How TV is treading on former taboos
Can American commercial television blend entertainment and moral enlightenment successfully? Prime-time televison used to tiptoe delicately through the electronic mine fields of its own industry-wide taboos. Certain topics - mainly abortion, sexual promiscuity, homosexuality, and incest - were for the first 25 years of TV regarded as too ''touchy'' to be touched, certainly in drama and even in most newscasts. Daytime soap operas, however, broached the taboos at will.Skip to next paragraph
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Then, to win larger audiences for local news shows, segments featuring tentative investigations of the taboos began breaking through. Entertainment television learned the lesson quickly and began using ''taboo'' subjects in filmed dramatizations. Sometimes, the material was presented honestly as public-service-oriented docudrama. But too often it was exploitation and titillation masquerading as honesty.
There are those who would argue that our society was changing as well, that those taboos had become more generally acceptable in the community and therefore valid material for dramatization. Whatever the reason, these topics have become a staple of entertainment television, providing new thrills for jaded viewers.
Since the early 1970s, we have seen more prime-time dramas dealing with ''forbidden themes.'' Often the subjects have been handled delicately, to avoid the wrath of the would-be censors. And in some instances - as in the case of ''Adam,'' the recent NBC drama about missing children - the dramatization results in greater awareness of a real problem. But too often that aim is only a ploy to make the drama more acceptable.
This season, the problem-of-the-week, made-for-TV films have included dramas about white slavery, call girls, pornographic photography, and massage parlors. This week there is a drama about drunken driving (License To Kill, CBS, Tuesday, Jan. 10, 9-11 p.m.). And ABC, the network that so recently stirred up controversy with ''The Day After,'' is going back eagerly to the trough of contention with Something About Amelia (Monday, Jan. 9, 9-11 p.m.). It is a drama about what has heretofore been regarded as the most untouchable subject of all: incest.
Together, these two programs are prime examples of today's relevant-or-bust genre of entertainment films. It is difficult to condemn them outright: Both seem on the surface to be well-intentioned and germane to problems in contemporary society. But could they have accomplished more if handled honestly in nonfiction fashion?
Are serious problems, in other words, proper material for lightweight TV entertainment?
Few could object to skillful and literate treatment of delicate personal material - writers throughout history have chosen such themes. But television - especially prime-time commercial television, with its too-often mechanical writing level - is a unique and dangerously sensitive medium, one which integrates itself immediately into the physical as well as the psychological environment of its viewers.
Once TV treats a subject as light dramatic entertainment, can it be easily switched back into the area of serious problem solving? That's the question commercial entertainment television must cope with sooner or later if it wishes to be honest with itself.
'License to Kill'
The final legend - ''Every 23 minutes one life is lost in an alcohol-related accident'' - is probably the most shocking moment in ''License to Kill.''
This well-meaning, understated, cliche-ridden little soap opera of a drama reads like a case history. The utterly devastating effect of a fatal car accident caused by a drunk driver on the families of the victim and of the perpetrator is handled with almost clocklike predictability.