Picture Sue Ellen and J.R. in one of their bedroom scenes from that great television classic, "Dallas." They've just reconciled for the hundredth time and they are sealing the deal in their favorite fashion. Suddenly, Sue Ellen disengages herself and says she will be back in a minute. J.R. raises his eyebrows quizzically. "Aren't you still taking the pill?" he says.
She can answer whatever way the scriptwriters who take over this script want her to. The point, however, is that sex would have been connected to procreation and contraception on network television, and that would be an all-star breakthrough for the only major American medium that still pretends babies come from the stork.
At a recent conference sponsored by Planned Parenthood of Metropolitan Washington, entitled "Sex, TV, and Your Kids," the three major networks came under considerable criticism for putting excessive sexual content in their programming on the one hand, while avoiding any mention of contraception or sexual responsibility on the other. Viewers, critics said, were bombarded with sexual scenes involving beautiful people with virtually no balancing messages to bring a bit of reality into the picture.
As a result, said Marsha Renwanz, staff director of the Senate Children's Caucus, "You never see the problems teen-agers have in taking care of children. Infants never cry. There's always a nurse appearing. There are no problems with money. TV is creating all sorts of unrealistic expectations for young people."
"What is happening is exposure to things that are cheap and tawdry," said independent film director Murray Golden, whose credits range from "Rawhide" to "CBS Afterschool Specials." He cited dialogue from a soap -- "No man makes love like you, Chris. No man on earth," -- and asked, "Now, you wonder, where did she get this information?
"When there is sex it's often irrelevant," he said.
Networks were criticized for refusing to accept contraceptive advertising and for censuring references to contraception on shows. Douglas Gould, vice president for communications of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, says he has met with censors from all three networks and "from what I can understand . . . there is utter confusion. Network presidents have policies banning mentioning contraception. The censors say producers take it out, that they feel it interferes with the dramatic flow. My sense is it's the three network presidents who through their policies on advertisements have made it clear they don't want it on the air.
"They say it's too controversial. We see 3 million people a year. Our information all indicates there is an overwhelming consensus about family planning." Gould said Planned Parenthood polls have shown that 9 percent of the population is "uncomfortable with birth control" while 85 percent favor sex education in the schools. "We found over two-thirds of the people think laws should be passed requiring schools to establish links with family planning clinics.
"We would like to see pregnancy and sex portrayed as related, and sex portrayed more realistically," said Gould. "Have characters use birth control, or refrain every so often."
He said censors told Planned Parenthood that "contraceptive messages would promote promiscuity." They also said that "they already portray sex in a realistic way. Birth control is offensive. Advertising would be taken as network endorsement. Advertisements could be misleading. TV does not affect behavior.
"I'd bet a million dollars," he said, "they'd never say this to advertisers."
Of course they wouldn't. The entire financial support system for television is based on the premise that visual and audio messages, including subliminal messages, can lead viewers into certain commercial behavior. That in itself is a pretty good argument for the notion that television may also affect personal behavior, as researchers into the effect of violence on television have contended. Golden made the point that the "networks are being run by people under 30. They have very little knowledge, very little experience. Committees are running the shows." Gould added that people working for the networks "accept the corporate line." They are not going to be innovators unless a more thoughtful audience begins raising questions about the impact of unrealistic sexual saturation on daytime and nighttime soaps.
The sexual revolution came about largely as a result of the pill and other contraceptives. It came about on television without them. Sue Ellen's not getting pregnant, but a lot of kids who watch her are.