NYPD Blue producer pushed boundaries onscreen

Television writer Steven Bochco broke new ground with shows such as NYPD Blue (above), which faced backlash for its nudity and explicit language.
Television writer Steven Bochco broke new ground with shows such as NYPD Blue (above), which faced backlash for its nudity and explicit language. PHOTO: NBC

NEW YORK • Steven Bochco, a celebrated television writer and producer whose sophisticated shows Hill Street Blues, L.A. Law and NYPD Blue pushed the boundaries of onscreen vulgarity and nudity, died on Sunday in Pacific Palisades, California. He was 74.

He died from complications of cancer, a family spokesman said. He had received a stem-cell transplant in October 2014 for leukaemia.

Over three decades starting in the early 1980s, Bochco was one of Hollywood's most prolific and sought-after producers. He mixed elements of daytime soap operas - such as storylines that stretch over multiple episodes and feature a rich ensemble of characters - with a true-to-life visual style and colourful language.

Television and movie critic David Bianculli called Bochco "one of the most important figures in the history of television".

Bianculli, who has covered the entertainment industry for more than 40 years, said television police dramas could be divided between those that came before and after Hill Street Blues. "We wouldn't have the excellence on TV, on cable, broadcast and streaming if it wasn't for what Steven Bochco did on broadcast TV," Bianculli said. "He was a pioneer."

On Hill Street Blues in the 1980s and a decade later with NYPD Blue, Bochco lent a realism to police dramas. Police detectives did not solve crimes in a single episode and they had flaws just like the bad guys. They drank, swore and had messy personal lives - provocative portrayals that caused some episodes to carry "explicit warnings", scared off some advertisers and led some network affiliates to refuse to broadcast episodes.

But his style forever changed the format.

"The idea of almost every other cop show was that the private lives of these folks was what happened the other 23 hours of the day that you weren't watching them and we turned that inside out," he said in a 2014 interview with The New York Times about the creation of Hill Street Blues and its lasting influence.

Hill Street Blues was not an overnight success. After its first season in 1981, the show ranked 87th out of 96 television series in the ratings. But a few months later, it won eight Emmy Awards, including Best Drama, giving Hill Street Blues momentum that carried the series another six seasons on NBC. It also propelled Bochco's career.

In 1986, he applied his trademark method to courtrooms, creating L.A. Law on NBC.The show brought a realism to lawyers and law firms and accurately portrayed legal issues, all while tackling tough and sensitive subjects such as capital punishment and Aids.

In 1987, ABC lured Bochco from NBC with a first-of-its-kind network exclusive: a US$50-million deal to create 10 series over eight years. Two shows were hits, NYPD Blue and Doogie Howser, M.D.

In Doogie Howser, a teenage doctor, who was played by Neil Patrick Harris, tried to balance his personal and professional life. A comedy-drama, the show veered into new territory for Bochco, but it stuck with a core trait of his shows: pushing the boundaries on television. Some people criticised a 1991 episode about the title character and his girlfriend losing their virginity.

But nothing shocked like NYPD Blue. Months before the show had its premiere in 1993, Bochco predicted that its nudity and explicit language would make it the first "R rated" show on network television. In what might have been a marketing ploy, the network came under tremendous fire in an orchestrated outcry that included full-page newspaper advertisements. When the first episode aired, it carried only a handful of national advertisers and 57 of ABC's 225 affiliates did not broadcast it.

Shortly before the premiere, Bochco said he believed that NYPD Blue did "break ground, though only because it goes a little farther than anything that's gone before".

He insisted that viewers be treated like adults and sparred with network executives and censors over granular details such as what percentage of a breast could appear on screen or how many times a profanity could be repeated.

The show, about Manhattan detectives in the 15th Precinct, survived the backlash, winning numerous awards over 12 seasons. It did not take long for other networks to copy the format, leading to shows like the hospital drama ER on NBC.

Steven Ronald Bochco was born on Dec 16, 1943, in New York City. His father was a concert violinist. His mother was a painter. The couple also had a daughter.

In an interview with Bianculli for his book The Platinum Age Of Television, Bochco said his parents had "zero interest" in buying a television set.

"It was quite the contrary: They were in the minus territory," he said. Eventually, a group of friends and neighbours pitched in to buy a television for his sister and him.

Bochco is survived by his wife, two sons, a daughter and two grandchildren.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 03, 2018, with the headline 'NYPD Blue producer pushed boundaries onscreen'. Subscribe