Trash TV: recycling broadcast garbage

By Laura Bulkeley GoldsmithReprinted from Dispatches

May 1995 – It’s amazing that so little attention has been paid to the new “networks,” UPN (United Paramount Network) and WB (Warner Brothers), both of which launched in January 1995. Remember Terry Rakolta? She was the woman vilified for her stand against the new Fox network’s Married... With Children, way back in 1987. Her name, to the Hollywood establishment, became synonymous with cretinism and censorship. Others who have since spoken out against Fox or any of the programming that since has soiled the airwaves (such as Donald Wildmon of the American Family Association) have likewise been demonized and/or silenced by the mainstream media.

Most of us in the general public are so desensitized to crassness, we don’t even consider complaining any more. It no longer occurs to us to be outraged by what we see on television.

For example, use of foul language on prime-time TV has skyrocketed in the past four years, according to researcher Barbara K. Kaye of Southem Illinois University. She studied two weeks of prime time – one from 1990 and another from 1994 – on NBC, ABC, CBS and Fox and found that foul language increased 45% during that period. The biggest increase was in sitcoms. Off-color jokes shot up 370% from 1990 to 1994. Sitcom viewers, Kaye says, now hear a dirty word every five minutes on average. And the number of foul words airing before 9 p.m. ET/PT (8 p.m. CT/MT)jumped from 99 to 192 (94%) in that same period. In the study, she considered everything from the so-called seven dirty words (she heard four of the seven) to profanity, epithets and scatological words.

Kaye has expressed her understandable concern that younger viewers “will mimic what they see on TV and come to believe that verbal abuse and swearing are acceptable ways to express anger and disappointment. It’s a form of verbal aggression – when we use cuss words to insult each other.”

If Ms. Kaye had continued her research into 1995 and included the emergence of the two new networks, her numbers would have been even more scandalous. Trying to outdo Fox in the vulgarity department, both UPN and WB are apparently attempting to find a similar demographic niche – appealing to men between the ages of 18 and 34. Oh, men, they give you so little credit!

Jamie Kellner, of Warner Brothers, says “I read somewhere that we make Fox look like the Learning Channel, which is a compliment, I guess.” And he is not kidding. What’s happening on these networks? Well, a woman and her stepson are caught fornicating in a steam bath by her husband, who promptly dies. A seven-year-old wonders aloud whether his mother has entered menopause, and laughter is heard. A hypnotist convinces a beautiful waitress that he’s Sylvester Stallone so that she’ll have sex with him, pleasing both “big and little Rambo.”

Lesbians abound. “How many times do I have to tell you, Randy, I’m a lesbian,” says Tess, the good-looking super on UPN’s Pig Sty. The same network’s Platypus Man executed many k.d. lang [lesbian country singer] jokes when star Richard Jeni suspects his female sportswriter neighbor of being gay. Not to be outdone, WB’s Muscle pictured a lesbian character ogling a scantily clad woman while uproarious laughter is featured on a laugh track in overdrive.

Warner also scored a crassness coup when it snagged Married…With Children creator Ron Leavitt to produce a sequel of sorts: Unhappily Ever After. This show is about life after divorce in which the ex-husband, Jack, is seen living with a talking stuffed bunny (no kidding) with the voice of Bobcat Goldthwait. The bunny enjoys porno movies and says things like, “Stop thinking with your carrot, boy.” After a date, he asks Jack, “So, did you ram her? Boff her?” Cute.

Kellner says, “We’re a little more irreverent than we want to be right now. You have to push stuff over the line to be able to pull it back.” Fox’s run-ins with outraged viewers and family organizations proved profitable. Rakolta’s boycott of advertisers backfired; Married... is currently the longest-running sitcom on any network. UPN and WB are fervently hoping for the same results.

All we can do, seemingly, is arm ourselves with solid, quantitative information (thanks to researcher Kaye); be aware of the manipulative, devious mechanics of it all; tell others; hide the kids and for goodness’ sake, TURN IT OFF.