When George Carlin's comedy routine on the "seven dirty words" was broadcast by a radio station in 1978, it prompted a U.S. Supreme Court ruling on indecency.

A decade later, a character on the hit network sitcom "Designing Women" used a derivative of one of those words in describing another character who was obsessed with enlarging her bosom.No, it isn't just imagination. Network standards are loosening up.

"The networks are being more lenient, and I think the reason is a five-letter word - C-A-B-L-E," said Harry Thomason, executive producer of "Designing Women."

Sexually explicit language and situations on network television have produced occasional complaints, but audiences are apparently rather blase after being presented a variety of R-rated cable fare, not to mention videocassettes. A.C. Nielsen Co. estimates that 62.2 percent of U.S. homes with televisions also have a VCR.

The networks, faced with remote-control "grazing," cable options and videocassettes, are having to loosen up or lose viewers.

NBC, the No. 1 network, broadcast "Favorite Son," a political potboiler spiced up with scenes of sexual bondage.

In an episode of ABC's "thirtysomething," a wife crawled around on the floor in search of a fumbled diaphragm.

Last season, "Saturday Night Live" executive producer Lorne Michaels complained about his battle with network censors over a sketch whose purpose was to see how often actors could say the word for the male sex organ on network TV. This season, the sketch got on the air.

"The average family in a major urban center can have access to 30-plus different television signals, not to mention home video, (where) they can see explicit language, full nudity and simulated sex in far more graphic and strong ways than you've ever seen on network television," says Alan Gerson, NBC vice president for program marketing and administration.

He says networks are loosening standards, but carefully keeping back from the "cutting edge" of change.

"We're not changing first," Gerson said.

Do viewers mind?

"I get a lot of discussion on it, but really when you sit down and look at it and hear what's said, I don't really hear anybody complaining," said Art Chapman of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, president of the Television Critics Association.

"The fact is," he said, "whether you like it or not, it does produce ratings, which means that people are watching it."

"There are three groups of viewers out there," said Dorothy Swanson, head of Virginia-based Viewers for Quality Television. "There's your group that would really like to see more (explicit material). They enjoy that. It's interesting, and it's entertaining, and it's fun. . . .

"Then there's another group that are your prudes who really feel that there shouldn't be a single dirty word, no open-mouthed kissing, no bedroom scenes. Those people are going to always object, and they must be just screaming right about now.

"And then there's the group that just accepts it and keeps their eye on it and turns the dial if they don't like it."

When the radio station broadcast Carlin's "seven dirty words" routine - Carlin was explaining that there are seven words not allowed to be broadcast - a complaint to the Federal Communications Commission prompted a lawsuit that led to the Supreme Court ruling. The FCC does not get involved in network standards, but investigates complaints against the stations that it licenses.

A complaint about a network show would have to meet the FCC's definition of indecency before action would be taken. Indecency is described as "patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards for the broadcast medium.'

For network censors, "community standards" apply to a global village, where a "community" can be a time period or a demographic group. The changing expectations of television audiences have changed the stereotypical scissor-wieldingcensor into something of ad hoc sociologist.> "TV is a dynamic medium. It has to stay in touch with society. It has to grow as society grows and deal with subjects that are relevant to people's lives," said Matthew Margo, CBS vice president for program practices.

"I think the objective here is not to go too far. It's to be willing to grow, to be willing to take prudent risks, but never to do anything that's going to offend a significant portion of our viewing audience or advertisers or affiliates."

All three networks have cut back their standards and practices departments to save money, but insist nothing has gotten on the air that would not have before.

The cutbacks have, however, "increased the possibility of risk," said Alfred R. Schneider, ABC vice president for broadcast standards and practices, "because you don't have an overview and backup system that existed."

CBS and ABC have eliminated one level of censors and put a bigger workload on supervisors. NBC eliminated its standards and practices department completely, re-assigning most of its functions to the entertainment division, which may be akin to the fox guarding the henhouse.

But NBC was no doubt chastened by its experience with Geraldo Rivera's two-hour special "Devil Worship: Exposing Satan's Underground."

Though the sensationalistic special ranked No. 5 in the Nielsen ratings for the week, NBC said it lost money because so many advertisers pulled out. Gerson says the show was actually "a triumph" for the remnants of the standards department, in view of how much gruesome material was eliminated.> During a recent presentation to television critics meeting in Los Angeles, NBC Entertainment President Brandon Tartikoff was accosted by an actor dressed as a priest and forced to swear on a stack of Bibles that he would not air another Geraldo Rivera special.

"Devil Worship" was attacked by television critics in part because of its early time period, 8 p.m. EST, when presumably children could be watching. In fact, much of the shift in standards has taken place after 9 p.m. when networks assume mostly adults are watching.

An episode of NBC's 10 o'clock program "L.A. Law" opened in the setting of a fertility clinic where a patient providing a sperm sample moaned loudly from behind a bathroom door. It turned out he was having trouble getting the lid off the specimen jar. In an episode of the 9 p.m. "Cheers" on NBC, Sam the bartender was stranded behind a table because of his state of sexual excitement.> "The standards really relate to the kind of program you're dealing in," said Schneider. "What may work in a 10 o'clock program, like `thirtysomething,' . . . would be totally inappropriate to an 8 o'clock program."> One way standards departments have cut their workload is by paying less attention to such G-rated shows as "Murder, She Wrote."

But even "Designing Women," which often tackles sexual subjects, has found the going easier of late, said Thomason, whose wife, Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, writes most of the scripts.

Thomason said the show has had a good relationship with the censors, but he nevertheless was surprised that the questionable breast word was approved. The censor, after seeing the script, wanted to "reserve judgment."

"A lot of times, if we disagree with them, we'll say, `Look, why don't you let us shoot it and we'll shoot an alternative, and see how it's used and how it looks in the context of the show,' " Thomason said. "Fortunately, I don't remember a time when we've done that they didn't come back later and say, `OK, we see what you were going for, and it's OK.' "

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Do you have a comment to make or a concern to air about television network programming? These are the addresses and phone numbers of the chief programmers atthe three major networks:

ABC

Brandon Stoddard, Entertainment President, 2040 Avenue of the Stars, Los Angeles, CA., 90067; telephone (213) 557-7777.

CBS

Kim LeMasters, Entertainment President, 7800 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles, CA.,90036; telephone (213) 852-2345.

NBC

Brandon Tartikoff, Entertainment President, 3000 W. Alameda, Burbank, CA., 91523; telephone (818) 852-4444.