New York cables’ answer to Carson: late-night sex 

14 June 2021

With backing of ‘Screw’ magazine, ‘Midnight Blue’ may test censorship



Broadcasting magazine cover

From Broadcasting magazine for 9 June 1975

New York City’s Manhattan and Teleprompter cable companies, splashing around in red ink since their inception four years ago, may have stumbled on a subscriber inducement even more potent than Knicks’ and Rangers’ games.

It’s called Midnight Blue, it runs Tuesdays and Sundays (an original and a repeat) for 30 minutes on public-access channel D, and one recent episode featured, among other eye-openers:

A professed expert in fellatio describing her specialty in graphic detail and then demonstrating on the cameraman. (The sounds of the act were picked up by the tape deck, but the Porta-pak camera was aimed just wide of the center of action.)

Close-ups of the nude breasts of a strikingly endowed young woman, who was rubbing her nipples against a sheet of plate glass while an off-screen narrator sniggeringly advised viewers to put their mouths against their TV screens.

On a set looking like the one Johnny Carson uses on the Tonight show, the host brought out a female guest who heeding the exhortations of the studio audience, lifted her dress up to her navel while the camera zoomed in on her pudendum.

“But none of this falls under the category of porno,” said one of Midnight Blue‘s producers, Alex Bennett, a local radio talk-show personality. “Sterling is sometimes amazed by how close to the line we tread, but we’re not out to be explicit and we’ve never really been censored by Sterling.” (Sterling Manhattan officially changed its name to Manhattan Cable Television last year, but most people still call it Sterling.)

Teleprompter Manhattan, however, decided to put off a running of this tape as scheduled last Tuesday (June 3) at 11:30 p.m. (Manhattan Cable had shown it two weeks earlier, at midnight.) According to a spokesman for Teleprompter, the company’s lawyers are going over the episode carefully to decide whether it may be shown at all in its present form.

Manhattan Cable’s lawyer, Peter Gross, said decisions on suitability are being made in “a jungle of laws and regulations on obscenity.” There is fundamental conflict, he said, between New York state law and FCC regulations. “The state law says we can’t censor anything that is carried on a public-access channel,” he explained. “But the FCC regulations insist that the cable company is responsible for any —quotes— ‘obscene or indecent matter’ that goes out over the air.” But that doesn’t help any, he added, because the FCC nowhere defines what it means by “obscene” and “indecent.”


1980s clips from Manhattan Cable’s public access system. Courtesy of Coca Crystal.


Mr. Gross said some guidelines may be forthcoming in the way the FCC handles the complaint of a public-access producer named Michael Luckman, who stated in a formal brief that Manhattan Cable censored a tape of his which, according to Charlotte Schiff Jones, a company vice president, “was nothing more than a man lying on a couch masturbating for a half-hour.” Mr. Luckman wants the FCC to declare that a cable company should be nothing more than a common carrier for whatever material a public-access producer submits to it.


Masthead of ‘Screw’ magazine

That fine line between what’s acceptable for airing and what’s not may turn into a shaky tightrope later this week. According to Bruce David, who co-produces Midnight Blue with Alex Bennett (under the aegis of Screw magazine and its publisher, Al Goldstein), they will submit a tape that features an orgy of a group of swinging couples who have gathered at a hotel in the Catskills precisely for that purpose. This scene will not go beyond the category of soft-core porno because “we’ll edit out the hard-core stuff,” in Mr. David’s words.

However, the orgy is such an integral part of the 30-minute documentary on the life style of married couples who indulge in mate-swapping, Mr. David said, that if Manhattan Cable demands cuts, the producers may protest by calling a news conference and showing the unedited tape to the press.

“All this controversy makes it sound as though we’re playing nothing but porno,” complained Manhattan Cable’s Charlotte Jones. “The trade press only calls me up when the word gets out that there’s tits and ass on public access. The truth is that our two access channels run 600 hours of programing a month, and only a half-dozen of those fall into the porno area. The access channels are giving a voice to minority people who are ignored even by public broadcasting.”

She was asked to describe in detail the content of the censored Luckman tape. She threw up her hands and muttered: “Oh, what’s the use.”


The following section is commentary from Transdiffusion's expert writers

❛❛Chase McPherson writes: Midnight Blue surprisingly makes little impact in the annals of American TV history. Despite being the focus of a Supreme Court case in the late ‘90s on censorship in public access programming, you don’t see many copycats trying to embrace the style, let alone content, of Goldstein’s format. If you want the “good stuff” from cable, you go to the full climax, on-demand lineup, not a show trying to “push the envelope.”

Manhattan Cable logo

Manhattan Cable’s logo in the 1980s

What we did get as far as national exposure to this kind of programming was a classic sketch from a 1977 edition of NBC’s Saturday Night Live. And anyone not aware of NYC cable television wouldn’t make the connection without one particular reference in the above article.

Midnight Blue had been well-established in New York by this time, so New Yorkers probably knew what they were getting into when introduced to SNL’s “E. Buzz Miller’s Art Classics,” on “Cable Access Channel D,” the same channel as Blue. [Clip available to North American readers on the NBC website.]

E. Buzz and his female counterpart, busty Christy Christina, laugh and point at the T&A in works from the Old Masters. They also make fun of the names of the classical artists.

“His name is spelled T-I-T-I-A-N. ‘Titty-an,’ Buzz sniggers. Christy giggles, chest heaving.

What most of us saw as a sketch about an uneducated smut peddler hocking classical art’s boobs and nether regions was SNL slyly sticking it to the cable channel’s embarrassment over sex as a whole and who was presenting their view on the topic.

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