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Tuesday, April 15, 1997

Petition being circulated against showing of "Ellen" episode

By BOB LAPHAM Arts Editor

"Ellen" won't be coming out of the closet everywhere in the U.S. April 30, but she will here.

The Wednesday night ABC sitcom, starring former standup comedienne Ellen DeGeneres, will have the star's central character verify what she's been hinting at: That Ellen Morgan (DeGeneres) is a lesbian and now is ready to go public.

Helping the special hour-long (8-9 p.m.) controversial storyline get airborne will be a long and impressive list of guest stars and celebrities.

While at least one major ABC affiliate has pulled the plug on the upcoming episode, KTXS has no plans to do so - at this time.

"Basically, we're at the point where we're planning to carry the episode," said Jackie Rutledge, general manager of the ABC affiliate here. "That may change, but I don't think it will."

Not surprisingly, Rutledge said she already has been fielding complaints about "Ellen." At least one local church is preparing a petition to submit to KTXS, requesting it consider not airing the episode.

The ABC affiliate in Birmingham, Ala., won't show "Ellen" that night, after attempting to get ABC's permission to move the episode out of prime time, to 11:30 p.m. ABC refused to permit the shift.

ABC hasn't heard whether any other of its 223 affiliates has rejected the hour-long special planned for April 30, spokeswoman Anne Marie Riccatelli told The Associated Press Monday.

"We do not think it is appropriate for family viewing," said Jerry Heilman, president and general manager of WBMA in Birmingham.

Despite the controversy - or because of it - huge ratings are expected for the April 30 airing. Adding to the media blitz is DeGeneres' announcement last week that not only is her TV character a lesbian, but DeGeneres says she is, too.

"Ellen" usually has the 7:30 p.m. Tuesday time slot. However, April 8 was the last telecast of "Ellen" until April 30, which also will signal the show's permanent move to Wednesdays from 8:30-9 p.m. thereafter.

On April 30, the ABC sitcom, "The Drew Carey Show," will move from 8 p.m. to 7 p.m., to be followed at 7:30 by "Coach." "Grace Under Fire," another sitcom usually at 7 p.m., will not be carried that evening.

"Drew Carey" will move back to Wednesday, 8 p.m., after April 30, with "Ellen" taking over the 8:30 p.m. time period in a resumption of a 30-minute format.

April 30's hour-long "Ellen" is titled, "The Puppy Episode." According to ABC, "Ellen (the character) senses a kindred spirit when she meets a gay woman (played by film actress Laura Dern), who enlightens her to her own sexual identity.

"Confused by this startling self-discovery, Ellen seeks the guidance of a therapist (played by Oprah Winfrey) and braces herself for yet another moment of truth - telling her friends about this personal revelation."

In addition to regulars such as Joely Fisher as Paige Clark, Jeremy Piven as Spence Kovak, David Anthony Higgins as Joe Farrell and Clea Lewis as Audrey Penney, Grammy award-winning singer k.d. lang (also a well-known gay rights activist) will portray a singer named Janine. Melissa Etheridge will appear as herself.

Making special appearances in cameo roles are film actress Demi Moore as "the sample lady," recent best actor Oscar nominee ("Sling Balde") Billy Bob Thornton as a grocer, country star Dwight Yoakum as his bag boy, Gina Gershon as the cashier, Jorja Fox of "ER" as "the attractive woman," and Calvin Klein supermodel Jenny Shimizu as "the woman in the aisle."

According to the AP, ABC has been taking heat from both sides on the issue. Some homosexual rights groups have criticized the network for rejecting two gay-themed commercials, one promoting a law to protect gays against violence and another advertising a cruise line for lesbians.

Both advertisers have begun selling the ads to some of ABC's local affiliates to air on the April 30 episode.

Abilene Mission Church began circulating its petition Sunday to members of the non-denominational congregation.

"We asked for KTXS not to air the show, in very simple language," said Yancy Smith, one of the church's ministers. "I'm aware there is more going on on TV (that is objectionable to church groups) than 'Ellen,' but (the April 30 storyline) is an outrage to decency."

KTXS' Rutledge said Monday she understands why many individuals and groups get upset over controversial TV subjects, especially as shown in prime time.

"I'm a G-rated person myself," she said. "If it's not suitable for a 10-year-old to see, then I'm not going to enjoy it.

"I have called ABC (programming in New York City) and expressed the sentiment of (local and area) viewers who have called me," concerning the upcoming "Ellen" episode. "They know there are problems."

Rutledge said she encourages people "to call me if they want to express their feelings," but usually she reminds them of the reality of today's changing media attitudes.

"If I were to take (off the air) everything somebody objects to, I'd be doing it every day," she said. "But really, I don't think I'm the one who should be doing that. It's like my taste in (theatrical) movies. If I don't want to see one that's R-rated, I don't go."

She said synopses of upcoming shows - such as those carried in The Reporter-News' TV Week supplement - usually are available in advance. She encourages individuals, especially parents, to read up on what's coming to prime time.

"If you object to it, then I advise you to change to another TV station, or turn off your set," she said.

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