I haven’t seen the episode of Law and Order: SVU that Lee Goldberg pans here, but one of the points he makes is a very interesting one: that even as networks have tightened language/sex censorship in the post-Janet-Jackson era, those same networks have loosened or all but eliminated restrictions on violence, blood, mutilation. Some network shows probably have more violence, or at least more exploitative violence, than The Sopranos (where violence was usually more like real life: sudden, horrifying and unattractive), and apart from violence, the level of exploitative/prurient content seems to be up.
On broadcast network TV now, you can show almost as much blood as you want….hell, you can spend five minutes with the camera lingering on the autopsy of a charred corpse…and discuss in explicit detail the murder, rape and mutilation of the man, woman or child before they were set ablaze. That’s entertainment!
But don’t you dare show a woman’s nipple (unless it has been mutilated and belongs to a corpse) or two people naked (unless they’re covered in blood and, preferably, dead), or having sex (unless you’re rescuing a victim from being molested or raped) because then you’ve crossed a line.
On “free” TV we can show graphic violence but not two people in love having sex. We can show naked corpses on an autopsy table, and even watch as they are cut open and their guts exposed, but we can’t show two naked people in bed.
What the hell is the matter with us?
I have to think there’s some cause-and-effect going on here: the more restrictions the networks operate under with regard to sex and nudity, the more they pump up the violence, which brings in fewer complaints (at least from the pressure groups that really worry the network executives). It’s kind of screwed-up that violence on TV probably gets fewer angry letters than sex between consenting adults, but that’s the way it is. Also, on shows like CSI, SVU and even shows without initials in them, there’s a sense of traditional morality that pervades the whole thing. The bad guys get punished, but also, people get punished in the Old Hollywood, Hays Code type of way for enjoying sex too much. (I like CSI, but its biggest weakness has always been that so many of its plots hinge on the idea that women, horror-movie-style, get killed after having sex.) TV still suffers from Brenda Walsh’s disease, named for the way Darren Star got into trouble for letting Brenda lose her virginity to Dylan on the original, non-sucky 90210. You can have all the exploitative content you want, but anything non-exploitative is a big risk.