Networks showing more teen-age sex to compete with racier cable

THE BALTIMORE SUN

LOS ANGELES -- Brenda did it in May. Her brother, Brandon, had done it a couple of months before. Doogie is going to do it Sept. 25. It looks like one of Roseanne's kids will, too.

We're talking about teen-age TV characters having their first sexual experiences. It is happening in network prime time more than ever.

And, despite the controversy it causes, the trend will continue as the networks compete with racier programming offered by cable. Some TV executives defend the practice, saying it's more honest to admit that real-life teens are sexually active. Done properly, they add, sex on TV can involve sex education, which is especially important in this age of AIDS.

But the argument that TV doesn't shape social mores, only reflects them, may be too simplistic when applied to shows such as "Doogie Howser, M.D." and "Roseanne," which offer coming-of-age role models to American teen-agers.

So far, Fox has led the way among networks in exploring teen-age sexuality in prime time, with ABC soon to follow. NBC and CBS declined to comment on whether their shows will touch on such topics this fall.

Fox's "Beverly Hills 90210" ended its season in May with an episode in which Brenda slept with her boyfriend on prom night. Last week, when the new season began, we learned that Brenda had missed her period.

Producers admitted that they wanted a hot cliffhanger to get viewers' attention and hold it until the show returned to the air.

They got it.

Reaction to Brenda's sexual encounter came from a variety of viewers and special interest groups, according to Peter Chernin, president of Fox Entertainment.

"There were a lot of people who said we never should have allowed it, [that] we were out of our minds, that it was wrong, it was un-American, it was immoral," Mr. Chernin said, adding, "There were probably people on the other side who say we overreacted by showing some concern about it."

The public debate sparked a Fox-sponsored panel discussion last week, chaired by Fred Friendly, who is the Edward R. Murrow professor emeritus of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Critics, educators and broadcasting executives disagreed not only on how TV should depict sex acts but also on whether it should show or even refer to teen sex on prime-time entertainment shows.

There are several reasons why network television is changing its standards so dramatically right now. There's the business reason, of course -- specifically, the competition with Fox and cable channels for younger viewers. Fox and cable channels have boosted ratings by including teen sex in programs.

But Marlene Goland, director of the media project of the Center for Population Options and a consultant for the "Beverly Hills" episodes, believes networks are depicting teen sex and frank discussions of it for another reason: acquired immune deficiency syndrome. "Because of AIDS, the networks know they have to teach and educate or the consequences can be fatal for teen-agers."

That may be true, but if so, why are the networks so reluctant to carry public service announcements for condoms?

Almost every discussion of teen sex on TV ultimately comes down to an all-important but ever-so-vague word -- "messages." When asked whether "Doogie Howser" will be sending a message that it's all right to have sex at age 18, executive producer Vic Rauseo said, "All we tried to do was be honest. He's been in love with this girl for two years. And it seemed it would be dishonest, it would make him kind of weird, if nothing happened."

Neil Patrick Harris, who plays Doogie, echoed this view in a meeting Saturday with critics here. "I think many 18-year-olds have had sex," Mr. Harris said, "and many have had sex very often. And, so, I don't think it's such a shock, at least to the %% 18-to-22-year-old age group. In fact, I get a lot of flak because Doogie hasn't yet had sex."

Those remarks are representative of what most of the television writers and producers interviewed for this article said: If we are depicting what's happening in society at large, we don't have to worry about the message we're sending.

But that's too easy an out. In our television culture, "Doogie Howser," "The Wonder Years" and other shows of that ilk serve the same function that coming-of-age novels such as "Catcher in the Rye" or "The Bell Jar" did in a more literate age. They offer young people channel markers in the terrible passage through adolescence.

"If you are talking about a character being a role model," Linda Morris, an executive producer of "Doogie Howser," said, "I think [we are behaving responsibly] if we can send a message that human beings are sexual and teen-agers are human beings. And if you are going to have sex, do it responsibly, do it carefully, do it with a lot of thought."

But even that's too simple.

Fox's Mr. Chernin says that TV messages on teen sex ultimately lead to a programming dilemma. His network wants to tell teens that if they are going to have sex they should use some sort of protection, he says. But the network doesn't want to give the inadvertent message that it is "a good thing to have sex." Mr. Chernin says he doesn't have the answer.

But, meanwhile, until he and his colleagues find the answer, they are going to show more teens having more sex than ever before.

Sex, teens and TV

The first time a reference was made to a teen character losing his or her virginity was in 1977 on "James at 15." Nothing of the sexual encounter was shown; viewers were only told that James, the lead character, had sex.

"There was a tremendous controversy over 'James' that included the executive producer of the show resigning," said Marlene Goland, director of the media project of the Center for Population Options.

In 1980, "Soap" caused another uproar when it showed a teen-age character in bed (but under covers) with his teacher.

Since then, there have been either no instances or three instances of TV teen sex, depending on what age you consider to mark the beginning of adulthood. The networks define it, somewhat murkily, as 20-something.

Alex lost his virginity in an episode of "Family Ties," but he was a 20-ish college student. Natalie lost her virginity in a controversial episode of "The Facts of Life." Again, she was 20-ish. Corky, another 20-ish character, had a sexual encounter on "Life Goes On" last year.

Another factor that blurs the lines concerns the gender of the teen-ager involved. When a boy has sex on TV, it may cause a small controversy. When a girl goes all the way, it's a big to-do, as was proved by the reaction last fall to "Beverly Hills 90210."

Brandon's sexual encounter caused only a ripple, while his sister's action is still being debated.

"That's easy to explain; it's expected for boys," said Ms. Goland, referring to a double standard in society at large.

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