When "NYPD Blue" made its debut 20 years ago, some of the predictions were nothing short of apocalyptic. The New York Times wondered whether the boundary-pushing police drama would put network standards-and-practices execs out of business under the headline, "What's a network TV censor to do?"

Flash forward, however, and producers Steven Bochco and David Milch's creation didn't revolutionize television -- at least, not in the way many foresaw. And while the program's history and success over 12 seasons merit analysis and even celebration, the real revelation is that two decades later, the groundbreaking series remains an outlier for broadcast TV -- where almost nothing, even now, is bluer than "Blue."

That's not to say "NYPD Blue" didn't contribute to changes in television. It did, from perceptions regarding audience tastes to the way in which advocacy groups orchestrated lobbying campaigns targeting sponsors and stations.

In many ways, though, the crystal ball pertaining to the show proved fuzzier than the carefully framed images of cast members grappling. And if the series was conceived, as Bochco recalls, to provide a broadcast response to the greater creative latitude available on cable, then just like efforts to prevent more explicit fare from becoming widely accepted, its impact didn't play out in the way many envisioned.

"I suppose I was naive," Bochco says. "I thought 'NYPD Blue' would open a door to more adult, mainstream programming." Yet the series remains an exception, and broadcast standards didn't appreciably change.

"It's disappointing (that) it influenced cable more than broadcast," Bochco adds, while deriving some satisfaction from the fact the forces that railed against the show "lost the battle, because cable television is television."

Those closely involved with the show have clear memories about its inception, which included a protracted development process and meticulous negotiation over just how explicit the content would be. That not only resulted in a specific glossary of words that could be used, but Bochco and then-ABC Entertainment chief (and now Disney CEO) Robert Iger actually sat with a notepad drawing pictures of naked people, detailing to what extent various body angles could be shown.

Most of the key players also expressed surprise, given all the tumult unleashed at the time, regarding how far off prognostication of the show's influence wound up being. And even the American Family Assn. -- whose tactics convinced 57 ABC affiliates, roughly a quarter of the network's station lineup, not to air the show initially -- concedes the pressure ultimately failed to repel what it saw as TV's drift toward immorality.

Bochco's reasoning was simple: The one-hour drama business on network TV was "moribund," as he puts it, and he felt broadcasters "had to compete more aggressively, and graphically, with cable," which was bringing uncut movies and other racy material directly into homes.

Milch, whose writing genius in working with former detective Bill Clark gave the show much of its poetry, was quick to credit Bochco. "There was something happening, and Steven, in his profound sense of the moment, understood that," Milch says. "It was less the particular words and the particular camera angles than a sensibility." That notably included, he adds, the alcoholism and racism exhibited by one of the show's protagonists, Andy Sipowicz, a role for which Dennis Franz eventually won four Emmys.

The extensive, painstaking give-and-take between ABC and Bochco delayed the program's premiere by a season -- a blessing in hindsight, most agree. Still, when affiliates finally got their first look at the series, the reaction in certain quadrants was decidedly chilly.

"We fully knew the affiliate problem would be huge," says Ted Harbert, chairman of NBC Broadcasting, who became head of ABC Entertainment when Iger was promoted to oversee the network's broadcast group before the show debuted. Harbert recalls after the first screening for stations in Dallas, a general manager from Kentucky approached him and said, "You understand, young man, that you have just ruined television."

(Partners: Steven Bochco, left, and David Milch broke ground in primetime with "NYPD Blue.".)
Enter the American Family Assn., a Tupelo, Miss.-based group led by the Rev. Donald Wildmon, which cleverly attacked the show at a network Achilles heel: local affiliates. Specifically, the AFA targeted major advertisers (car dealers, food retail chains) in individual markets, urging them not to support a station that would carry such a vulgar program.
Despite the pressure, CapCities/ABC chiefs Thomas Murphy and Daniel Burke -- both staunch Catholics -- backed their entertainment team, while telling them, as Bochco recalls, "If it blows up in our faces, our skirts won't be big enough for you to hide behind."

Yet if the AFA's campaign dealt ABC a serious blow in terms of lost carriage and advertising, it also provided "Blue" an enviable amount of free promotion. Everyone had to tune in to see what the fuss was all about.

"Donald Wildmon made us a hit," Bochco says. "I always thought I should send him a bottle of champagne, but that would have been unseemly."

Tim Wildmon, who currently runs the AFA, says his father wouldn't reject the token of appreciation. But he sounds a trifle resigned today when discussing what was and wasn't accomplished through the group's efforts.