LOS ANGELES — First, the president of the United States discusses on national television his sexual relationship with a young intern. For a sequel, there's the prospect that the woman, Monica Lewinsky, will come before Congress and the American public via TV to elaborate on their encounters.
An outsider (from Mars, perhaps) wouldn't be blamed for confusing today's news programming with, say, the outrageous shock-talk TV of "Jerry Springer" or even the steamy soap-opera fiction of "Melrose Place."
But these days, even TV-soaked earthlings no longer draw a firm line between "serious news" and the rest of the TV landscape, some media theorists say. The sex-saturated TV environment, they maintain, has permanently lowered the public's threshold of shock - along with its expectations for public behavior.
"We are in a culture that talks so much more frankly and frequently about sex," says Robert Thompson, head of the center for the study of popular TV at Syracuse (N.Y.) University. Talk about sex "by itself it doesn't have the shock value to [push President Clinton] out of office." In an era of ribald TV fare such as talking excrement on Comedy Central's "South Park," the viewing public has become so inured to extreme content that many Americans have lowered their expectations - even for their president.
Mr. Thompson maintains that if the Lewinsky story had hit the airwaves just 15 years ago, the unsavory nature of the disclosures would have been enough to send a president from office.
But for audiences today, sexual content on TV is commonplace, almost obligatory. "Sex sells," says media guru George Gerbner, dean emeritus of the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School for Communication. In a reversal from a generation ago, today it is the absence of sexual activity in prime-time programs that strikes critics and the public as unusual. "The viewing public has become jaded to sexuality," agrees Professor Gerbner, because it is the norm for TV.
Less shock value
Precisely because people are no longer shocked by the sexual details, the revelations about Clinton's conduct "lack serious traction," says communications professor Kevin Sargent at Furman University in Greenville, S.C. "They may have initial impact, but it is not lasting," he says.
The vast majority of viewers move on. "Most people have made a reasonable transference from their own experience," Professor Sargent suggests. They may know of a boss who has had an inappropriate sexual relationship but who has not let it hurt his ability to do his job. Thus, Sargent says, people are not rushing to judge the president on the basis of alleged sexual misconduct alone.
This suffusion of sexuality into public dialogue actually may have a positive side, some pundits argue. "Being a culture that can talk about these things that are happening all the time, and be able to disarm this as a subject matter from having more power than it deserves, is probably a good thing," Syracuse's Thompson says.
But what about the kids?
But many people still draw a line when children are brought into the sex-and-TV discussion. At a recent school picnic in southern California's Santa Monica Mountains, a group of mothers lamented the challenges they face.
"My 10-year-old watches the evening news and asks me questions about oral sex," remarked one parent. "Shouldn't he be asking me about the electoral college or something? Since when did all this get put on the same footing?"
Media observer Gerbner would agree. "These trivial media obsessions [with sex] displace serious media concern with real issues," both domestic and foreign, he says. He points to the lessons of history. "In ancient Rome," he says, "the leaders intended to amuse and divert the populace from affairs of state" during crises. Eventually, the Roman civilization fell because its problems were never solved.
Bearing that in mind, Gerbner suggests that cleaning up TV, which is the primary way Americans discuss public issues, may be a civic duty.
"Television is the major cultivator of people's world view, from birth on. TV is informing our children," he says, pointing to the staggering national average of six to eight hours of TV-viewing a day. "It is not just a medium," he says. "It has become the background against which all else is seen and judged."