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The Hollywood Obfuscation Game

The fledgling UPN has a new president, Dean Valentine, and his mission is to save the network from collapse. Like the Warner Brothers network, UPN was launched in 1995, and both proposed to follow the successful plan of Fox back in the '80s by targeting a niche market, starting small, and adding one night of programming per year. But while WB saw the success of Nickelodeon and The Family Channel and went after family viewers, UPN signaled its desire to find an even more brain-dead audience than now watches television by offering sophomoric, just plain stupid programming filled with sexual innuendo, foul language and the like. Quick: Name two UPN shows. If you can, you might be part of the anemic 5 percent of audience share UPN has been able to gain in three years.

You wonder why, oh why it's so difficult for executives in La-La Land to accept that family programming will out-pull more adult fare every time. It's not just television. In 1992's "Hollywood vs. America," film critic extraordinaire Michael Medved documented how, since 1980, G, PG and PG-13 movies have been far more popular than those rated R, and yet Hollywood continues to mass-produce R-rated movies. In 1990, he found, 64 percent of all movies released carried the R rating. Five years after Medved's book was published, has the industry learned a thing? According to the Los Angeles Times, the percentage of R-rated movies this year through August 31 was virtually unchanged, at 65 percent.

But a change does appear to be in the air, and what a crafty move it is. "The trick," writes Times reporter Amy Wallace, "is to create a film that is smart or spectacular or even violent enough to attract adults - to push the ratings envelope, in the words of an executive - but still win a PG-13." And with PG-13 still perceived as generally acceptable for children, Hollywood gets both the young and the old at one time. Two examples: this summer's blockbuster "Men in Black" and last summer's smash "Independence Day."

If a movie does push the envelope too far and trigger the R rating, the producers can always appeal to the MPAA. "My Best Friend's Wedding" contained the "f" word used in a sexual context, thus triggering the R rating. The producers appealed - and won the innocuous PG-13 label anyway.

What if a movie promotes an anti-family agenda, advancing a smug brand of gay supremacist propaganda, complete with multi-level offensiveness, like the scene set in a confessional with a priest encouraging the star to have sex with his fiancee in order to determine whether he's gay or straight? Well, there's no graphic violence, there's no nudity, there's minimal foul language. Therefore, no harm done: Give "In & Out" a PG-13, too. And if you think this rating at least will prevent the under-13s from this garbage, consider the words of Disney's chief marketer: "Seven-, eight- and nine-year olds are seeing more PG-13 films than ever before. That's [who] we're targeting."

Television is headed in the same direction. In a study evaluating the new ratings system earlier this year, more than 50 percent of all prime time programs garnered the meaningless TV-PG prize - not the wimpy TV-G that would alienate adults, nor the stronger ratings that might cause parents to prevent their children from watching.

Sometimes, though, those darn censors just go too far. Ellen DeGeneres recently gave an interview to TV Guide in which she laid out, in no uncertain terms, the lesbian political agenda she's promoting on her show. "Let's see if I can accomplish what I want to accomplish, which is getting over stereotypes," she stated. "I still think in 30 years we'll be dealing with homophobia, and it would be nice to have Ellen on Nick at Nite along with Mary Tyler Moore, someone that [gay] kids could identify with... I won't be somebody who just had a sitcom but someone who helped change people's minds."

But that was last week. This week DeGeneres is publicly threatening to quit the show. Why? Because ABC placed a parental advisory - horror of horrors! - on her show last week because she made out with another woman. "Where will it stop?" our poor victim demands to know. "If you say, 'Don't watch a show that has gay people on it,' who's to say they won't one day say, 'Don't watch a show that has black people on it, or Jews?'"

According to the Washington Post, "ABC bit its corporate lip" when it learned of those remarks. If it's betrayal those executives feel, perhaps they'll be somewhat mollified in the knowledge that it doesn't begin to approximate the degree to which they have betrayed the public trust, with "Ellen" being just one exhibit.