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Foul language. Raunchy sex. Gore galore. On TV?

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James Marsters, Sarah Michelle Gellar, ...

This spring, the networks have been pushing more envelopes than Publishers Clearing House. Consider this tally of tastelessness: NBC’s ”Crossing Jordan” featured a decomposing cadaver, while the season finale of CBS’ ”CSI” had a model’s tweezer-gouged face. When Sarah Michelle Gellar’s Buffy wasn’t in a naked clinch with Spike (James Marsters), her pal Willow (Alyson Hannigan) was skinning and setting fire to a nerdy nemesis on the May 14 ”Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” Network censors even allowed unbleeped expletives like s— (on April 10’s ”48 Hours”) and f— (courtesy of — who else? — Ozzy Osbourne on the May 2 ”Tonight Show”). All of which leaves a few couch potatoes wondering: What the #@%&! is happening to TV?

Chalk it up to good old-fashioned economics. The six major networks averaged a 2 percent drop in viewers in the just-wrapped prime-time season. No wonder they seem willing to fail a taste test if it means garnering a few more Nielsen eyeballs. Especially considering HBO’s ”The Sopranos” can get away with murder — as well as more graphic sex and language.

”Ten years after NYPD Blue showed butts and breasts,” reminds NBC Entertainment prez Jeff Zucker, ”I don’t think [envelope-pushing] is out-of-bounds or over the line.” NBC recently ordered a midseason launch for ”Kingpin,” a ”Traffic”-inspired drug drama whose pilot features a DEA agent’s severed leg being fed to a tiger. While insisting the scene can’t be judged out of context, Zucker notes, ”it will certainly have people talking.”

Though building buzz is often the primary goal, the strategy has its risks. Even on cable. FX learned that lesson with its epithet-heavy cop drama ”The Shield,” which drew a promising 4.8 million viewers at its March debut — and promptly lost several advertisers, including Burger King and Office Depot, due to content. ”We’re going to weather the storm,” predicts FX entertainment head Kevin Reilly, who says some skittish sponsors may place spots in the second season (starting in January). ”Just like ‘NYPD Blue,’ it’s got its place in the world.”

And there’s still a place for shows that don’t have Dennis Franz dropping trou. ABC just announced plans to restore the raunch-free family hour this fall on weeknights at 8 p.m. Eastern time. Though rules have relaxed considerably, most networks still employ standards and practices to screen out material seen as potentially objectionable. ”Buffy” exec producer Marti Noxon says UPN censors have more qualms about Willow’s romance with Tara (Amber Benson) than the show’s campy violence or ravenous (straight) sex scenes — including that racy interlude last winter in which Gellar’s slayer offered oral pleasure to Spike. Laughs Noxon, ”Yeah, that one was pretty dirty.”

Almost as dirty as the reality genre, whose offenders include ABC’s ”The Bachelor” and Fox’s ”Girl Next Door: The Search for a Playboy Centerfold.” ”We push the envelope every day,” says Matt Kunitz, exec producer of NBC’s ”Fear Factor,” which forces players to dine on ”delicacies” like duck fetuses and pig rectums. ”And we can push the boundary a little further.” He’s already touting next season’s top secret ”Fear Factor” weenie roast. ”You can imagine what [it] might be — lots of fun!”

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