Prime Time's Obsession: The Smut of It
by L. Brent Bozell III
There's little doubt that America is growing more
conservative on sexual matters. The Christian Coalition is arguably the most
powerful grassroots organization in America. Promise Keepers packs arenas and
stadiums coast to coast with its message of abstinence and fidelity. Millions
flock to hear Pope John Paul II every time he visits the States.
There is also another America. In this land, the institution
of marriage is mocked, belittled, scorned. Unmarried people routinely sleep
together, having premarital, extramarital, homosexual sex -- it makes no
difference. And when they're not having sex, they're doing what? Analyzing
their performance, planning the next one. This is the fantasy America of prime
time television, created by an industry that purports only to reflect reality.
Sex on prime time is nothing new, to be sure. But in recent
years, the topic has come to dominate storylines on virtually every network at
all hours of the night. No barrier, no tradition is safe; like an unquenchable
thirst, Hollywood cannot stop pushing the envelope of permissiveness. Thus we
are to the point where we find the ongoing promotion of homosexuality by NBC's
"Friends," ABC's "Roseanne," and other series. Peruse the
Media Research Center's new "1996-'97 Family Guide to Prime Time
Television," which scrutinizes programming in terms of its suitability
for family audiences, and you quickly discern the trend.
Look first at raw numbers. The guide covers 92 entertainment
shows (sitcoms and dramas) on the broadcast networks and illustrates the
degree to which sex now dominates the airwaves. Fifty-two shows -- 57 percent
-- openly promote, as a major theme, sexual permissiveness. It's usually
premarital sex, but sometimes adultery or homosexuality is thrown in for good
The networks vary in their treatment of sex. Of the
full-time webs, Fox is the raciest, with nine of its 11 entertainment shows --
82 percent -- containing inappropriate sexual content. The leading offenders:
"Melrose Place," "Beverly Hills, 90210," and
Just behind Fox on a percentage basis, but way ahead in raw
numbers, is NBC. Its Must See TV is a font of promiscuity: 17 of the network's
22 series, including "Seinfeld" and "3rd Rock from the
Sun," constantly delve into the vulgar to trigger the canned-laughter
Third comes ABC, with 11 out of 20 shows (55 percent),
followed by CBS, with only seven of 18 (39 percent). The figures are
unsurprising in that these are the more family-oriented networks. Both ABC and
CBS boast hits, such as the former's "Home Improvement" and the
latter's "Touched By an Angel," which simply refuse to indulge in
tawdriness -- to the delight of millions of parents shocked by what everyone
else seems to be pushing on their children.
No, this doesn't automatically make either network a safe
haven for children. Four of ABC's fall premieres, including "Spin
City" and "Relativity," make the sex-obsessive list. No new CBS
show covered in the guide is offensive, but some of the network's entries that
debuted too late to be included, such as the raunchy "Public
Morals," certainly would qualify.
Finally, the part-time networks: four of nine series (44
percent) on UPN and four of twelve (33 percent) on WB cross the line. No
surprises in either case. WB's percentage is consistent with its pledge to
serve the family audience; it is the only network offering across-the-board
family programming during the 8 p.m. so-called family hour.
Reading the guide's entries is at once enlightening and
depressing. Right away, one encounters phrases like "characters are
unconcerned about the physical and ethical ramifications of premarital and
extramarital sex" (NBC's "Boston Common") and "a
lascivious lifestyle [is] touted as acceptable" (ABC's "The Drew
Carey Show"). Almost every page contains similar descriptions. The young
adults on "Friends" and "Melrose Place" frolic from one
sexual escapade to another, and the result is nothing more serious than a
one-liner. Meanwhile, back in the real world, 1.5 million unwed teenagers
become pregnant every year.
Some shows straddle the fence. ABC's new drama
"Dangerous Minds," set at an inner-city high school, depicts the
consequences of teen sex -- there are plenty of unwed mothers in the student
body -- but also asserts that abstinence is unrealistic and, presumably for
that reason, promotes condom use. To suggest that half a loaf is better than
none speaks volumes about the state of television today.
Not long ago a colleague showed me a television schedule
from the fall of 1971. What a very different era it was just twenty-five years
ago: "My Three Sons," "Here's Lucy," "The FBI,"
"Bonanza." All were smash hits; none needed raunchy graphics, humor,
or storylines to attract an audience. To see what passes for entertainment on
prime time television today is to wonder how we allowed this cultural meltdown
to occur before our very eyes.
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