Rock Hudson as "Adam Trenton" was wrestling with his wife, played by Lee Remick, over "the answer" to their troubled marriage in Part One of "Wheels," NBC's hopelessly and harmlessly abominable miniseries on Sunday. "Is it," Rock asked, gulping hard, "more sex?"
"That," said the wife, "would be nice."
Of course to TV viewers, "more sex" may sound like just what television doesn't need. The consensus appears to be that this has been television's sexiest year. Maybe. It's more likely that this has just been the year that there has been more talk than over about sex on TV. Certainly other media, especially magazines, have learned that almost no subect sells issues more quickly or lends itself to such seductive illustration.
Much has been made of TV's escalated "jiggling" - the prominent display of bouncing female torsos - as a viewer Lur on the air. In fact, the feminine form has ben exploited since the earnest days of television, when Dagmar helped to pry open tired eyes on the original late-night "Tonight" show and when demure Faye Emerson, of all people, incited tempests with low-cut clevages while sitting behind desks on panel shows.
Television's standards have changed with the times; women parading in Shopping Mall U.S.A. today certainly look different than they did five or 10 years ago, so television reflects this change. The female form has long fascinated and even obsessed artists, so why shouldn't it be expected to interest Mr. and Mrs. America and all the ships at sea?
Herminio Traviesas, who has graduated from being merely the chief censor at NBC to becoming czar of all the censors - "vice president of broadcast standards policy" with a corporate-level office - thinks all the fuss about sex on television is largely overstated and generally unwarranted.
"Everybody is saying, 'Violence is out, sex is in,' notes Traviesas, who has seniority over all other network censors. "They don't realize that the subjects and themes they're using now on TV have been in evolution for the last 10 years or so. It was about 10 years ago that I came to NBC and one of the controversial shows then was 'Silent Night, Lonely Night,' which could have been a problem but was so beautifully done that it became a love story rather than the story of an adulterous affair on Christmas Eve.
"Today, we have the miniseries, and that means more contemporary, popular books are coming to television - 'Wheels' and '79 Park Avenue' and 'Loose Change.' And these stories tend to deal more with mature subject matter. Also, audience expectations have changed, not because of television, but because of all the other media, especially the movies."
Sex on TV has consistently elicited more viewer protest mail, Traviesas says, than violence, but these has been no significant increase in mail concerning sex on the air this year. Indeed, in at least one case there has been less mail than expected; that was after the network aired the movie "Our Time" under the more salacious new title "Death of Her Innocence."
"Now in that film there was a bedroom scene in which a boy pulls a condom out of his pocket and putts it on the table. It was a beautifully done little story, though, and we put a legend on the screen about this being for adults. I was still expecting a whole lot of telephone calls after it was on the air, but we only got two or three."
Similarly, in Washington, ABC affiliate WJLA recently aired the Thames Television production of "Naked Civil Servant," based on the biography of a flamboyant British homosexual. The film besides dealing as directly as possible with the character's homosexuality, included slang words not usually heard on the air and one short scene of two men kissing. The station switchboard did anything but light up with complaints. "We were geared up for an onslaught," says a station spokesman, "and we got a sprinkling."
This has been a lively year for Traviesas nevertheless, starting as it did with the network censoring the very first minute out of the very first "Richard Pryor Show" and reaching a low point when Dan Wakefield walked off "James at 15" because the network insisted on censoring a show about the little character's loss of virginity, even though the network itself had ordered that a script dealing with the event be produced.
"It's too bad Dan and I never spoke to each other," Traviesas says now. "That was a misunderstanding on that one. It wasn't the matter of birth control, as he said, that was the problem with that episode. I only ruled out one scene, in which the little blond girl admitted having an affair before, presumably when she was 15, and that she 'knew how to take care of herself.' I just thought, 'Now, that's bad taste.'"
Wakefield, who had to deal with network underlings in the standards and practices department, says NBC refused to allow mention of birth control at all. Traviesas says this is not so, and points to such recent on-air confrontations with the issue as a wild "Saturday Night Live" sketch about a government agent who tracks down veneral disease. "This was the perfect medium to deal with information about VD, even if it was on a satirical level," Traviesas says. There were about 100 calls protesting the sketch, "but 100 calls is nothing. In the early days of 'Laugh-In' there would be 500. The 'Saturday Night' show averages about 40. If we get 100, then I look at the show on Monday morning, because I never stay up late enough on Saturday night to watch it live."
The big problem for the network censor, Traviesas says, remains the adaptation of sexy motion pictures for TV play - he calls it, "correcting" them. Some are uncorrectable. He has seen a toned-down version of "The Exorcist" being peddled for TV sale but refuses to let the network buy it; still too dirty. Major motion picture producers today get around TV censorship obstacles by shooting alternate, milder footage when they make their movies. Some films are sold to TV at the same time they're released to theaters (usually going the cable or pay TV route first) and now, says Traviesas, "We're even reading scripts before the movies are made, in what we call pre-buys."
RCA Chairman of the Board Edgar Griffiths recently declared pontifically that NBC would "never" show an x-rated movie. There was no chance of that anyway, but Traviesas says he was glad Griffiths said it.
Trade talk insists, meanwhile, that prime time will be inundated next year with jiggly girlies; CBS has already announced a couple.There are signs, though, that councin breasts are beginning to wane as effective attention-getters. America has not, for instance, taken NBC's new "rollergirls" to its bosom.
"Jiggling I think is talked about more than seen," says Traviesas. "Today the average young lady you see on the street is braless is with words. I tell people I am only now slowly creeping up to the word 'crap.' In fact we've had it on the air a couple times already. But if it means defecation, we take it out. Times change, though, and so does the power of these words.
"There's a word we don't use and that's 'mother' in the street language sense, but who knows? What's that word I learned in the Army - oh yeah 'snafu.' Now to my generation there was only one thing that could mean but kids today don't give it a second thought. It's like 'screwy.'"
Perhaps the main thing to be said in defense, such as it is, of "jiggling" women on the air and of such innuendo festivals as "Three's Company" is that at least they're not violent shows, and their view of the world, while certainly skewed, doesn't seem as grotesquely warped as on many cop shows of present and past. Where the networks are more culpable is in promoting titillating shows as suggestively as possible. Traviesas says his office has domain over network promotional ads seen on the air, but not over the often aunchy print ads networks run for their shows.
"Those network promotions can be a tough call. Occasionally, the people who made them don't know it, but the scene they're using is one that we already took out of the show," Traviesas says.
"Commercials have a lot of problems these days," Traviesas says. "Especially cosmetic commercials. They're getting into a lot of what I call 'backal nudity' (as opposed to frontal). We turned one down just the other day. You could practically see the rear end!