Fox's

24

will become less torturous, but not because the U.S. military, human rights groups and children's advocates want it to.

So says Howard Gordon, an executive producer of the hit thriller starring Emmy winner Kiefer Sutherland as secret antiterrorist operative Jack Bauer, whose interrogation tactics make oatmeal of the Geneva Conventions.

Our hero routinely shoots, suffocates, drugs and/or electrocutes suspects. One of them, his treacherous brother, Graem, died in last week's episode. (Their evil father, played by James Cromwell, actually did the deed, although Jack is convinced that he was responsible.)

The decision to cut back on torture is driven by creativity, not criticism, according to Gordon. In its sixth season, 24 has become so torture-heavy that it borders on cliche, he says.

"What was once an extraordinary or exceptional moment is starting to feel a little trite. The idea of physical coercion or torture is no longer a novelty or surprise.

"It's not something that we, as writers, want to use as a crutch. We'd like to find other ways for Jack to get information out of suspects," says Gordon. "Our appetite has decreased. Personally, I think the audience may be tiring of it as well. My wife says it's too much."

The final eight to 10 episodes this season will include fewer torture scenes, Gordon says, adding that 16 of the 24 ordered segments have been shot.

The decision to tone down 24 "is all to the good, but in my view they could have cut back significantly the past few seasons," says Melissa Caldwell, senior director of programs at Parents Television Council. "It's almost too little, too late."

Gordon says he's not oblivious to issues raised by various groups, among them, PTC, the U.S. military and human rights groups.

In November, he met in L.A. with Brig. Gen. Patrick Finnegan, dean of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, retired military interrogators and Human Rights First representatives. (They also met with producers of ABC's Lost.)

In the aftermath of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, some worry that Bauer's unethical techniques may influence young, real-life American interrogators in Iraq.

"We're not nearly as naive as some people think we are," says Gordon. "Once upon a time, we looked at torture in a kind of antiseptic way, not in a broad political context. It's become politicized because of very real stories and events."

That said, Gordon is skeptical of the show's power over U.S. troops.

"The thesis that we are affecting our soldiers in Iraq in their treatment of prisoners is being exaggerated, I think. Hopefully, there are a lot of filters between their watching 24 and their work in the field."

But it is undeniable that depictions of torture in prime time have increased dramatically in the post-9/11 world.

From 1996 to '01, there were 102 scenes, according to PTC, which maintains a database of programs.

From '02 to '05, the figure jumped to 624, the group says. The primary offender is 24, with 67 scenes in its first five seasons.

For the study, the group defined torture as "the act of inflicting excruciating pain as punishment or revenge, or as means of getting a confession or information, or for sheer cruelty," says PTC's Caldwell.

Also, the identity of the torturer during this period is more likely to be an American hero than a bad guy, PTC contends. In Caldwell's view, that's even more alarming because "it makes the behavior seem more acceptable."

Gordon says he's open to working with outside groups, "but my bottom line is that this is a TV show and that's reality. I'm optimistic that most people are able to distinguish between the two."

That means producers trump protesters.

"We're not going to be handcuffed or hamstrung," Gordon says. "While being sensitive, we have a story to tell. We intend to tell it, however we need to."

News views. In an upset, Charlie Gibson's ABC World News Tonight beat Brian Williams' NBC Nightly News in last week's Nielsen race.

World News averaged 9.7 million total viewers - its largest audience since the week of Feb. 28, 2005. It was up 6 percent compared to the same week a year ago. Nightly had 9.5 million viewers, a 3 percent drop.

Katie Couric's CBS Evening News notched 8.0 million, its best showing since Couric premiered the week of Sept. 4. All those promos during CBS's telecast of the Super Bowl didn't hurt.

BBC-Bound. Former NBC, Fox and WB entertainment czar Garth Ancier has joined BBC Worldwide Americas as president of U.S. operations - a new title.

Relocating from L.A. to New York, Ancier will oversee all BBC's ventures in the Colonies. The portfolio includes BBC America, which reaches 53 million homes; and BBC Worldwide Productions, the studio behind such shows as Dancing With the Stars.

Ancier, a Princeton grad, helped found the WB before being named president of NBC Entertainment in '99. After a stint at CNN, he was WB's chairman until it merged with UPN last September.

Contact TV columnist Gail Shister at 215-854-2224 or gshister@phillynews.com. Read her recent work at http://gho.philly.com/gailshister

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