Sex on TV: The Children Are Watching : Commentary: More and more adult fare is being scheduled during prime time. Are networks seriously considering the impact they have on young viewers--and the consequences they may be encouraging?


The issue of family values on TV--fueled by sexual attitudes in prime time--looks like fair game again on the basis of some fall network pilots.

At a time of growing concern over the number of children born to unmarried young mothers, many of them teen-agers, at least several new series present episodes involving first-date sex, with little or no mention of the possible serious consequences.

It was 1992 when then-Vice President Dan Quayle raised the family values flag by criticizing “Murphy Brown” because its unmarried lead character had a baby out of wedlock.


Despite the dispute that followed over Murphy Brown’s impact as a television role model, some argued that you could at least say she was a mature woman of means; others said that point was irrelevant. In any case, the series airs at 9 p.m., when network prime time presumably becomes a little more adult-oriented.

Thus, a show like “NYPD Blue” is broadcast at 10 p.m., when its adult frankness is far more suitable than it would be at 8 or 8:30, times usually regarded by the TV industry as drawing a heavy tune-in of kids.

Although the face of TV has changed drastically, with tawdry revelations on tabloid shows polluting the airwaves at seemingly all hours, the networks, with their huge audiences and empty blabbing about appealing to families, are still a kind of desperate last resort for some viewers.

Yet on Fox’s new sitcom “Hardball,” which airs at 8:30 p.m., we see a baseball pitcher in bed with his manager’s daughter, whom he has picked up in the stands, hardly knows and has just taken out for the first time.

On NBC’s new sitcom “Friends,” which also airs at 8:30 p.m. and otherwise has a nice freewheeling style, a young woman goes to bed on her first date with a fellow whose line is that he has not been able to perform sexually for several years. We don’t see them in the sack, but it is discussed quite openly.

You don’t have to be a prude to wonder about these things, and it’s hardly a secret that the kids who watch TV at 8 p.m., 8:30--or whatever hour--almost certainly know the facts of life. Still, you do have to ponder whether TV networks seriously consider anymore the impact they have on impressionable young viewers--and the consequences they may be encouraging.


Fox, well-known for appealing to the hormones of its core audience of young male viewers, has a new sitcom called “Wild Oats” that seems to have little on its mind besides sex. It is, at least, on at 9:30 p.m., but the single-mindedness of its obsession with sack time will not escape anyone of any age who can understand English--or interpret leers.

Prime time has hardly been chaste for quite some time now. But what often seems to be the arbitrary insertion of titillating material is now so common and overwhelming that it is numbing. Perhaps that is why “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman” succeeded following the “Murphy Brown” flap; its wholesomeness seemed almost shocking in TV’s current environment.

At any rate, the pilot of ABC’s new sitcom “All American Girl,” another 8:30 p.m. show, ends--for no apparent reason--with the family grandmother enjoying herself by watching a pornographic film on television. We don’t see the film, but the mesmerized grandma is told: “You know that’s pornography.”

Other series in the 8-9 p.m. network hour, supposedly a bastion of family viewing, also figure to spread sexual innuendo and action far and wide. Fox has moved the racy “Melrose Place” to 8 p.m. Mondays, and also has “Beverly Hills, 90210” at 8 p.m. Wednesdays and the openly suggestive situation comedy “Martin” at 8 p.m. Thursdays.

If the pilot is representative, perhaps the best new show of the season will be ABC’s “My So-Called Life,” which will be televised at 8 p.m. Thursdays. It was produced by the creators of “thirtysomething” and deals with the growing up of a female high school student. Yet at a family dinner in the hourlong series, an oddly jarring sequence takes place:

The student’s hip little sister bugs her mother for permission to watch a movie at home about a girl who gets obscene phone calls--”It’s like her job” . . . “and then somebody tries to kill her.” The preoccupied mother finally says OK.


In fairness, you could, I suppose, make a case for the creative rationale behind this surprising little exchange--the insights into the little girl and her mother and their states of mind amid the larger theme of growing up, and important clues to the family’s interaction. And yet, with so much other strength in the compelling overall episode, I found myself wondering whether this exchange was really necessary.

A sign of TV’s changing times came last year when NBC moved the sitcom “Mad About You,” which had dealt openly with sex, to 8 p.m. The series had, in effect, thrown down the gauntlet early on when its two lead characters--a husband and wife played by Paul Reiser and Helen Hunt--had intercourse on a kitchen table.

This was not first-date sex that might result in children born to a young, unwed mother--the couple was married and mature--but by slotting the series at 8 p.m., NBC was making a statement about its attitude in the new age of TV.

CBS, perhaps because of its older, more traditional audience, caught considerable flak when its relatively new sitcoms “Love & War” and “Hearts Afire” premiered in 1992 with lead characters who had clearly sexy relationships before much of a basis was established for these relationships. The lead couple in “Hearts Afire,” played by John Ritter and Markie Post, eventually got married.

Other popular series, from “Seinfeld” to “Roseanne,” have dealt openly with sexually oriented subjects.

But viewers may well be scrutinizing some of the fall’s new, early hour sexual goings-on with a more critical eye amid concern over births among young, unmarried women. Just this month, Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala, testifying before a congressional committee, also criticized Murphy Brown for having a baby out of wedlock.


More significant in the long term, it will be instructive to see whether the characters and role models who appear on TV series--especially at hours when younger viewers make up much of the audience--are altered creatively in the face of the fact that roughly 30% of today’s children are born to unwed mothers, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.

It’s an issue that goes well beyond Murphy Brown because numerous TV series, including some new ones, must come face-to-face with how to respond in a business that tramples over significant matters in the name of ratings.