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Prime Time's Obsession: The Smut of It

There's little doubt that America is growing more conservative on sexual matters. The Christian Coalition is arguably the most powerful grassroots organization in America. Promise Keepers packs arenas and stadiums coast to coast with its message of abstinence and fidelity. Millions flock to hear Pope John Paul II every time he visits the States.

There is also another America. In this land, the institution of marriage is mocked, belittled, scorned. Unmarried people routinely sleep together, having premarital, extramarital, homosexual sex - it makes no difference. And when they're not having sex, they're doing what? Analyzing their performance, planning the next one. This is the fantasy America of prime time television, created by an industry that purports only to reflect reality.

Sex on prime time is nothing new, to be sure. But in recent years, the topic has come to dominate storylines on virtually every network at all hours of the night. No barrier, no tradition is safe; like an unquenchable thirst, Hollywood cannot stop pushing the envelope of permissiveness. Thus we are to the point where we find the ongoing promotion of homosexuality by NBC's "Friends," ABC's "Roseanne," and other series. Peruse the Media Research Center's new "1996-'97 Family Guide to Prime Time Television," which scrutinizes programming in terms of its suitability for family audiences, and you quickly discern the trend.

Look first at raw numbers. The guide covers 92 entertainment shows (sitcoms and dramas) on the broadcast networks and illustrates the degree to which sex now dominates the airwaves. Fifty-two shows - 57 percent - openly promote, as a major theme, sexual permissiveness. It's usually premarital sex, but sometimes adultery or homosexuality is thrown in for good measure.

The networks vary in their treatment of sex. Of the full-time webs, Fox is the raciest, with nine of its 11 entertainment shows - 82 percent - containing inappropriate sexual content. The leading offenders: "Melrose Place," "Beverly Hills, 90210," and "Married...With Children."

Just behind Fox on a percentage basis, but way ahead in raw numbers, is NBC. Its Must See TV is a font of promiscuity: 17 of the network's 22 series, including "Seinfeld" and "3rd Rock from the Sun," constantly delve into the vulgar to trigger the canned-laughter machine.

Third comes ABC, with 11 out of 20 shows (55 percent), followed by CBS, with only seven of 18 (39 percent). The figures are unsurprising in that these are the more family-oriented networks. Both ABC and CBS boast hits, such as the former's "Home Improvement" and the latter's "Touched By an Angel," which simply refuse to indulge in tawdriness - to the delight of millions of parents shocked by what everyone else seems to be pushing on their children.

No, this doesn't automatically make either network a safe haven for children. Four of ABC's fall premieres, including "Spin City" and "Relativity," make the sex-obsessive list. No new CBS show covered in the guide is offensive, but some of the network's entries that debuted too late to be included, such as the raunchy "Public Morals," certainly would qualify.

Finally, the part-time networks: four of nine series (44 percent) on UPN and four of twelve (33 percent) on WB cross the line. No surprises in either case. WB's percentage is consistent with its pledge to serve the family audience; it is the only network offering across-the-board family programming during the 8 p.m. so-called family hour.

Reading the guide's entries is at once enlightening and depressing. Right away, one encounters phrases like "characters are unconcerned about the physical and ethical ramifications of premarital and extramarital sex" (NBC's "Boston Common") and "a lascivious lifestyle [is] touted as acceptable" (ABC's "The Drew Carey Show"). Almost every page contains similar descriptions. The young adults on "Friends" and "Melrose Place" frolic from one sexual escapade to another, and the result is nothing more serious than a one-liner. Meanwhile, back in the real world, 1.5 million unwed teenagers become pregnant every year.

Some shows straddle the fence. ABC's new drama "Dangerous Minds," set at an inner-city high school, depicts the consequences of teen sex - there are plenty of unwed mothers in the student body - but also asserts that abstinence is unrealistic and, presumably for that reason, promotes condom use. To suggest that half a loaf is better than none speaks volumes about the state of television today.

Not long ago a colleague showed me a television schedule from the fall of 1971. What a very different era it was just twenty-five years ago: "My Three Sons," "Here's Lucy," "The FBI," "Bonanza." All were smash hits; none needed raunchy graphics, humor, or storylines to attract an audience. To see what passes for entertainment on prime time television today is to wonder how we allowed this cultural meltdown to occur before our very eyes.