Television flashes the flesh

TV is so hot, so naked, that you'll singe our finger if you touch the power button on your set.

Or so goes the latest round of magazine articles and heavy-breathing TV reports, ever since white, blond actress Mariel Hemingway did her nude tease several weeks ago on "Civil Wars."


A trend has been staked out and identified. Better yet, it's a conveniently self-fulfilling trend. You can't very well report on TV sex and nudity without showing TV sex and nudity.

The truth is a little less shocking than the hype. Pseudo-sex has been big on TV for a couple of decades, and now the networks are tiptoeing cautiously into nudity.


But a bit of white, blond nudity goes a long way in the hype machine. There was more nudity on "Roots" nearly 16 years ago than on network television today, yet with a difference.

"Roots" provided no sexual context for it, and the bare-breasted women on "Roots" were black. Ditto for "Shaka Zulu," the African epic that generated ratings and little comment six years ago on independent stations across the country.

"Shaka Zulu" really was as bare as your average locker room. A racial double standard allowed it to happen and muted its shock


We also seem to have short memory of the skinful saga on public television. Nudity has never been given full credit for its role in the growth of PBS, back in the 1970s.

Didn't word get around, back then, that if you watched a certain episode of "I, Claudius" on "Masterpiece Theatre," you could see Rome sizzle and burn?

And what about "Steambath," the TV play in which Valerie Perrine dropped her towel? Made for "educational TV" in 1973, it later found its way onto PBS stations whenever pledge week rolled around. Ms. Perrine probably contributed as much to PBS as Alistair Cooke, Robert MacNeil, Julia Child and Big Bird put together.

PBS was a quiet, noncommercial backwater compared with the raging waters of network television. The networks have been cautious because of their conservative traditions and edgy sponsors. There's another double standard; advertisers use -Z sexual imagery to sell products but are nervous Nellies about nudity in the programs they sponsor.


But competitive pressure from the unfettered cable industry will continue to nudge the networks toward wider acceptance of nudity, ever so carefully. It's the notion of a sudden explosion of skin on network TV that's exaggerated and misinformed.