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Soaps on the Rope

Soaps are steamy. Soaps are sexy. Soaps put prime time passion to shame. The average soap opera stud is rich, handsome, four-times married, and twice charged with murder. And that's just the good guys. But lately, Mr. Daytime has traded his Armani suit for boxer briefs, displaying his rippling abs, and emoting enough bedroom heat to melt the coldest heart.

That is, until daytime met the FCC.

According to FCC Chairman Michael Powell, the commission has no official
plans to censor daytime content. Rules already ban indecent programming on broadcast TV from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. But in today's environment—the chilliest in years—the networks aren't taking chances. ABC, CBS, and NBC all refused to comment, but industry observers say that, behind the scenes, producers have been warned: Afternoon delights will be clothed.

The real story, however, may be the one the FCC won't touch: violence in daytime.

On NBC, nine major characters from Days of Our Lives
have been killed by a rampaging serial killer. "No one has any time to do the horizontal mambo," says Michael Logan, soap opera reporter for TV Guide.

Indeed, in one particularly horrifying scene, a young woman is murdered and her body encased in a piñata, which is delivered to a child's birthday party. When the kids start pounding on the piñata, they are spattered with blood. In another scene, the killer beats an alcoholic woman to death with an empty liquor bottle. And the show's matriarch, Alice Horton, played by Frances Reid, is murdered by slow suffocation on a powdered donut.

Not to be outdone, ABC's General Hospital
has essentially turned into " Sopranos
in the Daytime," says Ed Martin, TV critic for ad-industry newsletter The Jack Myers Report.
The story line
revolves around "mobsters and the women who love them. GH
is already toning down sex scenes. I don't think they are currently pushing the envelope. Instead, they are relying on trying to show as much skin as they can as a substitute."

Enter FCC Commissioner Michael Copps. If he has his way, skin will be sin.

The deep freeze set in after the NAB's summit on indecency, when Copps suggested that daytime soaps might be the next target on the commission's indecency hit list. "It was pretty steamy for the middle of the afternoon," Copps remarked after the eight-hour Summit for Responsible Broadcasting, annoying network executives who sat through the meeting without hearing him mention that soaps might be a sore spot. Adding fuel to fire, Copps told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram
in February, "What was on [soaps], I wouldn't want my kids to see."

The networks, particularly CBS, got his message. Admittedly, changes in the soaps might not show up for another month or two. Storylines are plotted up to a year in advance, and shows are shot two to four weeks ahead of air dates. CBS has taken care to erase even the slightest hint of indecency. After all, parent company Viacom is bearing the brunt of the government's wrath, be it the Super Bowl debacle or Viacom-owned Infinity Radio's troubles with shock jock Howard Stern.

Ironically, the effort to clean up TV content heated up after CBS began using sex to attract younger viewers to Guiding Light, The Young and the Restless, The Bold and the Beautiful, and As the World Turns. The older-skewing CBS soaps tend to be slower moving and more relationship-focused. But in the past year, the network has raised the body heat, including three bare-butt shots in recent months. "There is a big crackdown at CBS as far as this stuff is concerned," says Richard Simms, a reporter with Soaps In Depth
magazine. "CBS has the most concern because sex happens most on their shows."

Which is why executive producers cut an "envelope-pushing" sex scene between actress Michelle Stafford and actor Keith Hamilton Cobb on The Young and the Restless, industry sources say. That's telling. During the week ended March 26, the show was the top-rated daytime drama in households for the 795th consecutive week.

Plus, reports surfaced that CBS fired Guiding Light
Executive Producer John Conboy for including a scene in which a young woman seductively removed a young man's underwear, giving the audience a peak at his behind. CBS has since said that Conboy was on his way out. But industry sources say he had just renegotiated his contract six weeks earlier. (Prior to the current indecency outrage, Guiding Light
showed the silhouette of a couple making love behind a rice-paper screen in a busy Japanese restaurant. "It was quite a wild sex sequence," reports Logan.)

All of which underscores the myopia and caprice behind indecency charges. Timing is everything. Taboo tends to be sexual, not physical. "You can show someone plunging a dagger into someone's neck or beating someone to death over the head with a liquor bottle," Martin says. "It's all a big bloody mess, and that's OK. But show some butt, and the federal government has to step in and deal with the obscenity."

Contributing editor Paige Albiniak has been covering the business of television for nearly 25 years. She is a longtime contributor to Next TV, Broadcasting + Cable and Multichannel News. She concurrently serves as editorial director for entertainment marketing association Promax. She has written for such publications as TVNewsCheck, The New York Post, Variety, CBS Watch and more. Albiniak was B+C’s Los Angeles bureau chief from September 2002 to 2004, and an associate editor covering Congress and lobbying for the magazine in Washington, D.C., from January 1997-September 2002.