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Pixelization makes TV ‘nudity’ a blurry issue

Krysten Ritter is pixeled in the show "Don't turst the B---- in Apt. 23."
(ABC)

Howie Mandel wore black high-top shoes — and nothing else — during a remote shoot for NBC’s “America’s Got Talent.” Krysten Ritter strolled around in the altogether, casually snacking and chatting on ABC’s “Don’t Trust the B— in Apartment 23.” And Ashton Kutcher greeted visitors on CBS’ “Two and a Half Men” in shaggy shoulder-length hair and his birthday suit.

These aren’t clips from “Networks Gone Wild,” but scenes from the recent broadcast season where instances of “full nudity” have skyrocketed. The trick, of course, is that the actors just appear to be naked — the censor-offending, federally banned body parts blurred beyond recognition by the wonders of modern editing.

Known as pixelization, the post-production technique, which displays a certain area of a photo or footage at a much lower resolution, came into wider use years ago largely in TV news, documentaries and reality programs. There, the practice obscured product placements, and distorted everything from a license plate number to a human face to protect privacy rights.

But now television writers are using the tactic as a sight gag and a way to attract attention, in much the same way that scripted programming commonly bleeps out censored language. The stars themselves are almost always not in their birthday suits anyway. Instead, they are outfitted with body suits or swimsuits that are later erased or covered up with special effects, according to producers and industry insiders.

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In the 2010-11 television season, there was one instance of pixelized “full frontal nudity” on the major networks. This season, there were 64, according to new research by the Parents Television Council, a nonprofit Los Angeles-based media watchdog group.

Though the nudity is usually phony, this use of pixelization pokes at the standards of what is considered decent and underscores a larger debate about what should be allowed on television. Part of that conversation recently reached the U.S. Supreme Court, where justices struck down fines for ABC and Fox, which had aired partial nudity and swear words. The broader issue, however, of just how far networks can push the boundaries of their content was left unaddressed.

None of the networks contacted would comment on the PTC’s pixelization findings, saying privately that implied nudity is a far cry from R-rated fare. The practice isn’t prohibited, or even specifically addressed, in guidelines of the Federal Communications Commission, they add.

Dennis Wharton, executive vice president of communications at the National Assn. of Broadcasters, defended the networks’ right to use the editing technique. “It appears that many if not most of the programs cited by the PTC did not involve actual nudity,” Wharton said in an email after reviewing some of the PTC’s examples. “Nonetheless, broadcasters are committed to empowering parents with program ratings and program-blocking technologies that allow them to screen out content that might be inappropriate for children.”

Real or not, PTC President Tim Winter said that pixilated flesh is “unfortunate, unnecessary and offensive to the family audience” and that it happened more often in 7 to 9 p.m. shows, when kids could be watching, than in those airing after 10 p.m. Nor did the shows’ ratings always warn parents of sensitive content.

Karen Sternheimer, a USC sociology professor writing a book on pressure groups that try to censor popular culture, said a study like the PTC’s is a way to “galvanize the troops,” though she sees it as a futile attempt to sway policy.

“The legal trends over at least the past 60 years have been toward protecting the 1st Amendment, so it’s a losing battle,” Sternheimer said. “It’s a tactic, though I hesitate to call it a study in the scientific sense, and it speaks to like-minded people. But it’s not likely to change content on network TV.”

Indeed, networks, locked in a battle for viewers with more permissive basic and premium cable channels, have been pushing for more latitude to air edgy programming.

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Pixelization looks more realistic than, say, a black bar across intimate areas, and its use has jumped drastically, according to the PTC. In the 2010-11 season, for instance, black bars covered implied nudity 87% of the time. A year later, blurring and pixelization had become the special effect of choice, 74% of the time.

“The blur gives you a different impact visually, and the person appears to be completely nude,” Winter said. “That’s a huge leap from where we’ve ever been on broadcast TV before.”

During an episode of NBC’s “The Office"last season, characters played by James Spader,B.J. Novak and Zach Woods stripped off their clothes and jumped into a swimming pool with co-workers at a company party. Plenty of pixelization ensued.

The series, done in mockumentary style, used pixelization because it mirrors what’s done on reality shows, said former producer Aaron Shure. Writers and producers consciously chose it because it’s part of the gag. “The pixelation itself can be the joke,” Shure said. “If a character walked around nude, it would be shocking but not funny. There’s something visually entertaining about scrambled pixels.”

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Comedian and late night host Jimmy Kimmel takes that one step further on his regular segment, “This Week in Unnecessary Censorship,” which he calls an ode to the FCC. The"Jimmy Kimmel Live!” sketch uses pixelization and bleeps to alter completely nudity- and profanity-free TV clips, making them seem dirty and subversive.

John Gross, a veteran visual effects supervisor at L.A.-based Eden FX, said he and other effects executives are often asked to add pixels or shadow parts of actors’ bodies so network shows will pass muster with censors. They also draw clothes back on so that programs can be sold to international markets more modest than the U.S.

Obvious pixelization that is meant to be part of the scene is rare compared to other special effects, he said. “We’re asked far more often to do vanity and makeup fixes and scrub out corporate logos than we are to do nudity covers,” Gross said. “But we do blur out things that producers didn’t mean to show or that networks won’t show, like butt cracks.”

Melissa Rosenberg, veteran screenwriter, used pixelization to hide private parts in her upcoming NBC drama pilot, “Red Widow.” A love scene between two characters inadvertently showed too much skin, and it took several tries with editing and effects to pass the network censors, she said.

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PHOTOS: indecency through the years

“The networks have very strict, very specific guidelines, and they haven’t relaxed in the slightest, in my experience,” Rosenberg said. “It gets down to frame-by-frame cutting, and you just hope that by the end you haven’t butchered the scene so it looks ridiculous.”

She and other show runners said they find it strange that there’s more uproar over perceived nudity than realistic-seeming violence. “In any procedural, medical or cop drama, you’ll see rapes and mutilations and blood, and that’s OK,” she said, “but God forbid you show the side of a boob, which is most definitely not OK.”

calendar@latimes.com

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