IN a recent episode of the new syndicated series ``Lassie,'' the show's child star, Will Nipper, is led into trouble by a misguided Huck Finn-type character. The two steal a bulldozer and have a brush with danger before being saved from destruction by Lassie. ``Do you know we actually got away with this?'' says the boy to Will.
``No we didn't,'' rebuffs Will.
``But nobody will know,'' says the boy.
``I'll know,'' says Will.
Sitting in his office adjacent to the mammoth Universal back lot, where the season's 24 episodes have already been filmed, executive producer Al Burton uses the above scenario to explain a personal attitude that has come full circle in his nearly four decades in television.
``In the '50s, that kid would have been looking to an adult to be taught a lesson,'' says Burton. ``Now we're saying he may not be able to look for moral checks and balances beyond himself, that knowing he did something wrong constitutes its own form of punishment and can be the genesis of growth and renewal.''
The ``I'll know'' criterion is also the one Mr. Burton has come to apply to his own series as well as development ideas that run across his desk. In matters of taste and quality, he says, the inner voice is the best barometer in a television world too often overlooking scruples in its rush to attract viewers.
To be persuasive in such matters requires a long track record of success. Few producers can outdo Burton.
A veteran of 10 years as head of development for Norman Lear, he worked closely on such groundbreaking hits as ``Maude'' and ``The Jeffersons,'' and shared an Emmy with Lear for ``All in the Family.'' He has also served as co-creator and creative supervisor for such hits as ``Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman,'' ``Fernwood 2Night/America 2Night,'' ``One Day at a Time,'' ``Diff'rent Strokes,'' ``Facts of Life,'' ``Square Pegs,'' and ``Silver Spoons.''
Burton now produces both ``Lassie'' and the syndicated hit ``Charles in Charge.'' The former is consistently ranked in the top 25 syndicated shows (out of about 200) and is ranked No. 1 in its time period in such cities as New York, San Francisco, Atlanta, and St. Louis. ``Charles in Charge'' is consistently ranked in the top 10 and is the first, first-run syndicated series to reach 100 episodes.
``I believe that somebody like me should be in the forefront of bringing America to its literary senses,'' he says. ``As wonderful as Henry Miller was, there were other artists creating literature and painting at the time who did not have to become prurient, even erotic, painters to get their culture across.''
His feelings coalesced rather strongly in the rating sweeps of November 1988 - ``the year that gave us Morton Downey Jr., `tabloid TV,' `reality TV' - when trash TV, as I call it, was having its heyday,'' he says. ``I saw so many reenactments of sex crimes and so many interviews with parents of slain prostitutes that I said, `I want to be a part of getting TV away from this.'
``I have come full circle in matters of taste - using four-letter words, double entendres, sexual innuendoes, and what is acceptable behavior between human beings,'' he says. ``I will admit that in the mid '70s to early '80s, the reach to be really innovative tempted some of us to see how far we could go as wordsmiths....
If such activity was relatively innocent in those days, it is far less so now, he says. He mentions the recent advertiser boycotts of such shows as ``Married, With Children'' and ``Nightengales.'' He lists off four-letter words on the hit-series ``Roseanne,'' outright vicious attitudes on ``Married, With Children,'' unveiled references to sexual intercourse on a number of series, and far too detailed references to illness, drug use, and promiscuity on shows watched by young people.
``These shows want to keep stretching the frontier of where taste is, but wind up reflecting stuff in America that I don't want to reflect, because it ends up just being gross for gross's sake,'' he says.
Grossness exposed, on the other hand, says Burton, such as the obviously bigoted attitude of Archie Bunker, undercut by son-in-law Michael, is OK. ``Norman Lear put a bigot on TV to promote tolerance,'' says Burton. It is also preferable to refer to sexual intercourse - if you have to mention it at all - with a more tasteful word like ``boink'' - as was common on the series, ``Moonlighting,'' Burton maintains.
``TV writers are wordsmiths, and part of the fun of wordsmithing can be crafting ways to talk about what you want to say with some sensitivity,'' he says. There are still finely written shows that exhibit the right kind of restraint, he adds, mentioning both ``Cheers'' and ``Night Court'' as masters of the double entendre that doesn't offend.
It was only after 140 episodes of ``Maude'' that Norman Lear finally allowed one swear word at a climactic moment, adds Burton. ``But it was much discussed [whether or not we should do this] and eventually won out because any other response would have sounded false. So the question was how to be true to this person, not what will make the audience perk up its ears.''
Reality might dictate that Roseanne could swear, he adds, ``but Roseanne should certainly be able to find a different word sometimes as well.''
Such questions are recurring ones that often bring disagreement among producers. ``He doesn't want to show drugs or violence or any one of a number of contemporary behaviors,'' says Bud Wiser, a supervising producer of ``Lassie'' and one of the show's chief writers. Mr. Wiser is also a longtime associate producer with Norman Lear and Alan Alda, and has had a long career as a documentarian with National Geographic specials.
``We did a [Lassie] where these two teenage girls were being hassled by a couple of thugs, and the script called for the girls to be standing there with a can of beer,'' Wiser continues. ``[Burton] wouldn't let us have the beer.'' But Wiser also lauds Burton for giving the green light for a future episode dealing with TV addiction among kids. ``The networks and other production companies wouldn't touch it 'cause it might bite the hand that feeds them,'' says Wiser. ``Al loves to go after stuff like that.''
``Al doesn't go around with a halo over his head and hold prayer meetings in his office,'' says Glenn Padnick, president of Castlerock Entertainment, who sees Burton as a ``personal mentor who taught me everything I know.'' Mr. Padnick adds,``The values he demonstrates are by example and not by preaching, and it's very important to him that his shows teach something or have a moral.''
Burton says he thinks of himself as very contemporary, ``hip and with it, if you will.'' But being hip also means not stretching the limits of quality, grace, and class, he says. ``I understand gross, believe me, and frankly the pressures are there to lay it out for everyone to see, but I am just not going to do it.'' He has turned down numerous offers for sensationalized, so-called ``reality''-based shows.
Burton has a test for what he considers acceptable. ``I see the family audience for `Charles in Charge' as including an eight-year-old sitting next to his mother or father. If the father and mother can get a big laugh out of the same thing that leaves the eight-year-old straight faced, then I say let it pass. But if it bothers him or piques his interest to the point of hounding his parents, then it's gone too far.''
The whole question of appropriateness in programming raises the parallel issue of ratings. How can a show appeal to the broadest sets of tastes to attract the needed audiences to stay on the air?
``Care and attention,'' says Burton. ``We tell our writers to be prepared to go through about nine drafts to polish it, and sometimes pay a second time for the rewriting. But it is the reworking and persuading people that there is a philosophy, even though we don't always achieve it.''
``There is no question that Al Burton is a force for good quality television consistent with the highest American values,'' says Gary Lieberthal, president and CEO of Columbia Pictures Television. ``He knows what he wants and how to get it from people without bludgeoning them in the process. It shows in the consistent quality of his work.''
Burton says, as a producer, he welcomes the new era of cable and syndication that have eaten into the network's longtime domination of TV, dwindling their audiences by about 30 percent in the last decade. ``I don't know any creative person who doesn't wake up after failing in a pitch [to a network] and not be grateful he's got about 96 more doors out there to sell his encyclopedia,'' says Burton.