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Jewish World Review Sept. 7, 2001 / 18 Elul, 5761

Diana West

Diana West
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Consumer Reports

We want our #$%^&*() audience back! -- IF the words "new fall season" trigger Pavlovian spasms of yawning, you are not alone. From across the land, a veritable chorus of wordless but quite expressive moans of boredom carries to Hollywood, where broadcast network executives struggle against the din of a nation's worth of remote controls clicking away from "the big three"-- NBC, ABC and CBS -- to their smaller cable competitors.

No more. This season, the broadcast networks are making a stand to fight for their audiences. How so? Could it be that they will finally unveil stories that engage their viewers without a single terminal illness or beetle larva? Might they offer comedies that rely on actual wit rather than toilet bowls? Hardly. According to a front-page report in the New York Times, the networks' solution to restore their endangered audiences is--get this--to put more dirty words on the air.

This is not a joke, it's a movement. The networks are being inundated this year with scripts "that include every crude word imaginable, including one considered to be on the furthermost reaches of decorum," the newspaper reports, hinting that this latter term "has to do with the making of stem cells." (I don't know what it is, either.) Aaron Sorkin, he who produces NBC 's "The West Wing" when he is not being busted for drug possession, is hoping his network will break with tradition and allow one of his characters to "curse in a way that uses the L-rd's name in vain"--a great dramatic moment in the making, no doubt.

Steven Bochco, whose series, "Philly," is described as "a new legal drama"-yawn, again--is urging ABC to let him present the American public with "a scatological reference that has never been uttered on an ABC series." The article goes on to explain that the "scatological reference" on the table (not literally) is "one considered tougher than the profanities already in use on [Mr. Bochco's] police drama, `N.Y.P.D. Blue.' " Can't wait to hear it.

And we probably will. Although ABC has nixed Mr. Bochco's initial request, he intends to keep pushing the old envelop until his pet word, whatever it may be, gets on the air. Maybe he should try NBC. There, as the New York Times rather melodramatically puts it, "at the point of impact in television 's clash between morality, taste and creativity" sits one Alan Wurtzel, the man in charge of standards and practices, a.k.a. naughty words and pictures.

And what does Alan "point of impact" Wurtzel do? He ducks. "My objective," Mr. Wurtzel explains, "is to get things on the air, within our standards, with the understanding that our standards are continually changing and evolving."

Devotees, no doubt, will regard this--how to put it?--flexible style of gatekeeping as serving the cause of "realism" and "honesty," a notion that is certainly debatable in a world where life, more than ever before, obsessively, even slavishly, imitates what is loosely referred to as "art."

(Ask yourself how many schoolboys, office clerks and hairdressers ever cussed casual blue streaks at schools, water coolers and beauty salons before the advent of, among other things, weekly "realism" programs.)

But there is something more offensive about the Cause for Cussing than the by-now thoroughly depleted words themselves. Not only are we expected to ennoble potty talk as cultural totems of truth--awful enough--we are also expected to regard such talk as a marker of maturity, both for individuals and for society in general. The New York Times illustrated its article with a table charting the increase of televised explicitness, from the first appearance of a woman's belly button in prime time ("Dr. Kildare," 1964), to "the first prime-time series in which a teenage lead character is stripped of virginity" ("James at 16," 1978), to "situations like a visit to a brothel and characters deconstructing a woman's breast in graphic detail" ("The Job," 2001). That's progress for you-- certainly enough to make you feel realistic, if not honest.

But does it make you feel adult--as in grown-up? Mature? That's how such material is always categorized. According to most dictionaries, "mature" means "highly developed, perfected, worked out, considered"--none of which applies to the pitifully narrow mode of expression and subject matter increasingly in vogue. Still, the arbiters of taste insist, such language and subject matter is a "maturing" influence. "Broadcast television can grow up as the rest of the country does," Mr. Sorkin, "The West Wing" producer, declared. "And there's no reason why we can't use the language of adulthood in programs that are about adults."

But is it? And are they?

JWR contributor Diana West is a columnist and editorial writer for the Washington Times. Comment by clicking here.


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© 2001, Diana West