There are those who think it all started with "Hill Street Blues." And maybe it did. The gritty, realistic cop show was never afraid to tackle tough issues in a frank, straight-forward fashion, and it went on to become one of the most honored programs in television history.But what has that openness wrought?
Among other things too numerous (or, in some cases, too explicit) to mention, it has given us:
-"Favorite Son," an NBC miniseries that will be remembered for Linda Kozlowski's revealing silhouette strip tease and a scene in which she pleads with her lover to tie her to the bed.
-Daytime soap operas that make "Knots Landing" look like "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood."
-"The Sex Tapes" and "Naked Lie," two made-for-TV movies that specialized in kinky sex.
-Prime time series episodes focusing on outdoor lovemaking ("Almost Grown"), abortion ("TV 101"), oral sex ("thirtysomething") and lesbianism ("HeartBeat").
-An abundance of storylines that sensationalize Satanism and the occult.
-Graphic depictions of gruesome violence, including throats being slashed ("B.L. Stryker"), limbs being severed ("UNSUB"), brains being blown out ("Miami Vice") and broken arrows being forced through legs ("Lonesome Dove").
Clearly, television standards are changing. Some say they're non-existent. But without a doubt you're seeing things in prime time today that wouldn't have been given late-night air time 10 years ago. If the 1970s was the decade of TV titillation with shows like "Three's Company" and "Charlie's Angels," the 1980s will go down as the decade when TV sex and violence came out of the closet and into the living room.
Seven nights a week.
"There's no question that the networks are trying to build more titillation into their programming," said KSL-TV vice president and general manager William R. Murdoch. "The Hollywood community is producing racier TV material than ever, and the television networks are buying it."
Some observers point to massive staff reductions in network standards and practices divisions and claim that the networks aren't censoring more of their programs because there aren't enough censors. But while it's true that those departments are smaller throughout the television industry, it is also true that they still wield a great deal of power. Scenes and storylines are altered according to S&P directives, just like they always were.
It's just that now those directives allow a great deal more leeway. Subjects that were once taboo are now just everyday incidental plot developments. Profanity is commonplace, with more references to deity in many half-hour sitcoms than you'll hear in most weekly church services. Sexuality and bloody, explicit violence are just two more bits of theatrical business ("Let's see, how much sex does it take to show that two people sort of like each other a little bit?"). And frontal nudity is just around the corner, with backsides, silhouettes and side views already commonplace.
"We're not trying to be sleazy," said Robert Wright, NBC's chief executive officer. "We're just trying to provide programs for a variety of tastes."
As you might expect in any discussion relating to the television industry, the bottom line here is the bottom line. Network television advertising revenues are down because overall network viewership is down. Ten years ago the three-network share of the total television audience averaged more than 90 percent. Today that three-network share is about 68 percent - and dropping.
A lot of those defecting viewers are going to strong independent stations like Utah's KSTU. Others are opting for video cassettes and even video games, literally turning their television sets into home entertainment centers.
But The Great Audience-Sapping Devil, as far as network programmers are concerned, is cable television, which now enters more than 40 percent of Utah homes and about 55 percent of homes nationally.
"The whole trend is being forced by cable," said Murdoch, a member of CBS's affiliate advisory board and an outspoken critic of his network's move toward racy programming. "I know people say that they buy cable for the sports or for other things, but the big reason is movies - R-rated, uncut movies. The networks think that they're not just competing with each other now - they also have to compete with Showtime and HBO."
And the way they see it, the way to do that is with sexually oriented material - a notion that is reinforced whenever one of their exploitive efforts scores well in the ratings, as "Naked Lie" did in last week's Nielsens.
In other words, what we're talking about here is a societal problem, not an attempt by television to manipulate public morals. The networks are in the business of making money. Since advertising rates are based on viewership, they will show whatever they think the most people will want to watch, whether that is a movie with the word "naked" in the title or LDS General Conference.
Right now, viewers are voting with their television dials and telling programmers that they like their shows sexy and violent. And that's just what they're going to get until they begin sending the networks a different message.
Letters of protest to the respective entertainment divisions will help (addresses can be found inside the back page of the Deseret News TV Week magazine). But even more important are national viewing habits. The plague of trashy, exploitive television can be battled in much the same way Americans are battling the plague of drugs - at its root, by viewers who refuse to watch programs that are aimed specifically at purient interests. You'll be amazed at how quickly the downward trend of television standards will be reversed if viewers will learn to "just say no" to bad TV.