Gossip In Gory Detail

See No Evil by Geoffrey Cowan Simon and Schuster, $10.95,323 pp.

SEX AND VIOLENCE. Potentially interesting subjects, especially when you're talking about television. Robert Wood, one-time president of CBS, for example, vetoes a script for The Waltons because it describes (in lurid and graphic detail) Mary Ellen's "confused reaction to her first menstrual period." Lee Grant--Phyllis to sitcom junkies-- asks her daughter whether she lost her virginity on a ski weekend with a group of teenagers. "The subject matter was simply unacceptable for Family Viewing. It dealt too directly with sex." CBS editors jokingly called the episode--which the writer titled "Bess, Is You a Woman Now,"--"Did Bess Get Laid?". And this is the absolute high point of the book. Not a boring subject; but as for the book, we're talking dull.

Sex and violence. They're lost in all the ridiculous and copious detail. Geoffrey Cowan promises to take us behind the scenes to the "backstage battle over sex and violence in television." Cowan has seen too many Barnaby Jones episodes for his own good. He's in the habit of telling you what happened first and then spending (read: wasting) 30 or 40 pages telling you why. By the time you get through the intricate details of whose wife was accompanying who on what vacation that got interrupted by what's his name's telephone call you're too bored to care.

Sex and violence. And nepotism. Cowan's father was president of CBS--forced to resign in the midst of the Quiz Show scandals in the fall of 1959. "When home from Choate on vacation," Cowan tells us, "I would wear one of Dad's ties, with a design composed of dozens of CBS eyes."

CBS was very much a part of our lives during those years. A specially carpented six-foot long cabinet housing three television sets, which made it possible for my father to watch all network programming simultaneously, dominated my parent's bedroom. We called it the 'three-eyed monster' but our attitude toward the industry itself was more respectful.

Cowan spent his summer vacations running around the West Coast, meeting Elvis Presley, Donna Reed and eating dinner with Desi Arnaz at the Brown Derby. (I'll bet he didn't even order the cobb salad.) "Probably none of this should have impressed me," Cowan says. But it has. Although the book is no defense of his now-dead parents, it is tinged with their memories. If anything comes out of all this, its that Cowan doesn't really care about the structure of the network system. He'd rather gossip in gory detail about the promotional practices at CBS.

Sex and violence. He just can't seem to extricate himself from the subject which he's writing about. In 1975, as a communications law expert at UCLA, Cowan served as a legal consultant to Norman Lear and the Writers Guild of America. He worked on the Guild's Family Hour--that self-imposed beast the networks adopted promising they would not air "entertainment programming inappropriate for viewing by a general family audience "between 7 and 9 p.m. Cowan tries to use the lawsuit as the background for a discussion of censorship on television and the unique problems the medium faces. But he gets lost in a series of meetings that could give the Civil Service justifiable cause to claim the D.C. bureaucracy is "lean." The problem with See No Evil is the author's approach. Trying desperately to write what he calls a "dramatic narrative" of the events, Cowan lapses into description of events that no judge could fault for being incomplete. Awkwardly referring to his own role in the fight, Cowan's legalistic style makes the book read like The Daily Variety.

SEX AND VIOLENCE. Cowan was born and raised on television and "creative community." There's no questioning the basic concept at the core of the television industry: programs all drawn from the same group of companies which crank out anything the networks can sell to advertisers. How can we believe Cowan when he categorizes events as B.L. or A.L.--before Lear and after Lear. Saint Norman: the man who brought reality to television. Struggling mightily to make sure his programs aren't toned down by the Family Hour, Lear upholds the constitution and continues the never-ending struggle in quest of freedom of speech and profits. Cowan never talks about how much money his client stood to lose if his programs were switched from one time slot to another because Archie and Edith want to talk about "Mike's problem." Another one of Cowan's idols is Fred "programming genius" Silverman, whom the author says "is the best hope for those concerned about television." We're talking about the man who brought Charley's Angels, the Love Boat and Fantasy Island to television.

Sex and violence. As for the Family Hour--supposedly the centerpiece of discussion here--nobody ever understands what it's supposed to do. "I guess we'll know it when we see it," one network censor told a writer. By the time the court hands down a ruling in the Writers Guild suit, everybody's trying to dump off the idea on everybody else. You almost wish that Cowan's side had lost the case. Maybe his weak-kneed call for "more modest regulatory reforms" would have more punch to it. Cowan tells us that "while it would be technically simple to establish a system that relied less heavily on advertising, the opposition from advertisers and the broadcasting industry would almost certainly make such a proposal politically unacceptable." His solution is simple: if the fight looks hopeless, don't think about it. But pages later he turns around and berates the American Gas Company for demanding that all references to "gas ovens" be removed from a program it sponsored about the Nuremberg war trials. At the end of the book, Cowan tells us "some may argue that television is too powerful a tool to be left to a process so crass and mindlessly competitive." But he concludes, "that is the commercial television system, and it isn't likely to change."

SEX AND violence. The best parts of the book are about just that. Some anecdotes are buried in Cowan's tortured prose. He describes one scene in "Born Innocent," the show about a girl's reform school. Linda Blair is thrown to the floor of the shower room and "raped" with the long wooden handle of a Jonny mop. (At a screening for NBC executives, one was so pleased that he murmured, "This is great stuff.") The network executives changed their minds a month later after a nine-year-old girl was raped with a beer bottle on a San Francisco beach and her parents filed suit against the company for inciting the crime. Cowan's explanation of "the apparent nexus between television and antisocial conduct" is too shallow-- he doesn't bother to talk about the psychological (and more interesting) aspects, choosing instead to get lost in the legalese of Congressional reports. Later, he quotes a writer who wanted to pen the teleplay for an episode of The FBI about the 1965 bombing of a black church in Birmingham, Ala. He asked his producer, who checked with Ford Motor Co. (the sponsor), the FBI (every show was cleared by the agency) and ABC. The producer reported back "they would be delighted to have me write about a church bombing, subject only to three stipulations." The church had to be in the North, there could be no Blacks involved and it could have nothing to do with the civil rights movement.

Sex and violence? Don't bother to read this book. Watch television instead.