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Fontana breaks rules with ‘Bedford Diaries’

Censors balked at the show before the first episode even aired
/ Source: The Associated Press

Emmy-winning writer-producer Tom Fontana (“Oz,” “Homicide: Life on the Street”) anticipated strong opposition to “The Bedford Diaries.”

He thought it would come in the ratings race, because his new show was scheduled Wednesdays at 9 p.m. ET against formidable hits like Fox’s “American Idol” and ABC’s “Lost.”

Instead, Fontana’s WB drama, about the emotional lives of college students signed up for an elective course on “sexual behavior and the human condition,” got zapped by its own network even before it aired.

With the Federal Communications Commission fining broadcasters as never before for programming it deems indecent, scenes of two young women kissing and another opening her jeans were edited out of the premiere episode by WB censors, much to the producer’s dismay.

“I can’t imagine that the majority of Americans want their programming decided by fear,” he says. “I don’t think they want it decided by four or five commissioners. The Federal government does such a rotten job of things in general, why would we suddenly expect that the FCC would be the one thing that works well.”

WB spokeswoman Pamela Morrison would not comment on specific edits of “The Bedford Diaries,” other than to say upcoming episodes are being considered on a “case by case basis” and that “brief edits might be made.”

Pushing boundariesFontana is no stranger when it comes to controversial content, but it’s always been more about violence than sex, especially with HBO’s “Oz” and its graphic take on prison life and NBC’s gritty “Homicide.”

His work pushes boundaries, but his talent is widely respected, and he’s rarely accused of being exploitive or gratuitous.

“He’s always had the ability to make you know who the character is almost immediately in a way that doesn’t seem forced, that doesn’t seem unrealistic,” says “Bedford” co-creator Julie Martin.

“It seems totally natural, but you realize, ‘Wow, I’m hearing the depth of who this character is and the heart of what they are thinking and feeling,” she says.

Fontana’s desire to do something different arose because “what happens in this business is you get pigeonholed. It happens to actors, but it also happens to writers. People go, ‘That’s what he does,’ and I’m always about, ‘Well, what haven’t I done? What can I explore if I’m given the opportunity?’ I was given the opportunity to explore this.”

But it seems to be a limited opportunity because the WB only ordered eight episodes and, according to Fontana, “made it very clear to us that they were going to spend all their advertising money” promoting another of their midseason series — “Pepper Dennis.”

Neither series premiered well, ratingswise, and Fontana says his show has “virtually no chance of getting picked up.”

Yet, he still thinks that with a full season order, “we could really do some interesting stuff” because “I really do believe the show is written responsibly. I mean we are not doing it with a snicker and a wink. We are genuinely trying to just put ideas out there for people to talk about.”

Sex with consequencesFontana, 54, who teaches writing seminars at Columbia University, says “college is about kind of fine-tuning appetites, one’s trysts, one’s desires and curiosity, so that you really, by the time you get out, hopefully, are ready to face the world.”

Though he believes the definition of what sexual contact is has changed “in a post-Clinton world,” that doesn’t alter “the need for love, and the need for friendship and the need for companionship,” and that’s what he wants to address on his series.

“One thing I find offensive is that they do a high school show and they are all jumping into bed, and there’s no conversation about it, no sense of what it costs somebody’s soul,” he says.

His intention is to be neither snickering nor preachy, but he stresses, “to do a show about a sexual-behavior seminar and not talk about sex was absurd to me.”

Like many WB shows, “The Bedford Diaries” features comely young actors — a different look for Fontana.

“I’m usually known for having the ugliest casts, so it’s been kind of refreshing to go, ‘OK, hey, look she’s great looking. That’s great,” laughs Fontana.

Though not very familiar with the college-age talent pool, he says he was “pleased by how good they were. I wouldn’t have cast them if they couldn’t act.”