The November Sweeps were really the November Peeps. The February Sweeps have turned into the February Creeps. These peak ratings-taking months (the other one is May) don't exactly bring out the best in the networks. In fact, the networks seem more determined than usual to appeal to the worst in viewers.
If it isn't sex, it's violence. Or it's sex and violence, also known in television as bread and butter.
During one particularly yechhy week of previewing shows on videotape in my office, I had to watch a child molester at work in the CBS "Fallen Angel," see Sally Struthers tortured at length and threatened with rape in the CBS "Gun in the House," watch a syndicated documentary, "Mom, I Want to Come Home Now," about teen-age prostitutes and hustlers.
You certainly don't come away from programming like that with a rosy view of life. If television is America's escapism, how much worse could reality be? In fact, most of the programs are not realistic, only sensationalistic. And luckier people don't even have to watch TV to get this impression. They can just check out the way the networks advertise their shows in TV Guide.
In these ads you can see clearly which whims, and lusts, the networks appeal to in viewers -- what they think we're all dying to see. From this barometer one gets a profile of how the networks regard the viewing audience: as a thrill-seeking mob of insatiable voyeurs. Whether shows deliver what they promise is irrelevant; the ads reflect what networks think will lure the largest audiences.
Mostly, of course, the bait is ooh-lala. For example: "Stella Rated X'! Accused on making porno movies, Stella strikes back with a 'topless' commercial!" (Ad for NBC's "Harper Valley PTA.") "Blackmail in a sex clinic! Lobo, Perkins, Birdie and the ladies expose their sex lives to uncover a vicious criminal!" ("Lobo," NBC). "Male models who'll sell you the clothes right off their backs!" ("That's My Line," CBS). "Male Belly Dancing!" ("Real People," NBC). "Sexy Super Ladies Stack Up!" ("Women Who Rate a '10,'" NBC.)
And, "a gorgeous fashion model who's (are you ready?) 12" ("That's My Line"). Am I ready? No.
The shows may be like harmless titillation taken one at a time, but the month has been unundated with them. Watching prime-time TV is like being trapped in Sleaze City's tackiest honky-tonk. One gets a warped and depressing view of what it means to be alive.
Coy, suggestive "secrets have been very big in dramas and action shows:
"Lisa is pregnant. She's come to her mother for help. She's about to learn the shocking secret her mother is hiding!" ("The Choice" on Cbs). "Mary Ellen finds her husband alive! What terrible secret is he hiding?" ("The Waltons," CBC). "Magnum uncovers a lovely woman's secret in a dark alley! Her shocking past is closing in on her -- and Magnum's in the crusher!" ("Magnum, P.I.," CBS).
Naturally there's violence aplenty in these ads, since the networks have to fill in the spaces between the sexy scenes:
"Tucker and Gloria on the run! And guess who's on their trail: The cops and a real live killer!" ("Foul Play," ABC). "To stop his murder investigation, a gang beats up Sheriff Pusser. When he recovers, Pusser swear revenge . . . and justice!" ("Walking Tall," NBC). "Big Red's gunning for revenge. Can J.D. and Will cut down to size?" (Concrete Cowboys," CBS).
For the networks, the object all sublime is to offer what the world needs now, sex and violence in the same show (it's so convenient that way; you don't have to shop around). This holds out the tasty prospect -- or so they think -- of something for everybody:
"Buck trapped on co-ed 'Devil's Island'!" ("Buck Rogers," Nbc). "Dan cracks down on 'teen-age' sex extortion ring! ("Vega$," Abc). "Lady Truckers Behind Bars! BJ sets up football game to free the seven luscious lady truckers from prison" ("BJ and the Bear," NBC). "Michael's getting something on his boss -- using every trick in the book! Fallon's promiscuous past could destroy her marriage to Jeff" ("Dynasty," ABC).
He Feb. 13 episode of NBC's "Nero Wolfe" mystery series was entitled "They Mystery of the Beautiful Woman." The Feb. 20 episode is called "They Mystery of the Playboy's Mistress." NBC also ballyhoos of its "Ganster Chronicles" that Charles "Lucky" Luciano "had the dream -- and a mistress who was a hooker." But NBC's "Quincy" takes the cake for cramming the largest number of hotsy-totsies into a single smarmy come-on: "Cocaine, a courier and crooked cops! Quincy suspects the murder of a gorgeous stewardess was really 86 double-dealing!"
To crown all this with a note of dumb irony, MNBC is promoting this month's shows as "February's Finest." Who are they kidding? The next time network executives boast about how they've enriched American life and how they give people what they want, we really ought to remind them about the February Creeps.