The Bedford Internet Gambit

In mid-March, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) fined CBS stations $3.6 million for airing a long teen-orgy scene in the police series "Without a Trace." In response, some networks let it be known they were cutting back on the salacious new offerings for spring. Or at least they’re making a public show of cutting back.

The New York Times reported that the WB was editing spicy scenes out of its new series "The Bedford Diaries." But there’s a twist. The WB offered the uncut version of the pilot episode on its website to build buzz for its broadcast debut. Times TV writer Bill Carter quoted TV executives as saying the WB was furthering the spread of TV content to other mediums, computers and iPods, a move that increases the risk that "network television will be seen as passe by some of its audience, especially younger viewers."

What they really want is to taunt the FCC, to suggest their regulations are increasingly meaningless.

Series creator Tom Fontana said the publicity message of this stunt is that young audiences will be "forced to go alternative ways of looking at shows if they want to see the real thing." Rack up another in the endless assembly line of excuses as to why broadcast television just has to inevitably degrade itself another step in order to keep up with everyone who dares to push the line of social acceptability toward the outer fringes.

As for young audiences in need of the "real thing," hasn’t that always been the story? Don’t young people always want to sneak into the peep show? They used to have to wander around in the back of drugstores looking for magazines in plain brown wrappers to find the things that society deemed acceptable for adults but inappropriate for children. The big difference today is that television networks are now brazenly encouraging this behavior, even enabling it.

Consider the setting of this new WB series and see if this sounds like an exercise in "creative integrity," or like another attempt to titillate the young viewer. "The Bedford Diaries" revolves around students in a sexual behavior seminar at a New York college. The "diaries" in the title are the students’ video diaries for the class. Their first assignment with their cameras is to examine their sexual past. The WB edited scenes such as "one that depicted two girls kissing in a bar on a dare and another of a girl unbuttoning her jeans" on her way to self-discovery.

But wait, there were more edits. A close-up of a woman modeling nude for an artist has been cut, but wider shots of the scene will remain. The bare behind of a streaker will be blurred. A silhouetted shot of a woman’s bare breast will be altered so the nipple isn’t visible.

Despite all this nudity that keeps emerging on the set, "We’re not trying to titillate," Fontana protested, and yes, dear reader, you should guffaw at that. Further, he stated, they’re merely trying to be "honest." Executive producer Barry Levinson complained, "We’re living in absurdist times, that’s all you can really say. You can’t even give this [plot device] real credibility."

We do live in absurdist times when Hollywood talks in an upside-down language. Lesbian kisses and stripping and streaking and nude-model scenes aren’t meant to titillate. "Honesty" and "credibility" are words justifying prurient behavior. They all love to be "frank" and "honest." Howard Stern. Hugh Hefner. And now their close cousins in network TV, too.

Tom Fontana has more absurdity for TV critics, such as arguing "there are a lot of terrible things in the world, but sex isn’t one of them." Is there nothing wrong in adultery? Incest? Prostitution? Bestiality? Not if you agree with Fontana’s sloppy argumentation.

Fontana told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that the FCC could lead to "the death of creativity on the networks." (As if it’s creative to strip characters and put them into bed. No one’s thought of that before?) The idea that someone will put brakes on Tinseltown, would "limit its voice," is a "crime." The menace, according to Fontana, is a "fear of talking about sexuality and there’s a fear of the price it will cost us to talk about it."

If what Fontana wants to put on television is "creativity," let us acknowledge that artistic talent in TV has already died.

Hollywood needs to get over itself, needs to quit pretending that it’s about addressing serious social issues, when it’s just bouncing body parts in front of the camera, saying "look at me, look at me, now look at the commercials." Honesty would include admitting you’re producing serial titillation and providing forbidden fruit for financial gain, and doing your part to make prime-time television a red-light district, trading sexual thrills for cold, hard cash.