Morals crusader reflects on early controversy

The controversy swirling around “NYPD Blue” in the fall of 1993 might’ve been the best thing that happened to the show.

Looking back, more than a decade later and with a much more provocative primetime landscape, it’s hard to understand what all the fuss was about. Leading the crusade was the Rev. Donald Wildmon, founder and leader of the American Family Assn., which made “NYPD Blue” the poster child for moral decline in primetime.

A fundamentalist Methodist preacher from Mississippi, Wildmon’s campaign to vilify Steven Bochco and “NYPD Blue” was orchestrated on several fronts. In full-page newspaper ads, he denounced the show as softcore porn and pressured ABC affils to refrain from airing it as well as urged its members to boycott advertisers — all before the cop drama even premiered Sept. 21. Even bolder, he predicted that it wouldn’t appeal to viewers and would be gone in six to eight weeks. Wildmon’s campaign convinced nearly 25% of ABC’s affiliates to not broadcast the pilot.

“Obviously we were wrong,” said Tim Wildmon, 41, the founder’s son and current president of the AFA, which today claims more than 500,000 members devoted to promoting family values throughout society and in broadcast television and radio.

” ‘NYPD Blue’ became a huge hit and remained one for many years. But even though our efforts failed, we still believe the show started the trend toward more sex, violence and profanity on television and has led to the downfall of television overall,” he says.

The AFA would also go after other Bochco creations including “Public Morals” and “Brooklyn South,” calling the latter the most violent program in CBS history. In their petition drive, the AFA urged Eye affiliates to show their civic and moral responsibility by refusing to air the skein.

“NYPD Blue,” of course, became one of the longest-running cop shows ever, giving Bochco the last word. But during a recent press conference, he questioned its impact on television.

“I had hoped that ‘NYPD Blue’ would pave the way for a more open, adult approach to programming but the medium has become increasingly conservative. I don’t think today we could launch or sell ‘NYPD Blue’ in the form that it launched 12 years ago,” he says.

Wildmon, however, believes that’s an understatement.

“Steven Bochco made it known that he wanted to be a pioneer and challenge network standards and he definitely accomplished his objectives,” Wildmon says. ” ‘NYPD Blue’ was broadcast television’s first R-rated show and is the grandfather to the movement today to make all of network television no different than R-rated movies.”

“Nip/Tuck,” “The Shield” and “Desperate Housewives” all have been singled out by the AFA for their adult content but compared to pay cable’s offering such as HBO’s “Deadwood,” created by “NYPD Blue” collaborator David Milch, those shows seem tame.

“People pay to have HBO as well as other cable channels, but what we’re concerned with is primetime broadcast television and radio because it’s easily accessible to anyone,” Wildmon says.

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more