Insipid Puritans


ADD "CONTRACEPTIVE" to the list of words that can't be said on television, and "hypocritical" to the list of adjectives describing network officials.

Last July, ABC, CBS, and NBC rejected a public-service message provided by the American College of Obstericians and Gynecologists. The topic of the 30-second spot? Family planning and--dare we say it--contraceptives.

After three months of negotiations, two weeks ago CBS and NBC decided to accept a revised version of the commercial. ABC remains undecided. According to Dr. Luella Klein, a spokesman for the physicians' group, the new message does not contain the word "contraceptive," which network officials found "objectionable" in the original. Instead, the phrase, "There are many ways to prevent unintended pregnancies," is included.

From the reaction of the networks, one would think that the spot was in praise of promiscuity or perhaps pornography masquerading as pedagogy. But that's not the case. In fact, compared to most of what one sees on television, the commercial is, if anything, disappointingly insipid.

With all the drama of a Whisk commercial (you know, "ring around the collar!"), two young women tell about their plans for the future. One wants to be President. The other intends to go back to college. Then a third actress, obviously pregnant, says she had planned to have a family--"but not this soon." As she sets the table, a voice-over tells viewers to call a toll-free number for information on contraceptives. Now that's hardly risque.


The networks' position reeks of hypocrisy. In their daytime and evening soap operas alone, the networks present several hours of programming each day with overt sexual themes. Rarely are the responsibilities of sex--or its consequences--explored. Instead, adolescent viewers learn only what they want to do. The how part they're left to figure out for themselves, at a cost last year of 280,000 unwanted pregnancies.

HOW DO WE EXPLAIN the behavior of the network officials? If television programming were uniformly G-rated, puritanical values might be the best explanation for their behavior. Obviously, though, "Dallas" and "Dynasty," to name but two network creations, are not G-rated. A more plausible explanation is that network officials adhere to a self-serving double standard: they'll put sex on television when it pays, but when it doesn't they turn puritanical.

In recent years, the networks have come under increasing fire from the Religious Right for programming that is not "family-oriented." Fortunately for the networks, these conservative groups are still a small, albeit fiercely vocal, minority of the viewing public. Not surprisingly, then, "Dallas," "Dynasty," and the other soaps--all big money-makers for the networks--won't be discontinued soon. At the same time, the networks aren't overjoyed at the steady flow of hate mail from the Bible Belt.

There's one more important consideration here--money. By law, public-service announcements are aired by the networks free of charge. If the commercial in question were to be broadcast, the networks would gain only grief for their efforts: no money and more hate mail. In censoring the "contraceptive" public service announcement, one might argue that the networks have fulfiled their responsibility to their shareholders.

IT IS NOT CLEAR, however, that the Religious Right has fulfilled its responsibilities. The issue highest on its political agenda is abortion. Surely any measure that would reduce the number of abortions in this country should appeal to those in favor of the "right to life" of the unborn.

Granted, a commercial offering information on birth control acknowledges that many adolescents are sexually active, a status quo that the Religious Right would like to change. But isn't the issue here saving lives? Not to air the commercial is to cause the death of thousands of fetuses conceived in ignorance.

The Religious Right's opposition to teenage sex should not come before its support of the unborn child's right to life. The argument that a commercial about birth control would only increase sexual activity among adolescents ignores the reality that millions of adolescents are already sexually active--too often with abortion as their sole means of contraception. The Religious Right can prepare public-service messages on chastity if it chooses; perhaps these will decrease sexual activity among tomorrow's teenagers. Today's teenagers, though, are sexually active and they desperately need information about birth control.

That the networks have acted in their own interest is apparent. What is needed is a means of making the public interest the networks' interest. The first step should be to eliminate the networks' right to reject public-service announcements. Next, a commission should be organized, perhaps under the auspices of the non-profit Ad Council, to review public-service messages. Finally, the networks should grant this commission some appropriately large amount of credit, to be "spent" as the commission chooses on the purchase of airtime. The latter would prevent the networks from continuing to air public-service messages in the middle of the night.

The psychologists Bandura and Walters at the University of California first reported in 1965 that what children watch now affects what they do later. Twenty years after, it's time to heed their finding and use television to provide teenagers with a balanced picture of sex.