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NBC in an HBO World

Over the years, TV's standards have eroded. To many people -- including the Parents Television Council -- this means that TV is playing to our baser natures, sullying the airwaves with wanton depictions of sex and violence. To me, it means that TV is dropping barriers that prevent the medium from accurately reflecting many aspects of the real world.

We're both right.

The real world has ugly violence (blood and gore and pain, not the video-game stuff of The A-Team), nasty language aplenty (no, "freakin'" is not a nasty word), and sex galore (and not the kind where everybody's got a blanket covering them up). But the networks must pretend that a lot of stuff that's part of everyday life doesn't really happen, because to show it would be to violate the standards of broadcast television.

The PTC's name indicates its position: its members believe that kids shouldn't be exposed to such things. And they're somewhat right, although the PTC's standards don't match mine. For example, they red-light Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a show I'd recommend to any teenager, especially teenaged girls.

Broadcast television's "standards" result in a jarring disconnect between what would happen in real life and what has to happen on television. Sure, I can accept the existence of vampires when I'm watching Buffy -- but it's harder to accept that an extremely angry person would say "damn" or "crap" instead of stronger language. Sometimes I'm completely thrown by something on network TV because they clearly want to use a swear word, or they're clearly hiding someone's nipple, or they've clearly cut away from something violent -- just because of broadcast standards.

This is not to say that I'm advocating the transformation of Fox into HBO. (Although check back in 10 years, and it may be there.) But I am arguing that by adhering to these standards, no matter how tenuously, the entertainment products on network television shear even further away from reality and into a sanitized (but only slightly) fantasy world where bad words are never heard.

Apparently NBC president Bob Wright is chafing at these restrictions, too. That's why he frisbeed a letter to other Hollywood big shots about what The Sopranos means for the future TV content.

The question is, why now? After all, even if broadcast standards aren't as far down the road as me and my fellow libertines might prefer, they sure ain't what they used to be. We don't see Buffy's nipples, but we do see her moaning and groaning and having sex with her boyfriend. Yes, we hear someone on The West Wing call someone else a son-of-a-bitch, but we don't ever hear Toby curse a blue streak, which seems to be consistent with his character. We see all sorts of crazy shit on NYPD Blue, but that's Bochco, and what'cha gonna do about him?

No, what's got Bob Wright in a tizzy is all the attention being lavished on The Sopranos, a violent, profane, nasty show that gets away with murder (ho, ho) because it's on pay cable and has no standards police (except for grumpy Italian-American groups).

HBO folks think it's just sour grapes on Wright's part, but let's face it: Even those of us who aren't Mafiosi live in an HBO world, not an NBC world... at least to a point. The networks will always be hampered by "standards" that place a veil of artificiality over everything they produce. The veil has gotten thinner, but it's still there. And it probably always will be, because at some point you've gotta figure that the American viewing public -- I mean, people with a bit more sense than ultra-conservative groups like the Parents' Television Council -- would eventually complain if every TV show on television featured nudity, repeated use of the word motherfucker, and graphic violence.

Then again, the Fox network has succeeded, so perhaps not.

Ultimately, Bob Wright is upset because he sees HBO producing shows that are edgy, violent, profane, and critically acclaimed -- meanwhile, he's getting shat upon on a regular basis by people like the Parents' Television Council.

Well, boo hoo, Bob. The Sopranos may be a critical darling, but it gets a fraction of the ratings of your worst show -- excepting the XFL, of course. Either deal with the disappointment or invest in a cable channel all your own. What's that you say? You own several cable channels?

Well, that's different, then. Coming soon: MSNBC presents Nude Dateline with Fuckin' Stone Phillips.


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