updated 10/22/2004 12:17:17 PM ET 2004-10-22T16:17:17

Guest: Jonathan Leiberman, Mark Hyman, David Washington, Karen Blaustein, Brenda Strong, Tim Wildmon, Max Robins, Jerry Della Femina

ANNOUNCER:  DEBORAH NORVILLE TONIGHT.

DEBORAH NORVILLE, HOST:  Political firestorm.  A group of TV stations will air excerpts of a controversial film about John Kerry, a film Kerry says is a political attack.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  There‘s something that you could—that you really kind of want to say in terms of the times and why they happened?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

NORVILLE:  Tonight, we‘ll meet the executive who protested and lost his job.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JONATHAN LEIBERMAN, FMR WASH BUREAU CHIEF SINCLAIR BROADCASTING:  And

I thought somebody had to speak up for the viewers.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

NORVILLE:  And find out from the company why.  Both sides in their first television appearance together.

Custody crisis.  This 4-year-old little girl was kidnapped from the United States more than a year ago.  Now she is in the middle of an international tug-of-war.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DAVID WASHINGTON, FIGHTING TO GET HIS DAUGHTER BACK:  Her mother‘s a criminal.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

NORVILLE:  Out of work, out of money, but not out of hope, an American dad tries to bring his daughter back from France.  Tonight, you‘ll hear his story exclusively.

“Desperate Housewives.”  It‘s television‘s newest smash hit.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  You slept with half the Yankee outfield.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

NORVILLE:  The primetime soap opera with the sizzling take on suburbia.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  It doesn‘t mean anything.  It was just sex.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

NORVILLE:  But are these steamy, desperate housewives too hot for some advertisers to handle?  Tonight: When sex doesn‘t sell.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  We all have moments of desperation.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ANNOUNCER:  From MSNBC world headquarters, Deborah Norville.

NORVILLE:  And good evening.  Tomorrow night, on 40 of its 62 stations around the country, the nation‘s largest television group, Sinclair, will run excerpts of a highly controversial documentary that is critical of John Kerry‘s anti-war activities during the Vietnam war.  Here is a clip of what many people in those parts of the country will be able to see.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP - “STOLEN HONOR”)

RALPH GAITHER, POW 7 YEARS, 3 MONTH:  I‘m convinced that, you know, Kerry‘s and his fellow anti-war people caused the war to be extended for at least two more years, throwing medals over the wall, speaking out against our country in a time of war when he knows it‘s going to extend the war, it‘s going to delay, it‘s going to complicate things.  And it‘s probably hurt a lot of people, a lot of prisoners.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

NORVILLE:  Ever since word first surfaced about Sinclair‘s plans to run that movie, the company has come under increasing pressure from shareholders, from advertisers and from the public.  Demonstrators have protested outside the company‘s Maryland headquarters, and the company stock price fell more than 16 percent.  Then Sinclair announced it would only show excerpts as part of an hour-long news special entitled “A POW‘s Story: Politics, Pressure and the Media.”  Well, the stock bounced back a bit, but the criticism continues.

The Kerry campaign has filed a compliant with the FCC asking for equal time.  Sinclair says it met with senior Kerry aides to get their participation in the news special, but today the Kerry campaign put out this statement, saying, quote, “Sinclair‘s latest spin on this premeditated political attack is just a panicked attempt to appear fair and reasonable.  Sinclair Broadcasting‘s only motivation is political.  They are committed to a one-sided smear.  Their actions make it clear that promoting the fortunes of George W. Bush trumps any sense of obligation to the public trust.  When their own top political reporter had the courage to speak up, they fired him.  That tells you everything you need to know about them.  The Kerry campaign is in no way cooperating with this discredited partisan effort that the Sinclair company is poorly disguising as news,” end quote.

Joining me now is the political reporter the Kerry campaign mentioned in that statement.  His name is Jonathan Leiberman.  He was the Washington bureau chief for Sinclair Broadcasting, but earlier this week, he was fired for criticizing the company‘s plans to air the special.  In just a few minutes we‘ll be talking with Sinclair‘s vice president, Mark Hyman.  He will join me.  It‘ll be the first both have been on the same program, but Mr. Leiberman said he did not wish to appear at the same time as Mr. Hyman.

Mr. Leiberman, welcome to the show.  Thank you for being with us.

LEIBERMAN:  Thanks for having me, Deborah.

NORVILLE:  You went “The Baltimore Sun” prior to firing, and you said, quote, “Based—the program was biased political propaganda with a clear intention to sway this election.”  That‘s a pretty extraordinary charge.  How can you back it up?

LEIBERMAN:  Deborah, let me tell you, for months I‘ve been complaining to the higher-ups in the company that I didn‘t feel our news department was being fair and was presenting facts accurately.  I felt we were slanting our stories to one side of the political spectrum because of pressure from higher-ups in the company.

Finally, on Sunday, we were called in to a mandatory staff meeting, and we were told we would have to present a one-hour news special focused around this documentary.  I‘ve watched the documentary, and in my heart, I just couldn‘t, as a news person, go on the air and do anything to support this documentary or do anything around this documentary.  We‘re taught as journalists to be fair, to be accurate.  And in order to preserve my credibility and to preserve the public trust in Sinclair, I said that I simply couldn‘t have a part in this.

I‘ve never been against the company running this documentary in full or in part.  Of course, that‘s the company‘s 1st Amendment right.  All I said was, Run it as an editorial, run it as a commentary.  That way, the company would have to give equal time to the other side.

NORVILLE:  You know, you can...

LEIBERMAN:  But to try and...

NORVILLE:  Let me just stop you there.  You can ask 100 different people to define what news is, you‘ll probably get 98 different definitions.  Just by luck will two or three people agree.  What is it about this documentary?  Having seen it—and I‘ve watched it, too—that would fit a commonly held definition of news as something the public didn‘t know, something which is new and unexpected, something which is important for them to know as they make their informed decisions as citizens?

LEIBERMAN:  Well, it‘s all the circumstances also surrounding the documentary.  Sinclair has never had its news division do an hour-long news special in the two-and-a-half years that it‘s been around—nothing on the war in Iraq, the war in Afghanistan, the war on terror.  And then to air such incendiary allegations a week-and-a-half before the election—we know the political tilt of the company.  We know the editorials that the company‘s been putting on the air for two-and-a-half months.

And I just—I felt, as a journalist, that I couldn‘t lend my face and my credibility to this because, let‘s face it, these are allegations in a documentary.  If we were going to show “Fahrenheit 9/11” a week-and-a-half before the election, the other side would be standing up and screaming, even if we were to excerpt several portions of it.

NORVILLE:  Let me ask you where the idea...

LEIBERMAN:  Granted, we haven‘t seen the program...

NORVILLE:  ... for running this came from in the first place.  As Washington bureau chief, I‘m sure you were privy to some of those discussions earlier on, before any of this made the newspapers.

LEIBERMAN:  No, and that‘s the thing, Deborah.  I wasn‘t.  It was kept completely separate from the news department because, originally, Sinclair, I think, had hoped to air it as commentary or editorial and air the whole 42-minute special.  But as pressure built more and more from stockholders and everything else, the company decided to air this as a news special.

But I‘ll tell you, Deborah, again, I‘ve never been against the airing of the documentary.  I think people are entitled to see all sorts of different viewpoints.  But as a news person, I simply couldn‘t take part in it.

NORVILLE:  How do you know that the program which is going to be airing tomorrow night on most of these stations won‘t have the other point of view?  While Mr. Kerry himself might not be participating, how do you know that, within that hour-long documentary, enough points of view that represent where he comes from on this POW issue and the 1971 hearings won‘t be fairly represented?

LEIBERMAN:  Well, I think it will now, to a certain extent.  I think as this week has progressed forward, the company has stepped back from its original plans.  And now I‘m hopeful that it will be a more fair and objective presentation of fact and—but still, Deborah, I don‘t agree with airing any sorts of excerpts of documentaries a week-and-a-half before the election and calling it news.  If you wanted to put together an editorial special, that‘s fine with me.  But again, calling it news, I think, too much, we blur the line between commentary, between editorial and between news.  Somebody in this case had to step up. And let me tell you, Deborah, there were other people...

NORVILLE:  And that was you, and you lost your job as a result of it.  Is it worth it?  Having stepped forward, made the comments to the paper and then later gotten the axe as a result, are you still comfortable with what you did?

LEIBERMAN:  I am completely comfortable with what I did, Deborah, and it‘s not an exaggeration when I say that I can sleep at night.  For eight months, I‘ve been saying to this company, Please, we need to do a more credible job.  We can‘t have the editorial department handing e-mails and story ideas to the news department.  We can‘t have the CEO coming down to the newsroom and throwing out only one-sided, slanted stories that were expected then to go on the air.

NORVILLE:  And because we want...

LEIBERMAN:  I had to speak up, Deborah.

NORVILLE:  And because we want to be fair, we do want to hear the other side.  Jonathan Leiberman, thank you for being with us.

And now to present the other side of this issue is Sinclair‘s vice president for corporate relations, Mark Hyman.  Mr. Hyman, I‘m sure that you have had a busy week dealing with all of the charges, countercharges and the heat that this story has generated.  Why would Sinclair Broadcasting, which has a license from the FCC, risk that very, very precious license by going forward with a program like this?

MARK HYMAN, V.P. CORP. RELATIONS, SINCLAIR BROADCAST GROUP:  Well, let me state for the record, first of all, Deborah, that contrary to what you just heard, the company never had any formalized plans on what they were going to do with this.  There were very serious allegations that surfaced in this documentary.  The company knew they wanted to explore those.  The three major broadcast networks all took a pass, for reasons you can find out from them.  When this came to the attention of the company, they spent a couple weeks vetting the documentary to make certain the people who are in it were exactly who they said they were.  Yes, they were prisoners of war.  Yes, they were tortured.  We all know that.  We found that information to be valid.  And we wanted to explore the documentary.

NORVILLE:  Well, why...

HYMAN:  As to the allegations—so the only person that was invited to participate was Senator John Kerry.  And you can appreciate, as a news organization, this would have been a tremendous get, to have a presidential candidate sit down and talk about an issue that was newsworthy.

NORVILLE:  Absolutely.  But I‘m not clear what‘s new about this, and I‘m not clear how this program fits the definition of news, especially when your company previously did not air a “Nightline” program on your ABC-affiliated stations, a program in which the faces and names of those who had lost their lives in service to this country in Iraq were being portrayed.  You said that, We do not believe...

HYMAN:  Deborah, you know...

NORVILLE:  ... statements should be disguised as news.

HYMAN:  Deborah, you know there‘s no connection between one or the other.  You can‘t connect the dots to every single news story.  That‘s silly.  The bottom line here is...

NORVILLE:  You don‘t believe this is a news story that has a political statement, as others have charged?

HYMAN:  Deborah, we‘re in the middle of the silly season.  Everything that pops out in the news today has some sort of political component.  That‘s just the reality.  We‘re in the political season.  That‘s the way it goes.  But these 13 men who came forward after 84 years of collective abuse and torture, for the first time in 31 years ended their silence and said, Oh, by the way, John Kerry‘s 1971 testimony before the Senate wasn‘t as harmless as he said it was.  It was used by my communist captors.  No one has said that previously.  They just ended their silence the end of the summer.  They just came forward.  We can‘t decide when these people end their silence.  They did this on their own.

NORVILLE:  But let me ask you, sir, if it was so important—and Lord knows, I would be the last person to say that the abuse that these Americans endured during their time in captivity in Vietnam is not something that all of us need to be mindful of.  But if Sinclair Broadcasting thought that their story was such an important story, why did it not, through your own news organization, go out and report that story independently, rather than purchase the rights to a documentary that was produced by an outside party?

HYMAN:  Like everything else in news, when a situation presents itself, we first learned about these allegations in this documentary.  That‘s how they came forward.

NORVILLE:  But that‘s not new.

HYMAN:  Pardon?

NORVILLE:  That‘s not new.  This is not the first time.  I mean...

HYMAN:  You are absolutely incorrect!  These men have ended a self-imposed 31-year silence.  They have not spoken publicly about this issue.  They just came forward, and they...

NORVILLE:  But there are others who have spoken, sir.

HYMAN:  Pardon?

NORVILLE:  There are others who have spoken about this very thing, about their concern...

HYMAN:  Others?

NORVILLE:  ... that the anti-war protests did adversely impact on their treatment in Vietnam.

HYMAN:  See, you‘re making the same mistake others do.  They like to refer to the swift boat people.

NORVILLE:  No, I‘m not talking about the swift boat people.

HYMAN:  Different group—different group of people.  These people came forward for the first time—very credible, two Medal of Honor winners.  They said they had some strong allegations.  They had an opportunity to address this earlier with the networks.  The networks decided that we weren‘t going to address it without the approval of the John Kerry campaign.  That‘s certainly inappropriate.

NORVILLE:  Mr. Hyman, let me ask you this.  As you know, the Kerry campaign has lodged a protest with the FCC, and the FCC‘s opted to take no action until the program airs because there‘s nothing to take action against until such time something has been broadcast.  How are you confident that this is a balanced portrayal of this issue, based on the show that you now probably do have in a final edit form, or close to it, for broadcast tomorrow night?

HYMAN:  The best thing I can say to you, Deborah, is watch the program and you‘ll see for yourself.  The whole plan all along is to make this a balanced program.  That‘s why John Kerry‘s participation was absolutely key.  It was vital to this.  We wanted to make certain this was a very good, balanced piece.  He‘s declined to participate.  We understand that.

NORVILLE:  Well...

HYMAN:  We made a lot—you know, we were in communication with his campaign for more than two weeks to try to make this happen—quietly, behind closed doors.  Lots of people weren‘t privy of it.  This is the third...

NORVILLE:  Well, Mr. Hyman...

HYMAN:  This is the third news presentation—or news special we‘ve done this year.  We have done two other news specials this year.  This is something that‘s relatively new for our national news organization...

NORVILLE:  Well, I‘m going to thank you for your time, but I‘m going to have to say I do take exception with the idea that the days leading up to the selection of a president is the silly season.  A lot of us take it as a very serious time, and we‘re looking to make the best decision we can and look carefully at both the candidates.  Or we should say all three because in some states, you got three choices.  Mark Hyman, thank you very much for being with us from Sinclair.

ANNOUNCER:  Up next: This man‘s 4-year-old daughter was kidnapped more than a year ago.  He knows where she is and who took her, but he can‘t get her back.  A dad‘s endless fight to bring his little girl back home.

And later...

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  It doesn‘t mean anything.  It was just sex.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ANNOUNCER:  Why this hit primetime show is not a hit with some advertisers.  We‘ll meet one of the stars when DEBORAH NORVILLE TONIGHT returns.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

NORVILLE:  Now a transatlantic custody battle with a 4-year-old little girl caught in the middle.  On one side, a French mother and the people of a small French village.  On the other side, an American father and French authorities, who are desperately trying to bring this little girl back to the States.  The child‘s name is Charlotte.  A  year-and-a-half ago, her mother took her from New York to France to visit family, and she never returned.  Since then, Charlotte‘s father, David Washington, took a four-month leave of absence from his job to go to France.  He maxed out his credit cards, cleaned out his 401K, now says he‘s destitute, so much so that he‘s had to rely on his estranged wife, Sophie, the woman who kidnapped Charlotte, to act as his translator in the French courts.  Both American and French courts have sided with Mr. Washington, but he still can‘t get his child back.

Last month, the French police tried to help him grab the girl from a schoolyard, but people in the village jumped in, including the town‘s mayor, who want the girl to stay in France.  French police retreated, and Charlotte was whisked back into hiding.

Joining me now from Nice, France, for this exclusive interview is Charlotte‘s father David Washington.  And joining me here in the studio is his attorney, Karen Blaustein.  And thank you both for being here.

Mr. Washington, let me start with you first.  I know what a struggle this has been since March of 2003.  When did you last see your little girl, and how was she doing at that time?

DAVID WASHINGTON, FIGHTING TO GET HIS DAUGHTER BACK:  Well, I guess she seems to be doing fine.  The last time I‘ve seen her was this past Thursday, in what we call in the United States, I guess, a foster home.  That‘s the last time I‘ve seen her.

NORVILLE:  So your daughter is no longer living with her mother, either?  She‘s living in the care of strangers?

WASHINGTON:  That‘s correct.

NORVILLE:  How did this happen?  She went to France with her mother on holiday to see her French relatives, and you had no idea that any of this was going to happen.  When did you realize that your wife was not planning to return with your little girl?

WASHINGTON:  Well, first of all, my wife has taken many trips to France to see her family in the past, for one month, two months at a time, which is normal.  I realized that I was in serious trouble, that she wasn‘t going to return, after I lost my brother, who died last May and my wife didn‘t return for the funeral services.

NORVILLE:  And when did she indicate to you that this was it, she wasn‘t coming back, period, and I gather, indicated there wasn‘t a whole lot you could do about getting your little girl back?

WASHINGTON:  Well, about three weeks after she left on this supposed two-week vacation, she indicated to me she wasn‘t coming back.

NORVILLE:  Period, end of report.

WASHINGTON:  Well, that‘s pretty much it.  It‘s not like she left on bad terms or anything.  But it turned out that it was just a blackmail to get me to move to France.

NORVILLE:  Now, I know you have—you‘ve left your job, as we said in the introduction.  You‘ve used every resource you have to get to your little girl.  And what has the American government done, either the State Department, your local congressman?  What has the government done on this end to help you get your child back, since you now have a valid custody order issued by a court in this country?

WASHINGTON:  Well, that‘s a sticky question, understand.  I personally have no proof that anything has been done.

NORVILLE:  Well, sticky questions are the sorts of things that we hire lawyers for, and your lawyer is here in the studio in New York with me.  Ms. Blaustein, this is not supposed to happen.  Mr. Washington has legal custody of this little girl.

KAREN BLAUSTEIN, DAVID WASHINGTON‘S LAWYER:  Correct.  Correct.

NORVILLE:  America is a signatory to the Hague Convention, which among other things, is supposed to protect parents of all signing countries when this happens.  It‘s not working.  Why?

BLAUSTEIN:  Correct.  And France is also a signatory, and the treaty is also supposed to protect the—really, the children.  In this case, it‘s not working.  We actually won at an appellate level.  David is supposed to have his daughter ordered to be returned to him by the French court.

NORVILLE:  Right.

BLAUSTEIN:  And the French town, the town where Sophie and Charlotte live, has just banded about around her, and it‘s turned into really mob rule.  And they are not letting her be found or letting her come back to the United States.  And she‘s a citizen of—she‘s a 4-year-old citizen of this country.

NORVILLE:  But as Mr. Washington said, she‘s now in foster care. 

She‘s living with strangers.  She‘s not living with the mother‘s family.  Why cannot the French authorities, if they were willing the first time around to go get this little girl, assist now?

BLAUSTEIN:  They absolutely can and they absolutely should be.  And that‘s the—that is the outrage and the criminality of this.

NORVILLE:  Mr. Washington, why hasn‘t—I mean, if you were able to see your little girl two weeks ago in a foster situation and you have a valid court order and French court has upheld it, why couldn‘t you take your girl by the hand and say, See you.  We‘re headed home.

WASHINGTON:  Well, there‘s a lot of trickery going on here and a lot of underhandedness being done by several of my wife‘s advocates and supporters.  Again, there was a children‘s judge that actually wrongfully ruled that he had jurisdiction over this case and gave an order to put my daughter into a foster home.  And I know that is incorrect, and he knows it‘s incorrect, as well, because I explained to him during this procedure that my custody rights were definitely being breached.  My rights of access are definitely being breached because I don‘t have access to my child.  And why put my daughter into a foster home when she has a competent and actual sole guardian custody holder right here within France?

NORVILLE:  And what‘d they say?

WASHINGTON:  They can just simply turn her over to me.  That I can appeal, knowing that this can take months, and you know, purposefully just dragging this on longer and longer.

NORVILLE:  Ms. Blaustein, you know, you got to wonder.  America and France don‘t exactly have the warmest relations right now because of the consternation over the situation in Iraq.  Has that worked adversely in Mr.  Washington‘s case?

BLAUSTEIN:  There‘s no way that I can—I don‘t know the answer to that.

NORVILLE:  Do you suspect it has?

BLAUSTEIN:  Yes, I suspect it has.  I do.  I really do.  I suspect it

has because what we filed under this Hague Convention, once the application

is filed—and that was filed in September of 2003 -- no other court in

France has jurisdiction to do anything on this case.  It can only be cases

·         it can only be Hague courts.  And once we won that appellate decision, that really should have been it.  And that was six months ago.

NORVILLE:  Have you talked to...

BLAUSTEIN:  And that should have been the end.

NORVILLE:  ... the State Department?

BLAUSTEIN:  Yes.

NORVILLE:  And what do they tell you?

BLAUSTEIN:  Well, they‘re—they‘re hoping that the French police will enforce the order.  But I don‘t think...

NORVILLE:  That sounds like “not my problem.”

BLAUSTEIN:  I don‘t think that—but I don‘t think that the French—

I don‘t think—but that‘s not going to happen.  The French police are not going to enforce the order.

NORVILLE:  Mr. Washington, several years ago, I did a story very similar to this.  In this case, the child had been kidnapped by a Tunisian-born parent.  And what ended up happening is the mother, the American mother, had to hire some former Delta Force commandos to go in and kidnap this child back.  Is this a situation that will have to go to that kind of extreme for you to be reunited, as the courts have said you should, with your child?

WASHINGTON:  By all means necessary.  But I won‘t jump to conclusions yet.  I‘m still hoping that the right thing will be done quickly.

NORVILLE:  Well, I know one of the reasons you came on our program tonight to talk about it was to get people to ask what the right thing is.  And you can go to our Web site.  We‘ll have some more information about this case and how to contact maybe you, Ms. Blaustein, if they‘ve got...

BLAUSTEIN:  Great.

NORVILLE:  ... some suggestions.  David Washington, thank you so much.  We wish you well in your odyssey.  I know how frustrating it must be as a parent.  And Karen Blaustein, thank you so much for being here.

BLAUSTEIN:  Thank you.  Thank you, Deborah.

NORVILLE:  We‘ll be right back.

ANNOUNCER:  Coming up: It‘s the steamy, sizzling hit show about sex-crazed suburbia.  It‘s attracting millions of viewers.  So why are some advertisers refusing to commit to these “Desperate Housewives?”

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  I got to have you!

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ANNOUNCER:  DEBORAH NORVILLE TONIGHT is coming right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, “DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES”) 

BRENDA STRONG, ACTRESS:  Edie Britt was the most predatory divorcee in a five-mile radius.  Her conquests were numerous, varied, and legendary. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

NORVILLE:  That‘s a scene from the hot new ABC prime-time soap opera called “Desperate Housewives,” the show which takes a dark look at life in suburbia, where the secret lives of housewives aren‘t always what they seem.  But some of its sexy scenes have angered some advertisers, who want to disassociate themselves or even pull ads from the program.  More on that later.

But there is no disputing that “Desperate Housewives” is one of television‘s biggest hits this season.  So far, it is the third highest rated show of the season, with an average of more than 20 million viewers.  And ABC has doubled the advertising rates for a 30-second spot to $300,000.

The stories on “Desperate Housewives” are told from the vantage point of a housewife vantage who led a normal, routine life. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, “DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES”) 

STRONG:  Quietly polishing the routine of my life until it gleamed with perfection.  That‘s why it was so astonishing when I decided to go to my hallway closet and retrieve a revolver that had never been used. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

NORVILLE:  Brenda Strong plays Mary Alice Young, who sees a whole lot more from the grave than she did when she was alive.  And she joins me now from Los Angeles. 

Good to see you.  Congratulations.  You have got a big hit out there. 

STRONG:  Thank you, Deborah. 

NORVILLE:  What is it, you think, that has made this show so hot so fast with the audience? 

STRONG:  Well, I think if anyone knew that, they would be recreating this all over again in every network. 

But I think, ultimately, it starts with great writing.  I think Marc Cherry came up with a really innovative, terrific script.  And it‘s got a cast of well-experienced, very, very diverse women.  And I think ABC knew that they had something special and they took the time to advertise it so that the audience would find it. 

NORVILLE:  There are a lot of people who say, in some respects this, show has kind of picked up where “Sex and the City” left off.  These are women who have bonded.  They all have issues in their lives.  They talk about them.  There‘s the central character, in this case, you as the narrator who kinds of weaves the thread in between, and that it‘s really about relationship. 

STRONG:  I would agree with that. 

I think it‘s wonderful to have a character-driven show that is primarily women of a certain age that allows people to feel like I have a glimpse inside of these women‘s lives and I can relate to them.  The thing that‘s really great about my character is that I kind of have the vantage point of being able to have this omniscient overview. 

And I get to narrate from a very clear perspective and a compassionate perspective of I wish I could tell them what I know now, but I can‘t. 

NORVILLE:  Yes. 

You know, the opening scenes, we are looking at you blissfully picking flowers in the front yard and everything seems so happy and fabulous.  The reality, of course, is quite different, which is why you kill yourself right off the bat. 

STRONG:  Right. 

NORVILLE:  How illustrative do you think that is of actual housewives out there, or do you think it‘s just a great technique for getting people involved in the story? 

STRONG:  Well, I think ultimately everyone puts their best foot forward and they try to present a together persona. 

It‘s not just housewives, but I think what happens is, what makes it interesting is that people have secrets.  People don‘t always tell you what they are thinking or what they‘re feeling.  And, ultimately, it‘s the relationships and the bonding of these women that think they know each other very well.  And when my character commits suicide, they find out they didn‘t actually know me as well as they thought. 

NORVILLE:  Indeed.  And then, after your character commits suicide, there is a flashback where they are all remembering a time when they sat together around the kitchen table and, looking back, they wonder if they were really listening to what they were hearing then. 

Here is a glimpse. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, “DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES”)  

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS:  Listen to me.  We all have moments of desperation.  And if we can face them head on, that‘s when we find out just how strong we really are. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

NORVILLE:  OK.  That‘s the relationship part of it.  There are others who say the reason this show is a hit is because there are some really hot bodies, some gorgeous clothes and some awfully sexy women every time you turn around doing something that you typically don‘t get to see on prime-time television that much. 

What do you think about that part of the success story? 

STRONG:  Well, I think ultimately it‘s a cast of very well-seasoned women who have earned a right to be series regulars and are doing some great work.  The fact that they happen to be beautiful, you know, I think, culturally, we idolize beauty, and so it‘s not a surprise that they happen to be attractive. 

I think what is most interesting are their flaws, the things that are underneath the surface that you start to see, that Susan is klutzy and likes lights her neighbor‘s house on fire, that Gabrielle is secretly unhappy, although she has everything.  I think it‘s the flaws in these women that make them so appealing, not the fact that they‘re beautiful.

NORVILLE:  And we‘re looking at Gabrielle.  You want to talk about flaws.  Most suburban housewives probably aren‘t having a secret love affair with the underage gardener, as we see happening on screen. 

STRONG:  Well, being a married woman, I would hope not. 

(LAUGHTER)

NORVILLE:  Are there ever parts of this storyline that you, as a married woman, feel a little bit uncomfortable about knowing that this is going to play out on television for so many millions of people to see? 

STRONG:  Not at all. 

I think ultimately the thing that makes anything entertaining is that it‘s heightened reality.  I don‘t think the writers are going out and talking to real people and trying to verbatim.  It‘s not reality TV.  This is entertainment.  And I think ultimately everyone knows that there are snippets of reality.  Like, Oprah had a lovely show where there were certain women who were desperate housewives in real life.  And so, yes, it‘s taken from reality, but then it‘s turned into entertainment.  I don‘t think anyone would be offended by it.

NORVILLE:  Well, you get to wear great clothes, except for Felicity Huffman, who never gets to wear great clothes.  And I think you guys need to work on that. 

STRONG:  Well, and, then, I‘m dead, so I just have to keep wearing the same clothes over and over, which is really frustrating. 

(LAUGHTER)

NORVILLE:  Which is really boring, but it‘s a show that has definitely found an audience.  And we hope you get to ride it for a long time. 

STRONG:  Thank you.  I am so happy to be part of it. 

NORVILLE:  Brenda Strong, thanks a lot.

(CROSSTALK)

NORVILLE:  Me, too.

As we said, the show is hot, but too hot for some.  When we come back, the man leading the charge against the show joins me next. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, “DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES”) 

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS:  You‘re the one who has been humiliated, Carl.  Why don‘t you see that?  You walked out on your family.  People think you‘re scum, not me.  So worry about yourself.  I am OK with me.  I can walk down the street and hold my head high. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

NORVILLE:  “Desperate Housewives” is the steamy new hit show on ABC.  But, for some, it‘s too hot.  Advertisers are pulling out.  The network is getting pressure to cool it down—next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, “DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES”) 

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS:  I really like it when we hook up.  But, you know, I‘ve got to get my work done.  And I can‘t afford to lose this job. 

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS:  This table is hand-carved.  Carlos had it imported from Italy.  It cost him $23,000. 

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR:  You want to do it on the table this time? 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

NORVILLE:  That‘s from ABC‘s hit new prime-time soap opera called “Desperate Housewives.”  It‘s got huge ratings and some really steamy scenes which have some advertisers cooling it with the commercials. 

Tyson Foods is one of them.  They released a statement saying—quote

·         “We have no future plans to advertise on the show again.  The program is not consistent with our core values, which focus on operating with integrity and trust in all we do.”

Another company that has pulled out is North Carolina-based Lowe‘s Home Improvement.  Its statement says: “Lowe‘s has a strict company policy specifying its advertising is not to run in controversial programming, including programs that contain gratuitous sex and violence.  ‘Desperate Housewives‘ does not meet Lowe‘s strict advertising guidelines and the company‘s advertising will no longer appear during the program.”

Kellogg‘s has also stop advertising, but it says it only bought ads

for the first episode.  And ABC released its own statement, saying—quote

·         “‘Desperate Housewives‘ is the No. 1 new program of the season and we‘re seeing tremendous demand for the show.  It is fully sponsored and commanding a premium.”

Joining me is Tim Wildmon.  He‘s president of the American Family Association, whose followers last week flooded e-mail servers and the phone lines of some of the companies that advertise on the TV program calling on them to stop advertising.  Also with us tonight, longtime advertising executive and author Jerry Della Femina, and the editor in chief of “Broadcasting and Cable” magazine, Max Robins.

Thanks all of you for being with us.

Mr. Wildmon, this show airs at 9:00 on Sunday night.  Little kids ought to be in bed.  Bigger kids ought to be doing their homework.  What is your beef with the show? 

TIM WILDMON, PRESIDENT, AMERICAN FAMILY ASSOCIATION:  Well, 9:00 Eastern, right? 

NORVILLE:  Yes, sir. 

WILDMON:  Eight o‘clock Central time.  So, sometimes the Eastern Time Zone folks forget about the Central Time Zone.  That‘s still early.  And 9:00 is still early, quite frankly, to have this much explicit sex in a television program that is on free TV.  This isn‘t “Sex and the City” on HBO or Cinemax.  This is free broadcast television.

And this is heavy with the sex, as you showed some of the teasing shot there from the series.  I‘ve seen the first two episodes.  And two of the main characters, that‘s basically what their lives revolve around, the woman who is married who is having the affair with the teenage gardener and then the other woman who spends her life trying to seduce the widower. 

(CROSSTALK)

WILDMON:  And of course you‘ve seen the same with her bending over the automobile in her short shorts.  And so that‘s kind of the problems that we have, the sexually explicit nature of the show.

NORVILLE:  And you think that it just shouldn‘t be on broadcast television, period.  Is that right? 

WILDMON:  No, no.  It may be a great show.  Just take out all that sex.  That‘s all we‘re saying, for an 8:00 show.  It may be a great show.  I‘m sure.  That kind of storyline, as I understand it, does appeal to a lot of people, following people‘s lives.  It‘s very interesting. 

And we have nothing against the show per se.  You just can‘t—we just don‘t think for 8:00 Central time, even 9:00 Eastern, with kids watching, you just don‘t need that kind of explicitness on there.  That‘s the problem that we have. 

NORVILLE:  Right. 

Max Robins, if they took out all of that sex, the way Mr. Wildmon suggests, how much of a show would they have? 

J. MAX ROBINS, EDITOR IN CHIEF, “BROADCASTING & CABLE”:  Not much of one, Deborah. 

Look, people vote with their remotes.  They don‘t want to watch.  Sure, it makes the job as parents a little more difficult when a show like this is on earlier in the evening.  But 20 million Americans are tuning into this show each week.  And I think, in a way, whether Mr. Wildmon has meant to or not by pressuring advertisers to pull out, it‘s probably making more money for ABC. 

This has garnered more attention for the show.  And, also, you have to remember, the advertisers who bought this show before it premiered didn‘t know the kind of runaway hit it was going to turn into.  So ABC now has time they can sell for more money. 

NORVILLE:  Right. 

ROBINS:  Commercials they can sell for more money than they could have before. 

NORVILLE:  And, frankly, those guys that got in early on in the up front, they got a really cheap bargain, because so many eyeballs ended up watching that show. 

Jerry, this kind of boycott, though, gets under your skin.  Why? 

JERRY DELLA FEMINA, ADVERTISING EXECUTIVE:  Well, frankly, it does have more people looking at the show.  I haven‘t seen the show.  But, boy, people can really turn it off.  They don‘t have to turn it on. 

(CROSSTALK)

NORVILLE:  Well, let him finish, please. 

Jerry, go ahead, please.

DELLA FEMINA:  What really happens is, there is no reason—it‘s a free country.  It‘s free TV, but it‘s also a free country.  People could turn that show off any time they want or not even turn it on. 

And the fact is that the advertisers, quite frankly, saw a tape of the first program.  So, clearly, they knew what they were getting into. 

NORVILLE:  And is there ever a situation, Mr. Della Femina, when an advertiser is snookered, if you will, where they thought they were buying one show and it turns out to be something else?  Doesn‘t their agency make sure they look at everything before that client‘s ad goes in there? 

DELLA FEMINA:  I must tell you, I wouldn‘t put an advertiser on to a show without knowing what it‘s about before it‘s on.  No one would do that. 

So they know exactly what is going on.  But, let‘s face it.  No one is ever going to write profiles in courage about advertising.  So the fact is that they will run.  But I‘ll tell you, if Lowe‘s runs away because of pressure, Home Depot might look and say, you know what?  That is a great show for us, because we can reach a lot of people. 

So it‘s not going to hurt the show.  It‘s going to give it a lot more P.R. than it would have had before.  And, frankly, I think it‘s going to be sold out because advertisers just will continue to go. 

NORVILLE:  And, Mr. Wildmon, what about that, the idea that your campaign may actually be helping them get more viewers? 

WILDMON:  How do you know that?  Nobody knows that.  How do you measure that? 

I would say this, though.  You know what?  It is a free country.  And we have a right to contact these advertisers and let them know as consumers how we feel about them sponsoring this kind of explicit program.  So they can tell us to go jump in a lake if they want to.  They don‘t have to pay any attention to us.  So it‘s a free country.

I can write my letters, send my e-mails, make my phone calls.  And they can ignore us and ABC can go on doing what they want to. 

(CROSSTALK)

NORVILLE:  Well, obviously, some people are listening.

(CROSSTALK)

NORVILLE:  We have got to take a short break. 

When we come back, though, I do want to continue this discussion.  How much do the advertisers listen and how much do the viewers come when you hear something like this?

More with my guests in a moment.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

NORVILLE:  Back talking about the new ABC hit called “Desperate Housewives.” 

We‘ve been saying America is a place where you can say anything.  And if you can get an audience to show up and watch it, you will probably get a hit on your hands.  But I want to play a clip, gentlemen, of a recent episode of “Desperate Housewives” that quite frankly, it‘s already aired on television.  It‘s been on broadcast television at 9:00 at night.  It‘s not the scenes that necessarily have us giving pause here. 

We had a big discussion in the office about whether we could allow the dialogue that was out there.  ABC obviously gave its blessing, but, I‘m telling you, if you have got kids in the room, they should be in bed.  And if they‘re not in bed, go tell them to brush his teeth, because here‘s the  clip. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, “DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES”) 

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS:  Of all people, did he have to bang his secretary?  I had that woman over for brunch. 

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS:  It‘s like my grandmother always said.  An erect penis doesn‘t have a conscience.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS:  Even the limp ones aren‘t that ethical.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS:  This is half the reason I joined the NRA.  Oh, when Rex started going to those medical conferences, I wanted it in the back of his mind that he had loving wife at home with a loaded Smith & Wesson. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

NORVILLE:  Max, is that really necessary in a prime-time program?  Couldn‘t you have a great, zazzy show without getting that descriptive in the dialogue? 

ROBINS:  Deborah, I don‘t want to start telling the creators of these television shows what to write and what not to write. 

It‘s tough when you take a scene like that and you take it completely out of context.  Yes, the language, it‘s adult language.  This is a show that‘s appropriate for adults. 

NORVILLE:  Right. 

ROBINS:  I have young kids.  I am not going to allow them to watch this show, but I do think that—I wanted to go back to something that Mr.  Wildmon said before, where he said, you don‘t know how people are going to react to this protest, if it works or not. 

But we have a whole history of these protests mounted.  There was one that was mounted against “NYPD Blue.”

NORVILLE:  Right. 

ROBINS:  I think Mr. Wildmon‘s group was involved in that.  Against another show called “Married With Children.” 

Well, “Married With Children” was one of the most successful, longest running comedies in the history of television.  “NYPD Blue,” one of the most successful dramas, still on.  And all those advertisers and those stations that—not the same advertisers, but advertisers are paying the normal rates they pay for other dramas for that.  People came in.  Premium advertisers came into shows like “Married with Children.”

This is the environment we live in.  There‘s substantial audience that wants to see this show.  And so that‘s why you are seeing what you are seeing, Deborah.

NORVILLE:  Yes, but, Jerry, frankly, why shouldn‘t Mr. Wildmon or any other group that sees something that they object to over broadcast television say, you know what, I don‘t think that‘s right, and maybe somebody else out there agrees with me; here‘s what I‘m going to do?

DELLA FEMINA:  There‘s absolutely nothing wrong with that.  That‘s the way the world is. 

If you don‘t like something, you have a right to protest.  I used to say that three people with a pencil and a lot of paper could threaten almost any television show on.  I mean, let‘s face it.  The shows that they were threatening might have been “I Love Lucy” because Lucy was pregnant. 

So this stuff has changed over the years.  But they can now, armed with spam or computers or whatever, they can e-mail.  But the fact is that, in the end, if a show is bad, they probably can hurt it. 

NORVILLE:  Yes. 

DELLA FEMINA:  But if a show is getting the numbers and people want to see—I don‘t want to see that show.  I haven‘t seen it.

NORVILLE:  Well, I‘m going to let that be the last word.

Tim Wildmon, thank you so much for coming on.  And keep us posted on what‘s next for your efforts. 

Jerry Della Femina, Max Robins, it‘s a pleasure to have you on the program as well. 

WILDMON:  Thank you. 

NORVILLE:  When we come back, what‘s up with the first lady and the woman who would like to have that title? 

We‘ll be back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

NORVILLE:  We always like to hear from you.  So send us your e-mails to us at NORVILLE@MSNBC.com.  We have got some of them posted on our Web page.  The address for that is NORVILLE.MSNBC.com.

And that is our program for tonight.  I‘m Deborah Norville.  Thanks for watch. 

Tomorrow night, it‘s less than two weeks before the election and the pressure is on, not only for the presidential candidates, but also for their wives.  This week‘s first lady flap is proof positive that every single word they say is game, and also proof that, at times, it can get very ugly.  Tomorrow night, a look at Teresa Heinz Kerry and Laura Bush, as the countdown to Election Day continues. 

That‘s it for tonight. 

Coming up next, Joe Scarborough and “SCARBOROUGH COUNTRY.”  Thanks for watching.  We‘ll see you tomorrow. 

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

END   

Copy: Content and programming copyright 2004 MSNBC.  ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.  Transcription Copyright 2004 FDCH e-Media, Inc. (f/k/a/ Federal Document Clearing House Inc., eMediaMillWorks, Inc.), ALL RIGHTS  RESERVED. No license is granted to the user of this material other than for research. User may not reproduce or redistribute the material except for user‘s personal or internal use and, in such case, only one copy may be printed, nor shall user use any material for commercial purposes or in any fashion that may infringe upon MSNBC and FDCH e-Media, Inc.‘s copyright or other proprietary rights or interests in the material. This is not a legal transcript for purposes of litigation.

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,