Target, Prime Time: Advocacy Groups and the Struggle over Entertainment Television

by Kathryn C. Montgomery; Oxford University Press, 1990

While it had been agreed that Cagney and Lacey would not take opposing views on the abortion issue, the network did urge the producers to "drive as much of a wedge as possible between the two characters." Davidson's justification was partly based on the argument that such a change would add more "dramatic conflict" to the episode:

The earlier script was less interesting because there was no conflict, really. Cagney and Lacey were more or less in agreement that this was a woman's right, it was their job as policewomen to break up this demonstration because the victim lady couldn't get through and she was in an unfortunate situation. You looked at it and said, "Well, this is boring."

But what he really meant was that the show still was not balanced enough. One way to correct the problem, remembered the network executive, was "to put as much of Christine on the fence as we could." Adjustments were made, and with the next drafts of the script, the standards and practices executives felt they had "lurched another step closer." But, recalls Davidson, "it needed a few more lines here, a few more lines there. Maybe tone this speech down . . . a little bit more on the pro-life lady, 'Christine, would you please disagree a little bit more with Tyne here,' and boy were we glad for that scene at the end with Charlie in which he says, 'No way, a Catholic, you just don't get involved with this abortion stuff. It's a sin.' "

By the time the script had gone through this whole process, it was, in Davidson's words, "surprisingly balanced.... We got the word back from corporate that they were pleased with the way we had handled the show, and they felt they could stand behind it." But though they had participated heavily throughout the writing of this episode, standards and practices executives still had to wait until the episode had been filmed and edited before determining whether or not it was sufficiently balanced. They knew from experience that what was agreed upon in a script could look quite different on the screen. Final approval would wait until standards and practices had screened the "rough cut" (the show in its finally assembled but not yet polished form). Rosenzweig assured the network executives he would present them with an acceptable episode. "Thirty percent of what you guys want," he promised, "will be in the performances."

Though Chris Davidson felt quite confident about the episode, he approached the rough cut screening with some apprehension. "My boss was on vacation," Davidson recalled, "so I was kind of on the hot seat because I had been in all these meetings and it was my problem." The screening was well attended. The executive remembered the scene in some detail:

It was a particularly full room . . . a plush room down in the basement.... You typically have a whole seating arrangement based on the pecking order—the gofers and the little assistants to the producer sit in front, then the cast, then standards and practices, then programming executives. Then in the very, very back row would be the president of the entertainment division or the vice-president of programs and the executive producer. The writers would be somewhere in the middle. Of course, the main chair is the one that controls the volume, that's where the vice president for programs sits.

Davidson nervously sat through the one-hour program, not knowing exactly what to expect when it ended. He was surprised and pleased at the reaction. As he later described it:

Usually at those screenings, when the lights come up, everybody looks at the vice president in charge of programming [at the time Harvey Shepard]. Then he'll either say, "It's a charming show" or "I didn't understand why this" or "fix that," etc. But, for the first time in my career, the lights came up and everybody looked at me—including Harvey. I mean everybody. And it was like, "Well?" I just looked at Barney and I said, "You gave us everything we asked for and more.... You've done it and you've done it splendidly and it's beautiful and we can salute it."

Even though this Cagney & Lacey episode was scheduled during the November ratings sweep period, and the network planned to do some special promotional spots to draw attention to it, it is doubtful whether any controversy would have been generated. That same season, the abortion issue was also treated in two other network crime dramas, Spenser for Hire and Helltown, and there were no major outcries from right-to-life groups. The on-air promotional spots for Cagney & Lacey that CBS was planning to run would be shown so close to the broadcast that opposing groups would have little time to organize a campaign around the show. The episode would be on and off before anything had time to happen. More importantly, those who watched the show would be disarmed by the way the issue had been treated. In contrast to the controversial Maude episode, this program was unlikely to elicit a major protest.

It is true that Cagney & Lacey had encountered some difficulty with right-wing groups in the past, but the circumstances had been highly unusual. In 1982, CBS had pulled an episode off the air within hours of its scheduled broadcast because of pressures on affiliates. The show featured the two feminist cops protecting an anti-Equal Rights Amendment activist—with remarkable similarity to Phyllis Schlafly—from a psychopathic killer. The network postponed the episode because it was scheduled to air during the final week of debate and voting in Congress on the ERA. CBS decided it would be wiser to postpone the program until after Congress had reached its decision than to risk protest from political groups by airing it during the crucial voting period. Of course, the program had undergone the same kind of careful treatment that the later abortion clinic episode had received. As one reporter noted, "the show was so balanced and apolitical that it was unclear whether the request for equal time would come from pro- or anti-[ERA] forces."

Though Rosenzweig told the press he feared another, similar incident, he did not really believe the right-to-life movement was strong enough, large enough, or organized enough to pose a threat at this point in time. "I was operating with the belief that this was old news.... Standards and practices is nervous—of course they're nervous. There's nine little old biddies who are going to write them letters. Well, they don't like to get nine letters.... But, there's no issue here. That was settled in 1973." He did believe, however, that he might be able to "create a controversy where none exists" by launching his own publicity campaign far enough in advance of the broadcast so that right-to-life activists would get wind of it. "I tried to create opposition," he recalls, "because I wanted the publicity. I wanted the promotion." Any efforts by right-wing groups to pressure the network could then work to the show's advantage. "I thought I could make a cause celebre out of it," he adds, "so that anybody who tries to censor me now, does so at their own peril."

The Cagney & Lacey show already had a special relationship with women's groups. There were a number of women working as writers, producers, and story editors on the show, and some were active in political groups such as the National Organization for Women (NOW) and the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL). These groups had rallied around the show a few years earlier, when Rosenzweig had orchestrated his "save the show" letter-writing campaign. At that time, the Cagney & Lacey producers had shown their support and appreciation by holding fundraisers for organizations. This alliance between the Hollywood producer and the advocacy group was advantageous for both sides. The leaders of NOW—a group which had earlier taken a militant stance against network television, filing petitions to deny station licenses and publishing scathing reports of prime time's misrepresentation of women— had decided they could accomplish more by working with selected producers like Rosenzweig on the shows the group believed portrayed women and women's issues favorably. In addition, the National Commission on Working Women had given the show one of its "Alice" awards.

To launch his campaign, Rosenzweig flew to Washington, D.C., and set up press conferences with several national women's groups, warning them about the expected backlash from right-to-life organizations. Though he had complied with most of the network requirements for balance, the producer still believed the episode supported the pro-choice position, and he publicly took credit for getting that point of view across in the show.

In late summer of 1985, NOW issued an "Action Alert" to its members, bracing them for trouble. "On November 11, 1985," the bulletin read, "CBS will broadcast a Cagney & Lacey episode entitled 'The Clinic.' The content of the show addresses the issue of abortion and the anti-abortion terrorist bombing of clinics and has Cagney and Lacey coming out pro-choice. We anticipate problems from the anti-abortion forces, as this show airs during sweeps week... and will be highly publicized. It is a possibility the anti-abortion forces could try to suppress the network or their affiliates from airing the show." In an action plan reminiscent of the Maude campaign, NOW members were urged to write letters to the production company, the network, and the local affiliates. Further strategies were also being considered, the action alert explained, including "the possibility of doing an offensive action by writing the affiliates prior to the November 11th air date and telling them how much we are looking forward to watching the show." Individual chapters were instructed to send for a videotape so that members could "show a brief preview of the episode at a general membership or council meeting prior to November."

Pre-screening to interest groups was a fairly common practice by now. In fact, at this time, NBC was holding a series of screenings for An Early Frost, the made-for-TV movie about AIDS that it had scheduled in the time slot opposite the Cagney & Lacey abortion clinic program. Special events were being held in New York, Washington, D.C., San Francisco, and Los Angeles, where gay groups and other community organizations were invited to watch the movie and hear public health experts discuss the issue.

One of the unique characteristics of the Cagney & Lacey campaign, however, was that, in addition to formal screenings to large audiences, the Cagney & Lacey episode was being sent around the country on videocassettes for use in locally arranged grassroots screenings. Though not nearly as large in scale, this pre-broadcast campaign used similar techniques to those employed by nuclear-freeze activists in The Day After promotional effort. Because of the advent of low-cost, accessible videotape technology, the program itself could be duplicated and distributed almost as easily as a written memo.

As the press began to publicize the Cagney & Lacey controversy, CBS versy, CBS management became more and more alarmed. Rosenzweig remembers getting several calls from very agitated high-level network executives. "Barney, what are you doing?" they asked him. Though they had no real control over what the producer told the press, they tried to get him to characterize the episode in less inflammatory terms. They were particularly upset by Rosenzweig's public statements that the show was pro-choice. "Look, Barney," they told him, "we've taken a look at this show and we believe it's balanced. Will you please say that in your interviews?" The producer agreed to start using the word "balance" when describing the episode, even though he still maintained it was not entirely balanced.

But right-to-life activists were already well aware of the publicity campaign and had taken special note of the statements Rosenzweig and others had made to the press about the show. Daniel Donehey, public relations director of the Washington- based National Right to Life Committee (NRL), was particularly concerned with Barney Rosenzweig's apparent waffling on the show's point of view. Donehey had also read an earlier article in the New York Times Magazine discussing how the producers planned to deal with actress Tyne Daly's real-life pregnancy. The piece included a discussion among the writers and producers about the pro-choice orientation of the show and their commitment not to allow it to advocate an anti-abortion point of view. Though right-to-life activists had not been invited to any of the producer-sponsored screenings, a few of their members had managed to attend, and had heard actress Fionnula Flanagan—who played the part of the pro-life activist in the show—explaining that she herself was strongly pro-choice.

The National Right to Life Committee had not established routine contact with the standards and practices departments at the three networks, though the group's leaders had complained periodically about shows and had been invited to a few screenings. ABC had included NRL leaders along with other right-to-life advocates and pro-choice leaders in its pre-broadcast screening of the TV movie Choices a few months earlier. NBC executives had met with NRL leaders in 1983 after complaints about two episodes of Buffalo Bill which had dealt with abortion. At that time, Donehey recalls, NBC executives suggested that the National Right to Life Committee set up a Hollywood office to lobby producers. No such action had been taken. It is doubtful whether such a direct approach to Hollywood on this issue would have worked anyway.

Unable to get a tape of the show from the producers, Donehey phoned CBS headquarters in New York and demanded to be shown the episode in advance. CBS executives agreed to let him see it. When they finally viewed the program, right-to-life leaders could see that care had been taken to balance the treatment of the issue. But in their opinion, the balance was inadequate. Their interpretation of the program was strongly influenced by what they had been hearing in the press. Though the Fionnula Flanagan character played a substantial role in the story, Donehey believed the actress's personal beliefs showed through her performance, making the character a "strident, unsympathetic stereotype," someone "very hard to identify with and relate to."

With only a few days remaining before the scheduled air date, the hastily launched protest of the right to life groups played directly into the hands of the show's publicity campaign. "The National Right to Life Committee," read the story on the Associated Press wire, "has asked CBS not to air Monday's episode of Cagney & Lacey because, it says, the episode about the bombing of an abortion clinic is 'a piece of pure political propaganda' promoting abortion."

The protest not only made newspapers but also was covered as a news story on CBS television. When right-to-life members picketed the private screening of the episode in Los Angeles a few days before it aired, local KCBS news crews were there to catch it on tape and run it on the 11 o'clock news later that night. (Curiously, none of the other local stations thought the incident newsworthy enough to cover.) On the day the episode was scheduled for broadcast, Daniel Donehey and Barney Rosenzweig debated with each other on the CBS Morning News.

While CBS was covering the Cagney & Lacey controversy, NBC was actively engaged in its own promotional campaign for An Early Frost. AIDS experts were appearing on NBC network news and talk shows, and local stations were planning features on their regular news broadcasts about the epidemic. News breaks were being written to interrupt the movie and urge viewers to stay tuned to local news for a follow-up on the issue. NBC also scheduled a special panel discussion to follow its highly promoted broadcast.

Observed TV critic Howard Rosenberg: "Well, AIDS is sizzling right now. With good reason, then, Rosenzweig is worried that 'The Clinic' will get lost in NBC's promotion blitz for An Early Frost. Apparently so worried, in fact, that he appears to have launched a promotion campaign of his own, spinning controversy from straw. After all, a little tiff couldn't hurt the box office. You can't blame Rosenzweig for trying to start a drum roll, even if it is self serving.... But what criticism? What pressure? Before R. spoke out there was none, unless it was expressed in whispers. There certainly was no public threat by a pro-life group to cut down 'The Clinic' before it could air."

On the day of the protest, pro-life activists picketed the CBS- owned stations in Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, and St. Louis. Pressure was placed on other local stations as well, but only one affiliate— WXJT-TV in Greenville, Mississippi—refused to carry the show. Two stations—one in Omaha, the other in Cleveland—did agree to broadcast a half-hour response program entitled A Matter of Choice, prepared by pro-life groups. CBS Television City in Los Angeles received over 3,000 angry phone calls following the broadcast. The next day, leaders of a coalition of pro-life groups called for a boycott of CBS, the Cagney & Lacey series, and the fourteen sponsors whose commercials appeared in the controversial episode. None of these pressure efforts had any substantial impact.

As for the ratings, Cagney & Lacey lost out not only to An Early Frost, which earned a 33 share, but also to ABC's Monday Night Football, which got a 32. Cagney & Lacey captured a little less than a fourth of the viewing audience that night, still not a bad number, given the heavy competition.

Interview with Barney Rosenzweig, Los Angeles, Aug. 29, 1986. Interview by Lynne Kirby, UCLA, with Jerilynn Stapleton, National Organization for Women, Los Angeles, Sept. 17, 1985. Interview with Rosenzweig. Other groups participated in the effort to reinstate Cagney and Lacey , including newly organized Viewers for Quality Television, which subsequently spearheaded similar letter-writing campaigns to keep shows on the air. Judy Mann, " TV Ratings Rebellion," Washington Post , March 8, 1985.

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