TV and the Drift of Things

Early last month, USA Network president Doug Herzog defended television's permissive attitude toward raunchy content. "Anybody who wants to be contemporary has to keep up with the times," he said.

Once in a while you run across a comment that crystallizes a way of thinking, and Herzog's is a beauty.

For the past thirty years, staying "contemporary" has resulted in the gradual disappearance of standards on television. Some network executives might have opposed this mindset back when the sound of a flushing toilet on "All in the Family" was enough to startle viewers. Today it's conventional wisdom, so much so that when an industry leader like Herzog says it, no one bats an eye.

In the quest "to keep up with the times," Herzog and his ilk see it as their duty to take the wrecking ball to at least some of TV's remaining content restrictions. Not to do so would make them (horrors!) less than contemporary.

But one must ask: If these guys are savvy businessmen filling a market demand for raunch, why is it that so often they're failures?

Herzog the Standards-Slayer has a mixed record in the marketplace. He was president of Comedy Central from 1995 to 1998, a prosperous period for the little cable channel thanks in no small part to the surpassingly vulgar "South Park," which debuted during his tenure, and for which he took the credit.

Herzog was suddenly hip, with it, in demand, and landed the job as entertainment president at the Fox network. In the unsurprising words of TV Guide, he saw his mandate as "looking to push the content envelope." His fall '99 schedule included the comedic drama "Get Real," on which a teenage girl telling a buxom woman, "My God, you could hide Anne Frank in that cleavage," supposedly was cutting-edge humor. It also was to feature the teen drama "Manchester Prep," which at one point contained a masturbation scene which, according to reports, offended even not-especially-prudish Fox boss Rupert Murdoch; the series was yanked off the lineup before it ever aired.

Under Herzog Fox also launched the Hollywood satire "Action," which barraged viewers with both bleeped f-words (this more than two years before "The Osbournes" debuted) and references to penis size, a prostitute's sexual techniques, and other tasteful, contemporary topics.

Reportedly, in an effort to reassure Fox executives skittish about "Action," Herzog told them, "Guys, this is why we're in the business. If this works, we've moved the ball forward." But Herzog didn't advance the ball; he fumbled - miserably. After the failure of "Get Real," "Action," and every other new show in the previous fall's lineup, Herzog left Fox early in 2000.

And now he's at the USA Network, back in (basic) cable television where apparently there is more room to roam with his envelope-pushing. According to the Associated Press's David Bauder, Herzog "cites [HBO] as a model." Yes, HBO, where f-words on "The Sopranos" and graphic sexual references on "Sex and the City" are the norm. One can sense that Herzog is itching to take basic cable there, though it's uncertain how far he'll ultimately be able to travel riding the horse of vulgarity.

It's all because to stay "contemporary" one must "keep up with the times." And that's a copout.

The inference here is that this is standard behavior in American society and therefore Hollywood has an obligation of sorts to reflect that reality. But the lifestyle of "Friends," the gutter language of Ozzy Osbourne, and, for that matter, the messages on virtually any MTV program simply do not reflect societal norms. They reflect the values of a minority. More to the point, they reflect values acceptable to, and therefore encouraged by, the likes of Herzog.

Here's your proof. There are many other signs of the times out there, too. Drinking. Smoking. Drugs. There is an element of society that indulges in all these things - and I'm talking about children, not just adults. Why not glorify these values to stay "contemporary"? Because the worldview of Hollywood subjectively rejects these values as improper.

Those aren't the only signs, either. What of that element that aspires to proper moral conduct? What about those who reject hedonism in favor of fidelity? Who treasure civility over raunch? What about the parents trying desperately to teach proper values to their children, and while we're at it, what about the values of children, robbed of their innocence, pounded by messages they know are immoral? In sheer numbers alone they vastly outnumber the moral relativists, yet the Herzogs of Hollywood will never find them "contemporary" and thus will never afford them the respect they deserve.

USA Network's values are not America's values. They are the values of Doug Herzog.