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Two NBC affiliates in Arkansas and Indiana are turning the page on upcoming series The Book of Daniel, which has been drawing criticism for its portrayal of Christianity. The series depicts an Episcopalian minister, played by Aidan Quinn, struggling with an addiction to Vicodin, among other problems in his diocese. Jesus is actually a character on the series, depicted in imagined conversations with the minister.
Last month, the archconservative American Family Association began calling on affiliates and advertisers to bail out of Daniel. Many stations have been flooded with e-mails and calls from viewers objecting to the series. KARK-TV in Little Rock, Ark., and WTWO-TV in Terre Haute, Ind., announced Wednesday they would preempt Daniel when it premieres Friday at 9 p.m. Both are owned by Nexstar Broadcasting Group.
KARK-TV declined to air Daniel citing "careful consideration" of viewer feedback. Little Rock's WB affiliate, KWBF-TV, will air Daniel instead. However, WTWO general manager Duane Lammers said he is not preempting Daniel due to its content but rather to protest what he views as the network's strong-arm approach to affiliates, as well as inconsistent federal oversight of indecent content. "This has nothing to do with the program and has nothing to do with the AFA," Lammers said. "I think the system is screwed up. I think the network thinks we are going to do whatever they tell us to do. I think the regulatory environment is flawed."
The network stands by the series, according to Vivi Zigler, executive vice president of current programming at NBC Entertainment, who cautioned not to judge the series on the basis of promotions for the show. "People are reacting based on not having seen it," she said. "They're seeing the advertising, not seeing what the core of the show is." Jack Kenny, the openly gay creator and executive producer of Daniel, dismissed claims that the series is anti-Christian. "We are not in any way satirizing Christianity or Jesus," he said. "It's done with love, honoring those things."
But Lammers isn't taking exception with Daniel. Rather, he is using the preemption to air multiple grievances with industry practice-- especially network-affiliate relations. "In the last few years, the networks have responded in a unilateral manner in their treatment of affiliates, whether it's about compensation, exclusivity, or other issues," he said. "I am now reaffirming my right to treat them unilaterally." Lammers also decried what he sees as a double standard in the lack of content regulation regarding cable. "I'm saying the regulatory atmosphere is unfair," he said. "If this gives me a chance to talk about it, that's fair."
WTWO is alone so far in its preemption of Daniel, but other affiliates wrestled with the decision. "There's been an enormous amount of discussion about the show," said Steve Poulsen, vice president of marketing at KSL-TV, NBC's affiliate in Salt Lake City. "This one happens to have religious overtones to it and is causing a little stir. We determined on this one to let the viewers determine the success or failure of this show." KSL, which caters to a heavily Mormon viewership, has not been shy about joining the small group of stations that have preempted NBC programming in the recent past. Among the NBC series that have been yanked in recent years are Coupling; God, the Devil and Bob; and Stressed Eric.
Lammers, who also serves as executive vice president and chief operating officer of WTWO parent company Nexstar Broadcasting Group, is known for taking aggressive stands on behalf of his company. He pulled multiple Nexstar-owned stations off Cox Communications and Cable One cable systems for most of 2005 in order to negotiate cash for carriage--an unprecedented arrangement. Both operators settled with Nexstar late last year. WTVO, which is the 150th-largest television market in the United States, will air the film Simon Birch instead of back-to-back episodes of Daniel. (Andrew Wallenstein, Reuters)