Asked why PBS didn't just take a stand and run the "Cop Shop" episodes sans bleeping to test whether the FCC would have the nerve to fine PBS over one of its tony "Hollywood Presents" productions, Mazur said, "PBS doesn't have the resources to find that question out." And, finally, when one critic wondered why PBS felt the need to err on the side of caution, Mazur boldly asserted, "I don't know that you necessarily have to lay down on the railroad track to make a point."
Show creator Black kept chiding critics for fixing their discussion about his show so firmly on the three words instead of larger questions such as the "human condition." Of course, it was his idea, and Dreyfuss's, to open the session with prepared statements. In his statement, Black stood in solidarity with the vice president:
"As for the word [censored], I stand with Vice President Cheney who . . . said sometimes you have to use it unapologetically because you feel better afterwards."
During the Q&A, critics asked Black and Dreyfuss if they would provide copies of their prepared statements. Black gave his to a PBS publicist who made copies and distributed them. A considerable time later, critics had not yet received a copy of Dreyfuss's statement; PBS said Dreyfuss was withholding it -- so he could make changes.