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If your friends can't tell you

Two weeks ago, ABC drama Once & Again
featured a fainting spell in a high-school girls' locker room where viewers could see girls stripping to their underwear in the background. Last week, NYPD Blue showed—not once but at least twice—the naked corpse of a young girl who was 18 but described as looking 15. We single out these fine dramas only because they are the most recent examples we can cite and, perhaps, because they were somewhat jarring in shows that are otherwise so praiseworthy.

We are all for TV that takes chances and breaks down barriers. But our impression was that setting the scene in the locker room and seeming to dwell on the naked girl were two decisions that could have been made differently with no compromise to the dramatic stories either show was telling.

Now, that is only our opinion, and the shows' producers would obviously disagree. To do otherwise would be to concede that either the intention or the result was exploitative. We offer our opinion as fans of both shows and of TV that breaks boundaries in a good cause. It was ABC, after all, that almost two decades ago had the guts to air Something About Amelia, which dealt with incest. And only a few years after ABC censor Al Schneider predicted "We will not see full frontal nudity on network television in our lifetime," ABC and Schneider himself broke that boundary in 1988 in War & Remembrance. The scene? Men and women in a Nazi death camp. Context is everything.

We say this as a warning to broadcasters not to become cavalier with their increasing lack of external constraints. It may sound oxymoronic to suggest that broadcasters shouldn't be too free with their freedom, but it is pushing the line between freedom and license against which we are warning, not between degrees of freedom in pursuit of a story worth telling. Ultimately, it is up to programmers to decide which they are doing.

The right step

Attorney General John Ashcroft has agreed to televise, via closed circuit, the execution of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh. We applaud the recognition that TV can be used to overcome the space limitations and allow 250 or so relatives and friends of the dead to be witnesses. Perhaps it will also make it a little easier to someday allow others with a vested interest in the procedure, which in a federal execution is everyone in the country, to be witnesses as well. The government's protestations that this is not precedent notwithstanding, the next step is not such a large one. If allowing a roomful of witnesses is holding a candle up to the act, then expanding that circle to a closed-circuit feed is holding a lantern to it. Perhaps someday we will bring it into the light of day so that more can be deterred, or satisfied, or repelled.