One Show's Dance With TV Ratings
'Something So Right' tests the limits of 'family hour' as new ratings loom
UNIVERSAL STUDIOS, CALIF. — The choreography is complicated on the soundstage set of "Something So Right," as cast members of the new NBC comedy block out camera shots in preparation for a live shoot. Characters include children from three marriages along with grandparents and assorted friends.
But the commotion pales in contrast with the delicate weekly dance by the show's creators, Judd Pillot and Jeff Peaslee, amid sponsors, viewers, network brass, and so-called "standards and practices" personnel.
Ensconced in their back-lot bungalow nearby, the duo explains their attempt to soft-shoe their way to network success with the first sophisticated urban comedy that includes children.
"Everyone in America should hear the ridiculous conversations we have over the smallest stuff," says Mr. Pillot, who with Mr. Peaslee has written several of the 20-odd episodes. The show's language and depictions must pass muster with personnel hired by NBC headquarters who screen content so as not to offend advertisers, viewers, or affiliates.
Against the backdrop of a new TV ratings system that for the first time would label programs for age appropriateness based on sexual, violent, or language content, the Peaslee/Pillot chronicles make a good case study for viewers to examine the current state of American TV, their own roles as parents in allowing who to watch what - and what, if anything, those ratings may mean for the diet of TV entertainment to come.
The challenge for the show, which airs Tuesdays at 8:30 p.m. during the so-called family hour, is a complex one: While many conservatives are calling for more attention to "family values," epidemics of drugs and AIDs have normalized the discussion of adult social problems at ever-younger ages.
In addition, cable television, which is not subject to the same standards as broadcast, has siphoned off 30 percent of network audiences since 1985, offering racier fare, in addition to uncensored movies and series.
Peaslee and Pillot say they are caught right in the middle. "The audiences are way ahead of us," says Peaslee, "and Washington is on our heels."
Their new show portrays the travails of thrice-married Carly Davis (Mel Harris) and twice-married Jack Farrell (Jere Burns), who attempt to bring their extended families together. Trying to keep their romance alive, the couple juggles relationships with their children from three marriages as well as the comings and goings of ex-mates and relatives.
"We took this idea to NBC on the premise that only 23 percent of American families fit the old 'Leave It to Beaver,' 'Father Knows Best' mold," says Pillot, referring to the model of two parents and at least two children living together. "That means 77 percent do not. That has never been mined on network TV in a realistic way."
Debuting in fall last year, "Something" is trying to push the envelope of network television in the same way as Archie Bunker did on "All in the Family" nearly a quarter-century ago. By mining the comic components of a serious subject - in Bunker's case, the first bigot on TV, in this case the first look at the trials of blended families - viewers can confront what for many is a grim reality too often not faced.
"We got a letter from a boy who said, 'Thank you so much for putting this show on the air. I used to be embarrassed that I had two fathers. I couldn't tell anybody but now I can,' " says Pillot.
But what are the social, political, moral, and legal constraints the duo encounters?
Making a distinction between a "family show" and a "show about a family" (directed at adults), Pillot and Peaslee say they can't be as overtly sexual in content as shows in time slots after 9 p.m. Yet they feel they must deal with mature themes that ring true.
A recent case-in-point is an episode containing a subplot of lovemaking and birth control. One of the adults finds a condom in the room of teen son Will's room and is later tempted to use it for himself.
"What is very odd to us is that standards and practices allowed us to do the whole show revolving around the issue, but were very, very touchy about using the word condom," says Pillot. Instead, actors rifled through drawers, referring to the object of their search as "the thing."
Innuendo is in fact part of the charm and challenge of the show, defined by Peaslee and Pillot as "writing in code" so that adults will understand but children won't. Much time is spent crafting alternative punch lines. For the condom episode, actors filmed three closing lines to the show: (A) "Hey, who stole my condom?"; (B) "Hey, somebody stole my car cover"; and (C) "Oh my ... we've been robbed!"
The duo says the goal is not to see what they can get past censors or to "legitimize" broken families but rather to responsibly and humorously look at the wide-ranging phenomenon.
"People are responding favorably to the show because they are either in this situation or desperately trying to avoid this situation," says Pillot. "We hope viewers look at this in terms of lessons ... and think, 'Maybe we ought to be as open as this family in discussing issues that are usually swept under the rug.' "
The six ratings categories (see box, next page) unveiled last month and due for FCC approval in early February are not yet on the radar of creative concerns, Peaslee and Pillot say. "No one at any level has even mentioned them," says Peaslee.
"It will become an issue," adds Pillot, "if they go into place and someone calls us and says we can no longer do the things we and our viewers think are what makes us what we are."
For now, the show is doing well, winning its time period handily and helping NBC dislodge ABC from its once-dominant Tuesday-night lineup. This week and next, the show has been scheduled to carry a TV-PG rating.
To sustain its success, NBC brass, its standards-and-practices personnel, and Pillot/Peaslee are feeling their way to approval. If viewer ratings follow, so may racier material.
"Seinfeld can get away with much more than we can," says Pillot, speaking of the No. 1-rated show on TV for 1996 and a top-10 hit over several seasons. "But when we say, 'How come they can try that and we can't,' the network says, 'When you get a 34 share [meaning roughly that one-third of America's TV sets are tuned in], come and talk to us.'