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Passengers disco dancing in The Love Boat's Acapulco Lounge. A young girl walking by a marquee advertising Deep Throat in the made-for-TV movie Dawn: Portrait of a Teenage Runaway. A frustrated housewife borrowing Orgasm and You from her local library in Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. Commercial television of the 1970s was awash with references to sex. In the wake of the sexual revolution and the women's liberation and gay rights movements, significant changes were rippling through American culture. In representing-or not representing-those changes, broadcast television provided a crucial forum through which Americans alternately accepted and contested momentous shifts in sexual mores, identities, and practices.
Wallowing in Sex is a lively analysis of the key role of commercial television in the new sexual culture of the 1970s. Elana Levine explores sex-themed made-for-TV movies; female sex symbols such as the stars of Charlie's Angels and Wonder Woman; the innuendo-driven humor of variety shows (The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour, Laugh-In), sitcoms (M*A*S*H, Three's Company), and game shows (Match Game); and the proliferation of rape plots in daytime soap operas. She also uncovers those sexual topics that were barred from the airwaves. Along with program content, Levine examines the economic motivations of the television industry, the television production process, regulation by the government and the TV industry, and audience responses. She demonstrates that the new sexual culture of 1970s television was a product of negotiation between producers, executives, advertisers, censors, audiences, performers, activists, and many others, Ultimately, 1970s television legitimized some of thesexual revolution's most significant gains while minimizing its more radical impulses.
About the Author:
Elana Levine is Assistant Professor in the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
“Wallowing in Sex is important work: it pushes us to understand the institutional terrain of 1970s American television in the context of the sexual revolution and emergent feminist and gay liberation movements in a manner that no other scholarly work has done before.”—Tim J. Anderson, author of Making Easy Listening: Material Culture and Postwar American Recording
“Wallowing in Sex is a groundbreaking and important examination of television’s significant role in the increasingly sexualized culture of the 1970s. Painstakingly researched and smartly written, it is a crucial addition to the field of television history and, more generally, to the history of popular culture of the recent past. And if you grew up with 1970s television, Wallowing in Sex will make you look at the programming of the era in a thoroughly new light.”—Aniko Bodroghkozy, author of Groove Tube: Sixties Television and the Youth Rebellion
KIDDIE PORN VERSUS ADULT PORN INTER-NETWORK COMPETITION
As the sun rises each day in the awesome world of the three networks, their generals send forth the stars to do battle for the ratings that rule the realm. The battle is fierce, but the treasures are precious.... Today the battle is physical-and furious.-VOICEOVER OPENING TO THE 1976 BATTLE OF THE NETWORK STARS (ABC)
Between 1976 and 1984, U.S. television viewers were treated to a biannual athletic competition between the prime-time stars of the Big Three broadcast networks-ABC, NBC, and CBS. The Battle of the Network Stars ran on ABC and was hosted by the network's overzealous sports commentator, Howard Cosell. Cosell employed his trademark verbiage to narrate the series of competitive events that made up the Battle-the swimming relay, the kayak race, the obstacle course, the baseball dunk, the climactic tug-of-war. All of the participants were subject to Cosell's appraisals, often centered on their bodies or at least their physical prowess. Sex-tinged descriptions of the women -Belinda Montgomery of The Man fromAtlantis (NBC, 1977-78) was "a lissome lass with a limber body" while Joyce DeWitt of Three's Company (ABC, 1977-84) was "a diminutive bundle of instant sexuality"-somewhat outnumbered Cosell's evaluations of the men's physiques, but even the male actors were subject to Cosell's appreciative eye. He exclaimed about NBC captain Robert Conrad, "Look at Conrad! That body so finely proportioned!" Alongside Cosell's narration were other sexually suggestive elements. Buxom cheerleaders shot from low camera angles encouraged the teams; male and female contestants sported the short shorts and tight swimwear popular in the day while the women often competed braless (a fact emphasized in slow-motion replays of them in athletic motion). Brief profiles of competitors often focused on their physical attractiveness and included such footage as sex symbols Suzanne Somers and Lynda Carter exercising in full make-up and striking attractive poses. Even the antics surrounding a "just for fun" round of Simon Says (a 1970s craze) placed such stars as Cathy Lee Crosby of That's Incredible (ABC, 1980-84) and Larry Wilcox of CHIPS (NBC, 1977-83) in an intimate embrace.
Battle of the Network Stars was a genuine athletic competition. The stars could win up to $20,000 each, so they took it very seriously. At the same time, however, Cosell's hyperbolic commentary, the adolescent sexual suggestiveness, and the mock-serious tenor of the introductory segments like the one quoted above tended to undercut the competition's intensity. Battle exemplified the fierceness of 1970s network competition and the centrality of sexual content to that competitive climate, but it also illustrated the ultimately superficial nature of both the networks' battles with each other (if they were in such fierce ratings competition, why would ABC willingly promote the other networks' shows?) and the kind of sexual material that would make it on air. Battle of the Network Stars was emblematic of a distinctive moment in network television history and in the history of television's new sexual culture.
Throughout the 1970s, the Big Three faced virtually no competition. No competition, that is, except from each other. In the network era, ABC, NBC, and CBS were the main options for TV entertainment and each network focused on besting the other two. All three were contending for the same advertiser dollars, and those dollars increased in proportion to the Nielsen ratings for their programming. Network rivalry centered on drawing audiences to boost ratings and thereby raise ad rates. However, because the three networks operated so similarly, with parallel corporate structures, scheduling practices, and content, their tricks for drawing audiences came from the same bag. As a result, the networks' attempts to differentiate themselves came down to small distinctions in programming-differences in story lines, in stars, in the mix of genres and the mapping of the schedule. While such distinctions may have had little impact on the larger commercial function of American network TV, they could affect how and to what extent television represented particular social issues, not least of which was sex. Whether by imitating each other's successes or countering each other with variations on a theme, in the 1970s all three networks used sex to appeal to viewers. Inter-network rivalry produced the new sexual culture, ensuring its ubiquity, its limited diversity, and its commodified base.
The story of 1970s television competition is one of the longtime third-place ABC passing runner-up NBC and perennial champ CBS on its path to ratings victory. Essential to ABC's ascension was its sex-themed programming; in many respects, ABC led the networks in bringing the sexual revolution to TV. Yet television's new sexual culture was not the product of one network's risk-taking. It was a medium-wide phenomenon born of all three networks jockeying for ratings and constructing their versions of the sexually changed times in relation to each other. Just as important as ABC's efforts were CBS's "turn to relevance" in its social issue-oriented sitcoms and NBC's experiments with sexually suggestive humor in its comedy-variety shows. Later in the decade, NBC's attempts to "out-sex" ABC had a significant impact on the made-for-TV movies' version of the new sexual culture, just as CBS's stab at hosting some buxom beauties of its own shaped the legacy of the TV sex symbol. It was through the struggles between all three networks, not just through ABC's endeavor to rise from third place to first, that the new sexual culture of 1970s television was created.
Network Positioning in the Early 1970s
When the 1970s began, CBS held a clear lead in total household ratings and ABC was seemingly stuck in third place. CBS had substantially more shows among the top twenty of the 1969-70 season than either of its competitors, while ABC, the youngest of the three, consistently held last place despite a couple of promising seasons in the early 1960s. These standings were, not surprisingly, far from satisfactory to ABC management, but the network seemed mired in its inferior position. ABC had long been the butt of jokes among industry insiders. While CBS was often deemed the "Tiffany network" (especially by its self-serving executives), ABC was said to stand for the "Almost Broadcasting Company." Its rapid turnover in series, which were quickly canceled if they failed to perform, earned the quip, "If President Nixon put the Vietnam War on ABC, it would be over in thirteen weeks." CBS's imposing Manhattan headquarters were respectfully nicknamed "Black Rock"; ABC's new, rented setting was labeled "Schlock Rock."
A joke circulating in the TV industry of the late 1960s aptly illustrates not only the three networks' relative reputations, but also the prevailing industry attitudes toward sex. It went like this: The three networks were marooned on an island, deserted except for a beautiful girl with whom the networks agreed they should all have sex. ABC was the first to volunteer and proceeded "to ravish the beauty unashamedly in plain view of the other two networks." Though CBS declared he did not like being second to anyone, particularly to ABC, he told the girl, "I'll be next, but come with me to the other side of the island where we can have privacy." Then it was NBC's turn. Though anxious to have sex with the girl, NBC said, "First, I've got to call New York and see what they say." The joke's sexism was surely a product of the "old boy" power bloc that ran the TV industry, although it was also a relatively common, accepted stance in the early years of the women's liberation movement. The joke is perhaps most telling as an illustration of the kind of masculine potency each network was imagined to have. ABC was the impetuous adolescent, quick to jump into bed with whatever attractive offer came by, unconcerned with how it looked to the others. CBS, in contrast, was ever the gentleman, perfectly willing to debase itself but only to do so away from judgmental gazes, thus keeping its stellar reputation intact. Finally, NBC was the regular fellow, excited by the prospect of an illicit romp but nervous about the ramifications and hesitant about forging ahead as a result. This macho one-upmanship would persist throughout the 1970s, though the balance of power between the participants would change. Still, at the beginning of the decade, ABC not only trailed in ratings but also in respectability, at least in the eyes of its fellow networks.
The same relative positioning of the Big Three also played out in the networks' standings in daytime, most notably in the ratings and reputations of their respective soap operas. Until the 1970s, ABC's daytime line-up was in even worse shape than its prime-time schedule. Its first even remotely successful foray into daytime drama was General Hospital, which began in 1963, and its game shows and talk shows, the other staples of daytime television, had little to no sustained presence. In contrast, CBS had dominated the soap schedule from television's earliest years, airing more serials and garnering consistently higher ratings than either of the other two networks. Much of the CBS daytime schedule was filled with soaps produced by the sponsor Procter and Gamble. This marriage of CBS and Procter and Gamble was, in fact, the foundation of the network's daytime success. From 1952 to 1972, the daytime dramas produced by Procter and Gamble-As the World Turns (CBS, 1956-), The Guiding Light (CBS, 1952-), Another World (NBC, 1964-99), Search for Tomorrow (CBS, 1951-82; NBC, 1982-86), and The Edge of Night (CBS, 1956-75; ABC, 1975-84)-consistently placed in the top two daytime serial ratings spots and often filled the top four, with As the World Turns coming in first most years. With the exception of Another World, the Procter and Gamble empire was entirely located at CBS, keeping the sponsor-producer and the network closely aligned and keeping CBS as dominant in the soap industry as it was in prime time. Because soaps were particularly profitable for the networks in the 1970s (with their relatively low production costs, many commercial minutes, and loyal viewership of the primary household consumers-women), these struggles were at least as significant to network economics as were the primetime ratings races. Indeed, daytime fed both CBS and NBC 75 percent of their profits in the early 1970s.
Youth and Sex in the Early 1970s: The New CBS
At the beginning of the 1970s, while CBS's historic leads in daytime and prime time were as strong as ever, they were beginning to face some legitimate challenges. In the 1969-70 season, CBS's winning prime-time schedule featured a slate of rural-set and family sitcoms, old-fashioned westerns, and traditional variety shows, including Mayberry R.F.D. (1968-71), Family Affair (1966-71), Gunsmoke (1955-75), and The Red Skelton Hour (NBC, 1951-53; CBS, 1953-70; NBC, 1970-71). The number one show, however, was on NBC, and its experiments with sexual humor presaged a key way in which network competition was soon to change. Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In (NBC, 1968-73) held the top spot for the second season in a row. Laugh-In depended heavily upon double entendres for its humor. In one infamous skit, the comedian Judy Carnes appeared on screen in a skull cap, making her look bald. Clearly distressed, she declared, "I've never been bald [balled] before!" The joke thus depended upon more than Carnes's absurd appearance. It depended upon the second, bawdier meaning of her exclamation. Such humor, along with topical jokes on matters from the pope to the pill, helped make Laugh-In one of the few series at the turn of the decade that consistently drew young audiences, the market segment increasingly valuable to advertisers from the late 1960s onward. Influenced by Laugh-In's success with America's youth, all of the networks sought programs to attract those viewers. This was especially challenging for CBS, since its older-skewing shows were not ratings successes among the young, urban viewers of the network's five owned and operated stations.
Responding to this climate, Robert Wood, the president of CBS, declared that he was setting out to change "the character of the network from more bucolic material to more fresh or updated, contemporary [fare]." Assisted by Fred Silverman, his programming chief, Wood gradually revamped the entire prime-time schedule, first adding some dramatic series with young casts and social issue story lines (à la ABC's Mod Squad, 1968-73) in 1970-71 and then, for the 1971-72 season, phasing out the older, rural appeal series such as Green Acres (1965-71) and Hee Haw (1969-71) in favor of more social issue-oriented shows, this time in comedic form.
By the start of the 1972-73 season, the network had found three sitcom anchors that spoke to the changing social worlds of the young while not alienating older viewers or the institutions that supported them. All in the Family (1971-83), The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-77), and M*A*S*H (1972-83) each dealt with social change in its own way, but all three managed to use their comedic sensibilities to make both young and old, rebels and authority figures the objects of good-natured ribbing. All in the Family's Archie Bunker was absurdly bigoted, but his liberal son-in-law, Mike "Meathead" Stivic, was naively idealistic; The Mary Tyler Moore Show's Mary Richards coped with the sexist shenanigans of her boss, Lou Grant, and the pompous anchor, Ted Baxter, while bumbling through her own attempt at life as a single, working woman; and M*A*S*H's unwilling draftee, Corporal Max Klinger, went to ridiculous lengths to be discharged from a unit in which the hilariously humorless Major Frank Burns wielded his ineffectual authority. These series dealt overtly with social issues of the day: race relations, women's roles, the generation gap, the war in Vietnam (very thinly disguised as the Korean War in M*A*S*H), and the changing sexual mores. They also featured characters with more depth and relationships with more complexity than had been seen in the sitcom genre before this time (with rare exceptions). Their success resulted in numerous spin-off series that dealt with similarly explosive issues, including sexual ones.
CBS's politicized brand of sexual humor in its new sitcoms helped win the 1972-73 TV season a reputation as the year TV turned to sex. Developments at the other networks also contributed to TV's reputation as increasingly permissive. For example, NBC's standards and practices editors began to allow topics and language they never had before, including rape, homosexuality, and words such as "penis," "coitus," and "orgasm." The network also allowed Johnny Carson, the Tonight Show (1954-) host, to deliver his nightly monologues without pre-screening. Although comedic treatments of sex were common, NBC and ABC began to experiment with such material in dramatic form. For example, on ABC, The Streets of San Francisco (1972-77), Marcus Welby, M.D. (1969-76), and Owen Marshall, Counselor at Law (1971-74) all featured gay-themed episodes, as did NBC's The Bold Ones (1969-73). The 1972-73 season was also the season in which ABC ran the much-discussed and much-praised That Certain Summer (1 November 1972), a made-for-TV movie about a gay, divorced father's attempt to "explain his lifestyle" to his fourteen-year-old son. Meanwhile, on PBS, the documentary series An American Family (1973) featured the family's openly gay son, Lance. While CBS's immensely popular sitcoms were clearly leading the TV industry into new sex-themed territory, the other networks were beginning to consider alternate ways of representing the changing sexual landscape.
Kiddie Porn Versus Adult Porn: Inter-Network Competition 17
Not in My Living Room: TV Sex That Wasn't 46
The Sex Threat: Regulating and Representing Sexually Endangered Youth 76
Symbols of Sex: Television's Women and Sexual Difference 123
Sex with a Laugh Track: Sexuality and Television Humor 169
From Romance to Rape: Sex, Violence, Soap Operas 208