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Shales on TV Live: Sex on the airwaves

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Tom Shales
Washington Post TV Columnist
Tuesday, October 12, 2010; 12:00 PM

Washington Post Style columnist and Pulitzer Prize winner Tom Shales was online Tuesday, Oct. 12, at Noon ET to discuss television, its cultural impact and his columns.

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Today's column: The media making a mess of sex on the airwaves

Shales, The Washington Post's chief television critic for 30 years, is the author of several books, including "On the Air," "Legends" and "Live From New York." His column, "Shales on TV," appears in the paper every Tuesday.

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Arlington, Va.: Re: your column. Ever notice, though, that the majority of the nudity you wrote about is female nudity? Even in the movies, male nudity is still taboo. So it's fine for women to be sexualized, but men, not so much.

Tom Shales: Hello Sex Fans -- I mean, TV Fans. And Post Chat Fans. Anyway, the old imbalance of which Arlington speaks -- Female Nudity plentiful, male nudity scarce -- is, for better or worse, changing substantially. Indeed men seem as likely to be displayed as sex objects for delectation as women are, and movies are even brandishing the long-banished "Mr. P" (I don't know how else to refer to it) -- the main point of male "full frontal" I guess -- fairly commonly, starting perhaps with the first of the Sex/City films. Hey, its out there. We only take note, we don't make judgments (well, not more than once per sentence....) and WELCOME.....

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Herndon, Va.: Mr. S: Great column (as usual) today about "sex" on TV. I'm old enough to remember when all an add for Maidenform bras could show was the upper torso of mannequin with a black sweater, wearing the bra. And Lucille Ball on "I Love Lucy" was never once "pregnant," she was "expecting" (or "specting," according to Desi Arnez). Even though L and D were really married, the most CBS could do for bedroom scenes was to have two twin beds pushed together. A married couple in one bed -- never! Today, of course, you can have any number of people of any age, sex and sexual orientation in bed, and the only problem is how big a lens the camera needs. Maybe the 50s weren't that bad . . .

Tom Shales: Yes yes, these are all venerable observations. Cut from my column today was an example of a 50s "sex scandal": Confidential magazine (the National Enquirer without the class) unearthed photos of kiddie star Pinky Lee demonstrating proper techniques to strippers during his burlesque career and splashed this shocker across a couple pages -- there was Pinky ("yoo-hoo, it's me, my name is Pinky Lee") shirtless but for two strategically placed bow ties. A shirtless Pinky!!!! Precursor by half a century or so of Derek Hough on Dancing with the Stars. Plus ca change? Not quite. There are people who WANT to see Derek Hough shirtless. I don't think many were thrilled at the prospect of peeking at Pinky.........

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washington post.com: The media making a mess of sex on the airwaves (Post, Oct. 12)

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St. Paul, Minn.: Hi Tom -- Thanks as always for taking questions. Remember back in the good old (or bad old?) 90s when advertisers got their you know whats in a bunch because "Thirtysomething" dared to show two men in bed together? And now we have "Modern Family" depicting a gay couple who, to borrow a phrase from Clinton (more 90s nostalgia) "look like America." Hasn't there been some progress, or do comments from bigots like Paladino indicate otherwise?

Tom Shales: Is it two steps forward, one step back -- or two steps forward, THREE steps back? If Paladino were to win, would he try to put his prehistoric sexual views into action somehow, through legislation or whatever? It seems doubtful. Then again, is he completely out of step with the times, or is he expressing reactionary views that many people, perhaps Agnew's old silent majority, privately cling to, while publicly trying to sound politically and socially correct? I ask you, dear readers o' ours (oops, the first time I typed "Dead Readers" -- glad i caught that one)........

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Alexandria, Va.: A local data point about American confusion about TV sexuality is Mhz, which runs European crime dramas "edited for objectionable content." This means breasts on statues are blurred out. A cop can empty an automatic weapon into a Sicilian kingpin at point blank range, but not inside an art museum!

Tom Shales: Mhz, yes, I think I have stumbled across that. The standards PC line about censorship is that taking out violence is okay but editing for sex is reactionary and foolish. But I have seen mangled versions of action movies that I thought were brutally censored just so sponsors would not get nervous. Sometimes the degree of violence is part of the point. You trim it way back and movies can stop making sense. But networks and stations don't care if the movies make sense, only if the commercials make money. Oh it's such an old story, I should not repeat it.......

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Chevy Chase, D.C.: Hey Tom:

Last night's airing of "Carlos" featured a fairly prolonged full-frontal nude shot of the protagonist. Perfectly acceptable: it's on cable, right? But shows on FX (cable-also) scrupulously avoid shots like that. Are the rules the same or is FX worried about its advertisers?

Tom Shales: Yes FX is worried about its advertisers, but advertisers who buy time on FX know that the cable channel's standards are MUCH more liberal (for lack of a better term) than, say, ABC CBS or NBC would be. For some reason, FX allows the four-letter slang word for excrement but virtually no other "naughty" language. I can understand removing blasphemy as leaving it in can offend religious groups. But what groups are offended by the vulgarism for poop ("poop" being utterly classy and proper, of course)? Then again, why argue for a relaxation of language standards on the networks? What does it get us, or society, or the cause of "realism"? Heaven knows there's enough crap on TV as it is........

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Chicago Ill.: With all the violence and gore on TV, what's the big deal about a little - gasp! - nudity? Who cares if sex is depicted? Anything's better than the murder, cruelty and suffering that seems to pass for family entertainment on network TV these days.

Tom Shales: I think you're right. I started to say (famous last words, along with "what I meant to say....") was that even sponsors are getting randier and "looser" in their standards. Have you seen the ads for "Axe" (I think that's it) and its line of men's cosmetics and toiletries? Hot stuff Both sexes in considerably compromising situations, nudge-nudge, know-what-I-mean??? Let's be plainspoken: Nowadays even commercials are likely to be dirty.

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Live Audience: Sweetening The Applause: Hi Tom. I have an ancedote re a topic that came a couple of weeks ago -- the sound/volume of applause with live audiences.

About 10 years ago I attended a live taping of Michael Moore's Bravo show at a college auditorium in Chicago. Basically, Moore would come out, intro a filmed piece and then outro with some more comments.

I happened to be sitting directly under a ceiling-mounted speaker, and could hear the actual sounds of the audience clapping or whatever, but on an about 0.5 to 1.0 second delay. To a production mic, this would sound like 2 audiences.

Now, I'm guessing TV studios in New York or Burbank do this with greater sophistication than a college auditorium.

Tom Shales: In fairness to Michael Moore (though he's not known for being very fair himself), maybe you were just subject to the whims of an audio glitch or "technical difficulties." Or as you assumed, it may have been a clumsy attempt at audience-reation "sweetening." I sat with Chevy Chase and some of his friends in a Hollywood sound lab once while Chevy called for titters, guffaws, horse-laughs or tiny chuckles in an NBC special he had taped a couple of weeks before. I was disappointed that he would participate in the same kind of sham that Saturday Night Live supposedly lived to mock. I don't think phony audience response has EVER been used on Saturday Night Live. If something dies, it dies -- in ghastly silence.... (Chevy was on his own by then)

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Arlington Gay: I would be one of those fans wanting to see Derek Hough shirtless, but I broke up with DWTS when I couldn't tell who was the celebrity vs. who was the pro.

Tom Shales: Good point. I hate to bring up SNL again, but on the most recent show, when they promo'd the next host and musical guest, I didn't recognize EITHER name. Am I getting old or are THEY getting desperate?.......

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Reston, Va.: Are you suggesting that there's something hypocritical about Erin Andrews prancing around in scanty clothes on TV?

I think there is a distinct difference between someone who gets to chose when, where and how they flaunt themselves and someone who is unknowingly photographed through hotel door keyholes.

It seems to suggest that if your privacy is violated, either don't complain or don't go on TV in skimpy outfits.

Tom Shales: I just wanted to raise the question. I certainly did not impugn Andrews' judgment or her sense of what's proper for her. I think many viewers, however, seeing this, may have found it worth a head-scratch or two. I completely sympathize with her and was appalled at the way she was treated by one of her "fans." With fans like that, you don't need assassins.

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Brooklyn, N.Y.: What I really miss is the way white people were stereotyped in Good Times. Every white character was an absolute baffoon. In fact, any time a white person showed up, you could hear the audience laughing in anticipation before anything happened because they knew the character was going to do something stupid.

Tom Shales: Perhaps. But I would put that under "remedial payback" for all the years in which Hollywood cast blacks only as buffoons -- as eye-popping "feet-don't-fail-me-now" types in silly comedies set in haunted houses and such -- to cite just ONE example of a wrongheaded racial stereotype. So the situation was reversed -- it was sort of a necessary "correction," don't you think? And it was basically a limited period in our history. Now things have settled back toward a state of near color-blindness -- characters not defined by their race.

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Dunn Loring, Va.: Can you explain why you falsely reported "that living saint Oprah Winfrey, and her gazillions of faithful followers, breathed sighs of relief when a teacher at Winfrey's Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa was acquitted of fondling and coddling students.'

Oprah actually said she was "profoundly disappointed" with the lack of conviction. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/10/11/AR2010101102886.html

Tom Shales: If she said that, then I do apologize. I guess I read the wrong account. I know Oprah had condemned the accused teacher even before there WAS a trial, which is not a particularly judicious way of responding. But there may be too many details of this case that I don't know. I will try to be better informed about it if I ever comment again.

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Burnt Hills, N.Y.: Hi Tom! Missed you last Tuesday.

Are there any restrictions on times when stations can air ads with sexual content? I was watching afternoon TV with my 18-year-old son last week when a Viagra ad came on. My son asked me, "how the heck do you explain THAT to a little kid?" I hear "Trojan Man" ads airing on the radio during morning drive time -- wouldn't that be a great little ditty for junior to share with his preschool class?

Tom Shales: There are no rules as enforced by, say, the FCC or any other governmental body. The industry used to have a self-policing arm (don't laugh; it was fairly effective) at the National Association of Broadcasters -- their Television Code. But that was struck down as a restraint of trade. Hmmm. Various stations and network have various in-house rules and regulations, which sounds like just what it is: Chaos. I remember when advertising condoms and ED remedies was first discussed; we were promised tasteful, classy ads in which the actual purpose of the products was only hinted at. HA HA. Look at them now. Those Viagra and Cialis ads during network newscasts (okay, children don't watch the news, but they're hardly off to bed at that hour) are so smuttily coy and cute -- a couple's desire to have sex is signaled, in one ad, by their kitchen collapsing and water water everywhere. And the new ads from KY are sexually explicit indeed. But then again - should ads that run on a network catering to young males have to hew to the same rules as ads that air on NBC ABC CBS or FOX prime time? That doesn't seem to make sense either and OWWWW DOES MY BACK ITCH . No literally -- that ain't any of your "Sexual Symbolism."

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Christian nudity: I find the legal definition between TV and cable amusing. Does anyone think children aren't finding nudity on cable? Plus, when you get a good Christian-valued series like "Saving Grace," wow, you see nudity plus.

Tom Shales: I know. It's a crazy time. CBS, through its affiliates and the stations it owns and operates, is subject to government regulation -- and even those idiotic, arbitrary and ridiculous FCC fines (as when Janet Jackson's nipple popped out at the Super Bowl) -- but TBS or TNN or Bravo or MTV or whoever -- all those cable networks -- which are reached via the same remote that brings in "Dancing with the Stars" -- are immune from regulation. If you were running CBS or ABC, you'd be justifiably irked, don't you think, at this kind of treatment?

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Wiredog: You can't be getting old! I'm only 45 and I have no idea who some of these people on SNL are, or why they're famous.

Also, get off my lawn.

Tom Shales: Oh yes of course - did I say "old"? As in "old" "old" ? I must have mis-typed. Computer error. Wardrobe malfunction. But I do not understand the lawn reference -- is there some poor soul passed out in your front yard who looks like me? Don't sit there, call 9-1-1. By the way, the new guy on SNL from Virginia, Jay Pharaoh (Forgive any misspellings please, he's brand new) did a BRILLIANT impression of Denzel Washington on Saturday Nights show. Most of the rest of it was bad, quite bad, but making a discovery like this newly discovered talent is gratifying. It's one of the best reasons to keep watching the show........

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Baltimore, Md.: Modern Family: I think what is most interesting about the committed gay couple on Modern Family is the way in which the characters of Mitchell and Cameron are used to bust gay stereotypes. Cameron is a farm boy from the Midwest who likes photographing their adopted daughter as Diana Ross, yet also enjoys football and working with tools. Mitchell, the less flamboyant one and an attorney, is depicted as being a danger to the community if he gets near a saw or a hammer. And Eric Stonestreet, who plays Cameron, is hetero in real life while Jesse Tyler Ferguson (Mitch) is gay. I really think the show has done a signal service by showing that gay people can be very different from one another and can also be very much like straight people.

Tom Shales: Thank you, Baltimore, for expressing it so well....

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Bethesda, Md.: It's too bad that producers and directors can't take a page from some of the movies from the 40's, where they managed to combine sexuality AND snappy outfits.

Tom Shales: Yes indeed. It's a common lament to imagine what movies of the 30s 40s and 50s would've been like if there hadn't been such heavy censorship via the Motion Picture Association's Code of Approval, or whatever it was called. And yes, parts of the code were ridiculous (you couldn't use the word "nuts" as a synonym for "crazy" for example). But the censorship had a valuable side effect: It forced writers, directors, all those involved in filmmaking to find alternate and often artful ways of portraying sex on the screen. Sometimes there were silly visual metaphors like the waves crashing on the rocks, but just as often there were ingenious, provocative and evocative techniques that were so much more imaginative than just divesting the actors of their clothes and throwing them into the sack. So to speak.

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washington post.com: Winfrey disappointed as ex-matron cleared of abuse

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Washington, D.C.: Whatever happened to TV commercials that touted the qualities and abilities of the product in the ad? It seems like every TV ad was written by someone who really wanted to write for sitcoms. I love being amused, but I think the most effective ads are the ones that show that the product actually works. Now they're all SNL skit wannabes that have nothing to do with the product.

Tom Shales: You know, I agree -- but we will both be very lonely if we try to start an advocacy group calling for less imaginative or less entertaining commercials. I mean, one alternative is the old so-called Ted Bates school of advertising which basically boils down to BUY OUR SOAP. SMELL GOOD. BUY OUR SOAP. GET CLEAN. BUY OUR SOAP. HAVE FRIENDS. And so on. Is that really preferable to watching 25 seconds of 2 people gamboling about on the beach and then, at the end, seeing "BUY OUR SOAP" imprinted on the screen? Some of the greatest creative thinkers working in television are making commercials. One case in point: The promos made by a gifted ad agency for "SportsCenter" on ESPN. THIS MENTION HAS NOTHING WHATEVER TO DO WITH THE FACT THAT "THOSE GUYS HAVE ALL THE FUN," THE STORY OF ESPN, WILL BE RELEASED IN THE SPRING BY LITTLE,BROWN PUBLISHERS. The authors? Oh. James Andrew Miller and a friend of his.... cranky TV-critic type....

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What's modern about it?: Isn't "Modern Family" just another ugly-schmoe-with-a-smokin'-hot-wife sitcom? If it really were the groundbreaker you critic types seem to think it is, why toss in that old chestnut?

Tom Shales: Yeah, well, it's not 100% fresh - new - unprecedented great stuff. But the percentage IS fairly high, don't you think? "THE MEDIA" probably are more protective of minorities of all kinds than of the average, typical, mainstream folks -- but most average, typical, mainstream folks haven't felt the sting of stereotypes and defamation via sitcom.......

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Herndon, Va.: I suddenly find myself remembering the controversy of Barbara Eden not showing her bellybutton in I Dream of Jeannie. By today's standards, that taboo is laughable.

Tom Shales: I know. When you look back at some of the ridiculous taboos of the past -- Barbara Eden's bellybutton! Jeez Louise. On the other hand - do you think that the borderline obscene, sexually suggestive, near-nude Madison Avenue smut of today's TV will look like innocent baby-talk 20 years from now? And if so, what does the future hold -- X-rated ads after 10 pm, or something worse? Think about it, America!!! (we're nothing if not thought-provoking around here.)

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Hey, Chevy Chase knows funny: And he ain't it. Never was, once we put down the bong in '76.

Remember that scene in Annie Hall, or maybe Manhattan, with the Tony Roberts character doing the same laughtrack-arranging?

Tom Shales: Well there you are -- it was very accurate and authentic because I saw it happen for real.

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Washington, D.C.: People seem to forget that SNL had some lousy years even during the 80s and 90s. They always have bad years, it's nothing new. Particularly in the ealy 80s in that lull between Martin, Chase, Radner, Belushi, etc., and Eddie Murphy, Billy Crystal, Joe Piscopo. I don't think there is a single cast member from 1981 whose name I recognize.

Tom Shales: Uhhh -- how about -- Robert Downie, Jr.? He was one of a cast of "losers" during a "bad" year. But I honestly don't remember if it was 81 or 82 or what. Lorne Michaels left in 1980, and the show went into the abyss for a while -- until the discovery of Eddie Murphy, who was just hanging around the office until somebody remembered what a great audition he'd had..... AND THE REST, AS THEY SAY, IS HISSSS-TORY..........

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Austin, Tex.: I thought the Andy Samburg skits were good, especially the best-boyfriend one. And for the record, yes, you are old.

Tom Shales: For WHAT record? Who made YOU the record-keeper? I may be old,but I am a gracious host. You are a rude guest. Keep your opinions to yourself -- oops, I guess a critic shouldn't be saying stuff like that. Okay -- don't keep your opinions to yourself, but keep your FACTS and FIGURES to yourself, how's that, Smarty-pants?

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My complaint:: The "Aunt Flo" ads. Puleezze, we do not need to hear about that while we're trying to relax! (and I'm a woman)

Tom Shales: Noted.

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Pittsburgh, Pa.: Do TV stations make more money with so many campaign commercials on TV this fall (perhaps by charging a higher rate, or not having to run so many PSAs)? Or do they just run the campaign ads in place of some of the ones for other products? Isn't there a limit to how much time the broadcast networks can use for commercials?

Tom Shales: The rates are HIGHER for political spots.........

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Washington, D.C.: Tom -- While I certainly understand people's uneasiness with the ED ads on TV, how are they any less squirm-inducing than the feminine hygine ads from the past? You must remember hearing about the "not so fresh feeling".

Tom Shales: Yes and those ads are more explicit now, too. Time was you NEVER would have heard the term "period" in reference to menstruation on television. It was absolutely unthinkable. Now is it a better world because they can say "period" and even hold a tampon up to the camera?

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Paladino: As usual, though, the candidate who doesn't fit your narrative gets misquoted. He didn't actually say the line about "disfunction" -- it was in the script someone wrote for him, which got to the media, but he didn't say it out loud.

Tom Shales: It's dysfunction and he said the equivalent if not the precise word. It does get confusing because he claims that lines in the script were written by others (doesnt he at least READ OVER THESE SCRIPTS before delivering them?) and that he eliminated some but not all, etc., etc., etc. Hey come on, he's a creep.

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Ads: I am a 55 year old woman who remembers bra commercials where the model wore a sweater UNDER the bra. Yet I could be sitting next to my dad watching TV and see ads for feminine products and jock itch cream. I was much more embarassed about those than the bra and other underwear ads.

Tom Shales: I think we should do an entire chat-fest on then- and now- in commercials and programs....

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Brooklyn, N.Y.: "So the situation was reversed -- it was sort of a necessary "correction," don't you think?"

Oh, I wasn't being sarcastic at all. I did love that -- it was hilarious and so different. I believe it was also a comment on the lack of understanding white people had when it came to black culture. They'd always try to say something in black slang, but would get it wrong.

But in reality, wasn't it a bit of self-loathing or whitey guilt because wasn't that show written and produced by white people?

Tom Shales: Yes, I think you're right. If the producers really MEANT what they were "preaching" in those shows, they would have hired MANY MANY MORE MINORITY FILMMAKERS AND WRITERS AND ACTORS and others to work on the shows, instead of just paying lip service (i just made that up) to the current PC dogma.....

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Alexandria, Va.: The networks with the most revealing outfits are the Spanish-language ones. It's not just the soap-opera "novellas" that offer buffed bods scantily clad - even the morning news and talk show hostesses are like that.

Tom Shales: Yes - which is why I have decided to take Spanish lessons this late in life. Ha ha ha and goodbye -- and slavish lavish thanks to EVERYONE who participated, with apologies to those whose questions or comments were not used. Please come back.

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