Mormons picket ‘Fences’

An adolescent’s wet dream. A woman reaching orgasm by herself. What seems to be father-daughter incest is actually … Mormon bigamy. Forget the battle over NC-17 ratings; the question now is whether this stuff belongs on prime time television.

“Picket Fences,” CBS and Viewers for Quality Television (VQT) say yes.

CBS affiliates KSL in Salt Lake City and KIRO in Seattle– both owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, the Mormons–say no: After complaining to the network about the show’s direction, both affils announced last week that they would no longer carry “Fences” (which runs from 10-11 p.m. on Fridays).

The network and Twentieth TV are standing by the show, which was named last week by VQT as the best drama of the fall season. Meanwhile, viewers–especially in Seattle–are up in arms about censorship by a church-owned station.

Although the affiliates are both owned by Bonneville Intl., which is owned by the Mormon church, each maintains its decision was made independently.

Bruce Reese, president of KSL, and Glenn Wright, exec VP of KIRO, said the consistently “bizarre and aberrant” subject matter led to the cancellation–the Jan. 22 episode on Mormons was merely the final straw.

Although Wright said other affils are considering the same action, Mick Schafbuch, chairman of the CBS Affiliate Assn. and exec VP of KOIN in Portland, said, “I haven’t heard that at all. I asked for agenda items (for the meeting this week in D.C.) and it hasn’t come up. The only complaints have been about the ratings.”

When in Rome

“Fences” stars Tom Skerritt as the sheriff and takes place in fictional Rome, Wis., home of the oddest collection of characters since “Twin Peaks.”

In the Jan. 22 episode, a high school girl became pregnant and, after Skerritt’s daughter said she saw the girl kissing her own father in an incestuous way, Skerritt arrested the girl’s father. The man then said he was Mormon and the girl was actually his second wife, pretending to be a daughter to avoid problems.

“The church outlawed polygamy 100 years ago. One of the gists of the show was that the church winks at it, but that is not true,” Reese said.

Neither CBS nor anyone from “Picket Fences” would comment on whether the show had stereotyped Mormons unfairly or whether the character could have been a bigamist without being Mormon.

In Seattle, Wright acknowledged that over the course of the season, he has received very few complaints about the show’s sexual content, although he says, “One reason is that no one is watching it.”

Wright considered running a disclaimer or editorial along with the show out of concern about being accused of censorship, but ultimately decided, “It’s never a win-win situation, but I’m on the right side of right.”

“(CBS programming exec) Peter Tortorici told me the show is ‘on the edge.’ I say it’s over the edge,” Wright said. He asked for the right to preview upcoming episodes, but Tortorici would offer only scripts, so Wright pulled the plug.

But Seattle isn’t Salt Lake City. “I haven’t heard from Salt Lake City, but I’ve already had calls from people in Seattle asking what they can do,” VQT prez Dorothy Swanson said. A Seattle radio talkshow is organizing a letter-writing campaign to support the series.

Some people are fans of the show, he said, but many “are incensed over the general censorship issue. Most people didn’t know it was a church-owned station before this and some people feel the church is sticking its nose in where it doesn’t belong.”

No one denies that “Fences” routinely tackles subjects that are out of the ordinary. But Steve Bell, president of Twentieth TV, issued a statement saying the company remains “proud and enthusiastic about (exec producer) David Kelley’s brilliant creation.”

The affils have also come under fire for attacking “Fences” because it is more vulnerable than a show like “Northern Exposure,” which also deals with sexual and religious issues but is a ratings superstar.

“It’s hypocritical,” Swanson said. “They probably see a chance of destroying ‘Picket Fences’ but know they wouldn’t make a dent in ‘Northern Exposure.’ ”

But Reese and Wright angrily denied that charge, saying this is not about ratings, money or compensation. “We told CBS we were going to pull ‘Hearts Afire ,’ ” Reese said. As a result of complaints from many affils and viewers, “that show has now turned a corner. ‘Northern Exposure’ doesn’t get quite as close to the line.”

Wright added that his station is getting rid of moneymakers like “Sally Jessy Raphael” and “Donahue” in part to increase its local programming but also “because we are getting away from tabloids and sleaze.”

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