'NYPD Blue' Tested Limits of Network TV

ByABC News

March 1, 2005 — -- From the very first few seconds of its premiere in 1993, the hit ABC cop drama "NYPD Blue" changed what was acceptable to say and do on network television.

"Ipso this, you pissy little [expletive]," Detective Andy Sipowicz said to an assistant district attorney in that pilot episode.

Series co-creator Steven Bochco was convinced networks needed to take risks to compete with edgier fare on cable.

"I thought, 'If I can't find a way to revitalize this form, I'm going to be out looking for a real job,'" he said. "People were tuning out hour dramas on broadcast television in favor of seeing grittier, more realistic, more adult fare on cable and pay services."

The show tried to change the face of network television by presenting the grittier realities of life as a cop, including profanity and nudity. For that, it won 20 Emmy awards -- and a large number of critics. The show was strongly criticized by Christian conservative groups like the American Family Association. Fifty-seven ABC affiliates refused to air the premiere episode.

Steve Wheeler, general manager of affiliate WSIL in Harrisburg, Ill. -- one of the stations that refused to air the show -- told ABC's "Good Morning America" in 1993, "As a practical matter, if it's a huge success and it runs for 10 years, then I'd have to cave in at some point."

The show ran for 12 ½ years. Tonight's episode was the series finale, after which the members of the 15th detective squad will hand in their badges and guns, having fought long and hard for their side in the culture wars.

"When you watch television today, you are often getting a more realistic image in much of television drama because of what 'NYPD Blue' helped pioneer," said Chris Sterling, professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University.

But for conservative critics, that groundbreaking has not been a good thing.

"It helped paved the way for certain kinds of content to air in earlier hours of prime time, when kids are in the viewing audience and watching television," said Melissa Caldwell, director of research and publications for the advocacy group Parents Television Council.

Because of "NYPD Blue," she said, television viewers now commonly hear foul language and see nudity -- and not just in the 10 p.m. hour when "NYPD Blue" is aired on the Eastern and Pacific time zones. She points to profanity on the Fox show "Arrested Development" and the CBS show "Cold Case," as well as graphic nudity on CBS' "CSI" and "Judging Amy."

Fully exposed rear ends are not uncommon on television anymore, Caldwell said. That's because, she says, "'NYPD Blue' has sort of helped to desensitize viewers to that sort of content and inured viewers to seeing an exposed backside, so that now it seemed perfectly acceptable and normal, even during the family hour."

But the cultural pendulum may be swinging back, most notably with the reaction to singer Janet Jackson's infamous "wardrobe malfunction" at last year's Super Bowl halftime show. A year ago, Bochco was pressured by ABC entertainment executives to dim the lights on one of the show's sex scenes.

"Thanks to Janet Jackson, we had to pull back on those reins temporarily," actor Dennis Franz, who plays lead character Sipowicz, said in an interview with ABC television affiliate KABC.

In the post-Janet Jackson era, Bochco said, "We dialed back a lot of things that we used to do, especially in terms of sexuality. It's not worth the battle every day." He added: "Now, in the existing climate, I don't know that you could actually get 'NYPD Blue' on the air."

Launched in today's more conservative climate, Bochco's new show -- "Blind Justice," about a police officer who stays on the force after being blinded -- is much tamer. Still, he says, fights over its content are fierce.

"I'm having the same kind of ridiculous fights over language issues on 'Blind Justice' that I had 15 years ago on 'L.A. Law,'" said Bochco, who also created the popular 1980s legal drama.

Bochco says innovators and artists who work in television are being driven to work in cable television. His new drama about the Iraq war, "Over There," premieres this summer on FX cable channel. David Milch, the co-creator of "NYPD Blue," produces his Western drama "Deadwood" for HBO.

The debate over decency is even more fevered today than it was in 1993. On Monday, the Federal Communications Commission announced that "Saving Private Ryan" was suitable for airing; dozens of ABC affiliates refrained from showing the World War II film for fear of retaliation from the FCC.

Today, almost as if in Bochco's honor, Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, told the National Association of Broadcasters he would push for legislation to apply the same standards that apply to network radio and television to cable and satellite radio and television. "Cable is a much greater violator in the indecency area," Stevens said. "There has to be some standard of decency."

"When the senator defines specifically what is or what is not 'decency' for a country that has way in excess of 200 million people, I'll be very interested in hearing that point of view," Bochco said.

Language and nudity aside, even some critics admit to a place in their hearts for "NYPD Blue's" Sipowicz and the 15th detective squad.

"It's compelling drama," said Caldwell. "But I think that it could have been as compelling and as interesting without the, sort of, gratuitous content."

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