Sunday, April 13, 2008

Moishe forgets how uptight this country is

From NY Times

LOS ANGELES — It was almost as if the NBC comedy writers had decided to test the limits of prime time taste just as the network unveiled a family-friendly philosophy of scheduling.

Thursday’s episodes of “30 Rock” and “The Office,” the first new installments to be broadcast since the end of the writers’ strike, each included coy references to a vulgarity: in one case it was bleeped out; in the other it was winked at in an acronym. While not unprecedented, the occurrences in the back-to-back prime-time shows were jarring. They also raise questions about the placement of “30 Rock” as an anchor of what an NBC executive, Ben Silverman, has designated the “family hour.”

In the case of “30 Rock,” the reference came in the form of an acronym — part of the title of a make-believe “Survivor”-like show — referring to a teenager’s crude designation of someone’s sexy mother. In “The Office,” besides the bleeping, the character’s lips were even pixilated to prevent lip reading. But it was not difficult for many viewers instantly to realize what was said.

Mitch Metcalf, NBC’s executive vice president for program scheduling, said in an interview on Friday that the shows were not breaking new ground: comedies on NBC and other networks have used the vulgarity before, he said, and cited a 1993 episode of “Seinfeld.”

Mr. Metcalf also noted that both of Thursday’s shows carried a TV-14 rating. That rating warns parents that they might find some of the content unsuitable for children under 14.

The general content of the “30 Rock” episode, however, appears to work against NBC’s positioning of the show in its family hour, the 8 to 9 p.m. block of programming that Mr. Silverman said would consist of shows a family could watch together.

The contestants on the island-based reality-show-within-a-show on “30 Rock” are described as 20 “holy hot mamas,” who are accompanied by 50 eighth-grade boys as they compete at tasks like “eating bugs to earn tampons.” They square off in “Erection Cove,” with the loser having to remove her bikini top and burn it in the fire.

Mr. Metcalf said that the family-hour designation should be seen as offering “direction for program development,” not “black-and-white expectations” for the audience.

“It was not to be construed as a return to a strictly defined family hour,” he said, featuring wholesome shows like “Little House on the Prairie,” a hit on NBC in the late 1970s and early ’80s.

“Those days and those audience expectations are gone,” Mr. Metcalf said. He further differentiated NBC’s Thursday-night comedy block from the family shows planned for other nights at 8. “Our tradition is one of adult, edgy, sophisticated comedies” on Thursday nights, he said. When appropriate, the shows would get a TV-14 warning, he said, and “30 Rock,” though scheduled at 8:30 p.m. (or 7:30 Central time) “meets the expectations for that night.”

“There are not going to be hard and fast rules” for the family hour, Mr. Metcalf added.

Mr. Silverman, co-chairman of NBC Entertainment, seemed less nuanced in his descriptions of the family hour during a conference call with reporters earlier this month. Asked about the Thursday-night comedies, Mr. Silverman said “30 Rock” was a show that would appeal to families because its star, Tina Fey, is “about to become a cultural icon.”

Ms. Fey, who has recently appeared on the covers of magazines as diverse as Parade and Vanity Fair, is starring in the coming film “Baby Mama.” Mr. Silverman said that role could give her the wide appeal that Jason Lee, the star of NBC’s “My Name Is Earl,” received after starring in “Alvin and the Chipmunks,” which earned a Nickelodeon Kids Choice Award.

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