It’s hard to fathom what a ruckus the debut of Steven Bochco’s “NYPD Blue” caused in September 1993: Editorials were written about its salaciousness, advertisers balked, network execs wrang their hands.
Now as the series winds down after 12 seasons and 262 episodes, the sturm und drang seems, well, almost quaint.
Viewers then got to see, largely for the first time in primetime, flashes of bare breasts and a succession of nude butts — even sagging male ones — to hear racy slang, to witness in-your-face, sometimes gruesome police work.
The tone was set in the pilot: “Ipsa this, you pissy little bitch,” the hot-headed detective Andy Sipowicz, grabbing his crotch, retorts to a condescending, Latin-spouting D.A.
It can be argued that this warts-and-all approach to the cop drama forever changed the genre. The show became ABC’s longest-running scripted show and Bochco’s longest success. (His “Hill Street Blues” ran for seven seasons.)
Then as now, some folks got riled up about what’s being aired on TV: Donald Wildmon’s American Family Assn. labeled the show “soft-core pornography” for its seamy sex scenes.
As longtime Katz TV programming guru Bill Carroll put it, “It’s hard to overstate the impact Bochco and company made in breaking language and content boundaries with this show. It got easier for all producers to deal with adult material thereafter.”
More than the raciness, though, the interlocking storylines and relationships propelled the series: Bobby and Diane, Medavoy and Donna, Clark and Ortiz — and most brilliantly Sipowicz, with his two sons, his three wives, his successive detective partners, his bosses, the perps he threw into the cage.
As the series progressed, there were some fallow patches — many think David Caruso was a great loss — but they were brief and rectified. Viewers generally got to see a near pitch-perfect series.
Some blue-chip advertisers declined to take spots that first year, but the show immediately won its timeslot for ABC (and held it for eight seasons). It posted strong male demos and won critical plaudits.
And there’s the triumph of the main character, as played by Dennis Franz. In the beginning, Sipowicz was a rumpled mess, foul-mouthed, bigoted and alcoholic. But by the time Caruso left the show in its second year, the older detective had moved centerstage. Whether dispensing a soda to a wrongfully accused suspect, mentoring younger cops on the beat or standing up to brass, Sipowicz, relentlessly pugnacious and politically incorrect, became the prism through which Bochco reflected moral concerns.
Then there’s the money.
It’s a truism that hour dramas don’t do as well in syndication as half-hour sitcoms, and that, among those hours, procedurals like “Law & Order” and “CSI” repeat more successfully than those with interconnecting storylines like “Blue.” But the deals News Corp.’s Twentieth TV made for “Blue” reruns were nothing to sniff at.
Twentieth’s sibling cabler FX forked over $750,000 each for the first 154 episodes back in 1998 — an arrangement Bochco sued over as “self-dealing” — while a subsequent 10-year deal in 2001 for a shared window between TNT and Court TV brought in $825,000 an episode.
Those combined deals plus some barter advertising Twentieth sold from a weekend syndication window meant the company raked in, conservatively, $350 million from domestic reruns.
On the international front, the drama gave a shot in the arm to a then-languishing sector, bringing in initially upward of $800,000 an episode from foreign TV stations starting in early 1994. (The going price at the time for a hit drama was $500,000 per episode.)
“Our clients abroad had been waiting for the next Bochco, and when they saw the pilot — the jumpy camera, a cop with attitude, adult themes — they all wanted it,” recalls Fox Intl. TV exec VP Marion Edwards.
The entire foreign haul could be as high as $175 million.
Although the final episodes of “Blue” are not being accompanied by the fanfare that saw off “Friends” last spring — nor has the final season spurred a “Star Trek”-like writing campaign to save the show — there are many viewers who will be quietly bereft on Tuesday nights at 10.
The solace: The 15th squad will be with us forever, if not on TV reruns, then in boxed deluxe DVD editions.