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 greater explicitness.
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 about it.
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 have gone.