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Sex: All Too Ready for Prime Time

Late in November, the show-business trade paper the Hollywood Reporter published its 68th anniversary issue. The cover headline, a tip of the hat to Mad magazine's Alfred E. Neuman, read, "What, Me Sexy? Hollywood gets raunchy and sets a nation giggling." Some may be giggling, but judging by plummeting ratings numbers, most are appalled by the pervasive raciness of today's entertainment-television fare.

It's no longer just the "religious right" or other social conservatives who are speaking out. Many TV critics have publicly denounced the trend, as have a handful of those working in the industry. Steve Allen, who embodies as well as anyone the principle that one can elicit laughter by aiming for the brain and not the crotch, told the Reporter that "there's always been dirty humor...but we don't even get double entendre now - we get single entendre right between the eyes...I think we need a national discussion and a national examination of conscience in regard to the fact that children are being exposed to all this."

The networks vary in terms of how much sex they present, and when they present it. ABC and CBS are generally clean between 8 and 9 p.m., the first hour of prime time in the Eastern and Pacific time zones. NBC and Fox, however, don't hesitate to program plenty of filth in that time period, once considered a safe harbor for families.

In the 8 o'clock hour at NBC, veteran smutcoms like "Suddenly Susan" and "Friends" have been joined this season by new smutcoms like "Conrad Bloom" and "Jesse." In one typical episode of "Conrad Bloom," the title character is enjoying sex with his new girlfriend, Julie, until he discovers the large snake tattoo on her belly. Conrad is so phobic about snakes that he thinks he'll have to break up with Julie. His ex-girlfriend, Molly, advises him to "just turn her over."

It's that witty.

Try this laugh line in another exchange: "When I'm with another woman in bed," Conrad says to Molly, "I think of you so I'll last longer."

"Jesse" (8:30 Thursdays) centers on a single mom in her mid-twenties and is even more sordidly sexual than "Conrad Bloom." Early in their relationship, Jesse asks her boyfriend, Diego, whom he'd rather watch in a porn movie: her or his mother. In real life, a man asked something that disgusting would break up with the woman on the spot. Not in Sitcomland: Jesse and Diego dated for a while longer, and their eventual split had nothing to do with her creepy question.

A bit later, after Jesse mentions to her girlfriends that she saw Diego with another woman, one friend suggests that Jesse "have sex with him...Preemptive sex, unless [the other woman] is having sex with him. Then it's retaliatory sex." The other friend adds, "Why don't you sleep with the other girl in front of him? Guys love that."

Meanwhile, this season at 8 Fox has offered several forgettable, failed, stupid sex-obsessed sitcoms and the ever-carnal "Melrose Place." "Melrose" is, incredibly, is still on the air, no doubt because of its riveting dialogue:

Michael: "I'm really terrible at this courtship thing...but I am really, really good in bed."

Jane: "Oh, yeah? Prove it."

Characters take off clothes, fornicate.

In the race for raciest series between 9 and 10, among the leaders in a very crowded field is ABC's "Spin City." Earlier this season, the main character, New York deputy mayor Mike Flaherty, had a brief affair with Heidi, a German model. Beholding Heidi's breasts, he quips, "See, now, that is German precision, right there." Soon, she's on the bed, and Mike leaps to join her; a bra, a pair of boxer shorts, and a package of condoms are shown floating through the air in slow motion. The next morning, Heidi declares, "Last night was the sexual high point of my life. It was [as if I] was being made love to not by one man, but by a pack of wild lions."

How awful has it become? The Hollywood Reporter piece included this comment from Ron Jeremy, who has appeared in more than 1,500 "adult films." "Hollywood," he said, "uses sex in just about everything it makes, and the envelope is constantly pushed in...sitcoms...You'd see raunchier jokes in a 'Married...With Children' than in most porno movies."

There you have it. Entertainment TV isn't even good porn.