TELEVISION CONFRONTS THE CONTRACEPTIVE ISSUE : Contraceptives Go Prime Time as TV Tackles Yet Another Once-Taboo Issue
At one point this season, “Dallas,” “Dynasty” and “The Colbys” were simultaneously featuring story lines involving unplanned pregnancies. None of the characters ever suggested that the pregnancies could have been prevented; they simply were viewed as the result of rotten luck.
Avoidance has been prime-time television’s traditional approach to the subject of birth control.
But no longer is it the only approach.
Indeed, this has been a breakthrough season for the discussion of contraceptives and birth control on prime-time series.
The issue has been broached on “Cagney & Lacey,” “Kate & Allie” and the now-canceled “Heart of the City.”
Just last week an unmarried pregnant woman on “St. Elsewhere” remarked that she should have had her lover “condomized.”
And coming up Sunday on NBC’s comedy series “Valerie” is an episode in which the 17-year-old character of David (Jason Bateman) purchases a box of condoms in preparation for a planned sexual affair.
“It’s like news of spring,” Dr. J. Hugh Anwyl, executive director of Planned Parenthood of Los Angeles, said of this explosion of candor on the tube. “It’s a meager beginning, but I’m certainly delighted that it’s a beginning.”
It is that. Barney Rosenzweig, executive producer of “Cagney & Lacey,” said that CBS officials told him the Dec. 1 episode of his police series marked the first time the word condom had been used in a prime-time drama.
The word was mentioned as Mary Beth Lacey (Tyne Daly) discussed with her husband what sexual information they should be giving their 16-year-old son. To further stress the importance of avoiding an unwanted pregnancy, Lacey later told the boy of the abortion she had once had.
“Television is always showing premarital sex but it won’t talk about contraceptives. That’s very hypocritical,” said Georgia Jeffries, who wrote the “Cagney & Lacey” episode. “We wanted to make a brave and explicit statement to parents to teach their children about safe sex.”
But while Rosenzweig said that CBS readily approved the birth-control episode, “Valerie” co-executive producer Thomas Miller reported that NBC was not so amenable about the episode coming Sunday.
In it, David winds up in bed with a teen-age house guest. When she suggests making love, he asks, “Are you on the pill or something?” She says no and asks whether he has anything they could use. He doesn’t.
They hold off that night but make a date for the following afternoon. In the meantime, she tells him, “You could just go down to the drugstore and pick up some protection--you know, condoms.”
Miller said that NBC’s West Coast broadcast standards department balked at the scene and initially told him they would not permit the use of the word condoms . The producers were adamant, however, and filmed the scene as written, he said, deciding to let network executives in New York make the final call.
After that, the producers didn’t hear anything more, Miller said. He’s not sure why--but said that the fact the episode was originally suggested by Warren Littlefield, a vice president at NBC Entertainment, may have had something to do with it. An NBC spokesman said the broadcast standards department did not want to comment on its role in the “Valerie” episode.
“What’s real disturbing to me about this is not the threat of censorship, it’s how far behind the times we are,” Miller said. “I look back at ‘The Brady Bunch,’ one of the first shows I worked on, and wonder how far we’ve come. It’s like the Dark Ages. I would hope that 10 years from now, people will look back and say, ‘They wrote an article about this ? What was the big deal?’ ”
NBC plans to insert an advisory at the beginning of the “Valerie” episode suggesting to parents that, because of the sensitive subject matter, they watch with their children. The advisory does not describe the nature of the subject matter.
Miller and Rosenzweig said that they were well aware that some viewers have religious and moral objections to birth control and that still others believe television shouldn’t try to usurp the parental role in opening the subject for discussion. But they said the reasons to deal with the issue carried far more weight.
“We did not consider the issue of safe sex a controversial issue,” Rosenzweig said. “Anyone who would argue that it is has to be in a fanatical minority. The problems that this country faces are so enormous when it comes to teen-age pregnancies, venereal disease and the incredible mass of uneducated young people going out and getting into trouble, that I think there can be little or no controversy on the subject. Only someone in a bastion of conservatism--like the networks--would think that this may offend somebody. That’s a joke.”
“To ignore that kids have hormones and are interested (in sex) is to be living in the Stone Age,” Miller said. “I don’t care what religion you are, to close your eyes to things that exist is not to be living in the real world.”
That is precisely the charge that Planned Parenthood and other birth-control advocates have been leveling against the networks for years.
“Television is obviously the major sex educator of our times, at least in terms of attitudes conveyed,” said Anwyl of Planned Parenthood. “The fact that they’re finally taking their role seriously is very significant.”