Sex still sells it for critics of TV

Indecency wars linger

Fights that don’t produce a decision aren’t particularly satisfying. Yet that split scorecard defines the never-ending battle over TV indecency, with the latest jabs being traded over NBC’s “The Playboy Club” coming almost 18 years to the day, notably, after the debut of “NYPD Blue.”

For years, groups like the Parents Television Council warned that if not curbed by their vigilance, broadcast television would descend into a lurid sea of flesh-baring boobs and butts, along with child-scarring four-letter expletives. Producers, networks and free-speech advocates, meanwhile, have argued that such campaigns have a “chilling effect” on artistic expression, despite the availability of racy stuff on cable.

Neither scenario has happened. In that context, it’s telling that the latest source of controversy, despite the “Playboy” name, is considerably less provocative than “NYPD Blue” was nearly a generation ago. Moreover, fallout from the ABC cop drama absurdly lingered into 2011, when a federal appeals court finally threw out fines levied against ABC stations over a 2003 episode after years of legal wrangling.

Primetime TV can be plenty risque — witness the sex jokes in “Two and a Half Men’s” widely seen return — but over the last two decades, the needle hasn’t moved enough in either direction to allow cultural crusaders or the creative community to declare victory.

Part of this has to do with the cottage industry surrounding the outrage business. The Parents Television Council denounced “Playboy Club” sight unseen based on the premise, then proceeded to rail against its advertisers even after the show premiered with a dull thud, attracting a mere 5 million viewers. As tactics go, that was about as necessary as strangling a 90-year-old man who’s already in intensive care.

On the flip side, the fact that “Playboy” opened so poorly highlights the limits of turning such campaigns to a network’s promotional advantage, which certainly turned out to be true with “NYPD Blue.”

When that show bowed amid pressure from the American Family Assn., more than 50 ABC affiliates balked. The series nevertheless scored spectacular ratings and ran for a decade.

Even so, broadcasters are still fighting the same battles. And producers who yearn for more creative latitude find themselves brushing up against familiar strictures imposed by standards-and-practices execs.

Conservative critics have contributed to this push-pull dynamic by picking soft targets, but often the wrong ones. There’s a legitimate debate to be had, for example, about “Jersey Shore” becoming one of TV’s most popular programs among teenagers and what message that sends in terms of celebrating and rewarding boorish behavior.

At the same time, conservative watchdogs tend to focus on the obvious — exposed skin and the occasional expletive — at the expense of more nuanced concerns. In addition, they can’t resist training their sights on telecasts practically begging to be singled out for condemnation, such as MTV’s Video Music Awards or Comedy Central roasts, where being called “dirty” is a badge of honor.

As for media critics on the left, they haven’t been particularly organized since the Clintons and Gores seized on music, videogame and televised violence as their “family values” issues in the 1990s. Yet one can easily argue that while sex and language haven’t come that far in the last 20 years, the level (and certainly volume) of violence has grown exponentially thanks to the explosion of crime shows.

There’s an old saying that generals always fight the last war, basing their strategy on conditions that might no longer be applicable.

Because the proliferation of original cable series and new avenues of content distribution have altered consumption patterns and the dynamics of shielding children from objectionable fare, there’s scant resemblance between 1993 and today. You’d never know that, however, reading the PTC’s press releases, or watching a “Playboy Club” pilot that revealed less of the bunnies than “Blue” did of David Caruso.

Nor does the titillating promise of crossing boundaries — once a reliable way to spike ratings — provide much allure. No matter what the networks do, those wanting to be shocked have no shortage of options elsewhere.

Time and standards never stand still, exactly, but the Chicken Littles have clearly been wrong about network TV becoming an R-rated wasteland. So while kids starting college can look back at a dizzying array of media developments in their lifetime, during those years broadcasters haven’t gotten any bluer than “Blue.”

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