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Debating "Public Morals'

Almost two months before it hits the air, Steven Bochco's Public Morals has ignited a debate over graphic language not seen since NYPD Blue debuted in 1993. Only this time, it's a comedy that's pushing the envelope, and on CBS.

At issue: The language used by the characters in the New York City Public Morals Division, a vice squad which targets prostitution, gambling, underage drinking and general sleaze. In the 22-minute pilot episode sent to TV critics, the word "whore" is used more than a dozen times, along with various anatomical references. The show's male cops are fond of cracking "dyke" jokes about one of their female colleagues whom they believe plays for "Team Navratilova." In another scene, a wheelchair-using pervert describes his private parts as "Donkey Hosey" before flashing his victims.

The most controversial example? Dubbing the police unit the "P---y Posse," a line so offensive it ignited Bill Cosby, appearing at a CBS press conference Monday to promote his new comedy.

"To have nine people sitting around a table who call themselves writers, and the best thing they can come up with is "P---y Posse,' as a punch line" is sad and unacceptable, Cosby said, calling it an example of "adolescence and immaturity."

Ten-time Emmy winner Bochco, who created the show with Jay Tarses (The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd), defends the pilot, which he hopes to air as-is this fall.

"There's simply nothing in this show that is controversial, dangerous or shocking," Bochco said, adding that he believes the language in his Emmy-winning NYPD Blue is "1,000 times rougher."

Tarses, a fellow Emmy winner (The Carol Burnett Show) who wrote the episode and will executive produce the series added: "Maybe this is controversial because of what is happening politically this year and (the talk about) the family hour. This is "welcome to the family hour' if your family is a bunch of transvestites, pimps and hookers."

Public Morals is scheduled to air at 9:30 p.m. Wednesdays, well outside the proposed "family hour."

Of chief concern to the TV critics gathered here for their annual press tour is that unlike NYPD Blue, which won critical and viewer acclaim while proving its case that a tough, gritty cop drama needs to be shocking to complement the realistic art form, Public Morals seems to strive for little more than portraying the vice squad as bumbling idiots who drink on the job and can't spell.

CBS executives have been dodging the issue for two days.

"Obviously it's a cause for concern for us. We haven't made any decisions yet," said Leslie Moonves, president of CBS Entertainment, noting that some affiliates have already balked at airing the pilot as-is.

"Obviously, Public Morals does not fit into the "family-friendly' theme. Obviously, it's a gamble. But we want to be a network that can try different things."

Bochco _ who faced similar concerns before NYPD Blue debuted _ acknowledged his creative license may be overruled by CBS's economic concerns. But he doesn't apologize for trying something new.

"You can't make a television show hoping to please everybody," said the man who has seen failure on experiments like Cop Rock, and almost lost the bold legal drama Murder One last season because it was too difficult for viewers to follow. "You'd wind up with an extraordinary bland landscape."