LOS ANGELES—Family and religious advocacy groups make a lot of noise about what they don't like on television. But does it do any good?
Judging from the howls from one of the makers of Fox TV's hit animated series, “The Simpsons,” the answer is yes. Mike Scully, the show's executive producer, recently complained to the Los Angeles Times about the network's buckling to pressure from the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights.
“I'm angry,” Scully told the Times. “People can say hurtful things to each other about their weight, their intelligence, their sexual preference and all that seems up for grabs. But when you get into religion, some people get nervous.”
The incident in question involved a parody of Super Bowl commercials that made fun of the Catholic Church. It ran during a “Simpsons” episode that aired after the real-life Jan. 31 Super Bowl, also televised by Fox.
While mother Marge Simpson and her daughter, Lisa, were watching the game, a commercial came on which showed a rundown gas station where a car drove in, and the driver honked his horn. Three suggestively clad young women appeared and began to service the car. One of them wore a cross around her neck. A voice-over boomed: “The Catholic Church: We've made a few changes.”
“The joke was an observation on crazy Super Bowl commercials, not a comment on the Catholic Church,” Scully told the Times. “We had the idea for the content of the commercial first. Then we pitched several tag lines. One of the writers pitched the Catholic Church line, and it got the biggest laugh.”
Catholic League President William Donohue told the Register he had been “getting nowhere” in persuading Fox to respond to his organization's concerns about anti-Catholic bias. As a last resort, he put on the front page of the March edition of the Catalyst, the group's monthly newsletter, the names and business addresses of Roland McFarland, Fox vice president of broadcast standards, and another network official.
“We got a couple of hundred letters,” said 42-year-old Scully, who calls himself a lapsed Catholic. As a result, when that particular “Simpsons” episode was rerun last month, the word “Catholic” was deleted from the voice-over, leaving only “the church.”
Scully was asked to make the change by McFarland, one of the recipients of the Catholic League's letters. When the producer argued against it, he claims he was told by McFarland to change it to “Methodists, Presbyterians or Baptists,” anything but Catholics.
“When I asked what would be the difference changing it to another religion, he [McFarland] explained that Fox had already had trouble with Catholics earlier this season,” Scully told the Times.
Scully, McFarland and other Fox officials refused to talk to the Register about the incident.
The Catholic League also complained about a gag in a November “Simpsons” episode in which Bart asks Marge: “Mom, can we go Catholic so we can get communion wafers and booze?” She replies: “No one is going Catholic. Three children are enough, thank you.”
Two of this season's episodes of Fox's “Ally McBeal” also attracted the League's attention. Alleged priest pedophilia was the subject of the offending gags.
Donohue told the Register he wants to defend the Catholic Church from “defamation, not criticism.”
The Catholic League president contended that there's a “double standard” used to judge his organization's work. “When other groups like the National Organization for Women, Gay and Lesbian Association of Doctors and Dentists and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People register protest, no one cries censor,” he said.
But if Catholics stand up for themselves like everyone else, people unfailingly claim they're getting preferential treatment. “All we want is a fair hearing,” Donohue maintained.
“Catholics have been target practice for Hollywood because they refused to defend themselves,” Brent Bozell, chairman of the Alexandria, Va.-based Media Research Center, told the Register. “Bill Donohue is a hero of mine. He stood up and declared, ‘Enough is enough.’”
Thirty-five years ago most people's values were formed by churches, schools or families. Nowadays television has become the primary purveyor of morality, and Donohue knows where the Catholic League stands in relation to this new environment. “Our goal is to change the culture,” he says. “Our vehicle is to defend the Catholic Church.”
John Prizer writes from Los Angeles.