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Oh, Is TV Naughty

The new broadcast-network season officially began last week, and, without thinking too much about it, I can count hearing one reference to fellatio and one to cunnilingus. Also sticking in my prurient mind is the first scene of NBC's Las Vegas, in which the male star of the show was being ridden vigorously—woman-on-top style—at the moment her father (who is also his boss) walked into the room.

I am not shocked by any of the above. But it reminds me that, before just about every show on television, there is now a content rating that is supposed to be some guide to what kind of program is about to follow.

Most shows are TV-PG, but several, like Las Vegas and the new Coupling, are TV-14, which generally means that parents are "strongly cautioned" to monitor the show before they let kids 14 or younger watch.

If your kids, 14 or over, had watched the premiere of Coupling (as you monitored the show with them, of course), they would have witnessed 22 minutes of libidinous behavior and yapping about condoms, panties, bisexuality and masturbation.

Probably, because your kids watch television more than you, they wouldn't have thought Coupling was very daring at all, just Friends with cheaper sets and more potty mouths. Maybe not even that. On Comedy Central's South Park, the word shit was used 162 times in one episode two years ago, purposely to offend. Kids have pretty much seen and heard it all.

The fact is, very few kids watched Coupling—just over 1.2 million between the ages of 2 and 17, according to Nielsen. Out of a total audience of 15 million for the premiere episode, that's not many.

When these content guides began appearing in 1997, the industry thought they would just ruin television, intimidating producers into cleaning up their acts and persuading advertisers to stay away.

But the rules are pretty much a sham, and so were the fears. Coupling costs advertisers more per 30-second commercial than any new show this year.

It's apparent to me that whatever monitoring is done happens because parents with just a whiff of media intelligence hear of a show called Coupling on NBC Thursday night and figure out the premise. Or they see promos, which show up all over the place and are, to use the old Catholic phrase I grew up with, "suggestive in part."

Unlike the ratings the movie industry issues, television's content ratings are administered by the networks or the producers. And unlike at the movies, the rating is displayed in the upper right-hand corner of the screen for a few moments usually when the program has already begun and barely long enough to be interpreted. At the movies, the rating fills the screen.

What's more, except for NBC, the ratings are augmented with other descriptors: V for violence; S for sexual situations; L for strong, coarse language; or D for intensely suggestive dialogue. There's virtually no place to find out what those letters mean, and I've never seen even one public-service announcement explaining the ratings to viewers or encouraging parents to use them. I believe those PSAs exist; I've just never seen one. I have never heard of any parents who check the rating of a television show either.

Still, I wish the ratings were better. They could provide a good guide to parents and also act as protection when networks want to delve into more risqué or violent themes.

On the other hand, ratings seem so impossible and so dated now. Like it or not, over the years, the whole sex thing has gotten just plain twisted. Recently, Britney Spears appeared scantily clad on the kickoff special for the squeaky-clean NFL and, shortly afterward, on a music awards show French-kissing Madonna. Somehow, I think that would have raised more eyebrows a few years ago than it does today. Which, ultimately, is what makes the sex talk and sex scenes on the network premieres so pathetic: The producers may believe viewers still think it's edgy when, in reality, it's just redundant and almost old-fashioned. You could argue that network television and Maxim magazine are the only places that seem still to attach illicit values to sexual activity. To the rest of us, it's just commerce.

Bednarski may be reached at