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Cable's No Refuge from Broadcast Refuse

The broadcast television networks, which set records for raunchy program content this past season, are on the ropes. Last summer, for the first time ever, basic cable pulled in a bigger audience share than did they. Broadcast network executives predictably sniffed that this was but an aberration caused by the summer rerun season. With the new shows unveiled in the fall, all would be well.

True, the broadcast networks regained a majority share of the audience in the past TV season, but it's a shrinking majority. It now stands at 55 percent, down from 69 percent just five years ago.

With the broadcast webs in reruns again, one popular cable network, Comedy Central, took advantage of the diminished competition by showing heavily promoted fresh programming between 10 and 11 p.m. from June 14th through the 17th. And what the network offered is a sad reflection on the state of television in general.

The creative impulse in Hollywood is to push the envelope of acceptability at every opportunity. Nowhere is this more prevalent than in the comedic genre: writers relish the chance to dig ever lower with profanities, sexual innuendo, and the like.

Interestingly enough, Comedy Central historically has resisted, more or less, that temptation. But all that changed a couple of years ago after the introduction of its gutterfest, "South Park." The floodgates having been opened, what the network is now offering is downright nauseating. Remember, this is basic cable, not a virtually-anything-goes pay channel like HBO.

"Strangers with Candy" (Mondays at 10 p.m.) centers on Jerri Blank, who describes herself as a "46-year-old high school freshman...back in school after thirty-two years of drug addiction, prostitution, and moneylaundering." In one scene, a teacher tells students in a women's health class that with a school dance coming up, they'll need to "have clean lines around the delta region" - i.e., remove excess pubic hair, a procedure she demonstrates graphically on Jerri.

Amazingly, that's nothing compared to some other scenes. You see, Jerri's been growing close to a male transfer student, and they're necking for the first time when a casual remark from her makes him realize that...she's his birth mother. With that unsettling information out in the open, what does one say? If you're Jerri, it's easy: "Can't we still make out?" After he turns her down, she goes in search of another partner, explaining that her "bacon strip" (translation: vaginal area) is "sizzlin'."

Comedy Central's Wednesday-night offerings aren't as disgusting as "Strangers with Candy," but that doesn't really say anything. "The Man Show" (10:30 p.m.), a supposed celebration of traditional masculinity, features scantily clad women; bleeped-out, but perfectly understandable, obscenities; gas-passing; exploding (fake?) dog poop; a vulgar poll result ("Percentage of men who have masturbated in front of a family pet: 71"); and this touching declaration from co-host Jimmy Kimmel: "The only intimate moments I have are on my knees in front of the Spice Channel."

Certain pseudo-sophisticated supporters of "The Man Show" no doubt will claim it doesn't exalt crude macho behavior, but rather spoofs it. Nonsense. That argument didn't hold water for the late, unlamented "Married...with Children," and it doesn't in this case, either.

Preceding "The Man Show" is the notorious "South Park," which certainly hasn't changed since it was a media sensation back in the early days of Monicagate. Lowlights of a recent episode: One boy has a bowel movement outdoors, and another steps in it; a boy's mother smokes crack while in bed with two men; a teacher admits he had sex with a pigeon (his defense: "You all know that pigeon was a total slut"); and six uses of "g-damn," one of the very few curse words still generally forbidden on the broadcast networks - but probably not for long.

I provide these details not to disturb, but to inform. Very simply, if you care about the state of our popular culture, you need to know the depths to which it has descended.

Sumner Redstone, the chairman of Viacom, which owns half of Comedy Central (Time Warner owns the other half) and all of such networks as MTV, Nickelodeon, and Showtime, recently appeared at a panel on the future of cable. Regarding which types of content he thinks are offensive and which aren't, Redstone, like the true-blue liberal he is, stated, "Sexuality doesn't bother me...Let's distinguish between violence and sex. Violence is bad. Sex is good." As are, apparently, flatulence, feces, and blasphemy.