Last month, NBC found itself the target of criticism after reports surfaced that the network had declined a digital ad for the independent movie “Obvious Child,” which concerns a young woman’s decision to have an abortion, because the spot used that word. At the Television Critics Association press tour in Los Angeles on Sunday, one of my colleagues asked NBC Entertainment Chairman Bob Greenblatt whether the controversy reflected a broader timidity about abortion and reproductive health on television.
Greenblatt responded with a story from his own career.
“A long time ago, I did a show at the Fox network called ‘Party of Five.’ I’m going to say it’s the mid-’90s, and we had a storyline where Neve Campbell’s character had gotten pregnant,” he recalled. “She was going to have an abortion, and at the time at the Fox network, it was a real fight internally whether or not we could tell that story. We ended up caving, and she lost the baby sort of on the way to getting the abortion, which was, I thought, a real cop-out, but it was 20 years ago. I don’t think we cop out like that anymore, but I still think writers and producers are nervous about it because it really does divide people. But I think we’ve made progress.”
Convenient miscarriage storylines, which mean that a character is relieved of making the decision about whether to have an abortion, may remain irritatingly common. But Greenblatt is correct that this sort of workaround has not come to dominate storytelling about unplanned pregnancy.
According to an analysis from researchers at Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health, a research group based out of the University of California at San Francisco’s Bixby Center for Global Reproductive Health, abortion storylines in film and television have become more common since the Roe v. Wade decision. The number of those storylines that end with a character losing the pregnancy has increased slightly, though there has been a greater shift toward characters carrying pregnancies to term and either parenting their children or giving them up for adoption.
And just because pop culture has characters consider abortion more often does not mean that fictional characters are actually having abortions or that television has gotten any braver about treating abortion as routine. As my former colleague Tara Culp-Ressler reported in February, “Between 1973 and 2002, abortion represented about 60 percent of the pregnancy outcomes in pop culture plots. But from 2003 and 2012, that dropped to about 48 percent.”
As for the “Obvious Child” kerfuffle, Greenblatt said he thought that the advertising sales team at NBC had taken “the path of least resistance,” selecting an ad that did not mention the “abortion angle” in “Obvious Child” by choosing the spot out of three potential options. He said the network does not have a hard-and-fast policy regarding mentions or depictions of abortion in advertising. But even in the absence of strict guidelines, the desire to avoid controversy is a powerful, wide-ranging incentive.
On the creative side, Greenblatt and Jennifer Salke, president of NBC Entertainment, said they simply could not remember very many story pitches about abortion and unplanned pregnancies during their tenure at NBC. When such storylines come along, they tend to be in shows such as “Parenthood” and “Friday Night Lights,” which already take fairly serious approaches to the interaction between their characters’ storylines and larger political pressures.
“We would just want to make sure we were smart about it, that it was handled appropriately,” Salke said.
So what does this mean for the future of reproductive storytelling on network television? Mostly that hoping not to be seen as copping out is not the same thing as being willing to stand up to controversy. Cradles will continue to rock. The boat, not so much.