Almost every year, television's fall schedule boasts at least one program that generates a great deal of talk - "buzz," as they say in Hollywood - before it premieres. Usually, shows attain buzz status by featuring some sort of envelope-pushing material. Take, for example, 1993's "NYPD Blue," with its much-ballyhooed breakthroughs in dorsal nudity and gutter language.
The current buzz series is Fox's "Action," and apparently justifiably so. Press reports have indicated that this sitcom, set in the movie industry, features all manner of objectionable content, including a protagonist who "utters bleeped-out profanities at will," a call girl as a major character, and a homosexual studio executive who "surrounds himself with gay studs." Oh, and he features a remarkably large penis, too.
As is to be expected, the ultrahip showbiz set is eating this up. "I loved ['Action'], but some advertisers are going to have a problem with it," prominent media buyer Paul Schulman told TV Guide. "It reminds me of when ABC launched 'NYPD Blue'...You wanted to say to the network, 'Can I [sponsor] it three years down the line, when the controversy dies down?' 'Action' is the only network show that looks like it should be on HBO" - the pay-cable network that, in fact, developed the "Action" pilot episode but went no further for financial reasons.
As you probably know, HBO has made a good part of its name with series like "The Larry Sanders Show," "Dream On," and "The Sopranos" that contain the foulest of foul language, and/or frontal nudity, and/or graphic violence. Although (presumably) there'll be no audible f-words or bare breasts on "Action," the program's co-executive producer, Chris Thompson, says Fox "pretty much let us do the show we set out to do for HBO." And no kidding: Who doesn't know that the bleeped-out f-word wasn't the f-word, anyway?
TV Guide states that Fox entertainment boss Doug Herzog, who, while at Comedy Central, brought the obnoxious "South Park" to that cable network, "was looking to push the content envelope" when he joined Fox a few months ago. So he green-lighted "Action." Some Fox executives, fearing controversy, didn't want the series on the fall schedule, but Herzog prevailed: "I said, 'Guys, this is why we're in the business. If this works, we've moved the ball forward.'"
Herzog's football metaphor sums up the modern prime time mentality: increased raunch equals progress. It would be hard to exaggerate the extent to which this mindset is alien to the way the true greats of television approached their business. It wasn't how Lucille Ball, or Steve Allen, or Dick Van Dyke entertained America. It certainly isn't the philosophy on which Bill Cosby has built his spectacular career.
But it is how most of Hollywood thinks. A recent Entertainment Weekly article said that after "There's Something About Mary" struck box-office gold, "it was like a permission slip for moviemakers everywhere to share their sickest, smelliest, suckiest toilet humor with the rest of the class." To illustrate that point, the author cites "Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me," wherein the title character "sips a diarrhea daiquiri" and has "gerbils appear to pop out of his butt."
Fortunately, there's no guarantee that "shock television" has any staying power. After its relentlessly hyped first year, ratings for "South Park" have dropped by almost two-thirds. Howard Stern has lost 67 percent of the audience for his syndicated TV show since it began last August. According to the New York Post, back then 79 stations carried Stern's show; now only 55 do. Indeed, sex-crazed prime time has been in an ever-worsening ratings slump for several years.
"Action" will go the way of ABC's "Ellen," another cause celebre for Hollywood's envelope-pushers, with a huge publicity budget to generate voyeuristic interest - but with no staying power once the shock has worn off. But that's OK for the envelope-pushers: Another wall of traditional decency will have come tumbling down.
What "Action" - and Fox - deserve is public humiliation. More to the point: the show's sponsors, whose funding makes this garbage possible, should be held accountable. Let's see who sponsors "Action" and we'll know who is responsible, directly responsible, for the sewage being thrust on America's families.