Prime time starts talking dirty -- ''Felicity'' and ''Ally McBeal'' are some of the shows following in the footsteps of ''NYPD Blue''

By Shawna Malcom
Updated April 02, 1999 at 05:00 AM EST

What the @%&#! is going on? Network TV, a medium supposedly governed by family-friendly standards, is getting as foulmouthed as a Teamsters’ meeting. We can understand NYPD Blue‘s gritty street patois requiring words such as asshole and tits. But then there’s Felicity, in which a character recently called his father a dick. And The Practice, in which a female judge recounted giving ”the best fellatio known to man.” Not to mention Ally McBeal: On the Feb. 22 episode, Ally complained that ex-boyfriend Billy ”wants to be able to have his cake and not eat me.”

Further blurring the thin blue line: Fox just announced its purchase of Action, a comedy — about a dissolute movie producer — originally intended for HBO and peppered with what George Carlin once called ”the seven dirty words.” Chris Thompson, Action‘s exec producer, says the dialogue will be toned down, but not completely tamed: ”There are times when only ‘f— you’ will do.” (Fox plans to bleep out the obscenity.)

So why all the potty mouths? Analyst Steve Sternberg of TN Media points to an overall lowering of the bar: ”Newscasters reporting on Clinton-Lewinsky used language that would have been unheard of five years ago.” Also, Sternberg says, the networks feel ”that they need to compete with cable.”

Critics say the networks are playing foul. ”Most of the offenders are just trying to get extra ratings by shocking viewers,” says comedian Steve Allen, who does work for the Parents Television Council, a viewers’ advocacy group. ”I don’t want my 7-year-old grandchild watching shows in which people say, ‘She’s got a nice ass.’ It’s a matter of taste and decency.”

But the networks say times are a-changin’. ”TV is following the trend of what’s acceptable in the culture,” says Roland McFarland, Fox’s VP of standards and practices, who adds that no one has complained about Ally‘s language to the network. ”Look at [the R-rated] Something About Mary. Even that’s considered family fare,” says McFarland. ”So a few damns and asses on TV? Audiences hardly blink.”

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