UNIVERSAL STUDIOS, CALIF.
On Soundstage 41, cast members of the new NBC comedy "Something So Right" are trying out different comeback lines for a live audience: Setup line (wife to newlywed husband): "How would you like a hot biscuit up your nose?" Comeback 1: "Could be fun." Comeback 2: "Got any gravy?" Comeback 3: "Honey, again?"
Besides judging what line gets the most laughs, writers and producers are testing what kinds of sexual innuendo might elude younger watchers while still attracting the sophisticated urban adults that network advertisers crave.
Trial runs like this may become more typical in the future with the expected unveiling today of a TV ratings system that - for the first time - would label programs for age appropriateness based on sexual, violent, or language content.
While producers across Hollywood bristle at the idea of more oversight of their work - and, indeed, many vow to resist it - they note that the clash between society's increasingly conservative values and the creative process will ultimately be settled by the bottom line. Thus, to the extent that any new ratings system influences public viewing and by extension advertisers, it will impact what comes out on the small screen.
"We are already looking over our shoulders so much on everything we write that if we have any more constraints, we feel we can't make this show the way we conceived it," says John Peaslee, creator, executive producer, and head writer for "Something So Right," a new NBC comedy. The show is trying to be the network's first adult comedy that includes children.
The new system is designed to help parents decide what programs are suitable for their kids, and will be simply advisory in the first year. In 1998, programmable V-chips that will allow viewers to screen programs will be introduced. The content-based and age-based guidelines expected today must be approved by the Federal Communications Commission by Feb. 8.
"Our mission has been singular: to give some warning to parents, mainly of children under 14 years of age," says Jack Valenti, chairman of the TV industry group devising the system, of the process that will have in-house producers and distributors rate more than 400,000 programs yearly.
Politicians have long lobbied for such a rating system on the grounds that it will prompt Hollywood to think twice about the amount of sex, violence, and strong language in programming. But people from Main Street to Hollywood and Vine are asking if such a ratings system will really affect how creators conceive, produce, or package their shows.
Interviews with many people throughout the TV production process indicate a defiant "no." Because commercial TV is designed to bring viewers to advertisers, whatever content does that best will find its way to the small screen.
Others argue commercial pressure will force a change in the way Hollywood works, as powerful advertisers respond to the ratings.
Beth Polson, a 20-year, Emmy-laden veteran of all three networks, says economic realities will push the networks to shape up.
"Homespun companies like Procter and Gamble and Clorox are not going to be wanting to put ads in programs with questionable ratings," she says. "That will affect network income and that's when they will start to listen."
Many executives already feel constrained. In a 90-minute interview from their backlot bungalow, Mr. Peaslee and co-creator Judd Pillot, who have produced documentaries and served five seasons as story editors for "Coach," recount details of a steadily tightening creative noose.
"I feel that every year for the past decade, things are more conservative than the year before," he says. The show has already lost battles over using the word "condom" and been made to shoot narrow rather than wide shots of a bare back in scenes connoting sexual activity.
"Everyone in America should hear the ridiculous conversations we have over the smallest stuff," he says. "Ratings couldn't make that any worse."
Dick Wolf, creator and producer of "Law & Order" and an outspoken ratings critic, says he won't alter his show's content out of fear of being placed in some ratings category. But he fears the subjective nature of the ratings process itself, and holds that the idea, while helpful in theory, amounts to economic censorship in practice.
"The history of any program to ID content that is not general-audience friendly has been to cause massive advertiser pullout and ultimate cancellation," he says. He adds that despite his show's express refusal to depict sexuality or the firing of guns, advertisers have shown high reluctance to support it because of adult themes.
And because of a "parental discretion" advisory at the beginning of ABC's "NYPD Blue," the show does not generate ad revenue commensurate with its steady placement in top 10 rated shows.
"Who's kidding whom?" says Mr. Wolf. "Anything stronger than a G rating will be an all-points bulletin for politicians, special interest groups, pundits, academic grant seekers, critics, and navel lint gazers of every stripe."
Players on all sides of the ratings issue, from Congress to Hollywood to parent and child advocacy groups, agree that a fine-tuning period will be needed under new guideline proposals before a final system is approved.
More hearings are likely as well as possible court battles. If the FCC does not approve the system by Feb. 8, they are instructed by the Telecommunications Act passed by Congress last February to devise a ratings system of their own.
Something so wrong?
That idea is anathema to producers and writers here, who promise a free-speech lawsuit "in a nanosecond" if the FCC or Congress try to interfere.
"This whole thing is simply a ploy by Washington politicians to make it look like they are doing something about violence, sex, and drugs in America," says George Schlatter, a 30-year producer who pushed the envelope of public taste with "Laugh-In" in the 1960s.
Noting that TV's purpose is to deliver viewers to advertisers - not necessarily to create art or culture - he says the greed of advertisers will win out. "They're making a big mistake in trying to pin the country's problems on Hollywood. Any creative spirit pushed down in one area of the industry will pop up like a jack-in-the box in another," he says. "No one can get away from the fact that whatever attracts viewers is what attracts viewers."