It's tough being the gutsy network.

ABC got plenty of kudos for supporting Ellen DeGeneres when she wanted to out her sitcom character, and for renewing the priest-drama Nothing Sacred, despite protests from conservative groups like the Catholic League and subsequent advertiser pull-outs.

Now the network is being criticized by the former co-executive producer of Nothing Sacred, Richard Kramer, for refusing to air an episode in which the show's protagonist, faith-questioning Catholic priest Father Ray (Kevin Anderson), has to deal with a friend and priesthood peer who's contracted AIDS.

In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Kramer--now the show's consulting producer--claims ABC's decision is "based on cowardice, cruelty and co-option of the religious right's agenda."

The one-hour episode--which Kramer cowrote with a real-life Jesuit priest, Father Bill Cain--was originally supposed to air right after the pilot.

"They [ABC] asked us to hold it," Kramer says. "We agreed. They asked us to hold it two more times, and we agreed again. And then, when we asked when it would air, we were told there were no plans to air it at the present time."

Adds Kramer, "It's scary to think that a small right-wing fringe group can cause an entertainment giant like ABC to co-opt its thinking and pre-censor a piece of work in order to prevent a couple of angry letters."

Well, "a couple" may be understating the controversy, given that the Catholic League claims 360,000 members, and high-profile advertisers such as Isuzu Motors and Weight Watchers International have been driven away.

Speculation in the industry, however, is that the network (not to mention its oft-boycotted corporate parent, Disney) is skittish about generating any more controversy for a program that has endured so much in its first season.

In any event, the official response from tight-lipped ABC continues to be "the episode is not yet scheduled to air" and "we're still very supportive of this series."

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