Vulgarians Inside the Gate

Television network executives are "vulgarians" selling "dirt" and "filth," thereby sending America "down a moral sewer" and "distort[ing] the ethical perceptions of our children." The words of a fundamentalist preacher... A right-wing media critic? No, this denunciation of the television industry came from former "Tonight Show" host Steve Allen, in a June 9 speech at the Banff TV Festival in Canada.

Coincidentally, also on June 9 the Parents Television Council released its list of the most offensive programs on prime time network television. It proves Mr. Allen's point.

Two series on the list - ABC's "High Incident" at #6 and Fox's "Millennium" at #10 - made the grade because of their violent content, a first for the annual rankings. Whereas violence on network television had been in decline for over a decade, in the past year it's come back, and on some shows - with a vengeance. Thus, those two programs made the final roster.

But for the rest, it was sex, raunch, vulgarities - and political correctness to boot. The defunct "Life's Work," an ABC sitcom which placed ninth on the PTC list, regularly featured sexual innuendo and obscenities, including easily understandable uses of the f-word. One episode of this worthless show contained a series of jokes about a man who masturbated in public by rubbing against a tree.

Proceeding up the list, Fox's racy soaps, "Beverly Hills, 90210" and "Melrose Place," came in at #8 and #7, respectively. (Making it worse, each aired during the 8 o'clock so-called family hour.) In their season finales, "90210" saw the cast's last virgin, Donna, on the verge of being deflowered, and "Melrose" endorsed gay adoption. So predictable. All that and their customary, ongoing touting of promiscuity, and again neither show finished anywhere near the top.

The #5 and #4 entries, ABC's "Spin City" and NBC's "Friends," torqued up both the raunch and the gay agenda. Both series focus on frisky, single young New Yorkers who frequently discuss sex when they're not engaged in it. Both include considerable foul language. "Friends" features two recurring lesbian characters who are "married" and raising a child; "Spin City" features a regular gay male character. "Friends" airs at 8 p.m. Thursdays; "Spin City" will air at 8 Wednesdays beginning in the fall. Both are too adult for children and too childish for adults. If "Married... With Children" were based on a true story, the Bundys would find these programs entertaining.

At #3 was "Cybill," starring pro-gay rights and abortion crusader Cybill Shepherd. Since its characters are older than those on "Friends" and "Spin City," they can not only condone casual sex, they can go further, ridiculing marriage and making light of divorce. The best thing I can say about "Cybill" is that it doesn't air in the 8 p.m. hour. In fact, that's the only good thing I can say about it.

The winners: at #2, "Men Behaving Badly" (NBC), to which the #1 (and, praise be, canceled at last) "Married... With Children" (Fox) has passed the baton of crassness. These shows not only promote easy sex and rude language, they glorify stupidity. Unsurprisingly, NBC, where good taste apparently followed Brandon Tartikoff out the door a few years ago, is moving "Men" to 8 p.m. Sundays effective next fall. Come, children, let us gather 'round. Let us learn to be... morons.

Mr. Allen's speech, and his tough words of reproach to an industry he assuredly loves, deserve attention. It offers further proof that addressing the rot on entertainment television is a nonpartisan cause. Indeed, it offers further proof that lines drawn up for the culture wars transcend traditional political boundaries.

When the PTC took out an advertisement in Daily Variety asking the networks to voluntarily restore family programming to the 8 o'clock hour, over 100 members of Congress, Republicans and Democrats, from Newt Gingrich to Ron Dellums, signed on. Allen, a longtime liberal, also is troubled by this cultural pollution and is speaking out. On the other hand, conservative writer Ben Stein - in a question-and-answer session after a Washington speech delivered on, yes, June 9 - claimed that "Married... With Children" is as good as any sitcom, ever. One wonders if he's giving the GOP public relations advice, too.