Just in case, nets censor themselves

Execs unsure of what FCC will consider indecent

The FCC’s war on “indecency” has network censors running scared — and left small-screen producers perplexed over what’s OK to put on in primetime.

Already spooked by the Janet Jackson Nipplegate two years ago, last month’s record $3.6 million sanction against CBS stations for an episode of the decidedly un-edgy “Without a Trace” has nets worried that even the slightest bit of provocative content could result in a massive fine.

“Nobody knows what they can or cannot do anymore,” says “Commander in Chief” exec producer Steven Bochco. “There seems to be no uniform standard by which to tailor your programming.”

Another network insider says webheads now feel like “we’re playing Russian roulette. It’s hard to tell what the FCC wants you to do.”

The networks’ solution? When in doubt, cut.

At Fox, “American Dad” exec producer Matt Weitzman said he’s fighting with the network’s standards department over a joke in which a woman on the animated skein is seen breast-feeding two babies.

“It’s not lewd, it’s not obscene, but they’re afraid it might be crossing the line,” he says. “I’m jumping through hoops on something that five years ago would have been a no-brainer (to include).”

Earlier this season, “Dad” was forced to blur a shot of a character’s bare behind. Likewise, the toon tush of baby Stewie on Fox’s “Family Guy” is now verboten.

Over at the WB, execs ordered producers Tom Fontana and Barry Levinson to delete a scene of two girls kissing from their new show “Bedford Diaries.” A shot of a woman opening her jeans also was nixed.

At most nets, reality shows that used to pixilate any hint of nudity now use electronic editing to more fully disguise any naughty bits. And just last week, the producers of “American Idol” didn’t just bleep out Rod Stewart saying the word “balls” — they covered his lips with a mini version of the “Idol” logo.

What’s most maddening to producers — and webheads –is the utter confusion caused by recent FCC actions.

NBC and Fox got slapped with major fines when celebs say the word “fuck” on an awards show. By contrast, nothing happened when ABC aired Steven Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan” and broadcast the same word.

“The rules change, they flip-flop,” says one TV exec familiar with the workings in Washington. “You can’t use the f-word unless you’re an Academy Award-winning director and John McCain introduces your movie.”

“Law & Order: SVU” showrunner Neal Baer says he hasn’t had any problems with NBC standards execs, but even he worries about the future.

Last year he featured clear nudity in an episode that showed the “dehumanizing” aspects of a post-rape medical exam. And when he worked on “ER,” the show tackled breast cancer in an episode in which Rebecca DeMornay exposed her breast.

“Would ‘ER’ be able to do that today? It’s a good question,” Baer says.

Weitzman and other producers are quick to note that they sympathize with network watchdogs. “They’re like referees in a football game where, no matter what call you make, you’re going to piss someone off,” Weitzman says.

They’re also “heartened,” as Bochco puts it, that the Big Four are finally taking on the FCC.

But with a midterm election right around the corner, and a verdict in the court case years away, the short-term prognosis for provocative primetime fare isn’t positive.

“It’s not a chill, it’s an ice chest,” says Bochco, whose “NYPD Blue” broke through content boundaries a decade ago. The producer is now convinced “Blue” wouldn’t make it past the development stage today.

“It’s arbitrary, it’s regressive, and I think it’s significantly hurting the medium,” he says.

Baer, whose skein regularly tackles touchy issues, says NBC’s standards execs haven’t been any more aggressive as of late. Nonetheless, he says the current environment is “frightening.”

“I agree that if a show is a family show there shouldn’t be any surprises like Nipplegate,” he says. “But shows like ‘Without a Trace’ and ‘SVU’ are not family entertainment. It’s politically motivated — and it’s ridiculous.”

What’s particularly perplexing to broadcasters is that the FCC is spending so much energy policing primetime when far more explicit content is easily accessible to children on the Internet. Indeed, after trimming some scenes from “Bedford,” the WB simply put an unedited version of the show on its Web site.

“I don’t know a parent out there who is not more concerned about the Internet than TV,” says one network suit. “It’s almost quaint that the FCC is concerned about bad words.”

Producers also worry that as the FCC tightens the noose around broadcasters, viewers will continue to flee to cable, where just about anything goes — and we’re not just talking pay cablers like HBO.

BBC America, for example, airs “Footballers’ Wives,” a steamy sudser whose racy content makes “Desperate Housewives” seem like “The Donna Reed Show.” Recent episodes of the hit show, which airs at 7 p.m. on the West Coast, have featured bare breasts and bums, partially exposed penises and liberal use of the s-word.

The same congloms that own the Big Four also own cable networks. Those companies have larger corporate agendas in D.C. — like Time Warner’s acquisition of Adelphia — that make them loathe to rock the boat too much .

No surprise, then, that –lawsuit against the FCC aside — none of the network execs contacted for this story agreed to be identified by name.

“Your legal department these days says pretty bluntly, ‘Don’t do anything to piss the FCC off,’ ” one network exec says.