Louis C.K., The Color of Urine, and What TV Standards and Practices Are For

Television executives can get skittish about the strangest things, as I wrote earlier this summer about the Maxi pads, sex on kitchen tables, and the Lord’s name taken in vain that freaked out NBC suits during the Must See TV era. And one of the most striking differences between cable and network shows this last week has been the way people making programming for mediums talk about the role of standards and practices in their work.

“I think the only note we’ve gotten so far that makes it more of a network show than a cable show came from Standards this morning,” said Josh Berman, creator of NBC’s Mob Doctor, which stars Jordana Spiro as a young female surgeon who works for the Chicago mob when she isn’t pulling rotations. “We got a note that said ‘When you show the character’s urine, make sure it’s not too yellow, because too yellow violate network standards.’ So other than that, we don’t really differentiate between [making a show for cable and making a show for network.]” It turns out Standards okayed paler yellow urine in the scene. But it’s revealing that standards and practices at NBC thought something this minor was worth its creators time and attention. A show may not lose its artistic integrity through these tiny cuts, but it speaks to a profoundly conservative approach to standards. It’s hard to defend a large vision or a new approach when you’re freaked out by the color of a liquid standing in for urine in a test tube that’s momentarily on screen.

By contrast, Louis C.K. said that his interactions with Darlene Tipton, the vice president for standards and practices at FX and Fox Cable Networks, had been oriented towards a larger goal. “She said that her goal is to keep my show free and that she has a better sense of where the lines are,” he told the reporters at the Television Critics Association press tour. “Her department knows where the phone calls come from and…what fuses you’re more likely to break and where they are. So she keeps me within there. Because if I step too far over and I piss a group off really terribly, then I’m going to get curtailed beyond, you know, lower than I am now, if that makes any sense…So I always look to me, it’s a service to me, the standards.”

And that’s how standards and practices should work: serving the audience by serving the creative interests of creators, writers, and actors. It’s on the audience and critics to provide incentives, in the form of viewership, acclaim, and awards, for content that’s more diverse, or less harmfully sexist, or crude and dumb about gay people, or religious people, or any other kind of people. But standards and practices should treat creatives as their main clients, rather than interest groups. And they should want to preserve as wide an aperture as possible for their clients to do their jobs in, rather than narrowing it, a urine-filled test-tube millimeter at a time.