One of the many shows singled out by the FCC in its recent indecency report was, it should come as no surprise, "NYPD Blue". The show ultimately avoided fines because it predates the current standards but the commission’s opinion did cite it for using language and situations that were “shocking, explicit and gratuitous.” Steven Bochco, creator of the series, joins Bob to engage in an adult conversation about art imitating life.
BOB GARFIELD: Among the programs singled out by the Commission, it will come as surprise to nobody, was "NYPD Blue." No fines were meted out because the FCC determined that the show pre-dated the current standards, but the majority did certify that language and situations on the show were "explicit, shocking and gratuitous." Steven Bochco is creator of "NYPD Blue" and many other groundbreaking series. He joins us now. Steven, welcome to OTM.
STEVEN BOCHCO: Thank you, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, it's official. "NYPD Blue" is indecent. What the f—k [BLEEPED] do you do now?
STEVEN BOCHCO: [LAUGHS] Well, the good news is we're not making it anymore. You know, we made twelve years of that show, and it really was only in the last two years, I would say, that we began to feel the sort of restrictive vise of these new broadcast standards.
BOB GARFIELD: Could "NYPD Blue" be produced today?
STEVEN BOCHCO: No. [LAUGHS] It would be a different color. [LAUGHS] It wouldn't be blue.
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHING]
STEVEN BOCHCO: It would be "NYPD Mauve"-- [LAUGHTER] --or something. I don't know. [LAUGHTER] Look, you know, when I used to get letters from angry viewers about "NYPD Blue," my response always was we could have told those stories without that language, we could have told those stories without the specific sexual context. It was a choice. It was a creative choice, which we always took very seriously and we always tried to implement responsibly. But we felt that in the world in which we were telling our stories, the kind of language we used was absolutely appropriate, and the degree of sexuality that we portrayed really was about as provocative as that which you would see in a PG-13 movie.
BOB GARFIELD: Okay, fair enough. That's the verisimilitude argument. But, you know, there's also the titillation argument. And that is of getting people to watch just to, you know, see how far you'll go. You're not going to tell me that that never entered your thinking in the framing of a given episode of "NYPD Blue" or any of your other series.
STEVEN BOCHCO: That's exactly what I'm going to say to you. Obviously, we conceptualized "NYPD Blue" to be a show that pushed at the bindings because in the early 1990's, the hour drama was kind of moribund on broadcast television, and cable was just having us for lunch. So in broad strokes, the mandate for "NYPD Blue" was to mature the medium somewhat. But there really was never any impulse to try to spin what we had into ever-more provocative fare so as to attract more of an audience. We got the audience right away.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, clearly the FCC has decided that the pendulum has swung too far and that it has to make a correction. And, you know, this all seems though so 1957.
STEVEN BOCHCO: [LAUGHS] Yeah, it sure does.
BOB GARFIELD: Did you see this coming? Did you think it would come to this?
STEVEN BOCHCO: Yes, of course, because when I was receiving 2,000 pieces of mail a week in sacks delivered to my office, protesting "NYPD Blue" before it ever went on the air, what you had to realize is that the FCC essentially serves at the pleasure of the administration, and as the administration in power turns more conservative, the FCC is going to be completely reflective of the philosophies of the administration. I think that's what we're dealing with now.
BOB GARFIELD: So you get these 2,000 letters a week in these astroturf efforts by organized constituencies, you know, determined to moderate your behavior. As you go through these letters, do you ever encounter one that was not part of the organized letter-writing campaign but one that was just, you know, real-life experience--
STEVEN BOCHCO: Absolutely.
BOB GARFIELD: --that made you take pause and go, “oh you know, maybe strictly speaking, I really didn't need to show Dennis Franz’s ass this week”? Do you ever have second thoughts?
STEVEN BOCHCO: I never needed to show anybody's ass. I never needed to show anybody's breasts. I never needed to use the word "asshole." Those were creative choices. And I regret all kinds of things I've done, but I've never regretted them conceptually. I usually regret them simply because, for one reason or another, the execution wasn't good enough. You know, did we contextualize the moment sufficiently to make it appropriate?
BOB GARFIELD: But if you agree that the FCC should have some purview over what goes over the airwaves, then isn't it just a question of who writes the list? I mean, you and I may agree that the ruling that "bullshit" is indecent is bullshit, but someone has to write the rules. By what process would you determine what is over the line?
STEVEN BOCHCO: As someone who has had a fairly intimate relationship with an audience over many, many, many years, I think I have a pretty good perspective about, you know, what an audience will tolerate. And I mean, I really trust that audiences have a lot more sophistication in that regard than government watchdogs. You know, it's not so much that I object to oversight. What I think I object to is the fact that the oversight tends to shift with the wind, and you never know from one day to the next what's acceptable and what isn't.
BOB GARFIELD: Let me ask you one more thing.
STEVEN BOCHCO: Sure.
BOB GARFIELD: You're a wealthy man. You probably make more money in syndication revenue in a month than I'll earn in my entire career. So, when the fines come in for this broadcast, will you cover me? [LAUGHTER]
STEVEN BOCHCO: [LAUGHS] You're on your own, pal! [LAUGHTER]
BOB GARFIELD: All right, well I thought I'd ask.
STEVEN BOCHCO: You won't get fined. You won't get fined.
BOB GARFIELD: Steven, thanks very much.
STEVEN BOCHCO: It's my pleasure.
BOB GARFIELD: Inveterate television producer Steven Bochco spoke to us from his office in Santa Monica, California. Coming up, the so-called "last dictatorship in Europe" proves resistant to the opposition's media strategy and war crimes trials on trial. This is On the Media from NPR.