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The frank depiction of sexuality (both gay and straight) and the drug use in Tales of the City were among the elements which prompted attack when the series was broadcast on PBS in January 1994. See an image from the series?

American Playhouse's Tales of the City

In 1993 Armistead Maupin's comic novel about San Francisco in the '70s, Tales of the City, is adapted for television by Britain's Channel 4, to be aired the following year in the United States on PBS' American Playhouse. With its interwoven plots and interrelated characters, some of whom are gay, the upcoming miniseries creates a stir in some circles.

Telephones ring off the hook at public TV stations across the country, both before and after Tales of the City first airs in January 1994, with some viewers demanding the show be cancelled. Responding to state legislators' threats to recommend budget cuts, PBS feeds two versions, one as produced and one edited to remove scenes such as two men waking up in bed together. A week after the miniseries' premiere, the Family Research Council's Robert Knight appears at a public hearing of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the agency which funnels government monies to PBS. He terms the series "a slick piece of gay propaganda." He is not alone in characterizing both CPB and Tales of the City, which depicts recreational drug use and openly homosexual relationships nonjudgmentally, as "anti-family, anti-religious," and "pro-gay." Reverend Don Wildmon's American Family Association advocates budget cuts, sending each member of Congress a videotape with clips the AFA deems particularly salacious.

In Oklahoma, a PBS station airs the edited version, but even this triggers a legislative campaign against the program and public TV. In Georgia, the state Senate approves a nonbinding resolution demanding that Georgia PTV "cease airing it and never air it again." And in Chattanooga, TN, WTCI receives hundreds of negative calls, as well as a bomb threat, and pulls Tales of the City from its schedule an hour before airtime.

But fans of the program flood stations with their own calls. Tales of the City garners critical raves and PBS' highest ratings ever for a dramatic series.

Two years later, PBS chooses not to make the sequel, based on Maupin's More Tales of the City. Maupin accuses PBS of "caving" to conservative protestors, and People for the American Way, which monitors anti-gay groups and public policy, labels the decision "a bad omen for free speech." Showtime, a commercial cable channel, picks up the miniseries, now produced by Montreal-based LaFete Productions, and airs the sequel, once again to critical acclaim, in 1997.

In addition to its record-breaking ratings, Tales of the City receives two Emmy nominations, and the National Board of Review honors it as Best Miniseries. It also wins the Peabody Award, the most prestigious in broadcasting. Armistead Maupin remains a powerful and popular voice in both literary and gay circles.


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