The Persistence of Prurient Prime Time
by L. Brent Bozell III
A front-page article in the June 6 New York Times claims
that thanks to Monica Lewinsky and Viagra, "the subject of sex and the
language describing sex and sex organs have been nudged a few inches closer to
the conversationally commonplace." Reporter Janny Scott added that such
phenomena as the writings of Masters and Johnson, the gay-rights movement, and
media coverage of Marv Albert's escapades caused previous nudges toward
This analysis is correct as far as it goes, but it largely
neglects perhaps the most important - and impactful
- actor: prime time television.
Here is, essentially, Scott's entire discussion of the
subject: "For many years, the word 'pregnant' was not uttered... Married
couples in sitcoms occupied twin beds, and... writers were prohibited from
using the word 'penis' on the air. All that has changed." Has it ever.
Granted, movies and music aren't exactly repositories of virtue, either, but
it's appropriate, even imperative, to single out the misdeeds of television.
It is the most pervasive and influential medium - and it is broadcast right
into the family room.
Since at least the early 1970s, prime time has dealt with
sex more and more permissively, condoning (some would say promoting)
promiscuity and rarely dealing with its consequences. This wasn't a Sonic Boom
change. Rather, it's been a steady drip-drip-drip, with thousands upon
thousands of hours of programming on the networks and in syndication over more
than a quarter-century eroding moral standards, especially among the young.
There are several ways to illustrate the extent of the
problem, one being to look at raw numbers. In May 1997, the Parents Television
Council analyzed the content of shows in the first hour of prime time - 8 to 9
p.m. Eastern and Pacific - and determined that in that time slot, references
to pre- and extramarital sexual intercourse outnumbered references to marital
sex by a 3.6-to-1 ratio.
Or just turn on the tube any evening, not to the Playboy
Channel but to the standard fare on the nets. A lengthy-but-not-complete
rundown of the most sex-obsessed series from this past season - all of which
are returning in the fall-would include ABC's "Spin City,"
"Dharma and Greg," and "The Drew Carey Show"; CBS's
"The Nanny"; Fox's "Melrose Place," "Beverly Hills,
90210," and "Ally McBeal"; NBC's "Friends," "NewsRadio,"
and "Just Shoot Me." When you add to that list offerings on the
mini-webs UPN and WB, such as the latter's "Dawson's Creek," and
now-defunct shows like CBS's "Cybill" and "The Closer"
(and, of course, NBC's "Seinfeld"), the days of nonexistent
small-screen smut are over. Worse, this is now the standard for prime time.
You can't fully understand the situation, however, without
closely examining some of this trash. Take a series you may not have heard of:
the Fox comedy "Getting Personal," which debuted early in April. It
centers on three young adults (two men, Milo and Sam, and one woman, Robyn)
working at a commercial production company in Chicago. In seven episodes, I
counted sixty-one references to sex; illicit and immoral sex complete with the
perfunctory canned laugh tracks. That's an average of almost nine per episode.
Incidentally, the show aired Mondays at 8:30 Eastern, in what used to be the
family hour -- not that such a concept has ever mattered to Fox, and not that
it matters much anymore at the other networks.
The sexual content on "Getting Personal" is so
low-quality-so asinine, so juvenile, that you're embarrassed to watch it
even if you're alone. In one episode, Milo is slow-dancing with a woman who
believes he's gay. Within a few seconds, she asks, "What is...
that?" Milo tells her "that" is a pack of Certs, to which she
soon replies, "Those Certs just turned into a can of Pringles."
Then there's the scene in which Robyn's ex-boyfriend stops
by the office to drop off her... diaphragm. Robyn, who's in the middle of a
staff meeting, takes the device, puts it on the coffee table, and puts some
papers on top of it. Milo comments, "We all still know it's there,"
to which Sam adds, "And we all still know where it's been." (I sure
hope the laughter that followed that "joke" was canned, because if
there really was a studio audience that found that funny, I don't want to know
Those who have observed the ongoing decline of broadcast
television won't be surprised to learn that Fox has renewed "Getting
Personal," which will air Fridays at 8:30. (Yep, still in the
"family hour.") And the clueless executives who deemed this heaping
pile of garbage worthy of a time slot continue to wonder where their viewers
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