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It's time for a TV Bill of Rights

By Robert David Sullivan

MAY 10, 1999:  It's part of the yuppification of American politics. The most ambitious of our half-witted legislators in Washington have gone cold turkey on pork-barrel spending (after all, paved roads are just so déclassé) and are instead pushing for low-budget sequels to the Bill of Rights. We've got a Taxpayers' Bill of Rights, a Hospital Patients' Bill of Rights, and an Airline Passengers' Bill of Rights, all kicking around Capitol Hill and all loaded with more goodies than a tree on a Kathie Lee Gifford Christmas special. (IRS agents with manners! Airline food without peanuts!)

The sentiment behind these ideas can be boiled down to one sentence: "I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it anymore!" That line comes from the satiric film Network, in which millions of Americans were whipped into a frenzy by an insane TV commentator. (Network was so effective that it changed the television industry forever. These days, insane TV commentators, like Pat Robertson on The 700 Club, are careful to speak softly and smile a lot.) Yet no one has yet stepped forward with a Television Viewers' Bill of Rights, though the outrages committed by the broadcast and cable networks increase every day. As the hellish 1998-'99 TV season comes to a close, it's time, finally, to take action.

The ideal version of the TV Viewers' Bill of Rights would include some obvious provisions, like a ban on laugh tracks and the requirement that "live reports" involve some physical danger to the reporter (standing in front of an empty house 36 hours after a murder took place doesn't cut it). Political commentators should be subject to conflict-of-interest laws. This means, of course, that they're not allowed on the air if their only sexual relationships are with people who recognize them from television. And just as a criminal defendant has the right to know the identity of his accuser, the television-viewing public should have the right to know the identities of the families who determine Nielsen ratings -- and to demand psychiatric examinations for the ones who turned Providence and The Family Guy into hits.

Those regulations would make for a good start, but we need so many more. For example:

THE KELLEY CLAUSE. No matter how talented or hyperactive they are, television producers may work on only one series at a time. This provision is named for David E. Kelley, who produces and writes most of the scripts for both The Practice and Ally McBeal. Kelley's determination to churn out two Boston-based law dramas at the same time -- one grim with occasional quirky moments, the other quirky with occasional poignant moments -- stopped being cute about a year ago. Now, whenever I catch a below-average episode of The Practice (another serial killer running around the Hub?), I have to wonder whether Ally got the good plotline that week. Both shows will be back this fall, but Kelley is also developing a private-eye drama and is returning to Chicago Hope, which took a nosedive when the Boy Wonder from Belmont left it to start The Practice. He should be required to pick one series per season.

The same goes for Stephen Bochco, whose NYPD Blue suffered when he tried to launch Brooklyn South last season and will probably suffer again when he starts a medical drama on CBS this fall. As for Matt Groening, it's time for him to kill The Simpsons in favor of Futurama. And it wouldn't be a bad idea for Tom Fontana to let Homicide: Life on the Street die so that he can keep the brilliantly original Oz from sliding any farther toward Melrose Place-style melodrama.

THE PROMOTIONAL RESTRAINT ACT. Under the TV Viewers' Bill of Rights, no promotional ad can give away a plot twist or include any scene from the second half of a television program. Also, no promotional ad can include a dorky sound effect not actually heard in the program.

Thus, the following will be illegal: "Thursday on an all-new Friends, Monica signs up to be a big brother for (BOING!) Just Shoot Me's David Spade??? Then, on an all-new Will and Grace, Jack gets a surprise visit from his long-lost mom! (AA-OOHGA!) Say, isn't that Lisa Kudrow from Friends???"

It will also be illegal to use speeded-up footage from a sit-com in a lame attempt to make us think there's anything funny about, say, Kirstie Alley getting off an elevator. In fact, just to be on the safe side, NBC will be forbidden to broadcast any promotional ad for anything -- ever.

THE TRUTH IN LABELING PRINCIPLE. Come to think of it, when Friends is billed as "all-new," shouldn't it have a different title sequence, without that annoying "I'll be there for you" song? Yes, and the writers won't be able to recycle a joke from three years ago and pawn it off as a "running gag."

THE UNNECESSARY NUDITY LAW. ABC recently promoted its Tuesday line-up with shots of Sports Night's Josh Charles and Peter Krause in their boxers and a glimpse of NYPD Blue's Andrea Thompson stripping down to her bra. Alas, the hyped scenes were disappointing in every way: they did disrupt the flow of the story, but they weren't sexy enough to be worth the trouble. The TV Viewers' Bill of Rights will make everyone happy by requiring the networks to air brief nude scenes during the commercial breaks of any program that airs after 9 p.m. The nude scenes must not have anything to do with the plot of the episode, and they needn't involve any of the actors from the series. But the networks will have something to hype -- without interfering with the content of the show.

THE COMMERCIAL RECOMPENSATION STATUTE. When Lieutenant Giardello on Homicide says, "At this point, I'd even take help from that woman on Profiler," the weirdly uncharacteristic line is actually a five-second commercial for another NBC series. When ABC's Sports Night has one of its fictional characters appear on the real-life ABC series The View, that's another commercial. And when Dennis Rodman appears on L.A. Doctors . . . well, he must be selling something. In such cases, we viewers are entitled to a longer episode to make up for the interruption.

THE ZERO TOLERANCE FOR PREMATURE REPEATS PROVISION. As soon as a network airs a repeat episode in a program's regular time slot, that program is declared "over for the season," and no new episodes will be allowed on the air until the following season. This will prevent NBC from showing three new episodes of ER, followed by two repeats, followed by two new episodes, followed by four repeats, etc. If a series falls behind in production, we'll just wait until next year to see a full batch of episodes.

There is one exception to the anti-repeat regulation: each prime-time program must be repeated at least once within a week of its airing, even if the repeat is at 4 a.m., so that those of us who keep forgetting how to set our VCRs will have a second chance.

THE NO CASH FOR CRAP RULE. This one is aimed at Nick at Nite and its sister channel TV Land, which is considered a premium channel in many communities. Both channels started out as godsends: Nick at Nite had uncut episodes of classic shows like I Love Lucy and The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and TV Land gave us long-missed series like Hill Street Blues and St. Elsewhere. Now they air the same stuff we'd been watching for free on UHF stations for 30 years. The solution: no cable channel that costs extra will be allowed to run any series that was ever in the Top 10 of the Nielsen ratings. Goodbye, Family Affair, My Three Sons, Adam-12, and Hogan's Heroes! To protect a few quality series, we could exempt Emmy winners like Lucy and Mary from this rule -- but only if they're shown commercial-free.

THE ONE LIFE TO LIVE REGULATION. Remember when TV series didn't enter the five-night-a-week rerun market until they had finished their prime-time runs? Only now do we see the wisdom of that practice, which will be brought back with the TV Viewers' Bill of Rights. Did we really need to see Mad About You, The Nanny, and NewsRadio gasp through another season after they'd already gone into reruns? Would it have been so bad to force Kelsey Grammer to end Frasier with dignity before he started collecting residual checks?

But wait, there's more! Because Saturday Night Live is still in production (honest!), Comedy Central will be prohibited from loading up its schedule with SNL reruns -- and will be forced to bring back long-lost gems like Second City TV and the original Tracey Ullman Show.

There are plenty of other grievances, like sit-coms with too many regular characters (Spin City) and snarky talk-show hosts who enjoy themselves so much that they might as well be masturbating on live television (Craig Kilborn, Dennis Miller). But the law can't solve every little problem. What's important is that we take the first step of recognizing our own power as a special-interest group. Send enough letters (and checks) to members of Congress and the Television Viewers' Bill of Rights will soon be a reality. That's kind of scary but not too surprising. After all, most of these guys got their jobs on the basis of television commercials.

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