by David Sisler

When U.S. News & World Report released its report card on the instances of sex per hour on television soap operas, none of the big three networks received a "G" rating. NBC was the cleanest (and that's like being a little bit pregnant) with 4.6 occurrences per hour. Don't forget that commercial interruptions take 15 to 20 percent of the time, so that's 4.6 occurrences in about 45 minutes. ABC was second with 7.2, and CBS led the risque way with 7.7.

No pleas for censorship here. Just the observation that when viewers finally activate the automatic censor which manufacturers build into every set--the off button--and advertising rates drop because no one is watching, network executives will finally get the message.

I remember a few years ago when a man who was charged with a series of particularly brutal murders plead not guilty due to "involuntary television intoxication." His lawyers argued that he had been influenced by what he had seen on television--murder, rape, mayhem--therefore, he was not to be held accountable for his actions.

To the surprise of absolutely no one, television executives said they couldn't be held accountable, because television doesn't influence anyone's behavior.

There is an attempt here at wool-pulling and I'm not sure whose eyes are being covered by whom. You can't have it both ways. Either television influences behavior or it does not. If television advertisements convince people to buy products, join organizations, or visit vacation spots--and if it didn't work those businesses wouldn't be spending billions of dollars buying commercials--then the life-styles exhibited on the same television programs also influence behavior.

The power of television is something we try to embrace and deny, all at the same time.

Take for example, the dilemma which faced the management of local ABC affiliate, WJBF. For almost two years they refused to broadcast "NYPD Blue." Community standards were cited as the reason the program was omitted from the station's programming. The nudity and foul language were too much for local viewers to reasonably accept, management said.

But then a few months ago, something curious happened. "NYPD Blue" began to be noticed and before anyone could say "Nielson ratings," standards changed.

When he made the announcement, General Manager Louis Wall said, "The decision was made after looking at the tremendous success the show had in the November ratings. We want to do well at 10 p.m. both to have a strong lead-in for our news and because it's prime time, which is the biggest revenue time period" (emphasis added).

When shown on rival WFXG, "Blue" made the accounting department at WJBF blue. The replacement for the show that was earlier in poor taste, was doing poorly in the marketplace. "NYPD Blue" had more than triple the audience.

Mr. Walls said, "I still have some concerns about the content," but his change of heart was directly related to the station's bank account.

I saved the clippings about the Reynolds Street Blues, and waited. February advertising sweeps are history, and the next big push for ratings is on. Sweeps, you know, are those few days when there are no reruns, Tom Clancey writes for television, and Richard Chamberlain and Heather Locklear make mini-series. Networks hold sweeps so ad prices, and station revenues, can go up, even if the quality of programming does not.

Phil Donahue wanted to televise an execution because, "the public has the right to know." Jenny Jones surprised a male viewer with a boyfriend he never knew he had, and that, police allege was the reason for a murder.

What's next? Better yet, when will the garbage end?

Not, I suppose, until there really are standards more important than the corporate bottom line.


Published in the Augusta Chronicle 5/6/95

Copyright 1995 by David Sisler

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