"We were concerned about how far free TV was going to go with the explicitness, profanity and graphic violence," Wildmon says. "I think we made our point at the time. Obviously, the show went on and was successful."

Asked about the AFA's unintended assist in promoting the series, Wildmon says, "What do you do? No, that's who we were. That is an argument that can always be made."

"Blue" premiered on Sept. 22, 1993, to huge ratings despite the distribution handicap. And while the program continued to experience an advertising shortfall (Harbert says ABC couldn't fully monetize it until well into the second season), Bochco felt he was out of the woods when the audience returned for the second week.

"That's just TV 101," he says. "No one is going to cancel us with a 35 share."

Not that the controversy surrounding "NYPD Blue" ended there. Indeed, the series lived well beyond its network life -- and continued to help define content parameters -- when the Federal Communications Commission fined ABC for a sequence in which a child encountered a nude Charlotte Ross (the writers' homage to a scene in the Oscar-winning "Kramer vs. Kramer"). After a protracted legal battle -- the decision was handed down just last year -- the U.S. Supreme Court decided the matter in the network's favor.

Still, the assumption that "Blue's" success would fling open network TV's musty old doors and lead to a wave of body-flaunting copycats never materialized.

Howard Rosenberg, the former Los Angeles Times TV critic and now a lecturer at USC, recalls finding the sex scenes gratuitous at first, before gradually coming around to greatly admire the series. Yet in terms of a wider impact, he says, "Broadcast TV has changed only around the edges in terms of candid material since the advent of 'NYPD Blue.' Some language, some suggestiveness, and that's about it."

For his part, Milch in the intervening years has stuck primarily to HBO, producing "Deadwood" and other series where curbing language isn't a concern. "The conventions of broadcast television are fear-based, masquerading as what the public wants," he says.

Harbert calls his experience with "NYPD Blue" "probably the most fascinating chapter of my TV life," conceding that he's still surprised when advertisers blithely accept language on cable networks like USA that they resist when it's featured in programs on corporate sibling NBC.

"People are more than willing to watch edgy product," Harbert says, "and the republic still stands. It was such a fantastic lesson, but we still have to learn it over and over again."

Most Wanted

"NYPD Blue's" top 5 rated episodes all came during the show's sophomore year in 1994-95. Jimmy Smits replaced David Caruso as co-star opposite Dennis Franz early in the season after Caruso famously balked at continuing on the show in order to pursue a movie career:

28.8m
"Dead and Gone" (Nov. 1, 1994)
Kelly (David Caruso) investigates the shooting death of an 18-month-old baby.

27.3m
"You Bet Your Life" (Dec. 6, 1994)
Sipowicz (Dennis Franz) is shaken when a close friend is beaten by the friend's mentally disabled son.

26.4m
"Double Abandando" (Nov. 29, 1994)