SEX and TV
Chrissy is a busty, born-innocent blonde who has erotic dreams about unicorns, chocolate-chip cookies and appearing at a dance wearing blue shoes. So? "Just blue shoes," she giggles.
Chrissy shares a Santa Monica apartment with Janet, who is noticeably less pneumatic and not at all happy about it. Janet contemplates cosmetic surgery, but abandons the idea after being told she's "making mountains out of molehills." Chrissy and Janet also room with Jack, who must pretend he is a homosexual so that Mr. Roper, their uptight, downstairs landlord, will allow the three to split the rent. When a female visitor admiringly refers to Jack as "a man's man, " Roper disgustedly replies. "l know what you mean" The landlord's sex starved wife, meanwhile needles her husband about his lack of virility. "There goes that banging against he sighs, glaring up at the ceiling. "Oh, c'mon," leers Mrs. Roper. "A little of that never hurt anybody."
Chrissy, Janet, Jack and the Ropers all live in the libidinous little world of ABC-TV's "Three's Company," a confection of one-liners and double-entendres about a menage à trois. Five years ago, so sex obsessed a series would have had about as much chance of becoming a prime-time hit in the U.S. as a Russ Meyer adaptation of the Kama Sutra. yet almost from the moment it first tittered through the tube last spring, "Three's Company'' has become a fixture in Nielsen's Top Five.
By all appearances, the sexual revolution has finally seeped through the looking glass. And while the result is a far cry from ''Deep Throat" or even "Network," a whole lot of viewers are mad as helland vowing they're not going to take it any more. The most widespread suspicion is that prime time's new blue hue is a carefully calculated replacement for the old blood-red one. Now that all the pressure groups have toned down video violence, the theory goes, the networks are turning to risqué material as the next best lure for the viewers. Concedes CBS-TV censor Donn O'Brien: "With the mix of programing today, sexuality has taken the place of violence."
When compared with what's available on movie screens stages and newsstands, American video-sex stacks up as pretty tame stuff But prime-time entertainment is at least mentioning the heretofore unmentionable. Just this season Edith Bunker survived a rape attempt- and discovered her deceased spinster cousin was a lesbian "Baretta" explored male prostitution, while "Police Woman" exposed a white-slave ring specializing in teen-agers. NBC-TV dealt with an incest fantasy, the seduction of a gigolo by a l5 year-old girl and nymphomania and female frigidity.
Still, today's sex remains almost exclusively verbal rather than visual. Nudity and explicit portrayals of sexual acts are still taboo. Frank Price, president of Universal Television, contends that "the sexual breakthrough in TV has probably taken us to where the movies were in 1935." The problem is that television, as the Federal Communications Commission recently described it, is a medium with "uniquely intrusive qualities." Mike Shapiro, overseer of ABC's Dallas affiliate, puts it more plainly. "If you go out to the theater for sexual rnaterial, that's one thing," says Shapiro. "But if you bring it into the home unannounced, that's totally different. I listen to my viewers' bitches. All I've gotten since September is 'too much sex'."
Complaints to the FCC about obscenity, indecency and profanity on the airwaves have leaped from 6,143 to 20,146 in just one year. In a recent survey by the Doyle Dane Bernbach advertising agency, 54 per cent of the 400 adults polled voiced general dissatisfaction with TVs handling of sex-related themes.
The complaints may be reminiscent of the public protests against TV violence, but there is a major difference between the two issues. Hardly anyone seemed to be willing to make a ease for more video mayhem. And there was sufficient evidence pointing to the damaging effects of televised violence on adolescent psyches to bolster the case for reform. But, at least so far, there is almost no available evidence as to just how much influence vidsex may have on children or, for that matter, on adults.
In the front lines of the assault are religious groups, which are fighting from a moral position; gay activists, who object to TV's swishy stereotypes, and parents who don't want to entrust their children's sex education to a commercial medium ruled by ratings. The industry's own position- that TV is hardly sexually permissive- is equally valid. Yet as a medium licensed to operate on the public airwaves, and one that is as much a part of the American family as the living-room furniture, television must learn to live with all manner of public pressure.
The angriest and most sustained protest comes from religious groups. The Southern Baptist Convention, America s largest Protestant denomination, has mailed "Help for Television Viewers" packets to more than 50,000 pastors and lay leaders. Included in the kits are suggested criteria for judging a TV show, survey forms so vievers can log instances of immoral programing, and postcards pre-addressed to the three networks. During the past year, a coalition of Lutheran, Methodist and Church of the Brethren activists has conducted a series of highly sophisticated, anti-vidsex workshops throughout the nation.
Last month, the National Religious Broadcasters, which includes the operators of 24 religious TV stations, launched an equally ambitious mail-and-phone campaign to sanitize television. As part of the NRB's blitz,"
Christians of every denomination will be exhorted to contact local stations and corporate sponsors involved in programs they deem objectionable. "It is not that we're against sex," explains NRB spokesman Carl Richardson. "What we are concerned about is gratuitous, excessive and perverted sexuality being depicted on the screen. I don't think homosexuality and impotency are matters to joke about."
In response, network officials contend that while any citizen or group has the right to criticize their product, such protest becomes repressive when it threatens the viewing rights of others. Says ABC-TV president Fred Pierce: "The issue is whether special-interest groups should usurp the program judgments of broadcasters, advertisers and the creative production community." Others maintain that the robust ratings of the more risqué programs indicate that they are in tune with society's newly liberated tastes. "The viewers speak with forked tongue," claims A.R. Van Cantfort, program manager of NBC s Atlanta affiliate. "They say, 'Gosh, there's too much flesh shown on Charlie's Angels.' Then they go home, kick off their shoes, turn on the set and ogle those three broads on what is probably the poorest-written show on television.
If ABC is doing kiddie porn, NBC will give the audience adult porn.
An NBC program executive
By common industry consensus, ABC owns the trophy for titillationbut NBC is beginning to breathe hard on its neck. The programing tactic employed by the No. 1network to lure its teenage following is known in the trade as "jiggly." The writers of "Charlies Angels, for instance, use any pretext to get the buxom trio into wet T shirts and whatever run-and-jump situation best displays their unfettered charms. The queen of jiggly, however, is in Threes Company." In 29-year-old Suzanne Somers, who plays Chrissy, ABC has produced TV's most dazzling body. Somers is currently doing for the towelnot to mention shorty pajamas and lingeriewhat Lana Turner once did for the sweater. The actress is not exactly offended about finding herself in dishabille each week. I enjoy it, Somers says with a chuckle. "if you've got it, bump it with a trumpet."
Over at NBC, meanwhile, the head of programing Paul Klein reports that the network has decided to concentrate its courtship on women between the ages of 18 and 49 (a highly prized target for advertisers).
"Sex themes attract more female to viewers than male ones," claims Klein. Klein also thinks that "even jiggly shows attract women more than men."
Network censors have always applied different standards to different time periods. In the daytime, when the kids presumably are in school, the soap folk are allowed to come and go, talking of diaphragms, mastectomies and all manner of amatory aberrations. After 11 p.m., shows like "Saturday Night Live" can get away with spoofing everything from sex change operations to circumcision. But in prime time, the censors are caught between the networks' apparent decision both to heat things up and to cool the resultant protest. As a result, there is no coherent standard, and the censors' prime-time rulingsat least as the writers and producers see itare becoming curiouser and curiouser.
In one episode of Three's Company, the producers had Janet quip: "I did my best . . . I put the toilet seat up." Later, she was supposed to say, ' I put the toilet seat down." ABC's standards department permitted the first line and, inexplicably, deleted the second. NBC censor Herminio Traviesas OK'd "79 Park Avenue," a miniseries about a call girl (played by Lesley Ann Warren) that plumbed new depths of sleaze-tease. But the same sensibility recoils in horror from any open-mouth kisses. "We cut one where they showed the tongue protruding," reports Traviesas. "It was disgusting." CBS's "On Our Own" is permitted to milk guffaws from premarital sex, but a brief, above-the-waist flash of bare female backs was ordered axed. "There's no sense to any of it," grumbles Sam Denoff, the show's producer. Under the prodding of station operators bent on curtailing vidsex, the National Association of Broadcasters recently ruled that "subscribers shall not broadcast any material which they determine to be obscene, profane or indecent." The Cateh-22, in addition to broadcasters sitting as their own judges, is that code observance is purely voluntary. Says an NAB spokesman: "There is no authority that can enforce them."
We will not subsidize sexual exploitation. We will not subsidize the vulgarization of life. We will not pay for moral pollution.
Harry N. Hollis Jr., Southern Baptist Christian Life Commission
Hollis and virtually every other anti-vidsex Crusader insist that it is not the topic per se that is at issue but how it is handled. As part of the Television Awareness Training workshops, for example, a film montage of tasteful prime-time treatments of sex is shown to point up the positive side. Included is a discussion of temporary impotency on "M*A*S*H"triggered by Hawkeye's battle fatiguethat was 99 and 44/100 per cent free of the usual macho bravado. Similarly, an installment of ABC's "Family" dealing with a lesbian schoolteacher achieved a poignant evocation of the many manifestations of love. And Edith Bunker's rape trauma was so sensitively rendered that the episode is being screenedand applaudedat rape-prevention centers around the U.S.
What Churns up the protesters moral juices is the fact that Tag tends to glorify sexual activity without impressing on viewers, particularly adolescents, the responsibilities that go along with it. "There are nearly 1 million unwanted pregnancies a year among teen-agers in this country," notes the Rev. William Fore of the national Council of Churches. "The problem of sex on TV is that it doesn't deal with the Consequences . '
That may depend on how one defines "consequences." Consider the recent imbroglio over "James at 15," NBC's bittersweet study of adolescent growing pains. NBC's Paul Klein had asked for an episode in which the series teen-age protagonist would lose his virginity on his sixteenth birthday. The treatment. however, failed to meet a key NBC criterion: that the Couple must be made to face the possible Consequences of their act by having the girl falsely Suspect that she was pregnant. That was how the episode was rewritten, and televised, under a new title "James at 16."
Pressure groups have learned just where the television industry's Achilles' heel liesthat is with the people who foot the bill. Accordingly, the major thrust of their protest is now being directed at the advertisers rather than the networks. Perhaps the most relentless sponsor-baiter is the National Federation for decency- a 5, 000-rnember watchdog group founded by a United Methodist minister narned Donald Wildmon. Recently, Wildmon's organization disseminated the results of a fifteen-week monitoring study of "the top sponsors of sex" (American Home Products Corp., Ford Motor co. and Sears, Roebuck and co. were cited as the worst offenders). "Networks and sponsors have the right to put out any kind of programs they want," says Wildmon. "But we have an equal right to say we're not going to buy your products. "
As some programmers see it, the issue is not that simple. Organized boycotts, in their view, are an infringement of their First Amendment rights. Fred Silverman has compared the boycott efforts to the blacklisting campaign that terrorized the industry during the '50s.
But that position is not shared by many affiliate-station managers, who decide whether what the network sends down the line should be edited to Conform to their audience's sensibilities. Boycotts are as American as apple pie," declares Stephen Kimatian, a Group W executive at the ARC Baltimore affiliate. "There's no fairer way in a democracy to assert your rights than through economic leverage. All that seems clear is that citizen lobbyists are having an increasing effect on TV's sexual gyroscopeand none more so than the nation's homosexual activists.
Q Will Jodie go straight on "Soap"? I'm a rnember of the gay liberation movement and I think his going straight is a false rip-off.T.S.
A. I n the current story line, Jodie is getting involved with a nymphomaniacal nurse, but that doesn't mean he's gone straight. Time will tell.
TV Mailbag column, New York Post
Homosexuality finally came out of the prime-time closet about five years ago. In those days, however, gays were almost invariably portrayed as sick. In 1974, Marcus Welby confronted a homosexual child molester, "Police Woman" tracked down some lesbian murderers and the NBC movie "Born Innocent" featured a scene of lesbian rape in a girls reformatory. "That year we went from total TV invisibility to total TV abuse," recalls Ginny Vida, media director of the National Gay Task Force. Television's overlords have hardly declared a moratorium on limp-wristed portrayals of homosexuals, arguing that many do seem to act that way. Even so, gay liberationists have achieved a transformation of their video image. On a recent episode of Maude," a
conservative neighbor came in for a fusillade of ridicule when he launched a campaign to close a local gay bar. And NBC's Alexander: The Other Side of Dawn, a made-for-TV movie about male hustling offered a sympathetic portrayal of impoverished young runaways who sell their bodies to survive.
Groups like Vidas are now regularly consulted by producers planning to deal with homosexual story lines. The Gay Media Task Force is now concentrating on three objectives: more TV depictions of lesbians; more portrayals of homosexuals as Jewish, Hispanic and black instead of pure Wasp; and series in which homosexual characters are given positive roles as, say, lawyers or even athletes.
Whether the heterosexual audience would sit still for all that is anything but certain. In the survey by Doyle Dane Bernbach, 67 per cent of the viewers held that any homosexual theme was unsuitable for entertainment programing. And singer Anita Bryant announced that she was forming a watchdog committee to identify and monitor TV shows that present gay life-styles as "natural and normal." Whatever comes of that, the homosexual backlash appears as determined as its black counterpart of a decade ago. "We don't expect us all to be portrayed as Bill Cosbys and Diahann Carrolls," said Gay Media Task Force coordinator Newton Deiter, "All we want to see on TV is a rounding out of gay characters. On that count we're about halfway home."
Obviously, the networks will never be able to please everyone on so volatile a subjectnor should they try. Their fundamental concern, and one shared by all the communications media, is to attract the largest audience possible. This requires shrewd advance analysis of imminent market trends.
If the public appetite sterns to call for a sexier TV diet, it is in the broadcasters' valid interest to provide it. At the sane time, it smacks of hypocrisy for the networks to wave the First Amendment as soon as public ire over vidsex scares off sponsors. Networks, like editors, must have the courage of their convictions, observes Richard Pinkham, vice chairman of the Ted Bates advertising agency.
For their part, the forces for cleaner airwaves do not always seem to recognize that, when compared with some of its European counterparts, American TV seems fairly conservative. Stations in Italy are allowed to present hard-core porn flicks, strip-tease exhibitions and even a demonstration of lovemaking positions. A scene in the British production of "I Claudius," which stirred almost no protest there, showed the mad emperor Caligula stabbing his pregnant sister, plucking the fetus from her womb and eagerly devouring it. Needless to say, this sequence was expurgated from the American public-TV version, although a bare-breasted dance scene was left in.
Perhaps what is most needed is a more effective early warning system to alert parent to blue-tinged fare. Some want the present wording of network advisories to be made considerably more descriptive. Instead of the standard "Network advises viewer discretion," such warnings might go so far as to caution: "This program contains references to rape, impotency, incest, etc. Of course, such very explicit alarms could conceivably stir up as much viewer protest as the shows they refer to. Other proposed alternatives include a Parental Guidance ratings system similar to the one used in the movie industry and an electronic signal that would flash or buzz at the opening of potentially objectionable programs. In France, for example, a small white box appears on the screen to announce such shows.
As for the "proper" depiction of vidsex, the problem inevitably comes down to one of attitude rather than latitude. Only incurable prudes would insist that a medium purporting to portray the human condition should draw a curtain over so integral a part of human activity. What is disturbing, however, is that so much of the sex on television seems designed to pander to prurience in the most cheaply exploitative manner. With snigger and smirk, the new batch of sitcoms and mini-series flaunt their boldness like prepubescents mouthing dirty words around the schoolyard.
In one of the funnier episodes of "James at 15," James's younger sistera delightfully precocious tomboy named Sandyreported that she had finally decided what to write about for a class composition assignment. Her topic Sandy enthusiastically announced, would be "preteen-age Love . . . and how to stamp it out to save energy for sports." Not even the most hard-line pressure group is trying to stamp out sex on the tube. But more and more viewers, from all points on the geo-cultural compass, are raising a legitimate question. When television speaks of sex to the real-life Sandys, is it unreasonable to expect it to sound reasonably grown up?
HARRY F. WATERS with MARTIN KASINDORF in Los Angeles, BETSY CARTER in New York and bureau reports.
Newsweek, February 27, 1978