It was a strange day in entertainment, a stranger one in politics, a headline-making beginning to the TV season, and a long-awaited end to the year’s most unlikely controversy: Last week fictional newswoman Murphy Brown (played by Candice Bergen) finally talked back to real-life Vice President Dan Quayle. If you weren’t among the 70 million viewers who watched the fifth-season premiere of CBS’ Murphy Brown, you missed her biggest FYI salvo: ”Perhaps it’s time for the Vice President to recognize that whether by choice or circumstance, families come in all shapes and sizes.” No matter that FYI isn’t a real news show: This was real news.
After four months, many viewers were expecting something fiercer — and, said some, funnier. But it was no accident that Murphy’s rebuke to Quayle felt more like a slap on the wrist than a roundhouse punch. ”We didn’t want to do an hour of Quayle bashing, even though we were extremely upset that he had condemned the show without watching it,” say Murphy executive producers Gary Dontzig and Steven Peterman, who wrote last week’s show. ”To give him his due, there was an important discussion that came out of this controversy, and we wanted to address it.”
Dontzig and Peterman began working on their script in May, right after the Vice President attacked Murphy for ”mocking the importance of fathers by bearing a child alone and calling it just another lifestyle choice.” They wrote and discarded several drafts, including one highly charged version that was much more politically explicit. ”Murphy’s speech at the end was originally much longer,” says Dontzig. ”We had specifics about things that the Bush administration had not done — family-leave stuff, lack of health care, no funding for Head Start. But it just wasn’t right for us.” Peterman adds that a midsummer rumor that Quayle himself might make a cameo appearance was false. ”We were never approached, and we wouldn’t have been interested,” says the producer. ”He can get on TV anytime he wants. He could probably get his own sitcom.”
The morning after, pundits were busy tallying the Murphy Brown flap’s winners and losers. Many reviewers were unimpressed with the show (”A sanctimonious letdown,” said The Washington Post), but Quayle’s notices were just as bad. His letter to Murphy’s fictional baby (which read in part, ”It is important to me that you know the respect I have for single mothers”) was relayed through CBS This Morning and then rebuffed by the Murphy staff. His baby gift, a stuffed elephant, backfired when Murphy’s production office announced it would donate the gift to (ouch) a shelter for the homeless. And low marks went to the Quayle camp’s final attempt at spin control, a staged viewing of the episode with a group of single mothers. (Quayle may have been inspired by a scene in the script — acquired early by his staff — in which Murphy stands among a group of single parents and introduces them.) Marilyn Quayle is reported to have laughed during the show, while the Vice President is said to have been bored, occasionally switching to ABC’s Monday Night Football. By far the biggest victors in the dispute were CBS, which drew 41 percent of all TV viewers to Murphy Brown, winning the highest ratings for any series in nearly two years, and advertisers, who clamored to get on the show. Given those ratings, Murphy’s ad rates — $310,000 for 30 seconds — may turn out to be the fall’s biggest bargain.
The tempest has quieted for now, but perhaps not for long. Though conservatives have complained about Murphy Brown’s liberalism, the producers won’t shy away from politics. ”Murphy, as a journalist, has a naturally adversarial relationship with the power structure,” says Peterman, ”which for the last 12 years has been Republican. If Clinton gets into office, he’ll be fair game.” Quayle, however, seems to have had enough. Asked if the Vice President had anything to say about Murphy Brown, a staffer in his press office said, ”No. No. No.” But don’t count on a long silence from either side. After all, Election Day — and the November sweeps — are just around the corner.