Just when you thought television entertainment had reached the point of maximum kitsch, along came November sweeps, when the networks display their finery for the Nielsen Company. On ABC, "The Victoria's Secret Fashion Show" exposed close to all the skin of impossibly buff lingerie models. Fox rolled out, "Temptation Island 2," an hour of impossibly buff young women and men intriguing and arguing while wearing little more than thong bikinis and boxer shorts. When you want to argue with someone about a relationship, don't you immediately strip to a bikini or boxer shorts?
CBS's "CSI" became the network's first prime-time entertainment drama to show bare female breasts--but for medical reasons! The view was of the naked corpse of an impossibly buff young murder victim. Oh, and she was a dominatrix. There are a lot of gorgeous dominatrixes out there, and it's about time a network show tackled the issue of the risks they face.
Many parents and other viewers have begun to protest the fleshy network outpouring, especially the Victoria's Secret lingerie romp, which seemed to exist for no purpose other than cheesecake-driven ratings. It aired at 9 p.m., treading on the Federal Communications Commission "decency" rule, which asks networks to show adult-oriented material only after 10 p.m., when most children are in bed. It's possible there will be some sort of FCC hearing on ABC's decision to show its jiggle-fest too early.
This begs the larger question. Should we be upset when television beams into our homes images of nudity? Should government prevent such displays, or punish networks that skirt "decency" rules?
Nevertheless, a lot was shown on "The Victoria's Secret Fashion Show." Is that wrong?
For children, the answer is yes. Research tends to show that what is viewed does have impact on the development of young minds. For instance long-running studies by Leonard Eron, a psychologist at the University of Michigan, demonstrate that the more television violence boys watch in childhood, the more likely they are to commit violent crimes as adults. After about age 19, this effect stops; when those over 19 watch violent entertainment it does not influence their behavior because their personalities have already formed. Thus making a distinction between what children may see and what adults may see isn't some old-fashioned notion--it is supported by research. Adults should watch what they please. Children and teenagers should not.
Eron's research does not address sexual material, but presumably there would be an adolescent effect there was well. Adults watching "The Victoria's Secret Fashion Show" may like or dislike it, but their formed personalities won't be affected. Children and adolescents, whose coming of age is already highly sexualized in American culture, may have tormented reactions to too much sexuality on TV. This could obtain whether it's nudity or merely talk of sex as part of comedy and drama plots, which increasingly depict characters as far more sexually preoccupied than is the case even for sexually active real people.
The more rational worry is that half-naked women and loads of sex talk put sexual pressure on the young, especially pressure to become active too early. Adults may not imitate what they see on TV, but kids surely do. Television producers rarely show characters smoking, because they don't want kids to imitate that behavior. Why shouldn't we expect sexuality to be imitated as well? Visions of half-naked babes or hunks--and sexually preoccupied plots, since what kids hear is just as important as what they see--simply aren't appropriate for children and young adolescents. While government should not censor such material, networks should simply decline to present it, especially before 10 p.m.
Nudity and other images of sexuality ought, though, to be placed into perspective with images of killing and violence, which television avidly promotes. Studies now show that the average American child will by the age of 18 have seen a stunning 40,000 depictions of killings in television and at the movies. Most kids turn out all right despite this onslaught, but at least some must be desensitized to violence because of it. And even if watching violence never makes you commit violence, what kind of society considers depictions of murder and whimpering victims as entertainment?
Here's an example. According to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, during the past decade, an average of 156 U.S. law-enforcement officers have died in the line of duty each year. That's far too many, yet television would make you think police are being gunned down left and right. Police officers on "NYPD Blue" have been murdered far out of proportion to what has ever happened in any actual New York precinct. The series finale of the show "Walker Texas Ranger" depicted nearly two dozen policemen being gunned down. This is as unlike real-world policing as Victoria's Secret models are unlike real-world sex. Yet which of the two does more harm to the social fabric in its showing?
Even local television news could be worse for us than women in lingerie. Studies by Jason Ditton of University of Sheffield in England, show that 45 percent of crimes discussed on American local news shows involve rape or violence, though these are less than three percent crimes overall. This suggests to the impressionable young that violence and murder are norms to be imitated. Again the effects may be anything from encouraging more crime to simply causing us to live fearfully in a society that seems more dangerous than it really is.
Bare breasts may not belong on any TV that kids can see, but compared to excessive depictions of killings and the media glamorization of violence, glimpses of human skin are fairly low on the list of what ought to worry us about television.
And remember, if you don't like fleshy shows, you and you alone exercise the ultimate power over television--to turn it off. Many of our complaints against television could be resolved by simply turning off the tube. Until we're willing to stop watching, the leverage will be on the side of producers that want to show us junk.