Sex on TV -- From ABC's ''Going to Extremes'' to CBS' ''Northern Exposure,'' networks are pushing the skin envelope

By Benjamin Svetkey
Updated October 23, 1992 at 04:00 AM EDT
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We preempt our regularly scheduled programming to bring you the network-television premiere of Naughty Swedish Teenage Nurses…”

Well, no, of course not — but this fall’s TV season is shaping up as one of the most sexually explicit erver. Exhibit A: The highly publicized Sept. 30 episode of ABC’s Civil Wars, in which series star Mariel Hemingway bared all for the camera (with her arms draped in strategic positions), prompting the network to tack a cautionary — and hype-stirring — advisory onto its opening credits.

Exhibit B: The debut episode of ABC’s new medical drama, Going to Extremes, in which June Chadwick flung aside her filmy robe for a Caribbean skinny-dip. Other prime-time eyebrow-raisers of the season so far: Cynthia Geary gabbing about drooping nipples on CBS’ Northern Exposure, Helen Hunt and Paul Reiser chatting about penises on NBC’s Mad About You, Jay Thomas and Susan Dey fussing about condoms on CBS’ Love and War, and Barbara Walters and Hugh Downs explaining ”How to Have Better Sex” on ABC’s 20/20.

”The networks are drawing the lines differently,” says John Falsey, executive producer, with Joshua Brand, of the groundbreaking dramas Going to Extremes, I’ll Fly Away, and Northern Exposure. ”Years ago you couldn’t show two people in the same bed. Today you can’t show two people in the same bed screwing.” (The public seems to be drawing the lines differently too: An Entertainment Weekly poll shows that today more than 56% of adults would find partial nudity acceptable on post-10 p.m. network shows as long as there’s a viewer warning.)

Nudity and racy language have been slinking onto the airwaves for years, but lately TV’s sex drive has shifted into warp speed. According to a Florida State University study published last fall, a typical network prime-time hour contains an average of 1.58 references to intercourse, 1.17 references to prostitution and rape, 4.68 sexual innuendos, 1.76 kisses, and 0.99 suggestive gestures. On average, the study says, TV characters today talk about sex or display sexual behavior 15 times an hour — or once every four minutes.

You don’t have to be a programming whiz to figure out the reason for those numbers: Sex sells. And in recent years the networks have been losing much of their business to the bolder offerings of their cable rivals, which serve up everything from uncut R-rated feature films to pay-per-view blue movies to their own extra-saucy sex dramas (like Zalman King’s new anthology series, Red Shoe Diaries; Showtime is producing 20 new episodes). In 1982 the three networks had a lock on 83 percent of the viewing audience; now (with Fox added) four networks are splitting 68 percent of the viewers, with cable drawing 25 percent and syndication, 7 percent.

”The networks are finally realizing that they have to take chances in order to compete,” says Kevin Bright, an executive producer of the HBO critical hit Dream On, TV’s sometimes-topless sitcom. ”They’re beginning to realize that they have to broaden their appeal or lose their audience.” Says Northern Exposure‘s Brand: ”If the networks still had a monopoly on the airwaves, then you wouldn’t be seeing any changes.” Abetting this heat wave is the fact that there simply aren’t as many censors on the job anymore. During the budget crunches of 1988, NBC virtually scrapped its standards and practices department and started asking producers of individual shows to police themselves, CBS trimmed its standards division to 30 staffers from a high of 80 a few years earlier, and ABC took similar action. ”It’s made a big difference to us,” says Robert Morton, executive producer of NBC’s Late Night With David Letterman. ”A censor used to sit in our control room and take notes and tell us what we could and couldn’t say. They wouldn’t let us use the word suck, for instance. They wouldn’t let us say ‘screw you’ — although we could say ‘screw it.’ Things have definitely loosened up.”

Things have also loosened up over at the Federal Communications Commission, which has lost much of its power to set and enforce decency standards. A 1988 federal court ruling declawed the commission by restricting its censorship authority to daylight hours, when children might not have parental supervision. ”Our last TV case was in 1987,” says FCC lawyer Roger Holberg, sounding a bit like the lonely Maytag repairman. ”A TV station in Kansas broadcast the movie Private Lessons (a sleazy 1981 sex teaser), but we had to drop the case after the court decision.” Holberg says that as far as the FCC is concerned, the 8 p.m.-to-6 a.m. time slot is now a ”safe harbor” in which broadcasters can do just about whatever they want ”so long as it isn’t legally obscene” — that is, so long as it isn’t so prurient that you could go to jail for it.

That means the main guards at the gates of TV propriety, the last sentinels of network modesty, are the advertisers. A jittery bunch frightened of potential boycotts, ad folk seldom see much joy in TV sex. Last year, for instance, sponsors threatened to turn a cold shoulder to NBC’s Sisters because of a steam-room scene in which the sibs chatted about multiple orgasms (”I had five once!”). NBC snipped the segment from the final cut. The producers of thirtysomething lost footage too: A scene showing Elliot climbing into bed with a dirty magazine was cut from a 1989 episode because of advertiser objections.

But there are winds of change on the advertising frontier as well, and sponsor clout seems to have slipped some this season, especially when pitted against powerful producers with strong track records. Even though Sears and McDonald’s yanked their ads from the show, ABC never asked Steven Bochco (Hill Street Blues, L.A. Law) to tone down Hemingway’s Civil Wars nude scene. ”ABC was totally supportive,” Bochco says. ”They couldn’t have handled it better.”

”We reviewed the (nude) scene and thought it was tastefully done,” explains Christine Hikawa, ABC’s vice president of broadcast standards and practices. ”If we don’t please everybody, sorry. But we’re still being responsible.”

Sears and McDonald’s, of course, were not the only ones who thought Hemingway’s nakedness ”crossed the line” (as a Sears spokesman put it). The segment (no surprise) set off alarms at Reverend Donald Wildmon’s Mississippi-based American Family Association, a conservative watchdog group that has been blacklisting sponsors of titillating TV shows for 15 years. But in contrast to the waves Wildmon used to make (Ford and Sears abandoned Charlie’s Angels and Three’s Company after his boycotts), this time the network and advertisers hardly took note. Research also demonstrates that most TV boycotts are ultimately ineffective: A study by the Network Television Association found that only 2 percent of viewers are even aware of boycotts when they happen. What’s more, it turns out that companies that have been boycott targets — Duracell, Clorox, and Mennen, among others — almost never suffer serious financial damage. More reasons for the networks to be feeling cocky this season.

The fact is, there’s really only one genuinely surprising thing about Hemingway’s Civil Wars episode — it turned out that more viewers that night were interested in watching the fully clothed Country Music Awards on CBS. And of the 13.7 million viewers who did tune in to Civil Wars, few expressed the slightest shock; in fact, a lot of folks were overheard grumbling that there wasn’t enough nudity, and only about 300 were moved to call the network with an opinion one way or another. In other words, TV nudity may actually be growing boring.

Going to Extremes

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