Want to know what Americans really think about sex and culture? Watch TV. In 1968, shortly after the U.S. Supreme Court legalized interracial marriage, Star Trek's Captain Kirk and Nyota Uhura smooched one of television's earliest interracial kisses. In 1974, streaker Robert Opel ran naked across the 46th Academy Awards stage - flashing a peace sign as America waged war in Vietnam.
Often, the most candid societal insights arrive on the boob tube under the guise of pop culture fluff.
Sex on TV is a two-part series that explores the evolution of nudity, censorship and sexual content on American television. Brainchild of TV Guide Network's executive vice president of programming and marketing, Diane Robina, the show premieres Sunday, August 15 at 8:00 pm, ET/PT. I caught up with Robina in New York to gab about on-screen sexual content in the U.S.
How did Sex on TV develop from idea to the finalized product? What was the origin, and why is it on TV Guide Network?
Actually, watching True Blood with my 17-year-old daughter made me start thinking about how sex and nudity has altered over the years on television. I used to run Nick at Nite on TV Land, so I'm the woman who loved I Love Lucy, I Dream of Jeannie and all those shows that were seen as clean and wholesome. So, then, how did we get from there to True Blood? That's kind of how the idea for the special came about.
I liked the show's commentary. Robert Thompson, the Syracuse professor from the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture, mentioned the belly button used to be a "symbolic piece of real estate." A lot has changed since then, but the FCC is still around. How does the FCC affect TV programming?
It's different on cable and broadcast. A little bit of what defines what we do, as far as sex on television, is the advertisers. [Shows that aren't] advertiser supported - like True Blood or Sex and the City - can certainly do many more things because they're relying on subscription. For our special, it was important to talk about that distinction because it explains why you have Playboy TV or why HBO or Showtime can do what they do.
So, what's broadcast's future if they can't show as much juicy stuff as cable?
As society goes up and down - more or less conservative - I think broadcast tends to follow that because obviously people will write notes to the advertisers. It ebbs and flows. Actually, I think there are less butt shots now than there was when Steve Bochco was doing it. Maybe because we got into the period of the early 2000s where the country was a little more conservative. But, I also believe broadcasters try to grab a share of audience. Whether it's provocative television or what, they're going to have to do things that create buzz, chatter and talk. It could be interesting [to see] how they do it.
Getting back to the ebbing and flowing of attitudes toward on-screen sexy stuff, I think it's true that we're not marching a linear path toward acceptance.
Here's a great example of that. Steambath was on PBS in 1973. Her breast were shown and there was serious nudity in that - butt shots and everything. Granted, it wasn't shown on every network. A lot of PBS stations boycotted it, but it was out there and it was shown. Then we reverted back to no nudity. Then all of a sudden we get Steve Bochco with NYPD Blue and people are screaming, "You can see an ass!"
You know who broke the barrier as far as showing women in lingerie or skimpy bathing suits? It wasn't Gidget or I Dream of Jeannie. It was actually Playtex. They decided to show real women in bras and panties - not mannequins. They were the ones who broke through: the advertisers - which I think is very fascinating.
The Cross Your Heart Bra commercial in 1987, right? I was surprised to hear that first time a woman slapped a bra on bare flesh because it was the 80s! That's not that long ago. I agree with what fellow sex writer Dan Savage said on your show: Censoring nudity only makes us want it more. How do you think censorship affects sex on television now?
Often, I think it may draw more attention. Absolutely. I believe that we have to be responsible programmers, but I also believe, if you don't like it, you can turn it off. You can change the channel. No one is forcing you to watch [television shows]. If you're worried about your kids, there's a thing called the V-chip to block specific channels out. When my girls were younger, I did not let them watch Sex and the City or MTV.
How is nudity different in the US verses international contexts?
When I made this special, I was trying to see if I could get some international partners to help pay for it. No one was interested because they said there's not that much of a story to tell internationally because it isn't like it is here.
That says a lot about America. Interestingly, in talking about Sex and the City, applied psychologist Perry Halkitis said the show depicted men and women on equal footing. I don't want to single that show out. I know you used to be on the board of New York Women in Film and Television. Can you talk about the equality or inequality of women in TV? When can I expect male full frontal?
Whether you liked her or not, the great part about Samantha Jones' character is that she was out there having sex just like men were. She wasn't looking for the relationship. I'm not saying she wasn't looking for love or whatever, but she was just like the guys. That was a huge breakthrough.
[Laughs.] On the full frontal guy thing ... I don't know if I want to see that on television ...
I think if we had more female directors and writers, we'd get more of those stories. One of the big things Women in Film and Television will write editorials about, they've really been trying to push about getting more female directors and writers. I do believe that's important from a storytelling perspective.
See partially-naked men and women on Sex on TV Sunday, August 15, at 8:00 p.m. ET/PT on TV Guide Network. (Images courtesy TV Guide Network.)
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