Television tests its taboos

Broadcast networks push limits

The new battlefronts in the culture wars:

  • Male characters on TV series cavorting with transvestites.

  • Teens musing about deflowering female classmates.

  • Amorous monkeys joining in on human sex play.

Yes, the fall season has plenty of treats in store for TV viewers.

Networks and series creators regularly test boundaries of what is permissible, and the latest examples of this are found in the 25 primetime series scheduled to premiere this fall. Viewing those pilots underscores how subtly the bar this year is being raised (or lowered) in the effort to surprise and titillate viewers in ways that can confound the schemes of federal regulators, pandering legislators, watchdogs and occasionally the networks themselves.

The content in some fall shows will undoubtedly fuel those who claim TV is creating a decline in moral values — fretting that will surely grow louder the closer we get to the 2008 election.

The saucy shows will also be used as further evidence that TV is undermining “family values” by such groups as the Parents Television Council, which fumed recently when an appeals court overturned a Federal Communications Commission indecency ruling. The council lamented that the decision “cleared the way for television networks to use the F-word and S-word in front of children at any time of the day.”

Not to suggest that the watchdog group is full of “S,” but the often-discussed envelope — that invisible barrier writers relish pushing — isn’t being breached or bent in quite that way.

Instead, it’s subtler, with content that’s racy enough to lure viewers, but rarely so extreme as to upset them beyond a vocal minority.

Content guidelines that the late Motion Picture Assn. of America chief Jack Valenti helped stitch together in the mid-’90s — relying upon the program-blocking “V-chip” to bar objectionable fare — include sex (S), violence (V), language (L) and suggestive dialogue (D).

No one at the time thought to come up with a classification for scenes involving transvestites, which occurs in two new ABC programs, “Big Shots” and “Dirty Sexy Money.” (Those pilots arrived on the same review DVD, creating a back-to-back impression of the most unexpected TV “trend” yet.)

It makes the concept of gay characters, a la “Will & Grace,” seem so 1999.

But that’s not all. Where do you file Fox’s comedy “The Rules for Starting Over,” which features an amorous monkey — his vital areas conspicuously obscured — pouncing upon a naked man who’s in the middle of a sexual encounter with a woman, in what might be TV’s first instance of genus Cebus interruptus.

A thornier arena involves the sexualization of teenagers — hardly a new subgenre, but one that’s become more a river than a trickle since parents first winced at the adult-sounding kids on “Dawson’s Creek.”

Not surprisingly, the CW network is again in the thick of this tide, with the current series “Hidden Palms” and upcoming “Gossip Girl” — a high-school soap where one teen advises his pal regarding a female student to “tap that ass,” later musing about the joys of deflowering freshman girls. Even in the comedy “Aliens in America,” a young girl casually tells her mother she’s going on the pill.

Very little in the 2007 freshmen class is as overtly challenging to TV conventions as the exposed bottoms and salty language displayed on “NYPD Blue” (though there is a bare-ass gag in one pilot). And the resurgence of science-fiction and fantasy — from NBC’s “The Bionic Woman” revival to Fox’s “Terminator” spinoff “The Sarah Connor Chronicles” — ups the quotient of make-believe violence, generally deemed less grisly and disturbing than more grounded crime.

Even without resorting to anything so provocative as bare skin or four-letter words, though, these new series keep pressing against TV’s imaginary, ever-shifting parameters. There’s even a bathroom sex incident in ABC’s Geico commercial-inspired “Cavemen,” a sign of TV comedy’s ongoing evolution or, perhaps, genetic regression.

Where does this leave cultural warriors? Fed up and frustrated, if a new study from the Culture and Media Institute — like the aforementioned PTC, a subdivision of the conservative Media Research Center with a neutral-sounding name — is any indication.

In a survey titled “The Media Assault on American Values,” the “institute” quotes findings that claim two-thirds of Americans believe the media not only play an important role in shaping moral values but actively harm them. In fact, the report contends that watching TV fosters more permissive attitudes about extramarital sex, abortion rights and homosexuality, highlighting the attitudinal distinction between “light” and “heavy” TV viewers.

Betraying their own bias, the researchers stress that infrequent TV viewers are far more likely than heavy ones to believe television undermines American morality, which they characterize as a sign of TV’s “seductive effect.” However, they are ignoring a more intriguing possibility: That people who actually watch TV have a clearer sense of whether its content is genuinely “harmful” than those basing their opinions on an uninformed hunch.

Speaking of uninformed, legislators and regulators are again girding to tackle the question of media violence, tethering their arguments to a rallying cry so powerful that few dare object or question the logistics: the notion of protecting children. Democrats have been particularly intent in championing this “family values” issue, with the expectation that the build-up toward an election year will yield renewed political focus on media content.

The impetus behind TV content guidelines, after all, is not to safeguard easily offended adult palates but ostensibly to help shield kids from unsuitable material — a task that goes beyond network television, especially given the technological explosion of new means to distribute programming.

On the plus side for TV execs, last week brought more good news after their recent court victory, in which the Second Circuit Court of Appeals deemed broadcasters shouldn’t be held accountable for unplanned exclamations at live events, such as Bono’s exuberant use of an expletive during the Golden Globes in 2003. The court’s decision is a rational one that seemingly falls far short of transforming NBC or CBS into the wilds of HBO or Showtime.

In addition, 65% of parents said they “closely” monitor what their kids watch — a figure skewed, no doubt, by knowing what the “right” answer should be.

In short, parents still worry, but feel that they have a better handle on what kids see today than a decade ago. Nevertheless, much of the coverage accentuated a more sound-bite-friendly statistic from the Kaiser survey — namely, that three-fifths of parents still say they are “very concerned” about children’s exposure to raunchy or violent material.

So it invariably goes in TV’s so-called “culture war.” Take the time to watch the shows, and the battle to define acceptable taste inches ahead like trench warfare, which doesn’t prevent the usual aerial assaults of spectacular, condemning rhetoric. Because whatever cautionary labels the networks use, there’s really no good way to spin transvestite hookers or amorous monkeys — even if there’s nary an S- or F-word in sight.

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