Media Hype CBS Wife-Swapping TV Series Swingtown

It's open season on old-fashioned, faithful marriage tonight with the premiere of CBS's ode to 1970s wife-swapping, the TV series “Swingtown.”  

“Swingtown” dramatizes the “open marriage” experimentation popularized by the sexual revolution.  The media are so busy chortling that they aren't bothering to report on a couple of pertinent issues, namely the effect on viewers of glorifying irresponsible sex on network television and the damage done to society when sexual mores slide. 

TIME magazine, for example, goes beyond ignoring the serious cultural concerns raised by “Swingtown” to actively promote the show as a “lot of fun…If you swing that way.”

People magazine's June 9, 2008 issue hypes the new show as “a smoothly executed, coolly nonjudgmental soap opera about middle-class married life in an era of sexual experimentation” and promises to ignite a “strange nostalgic pang” among its viewers. 

The opening episode reportedly will depict heavy drug use and observe that the main characters routinely engage in steamy orgies. Rather than sound the cultural alarm bell, Entertainment assures us that “Swingtown” has serious dramatic merit: 

This series isn't about how many spouses they can cram into a bed.  It's an intricate serial whose characters grapple with issues of identity, fidelity, morality, and love.  It's also a nostalgic nod to summer 1976, a time when it was cool to be an American, when everything crackled with opportunity, when there was no AIDS.  So sure, come for spouse swapping—stay for a daring multigenerational relationship drama!

Entertainment gives Nina Tassler, president of CBS Entertainment, plenty of space to defend the show.  According to Tassler, “It's taking some risks, but at the same time exploring issues of family and things that are eminently relatable to our audience. . . . We're certainly pushing the envelope, but in a responsible way.”

Entertainment does mention a critic of “Swingtown,” but only to take a slam at him.  The article characterizes MRC President L. Brent Bozell III's critique of the series as “fuming in the press.”

The Los Angeles Times ends its article on “Swingtown” by quoting Mike Kelley, the show's creator.  Kelley suggests that the show doesn't have a problem, it's the people repelled by the show who have a problem.  He says, “. . . there is so much to embrace in this show.  I think people who reject it have a problem with fear in general in their lives.”  Again downplaying the show's sexual explicitness, he concludes, “It's not any scarier than your family photo album of the 1970s.”

On the contrary, “Swingtown's” explicit sexual content is plenty scary.  A member of CMI's Board of Advisors, Jan LaRue, wrote about a  2004 Rand Corporation study which found that “adolescents who watch large amounts of television containing sexual content are twice as likely to begin engaging in sexual intercourse the following year as their peers who watch little such TV.”  Even more startling is Rand's finding that there was “little difference whether a TV show presents people talking about whether they have sex or portrays them having sex….Both affect adolescents' perceptions of what is normal sexual behavior and propel their own sexual behavior.”

“Swingtown's” endorsement of extramarital sex is even scarier.  TIME, People, Entertainment and The Los Angeles Times appear to be unfamiliar with the work of Oxford scholar J.D. Unwin.  The early 20th century British anthropologist studied 86 societies through 5,000 years of history, and found that civilizations begin to fall apart when they start embracing open sexual mores.  According to Unwin, “in human records there is no instance of a society retaining its energy after a complete new generation has inherited a tradition which does not insist on pre-nuptial and post-nuptial continence.” (click here for a article discussing Unwin's study).

Julia Seward is an intern and Brian Fitzpatrick is senior editor at the Culture and Media Institute, a division of the Media Research Center.