- The Washington Times - Friday, March 22, 2002

Sex and violence on television is on the decline, but America's taste for the tawdry nevertheless is alive and well.

A new study released yesterday by the Center for Media and Public Affairs (CMPA) found that sexual material on television fell by 29 percent and violence by 17 percent in the last three years, based on a sampling of 284 broadcast and cable shows. Titillating content had either disappeared altogether or lost its edge, according to their research.

With comedic references to nudity and considerable on-camera amour, NBC's "Friends," for example, was once rated prime time's most sex-heavy show by the CMPA. Now it's out of the top 10, having mended both language and content. The syndicated series "Xena, the Warrior Princess," formerly rated the most violent, is off the air altogether.

Still, the study called NBC the "raunchiest" network and deemed CBS the most violent. Moreover, broadcast networks were found naughtier than cable: The study discovered that sexual content and violence fell by 31 percent and 11 percent, respectively, on broadcast TV; and 49 percent and 65 percent on cable channels.

"Things appear to be moving in the right direction," Sen. Sam Brownback said yesterday. The Kansas Republican has long been a critic of prurient TV and attributed the numbers presented yesterday to vocal parents and "good corporate citizenship."

The networks, of late, appear to be falling all over themselves to be good corporate citizens.

Yesterday, ABC entertainment President Susan Lyne told a meeting of media buyers that the network had "lost its way," and vowed to return to traditional family-oriented comedies and dramas. And on Wednesday, NBC swore off televised ads for hard liquor after weeks of criticism from lawmakers and interest groups.

Not everyone is on the squeaky-clean bandwagon, however. Ratings reveal that viewers still favor tacky fare.

According to Nielsen Media Research, the most-watched program last week was CBS' newest "Survivor" series, which treated 20 million viewers to a vision of public urination. NBC garnered 17 million witnesses for a worm-eating, celebrity version of "Fear Factor," while Fox's coarse and gaudy "Celebrity Boxing" drew in 15 million viewers.

Fox also is currently developing "The Girl Next Door: The Search for a Playboy Centerfold," which features two hours of scantily clad women, including a mother and a stockbroker.

Numbers also speak on cable. ESPN and sister channel ESPN2 recently aired two versions a salty-language and a vulgarity-free edition of "A Season on the Brink," a film based on the life of basketball coach Bob Knight. Six times as many viewers opted to watch the salty version.

Rife with nudity and profanity, FX's new cop show, "The Shield," opened with the best ratings in the history of scripted TV shows.

"It could present a paradox: The networks are cleaning up their act, but America still likes the tawdry," said Robert Thompson, a TV and media analyst with Syracuse University. "If that's the case, it will throw a whole monkey wrench into network schemes to give viewers what they want, and get those ratings."

"It's complicated. Is 'Celebrity Boxing' truly lurid and sexy, or is it just a schlocky sports event? And what is real violence? Seeing dead bodies on 'ER' is not the same as seeing them on 'The Sopranos.' It is a subjective judgment call," Mr. Thompson said.

Contact Jennifer Harper at [email protected]washingtontimes.com or 202/636-3085.

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