Pushing the sex-on-TV envelope in America means showing Andy Sipowicz’s bare butt on “NYPD Blue.”
Detective Sipowicz, meet Mr. Power Tool.
Mr. Power Tool was a character on a recently canceled, youth-oriented British TV variety show called “The Word.” The show aired on Channel 4, one of four networks in England.
Mr. Power Tool’s job was simple, if not painful: Tie a rope to his privates, tie the other end of the rope to a chair occupied by a woman, and drag the chair across the stage.
All in full view of the Channel 4 cameras.
That episode earned “The Word” a warning from the Independent Television Commission, the British equivalent of the Federal Communications Commission. (The ITC regulates commercial TV and has no jurisdiction over the BBC, which is noncommercial.) But such warnings are rare, and ITC officials say sexual content on TV rarely draws complaints from the British viewing public.
And it’s worth noting here that British TV is considered tame in Europe.
The simple fact is that, compared to many parts of the world, American network TV is stridently prudish.
Foreign broadcast television includes everything from tasteful, incontext nudity to blatantly gratuitous nudity to hard-core sex.
The breadth of this cultural chasm becomes clear when you realize that, in some countries, sex on TV literally means representations of sexual intercourse. Being naked, generally, is no big deal.
“Nudity wouldn’t necessarily come under something which would be sexual under ITC guidelines,” says Suzanne Prance, press officer with the ITC. “It obviously depends on the context. Basically, representation of sexual intercourse should be reserved until after 9 p.m. Exceptions to this rule may be allowed in the case of nature films, programs with a serious educational purpose, or whether the representation is graphic.”
As genteel as that sounds, what it means is that Americans traveling abroad can often count on at least being surprised - if not flabbergasted - by what they see on foreign tubes.
“On the regular channels here - even in the UK, which is far more restrictive than probably anything else in western Europe - it’s unbelievable compared to the channels in the United States,” says Jeff Kaye, European bureau chief for the Hollywood Reporter. “They will cut a movie for violence, and there can be some exceptions to the sex thing, but in general terms, when I first came over here from the U.S., it was unbelievable to me, some of the things that would be on.”
There was the time a program about body-piercing showed a man getting his penis pierced. There was the time the American punk band L7 was playing on “The Word” and one of the guitarists dropped her pants and continued playing nude.
But there’s much more to European TV than adolescent attempts to shock the audience.
The BBC produces scores of “tremendous dramas, really powerful things, but they have some sex in them, so they can’t sell them to the United States,” Kaye says.
“Tales of the City,” an explicit, BBC-produced drama about homosexual life in San Francisco, was purchased by PBS and earned the network extremely high ratings in January 1994, Kaye says. But it also earned the American network a load of protests.
When the BBC asked PBS to help it produce a sequel, PBS refused. PBS president Ervin S. Duggan, under fire for backing away from the program’s controversial content, said it was purely a business decision.
The most explicit displays of sex and nudity on TV occur in Europe, Japan and some South American countries, particularly Brazil, says Robert Picard, chairman of the communications department at California State University, Fullerton.
“When you get to southern Asia, the Middle East, Africa, you tend to have very strong social conventions against nudity that are almost as strong as ours,” says Picard, a specialist in government communications policies and media economics, who has studied TV programming around the world.
But it’s not unusual in Holland to see hard-core pornography on late-night network TV, he says. Even in the more restrictive European countries, nudity is commonplace.
“You’re dealing with societies where nudity is not unusual,” Picard says. “You go to the Nordic countries, and families sauna together, and co-workers will sometimes sauna together in the work environment, and nudity is involved in all of that. Mere nudity is not likely to raise any hackles over there on television.”
Karen Sekiguchi, an American, taught English in Japan for six years and returned to the United States last year.
“As far as sex goes, they’re just very relaxed,” says Sekiguchi, who lives in Haverhill, Mass. “There’s a lot of nudity on TV and a lot of bathroom humor. They’re really big on bathroom humor, and it’s just very natural and very relaxed. There’s much more on Japanese TV than in the U.S. as far as nudity and sexual references, even when kids can watch it, like at 4 or 5 o’clock.
“I think they’re more comfortable with their bodies. Taking communal baths starts when they’re really young, and they’re taught that it’s nothing bad. They’ll show children who are completely naked, including boys, and that’s very natural. No one objects to it.”
But the Japanese generally do not show explicit sex scenes on TV, Sekiguchi says.
“They might show two people in bed with the woman partially clothed … but they don’t show passionate love-making on TV because they’re kind of reserved about that,” she says.
“Sex is more innocent. They’ll show two mature people just kiss, like a peck on the lips for one second, and that’s considered a passionate kiss. You’re supposed to infer that the passion is smoldering underneath.”
Brazil is similar to Japan in that TV shows feature a lot of nudity but practically no graphic depictions of sex, says Dr. Roberto DaMatta, a noted Brazilian anthropologist and professor who teaches at Notre Dame.
“One of the things that you notice is that in ads - probably 50 percent of television time, right? - the ads are very sexy, very attractive ads, very much like in Europe as a matter of fact,” says DaMatta, who spends about six months in the United States each year. “There’s no problem with showing women’s breasts and some daring bikinis and situations like that in the ads.”
Brazil is famous for its steamy night-time soap operas, which are “much more open and perhaps more natural or more spontaneous in showing love scenes and things like that,” DaMatta says.
But there is no soft- or hard-core pornography on Brazilian network television, he says.
In Europe, nudity is even more commonplace, and the sex is more explicit. But objections from the public are rare.
“You occasionally hear it from some of the religious leaders, but there is no significant movement to deal with sexual issues,” Picard says. “We have as our background the Puritan background, and that has come to play a major role. We see it in television; we see it in art. Other nations have not had that same experience; that’s not been a part of their culture.”
TV titillation in other countries doesn’t contain itself to dramas and comedies. TV game shows, especially in Europe, are renowned for their displays of skin.
France once had a game show in which a man was blindfolded and confronted by three topless women. Using his hands, his job was to figure out which woman was his wife.
Italy, famous as the country where “Stripping Housewives” originated, has also bestowed “Colpo Grosso” (“The Big Bang”) upon the world, says Ann Cooper-Chen, director of the Center for International Journalism at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio. Her book “Games in the Global Village - A 50-Nation Study of Entertainment Television” (The Popular Press) was released last year.
“If you can imagine ‘The Price is Right’ and their prize fondlers, their demonstrators, their assistants who don’t say anything, that’s the same thing on ‘Colpo Grosso,’ but they do nude things,” says Cooper-Chen. “They bring civilian contestants on, and to get points the civilians - it’s not Mastermind we’re talking here - the civilians will guess what kind of fruit one of the assistants has in her dress. Then, to prove whether they’re right or wrong, bingo, they take off their clothes. And then, to get more points, the civilian - himself or herself - can do a striptease.”
The concept has been picked up in Spain, Germany and Brazil, and versions of the show are available via satellite in many other countries.
There’s no question that what doesn’t constitute a problem overseas would certainly raise objections in the United States. But Picard says the gap is closing.
“Most people today do not make a great deal of distinction between watching television and watching cable,” he says. “Over a period of time, one would expect the broadcast networks to do the same thing that the cable shows are doing to try to compete. At some point we will be at the level that some other nations are. Whether that’s good or bad is debatable.”
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