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Married... with Children

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{} Comments by Andreas Carl

September 11, 1995

The Bundys meet the Censors at Fox

You should see what hits the cutting-room floor

By Jim Impoco in Los Angeles

Roland McFarland races across town in his black Aurora toward Sony Pictures Entertainment. He arrives at Stage 24 just minutes before the cameras start rolling for the season {10} première of "Married ... With Children." Upstairs in the greenroom, the 52-year-old vice president of broadcast standards at Fox Broadcasting - the person who in simpler times was known as the censor - joins about a dozen writers, producers and network executives facing a wall of video monitors.

It isn't long before "Married ... With Children," the longest-running sitcom on the air today, lives up to its reputation for raunchiness. In the first scene, Peggy Bundy, the first lady of dysfunctional families, is watching TV. An announcer says: "Next, a word from Earth Pads. The only feminine hygiene product recycled from yesterday's garbage." Although the line bothered McFarland when he first read it, he decides to let it slide.

But in the next scene, when a character tells shoe salesman Al Bundy that she's "menstruating like a bandit," McFarland shakes his head and sighs. He scratches out "menstruating" in the script and pencils in "bloated" and later "cramping." After the show, McFarland raises his concern with Executive Producer Richard Gurman, who puts up a fight ("It's biological") but promises to shoot an alternative, or "cover line," as such things are called. McFarland puts off a final decision until he sees the rough cut.

If Hollywood is a launching pad for what presidential hopeful Bob Dole calls "nightmares of depravity," McFarland's job is to hand out No Doz. But it's not easy being chief censor at Fox, the upstart network with an attitude. Popular Fox shows such as "Married ... With Children," "Melrose Place" and "Martin" are prime targets for critics of prime time. The NAACP recently filed a petition urging the FCC not to grant the network, which is owned by Rupert Murdoch, a waiver on rules barring foreigners from owning U.S. stations. "[Fox] has brought the greatest debasement of taste, character, quality and decency in television history," the NAACP said.

But McFarland and his colleagues at the standards and practices department at Fox's Los Angeles studio insist the network's reputation is unfair and out of date. Although Fox touted itself as "the network witout censors" when it was launched a decade ago, today there are seven censors. The insist they do their job as well as, if not better than, their counterparts at ABC, NBC and CBS. "I don't think we have a show on the air that you couldn't just lift and put on another network, " says Darlene Lieblich {"lieblich" means "lovely" in German}, director of broadcast standards at Fox.

So what exactly does a Fox television censor do? Watch lots of TV and read tons of scripts. On the same day he visited the set of "Married ... With Children," McFarland also previewed three other tapings, watched rough cuts of two other shows, took in two reels of promos, and read four scripts and five rewrites. Although McFarland has final say in most matters of taste, he prefers the soft sell of a salesman to the sharp scissors of the censor when issues arise with producers.

Changing rules. There are few written guidelines for censors like McFarland because the rules - for better or worse - are constantly changing. Offensive language is a case in point. When Maurie Goodman, a veteran CBS censor now with Fox, started out in the 1960s, a swollen Lucille Ball could not say "pregnant" on the air. Today, the most obvious vulgarities - including comedian George Carlin's infamous "seven dirty words" {shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker and tits}, most racial slurs and divine imprecation - remain off limits. But the linguistic gray zoone is now enormous. For example, Goodman would allow the use of "screw" (as in "screw it") but not in the context of sex; likewise, the word "crap" is fine, so long as it's not used to describe defacation. In other words, censors must make what McFarland refers to as "common-sense judgments."

Unfortunately for the networks, Washington doesn't seem to have much faith in them, especially when the subject is violence. Both houses of Congress have recently passed bills requiring that TV sets be outfitted with a "V-chip" that can block violent programs; President Clinton has endorsed the device.

Fox and the other networks hat the idea of a V-chip. They argue that the Big Four {NBC, CBS, ABC and Fox} are doing a more than satisfactory job at self-regulating. The problem, they say, is that the networks are unfairly lumped with cable television, which airs far more of the kind of violent programming politicians and parents are riled about. And they worry that with a rating system, such critically acclaimed shows as "NYPD Blue" won't ever get made because advertisers won't support them {a problem national public German channels don't have as they mustn't air commercials after 8 pm anyway}.

By some measures, the networks are more sensitive about violence now than they were during television's so-called Golden Age. For example, Goodman ovserves that the kind of scene the classic 1950s series "The Untouchables" was famous for - multiple bodies dancing in slow motion as they are sprayed with machine-gun fire - would not get past a censor in the 1990s.

A forthcoming report by the University of California at Los Angeles Center for Communication Policy supports some of the networks' claims. One of the chief findings is that theatrical movies on the networks - rather than their own shows - account for the majority of violent programming. Even critics concede that the networks are doing a better job of keeping violence off the airwaves.

Sex, however, is another matter. And no network takes more heat for putting it on prime time than Fox. Graphic sex is still a no-no. (A scene from "The Simpsons" that showed the family dog mating was cut by a member of McFarland's staff not long ago.) But as the upcoming season première of "Married ... With Children" will make clear, not-so-subtle sexual innuendo is rampant. One example: Kelly, the Bundy' oversexed daughter, recounts her bus ride home to her parents: "Almost every man on the bus offered me his seat ... though nobody was willing to stand up to let me have it. Then, one delightful turban-clad chap ... asked me if I wanted to rub his 'magic lamp' and watch the genie come out."

McFarland argues that audiences today are more mature. "It's an informed public we're dealing with," he says {And what was it before "today"? A superstitious hillbilly audience?}, "so there's more latitude." Critics also blast Fox for broadcasting racier themes during the 8 p.m.-to-9 p.m. slot, the period formerly known as the "family hour." McFarland's response is that Fox broadcasts just 15 hours of prime time a week versus 22 hours for rival networks. so it has less wiggle room.

But it's not McFarland'ss job to decide what gets aired when. His job is to keep the network from getting into trouble. And even the least charitable critics have to concede that, thanks to him and hie staff, there's less to be offended by on Fox than would otherwise be the case. {Thank God this brave man saves us from being offended!}

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