TV Series Tackle Social Issues

But are producers taking more risks, or simply looking for cheap drama?

HAS television started to air more controversial political and social issues on entertainment shows? The current season has had some tantalizing examples:

* In one episode of "Civil Wars," the new ABC television series about divorce lawyers, a black father seeks custody of his mixed-race son. The boy's white mother argues that he would be safer and economically better off with her; the father says the son would become alienated from African-American culture by living in the white suburbs.

* A new NBC series from Norman Lear entitled "The Powers That Be" razzes the Reagan-Bush years with biting satire not seen on television since "All in the Family." The series is scheduled to air in early 1992.

"The Powers That Be" features John Forsythe as a United States senator reluctant to run for president. In the opening episode, he tells his scheming wife that he isn't really qualified to be president. "Look around you, dear," she replies sardonically, "How good do you have to be?"

* On the Fox network's "In Living Color," one episode satirizes black-Jewish relations in Brooklyn with a takeoff on "West Side Story," complete with dancing Hasidim in yarmulkes. The black heroine sings "I Just Met a Boy Named Menachem."

Industry observers say that increased competition from cable, the Fox network, and home video has made the three major networks more willing to take up controversial issues.

Actress Robin Bartlett, star of "The Powers That Be," says the increased competition means producers on major networks can target specialized audiences and take on more controversial issues. A series doesn't need to "have the broadest possible appeal anymore," she says. "That may be one reason 'The Powers That Be' is being done."

Veteran television writer Arnold Peyser disagrees, saying that with a few exceptions, TV is still the most conservative of entertainment media.

"Television has become more imitative than ever before," says Mr. Peyser. "You can sit with a clicker going from one station to another and never lose the story line."

Television is subject to greater political pressure than movies or theater, says "Civil Wars" creator and executive producer Bill Finkelstein. Once a director finds backing for a film, he says, "you're given wide latitude." But TV producers must have an on-going relationship with advertisers and the networks.

"We're naturally bound by structures not to alienate the advertising community," says Mr. Finkelstein.

Finkelstein, who produces "Civil Wars" with Steven Bochco, adds that because of its weekly schedule, a series such as "L. A. Law" or "Civil Wars" can deal with controversial issues as part of staying topical. Civil Wars' can deal with issues," he says, so long as it's "not deemed a political show." Networks and most producers insist that entertainment comes first.

TV producer Norman Lear says the increased concentration of corporate ownership can also limit the airing of controversial issues. "NBC, to [parent company] General Electric, is just a small company among its vast holdings," says Mr. Lear. He is not concerned that the head of General Electric will directly pressure writers. But writers "might exercise prior censorship and not seek to look for trouble," in anticipation of GE's reaction.

While advertiser and corporate pressure has long been a factor in TV, Lear says the tremendous increased cost of producing a series, added to the networks' poor financial situation, has made networks "increasingly short-term oriented, needing a hit instantly." Pressure for an instant hit makes producers more cautious about taking up controversial issues, he says.

Writer Peyser says when he worked on the "My Three Sons" sitcom in the 1950s, the network initially bought 39 episodes. By the 1970s, the network initially bought 13 of the hit "All in the Family," says Lear. NBC bought only eight episodes of "The Powers That Be," with an option on five more.

Lear notes ruefully that if his new series "doesn't rate excessively well ... in the first three to four shows, it won't see a fifth or sixth airing." In fact, his highly touted "Sunday Dinner," which dealt with religion, ran for the month of June on CBS and then was dropped.

On the other hand, the need for an instant hit has prodded some producers into experimenting both with more sensationalism and political controversy, says Lois Peyser, a long-time TV writer. She says the William Kennedy Smith trial, which included explicit language, has spawned an interest in more prurient entertainment themes. The networks are looking for "women in jeopardy," says Ms. Peyser, like rape victims and abused wives.

At the same time, she notes that Fox network shows such as "In Living Color" and "The Simpsons" have alerted the three major networks to the fact that younger audiences appreciate topical politics. "In Living Color" regularly satirizes formerly taboo topics, from government corruption to homosexuality.

"Fox will do anything," says Peyser. "They're like a scrappy terrier."

Ms. Bartlett says that TV producers now have the option of selling their programs to the three networks, Fox, or numerous specialized cable networks. If a major network cancels a show, she says, "we can always take it to cable."

Norman Lear cautions against putting too much faith in the increased number of outlets for TV programming. "I have more doors to knock at," says Lear, "but that doesn't mean any one of those doors are going to take on more controversial issues."

Arnold Peyser maintains that networks don't judge entertainment shows by their political content per se. The networks mainly want to see star actors and producers involved in the project.

"If you've got a good political story with stars," he says, "it's a go."

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