Hope Against Sleaze

Imagine your family sitting down to catch the debut of "American Juniors" on Fox, watching elementary-school kids attempt to be singing stars, a healthy family-friendly offering. So what's on next? A few minutes into the debut of the drama "Keen Eddie," bets are off. Suddenly you and your children are exposed to an orgiastic "swap party" (husbands and wives trade sex partners). That's a rather shocking segue, from the aspiring kiddie pop stars to a fornication fiesta.

That's what families have to expect on television. How low will it go?

Every study the Parents Television Council has done since its beginnings in 1995 has been grounds for pessimism. Each new study found more sleazy sexual content than ever before. It seemed the spiral into the gutter would continue indefinitely.

Which is why a new report is cause for celebration. The PTC's review of the first two weeks of the 2002 TV season, and a comparison of that to 1998 and 2000, show for the first time there is a general reduction in sexual content across the broadcast network, and most dramatically among the most established channels. Both the first hour of prime time TV - the battleground for a family hour - and the second hour have registered a decrease in the frequency of sexual obsession.

This was especially noticeable at ABC, which jettisoned its family shows in favor of adult comedies like "Dharma and Greg." It has reduced its prime-time sleaze by 56 percent since 2000. Even more amazing, Fox's second-hour sex content dropped 75 percent since 2000. In fact, all the broadcast networks with the exception of the lowly WB reduced their sexual content in the first hour, and all but WB and UPN have done so for the second hour, too.

Not all the news is good. CBS and NBC sleazed up their third hour of prime time (10 PM Eastern). At least that's understood as more adult territory. More disturbing, however, is the quality of sexual content that is still making its way into living rooms. It is flirting with the pornographic.

Most sexual content used to fall into the category of sexual innuendo, which might go over young children's heads. On one forgotten UPN sitcom, for example, the lead character asked his wife why "you never stay awake when the general is at attention." She replied "Because two minutes later the general is at ease."

If you found that line offensive, you will faint when you watch what's on now, where less than half of the sexual content qualifies as innuendo. Now you can listen to the girls on WB's "Girlfriends" say "Never touch my nipples with a cattle prod." Or watch the teen drama "Dawson's Creek," where a man suggested a woman has "breasts begging to be touched," and she replied he has "testicles begging to be castrated."

Still the overall picture suggests there's room for hope amidst the sleaze. Network executives have to acknowledge the emerging public mood. A 2001 survey in Family Circle magazine found that 93 percent of respondents had turned off the TV or changed channels during a program because of sexual content. A Kaiser Family Foundation survey released the same year indicated that 80 percent of parents were concerned about their children's overexposure to sex and violence. This general disgust over sleazy programming - combined with the pressure brought to bear by a growing grassroots movement - equals a force the networks can no longer afford to ignore.

ABC suffered for several years as it turned its back on the clean image it gained from many successful years of "Full House" and "Family Matters." It learned from the numbers and last fall announced a return to more family-friendly offerings. Even Washington Post TV writer Lisa DeMoraes noticed the hot new trend is "programs about families, for family audiences."

The positive movement should not inspire resting on laurels. The public should smile at the latest results, and then continue the push in favor of family-friendly TV programming. The problem of very "adult" content on network television isn't going away, and the sleaze of four years ago is now plastered across TV in afternoon reruns.

Perhaps the next big step is getting the FCC out of its coma, and focused on the obstacle course of sludge that parents must negotiate nightly. The people allegedly own the airwaves, and the FCC is mandated by law to oversee them. But for now, the only cops on this culture beat are millions of parents, making a difference.