Confusion at the Top

Figures from the February sweeps period indicate that the broadcast television networks continue to lose prime time viewers - specifically, more than a million households in that month. As usual, the networks' response to the decline was to complain about the information-gathering methods of the Nielsen ratings company. "I don't trust their numbers at all," groused NBC's west coast president, Don Ohlmeyer, in a New York Times interview. "They're trying to measure 21st-century technology with an abacus."

Now the webs have gone beyond whining. ABC, CBS, and NBC have helped finance the development of a not-yet-ready alternative ratings system called SMART (Systems for Measuring and Reporting Television). Evidently, they're willing to pay $40 million rather than deal with the biggest reason for their diminishing audience - the plethora of programming that's vulgar, offensive, and just plain DUMB.

A look at a few midseason replacement shows illustrates the sordid state of prime time. On the January 8 premiere of NBC's sitcom "Chicago Sons," the thirtyish Harry fantasizes about inviting an attractive female office colleague, Lindsay, to a bed-and-breakfast, "where we'll eat pralines off each other's naked bodies." In a subsequent scene, Harry and Lindsay watch a couple have sex in an adjacent building.

That episode set the tone for this series. The next week, Lindsay tells Harry, "You know, if you flip through [the Victoria's Secret catalogue] backwards, it's like your own little lap dance." On February 5, Harry and his brother Mike's girlfriend debate when a couple should have sex for the first time. He says it should happen on the fifth date; she, more traditional, says it shouldn't happen until the seventh. A bit later, Harry learns that his current flame plans to hold out until (gasp!) the twelfth date.

But this is television and we don't have time to wait for the twelfth, or even the fifth, date. So, on the February 12 episode, two "Chicago Sons" regulars do it without any dates at all. Harry, Mike, their brother Billy, and Lindsay go to the Bahamas for a vacation; their first night there, Mike sleeps with the woman who owns the resort, and Lindsay beds the resort's umbrella boy. By the way, each of these episodes was rated TV-PG, meaning that NBC judged them suitable for everyone save young children, and each aired at 8:30 PM on the coasts (7:30 PM in middle America), smack in the middle of the "family hour." Thank you, Warren Littlefield.

Broadcast opposite "Chicago Sons" on Wednesdays, hopefully temporarily, is CBS's "Temporarily Yours." On the March 5 debut, a woman receives a letter from her baseball-player husband that reads, "Every night, I sit in my lonely hotel room rubbing mink oil into my mitt, wishing it was your sweet, soft rump." The woman later gripes, "Nothing is filthy within the blessed sacrament of marriage except, of course, contraception." Vulgarities and profanities like "ass" and "bastard" are tossed out with abandon. In short, the show is garbage. And, yes, CBS rated "Temporarily Yours" TV-PG.

ABC's family-hour drama "Spy Game," which premiered March 3, is no prize either. There's plenty of gratuitous violence for the kids: a man is killed in a bombing, another man is hit by a car and thrown high into the air, and a third is strangled. The dialogue is equally sophisticated: when two male spies argue over authority, a female colleague interjects, "Guys, guys, before we get the rulers out and start measuring..." Predictably, ABC rated "Spy Game" TV-PG.

Fox's Pauly Shore replacement vehicle, "Pauly," airs at 9:30 and has been rated TV-14, yet still would deserve censure for broadcasting something this stupid even at 3 AM. An exchange from the March 3 debut is representative. When a woman tells Pauly, "I have bras that work harder than you," he answers, "Your bras may be working, but it looks like your panties took the day off."

Imagine turning on the set after a hard day at work, desiring only to be entertained. You stumble onto "Chicago Sons," "Spy Game," or "Pauly." Just how long (a minute?) will it take for you to hit the remote and flip over to another station? Or access the Internet? Or read a book? To acknowledge this is to acknowledge the obvious. Television today is a wasteland. So Ohlmeyer and Co. instead blame the ratings system. How much longer will this continue before the networks admit they are the problem and take the initiative to restore quality to television? That would be the right thing to do, and it would cost them a whole lot less than $40 million.