Image from 'Blue Mountain State'The woman in the Monty Python sketch was right when she said she’s against sex on the television because she keeps falling off. As an informative article from USA Today makes clear, once the medium gets started down that road, there’s no stopping halfway, and the consequences become unavoidable for the unwary viewer:

Critics such as the Parents Television Council decry the mushrooming sexual content. “It’s become downright ubiquitous,” says council president Tim Winter. “Families are under siege, teenage girls are under siege. You don’t know what the cultural impact will be down the road.”

Programmers seem less enthused about this greater freedom than anti-Hollywood conspiracy theorists might expect. The USA Today story quotes several making that point:

Says Doug Herzog, president of MTV Networks entertainment group: “The line moves every day, so you got to move with it. You can’t put the genie back in the bottle. . . .”

“When advertising dollars are down you have to cut through—you have to get attention,” says JD Roth, producer of NBC reality hit The Biggest Loser. . . .

“You can definitely see an arms race,” says FX programming chief John Landgraf, whose groundbreaking series such as Rescue Me and Nip/Tuck set new standards for mature content on basic cable.

The boundaries are definitely moving, as the USAT story notes:

Viewers are about to see full-frontal male nudity, heterosexual, homosexual and group sex, and graphic scenes rarely — if ever — seen on mainstream TV. And that’s just on pay-cable Starz’s fornication-heavy, 13-episode Spartacus: Blood and Sand (premieres Friday, 10 ET/PT), a 300-meets-Caligula epic about the Roman Empire’s notorious slave/gladiator.

MTV plans a June launch of The Hard Times of RJ Berger, a scripted comedy about a nerdy 15-year-old whose cool quotient heats up when his anatomical gift is accidentally exposed. And basic-cable network Spike’s just-launched raunchy college-sports comedy Blue Mountain State (Tuesdays, 10 ET/PT) showed a masturbating school mascot on the Jan. 12 premiere, while last night’s episode featured a scene suggesting oral sex between a coed and jock before the opening credits. . . .

ABC’s Cougar Town—which had a memorable scene that implied Courteney Cox‘s character administering oral sex to her date—premiered last fall. Also new in the past year: HBO’s Hung, a dramedy about a well-endowed teacher moonlighting as a prostitute; National Geographic TV’s adult-themed documentary series, Taboo; and VH1’s titillating Sex Rehab With Dr. Drew. . . .

[Also in Spartacus: Blood and Sand, Lucy] Lawless portrays a conniving social climber who is nude in some scenes, commits adultery in others and uses sex to manipulate frenemies and family. One episode shows Lawless’ character and her gladiator-camp-owner husband (John Hannah) manually stimulated by slaves before having sex. Upcoming episodes feature orgies and a gladiator whose large endowment ultimately leads to his downfall.

The impact will most likely be twofold: many people becoming further inured to the increasingly pornographic content of much of television and thus being more willing to accept a further moving of the boundaries, while many others will pack up their picnic baskets and move to greener fields providing what the see as reliably tasteful content. The USA Today story quotes former Xena: Warrior Princess star Lucy Lawless as acknowledging this as a likely consequence of her new Starz network show, Spartacus: Blood and Sand:

Noting the potentially off-putting content, the former Xena: Warrior Princess star concedes Spartacus isn’t for everyone: “Pretty quickly, the audience has to realize they aren’t in Kansas anymore. There will be (viewers) who are truly horrified and switch this off.”

Thus this trend seems likely to push even further the splintering of audiences that has been taking place for more than two decades and accelerated since the arrival of broadband on the internet. That should be expected to force a further reduction of any sense of a common culture in the nation.

Trends don’t always continue as expected, however, and this one may well be about to slow, as TV producers quoted in the USAT article suggest, including the sexualization pioneers at FX and the Showtime pay network:

Ironically, Showtime (The L Word , The Tudors , Weeds ) and FX, whose programming helped pave the way for harder-content offerings on rival networks, say they’re pulling back on sexually provocative shows and stories.

“In terms of edginess, our content is less edgy today,” Landgraf says. “Nip/Tuck is the edgiest show we’ve ever had, and we just haven’t found a program to replace it with. Sons of Anarchy is less edgy than The Shield. At the end of the day, what makes a show like The Shield work is the quality from a storytelling standpoint. You watch because it’s compelling, because it’s good.”

Says Showtime’s Bob Greenblatt: “We’re not trying to do things just to get attention and sell subscriptions. I’d say the network is a lot less sexy than it used to be. There’s very little on United States of Tara, Nurse Jackie and Dexter. For me, its really just about having the freedom to go to those places if the stories and characters demand it.”

TV is certainly unlikely to return to the standards of the early years of the medium, nor would that necessarily be a particularly desirable outcome. The greater variety being offered by the convergence of TV and the internet means that the medium is approaching the situation predicted years ago by George Gilder: instead of a plethora of channels, the individual will have one channel with whatever they want on it.

That affords great power to the consumer, and while some will use that power wisely, many will abuse it by indulging in whatever sensationalistic and pornographic fare is available. Yet that’s their right, and taking away the rights of the many in an alleged attempt to protect the few from the consequences of their choices never works out well.

In addition, the economic incentives are in favor of those who purvey values, images and ideas more in line with the liberal bourgeois values of the nation as a whole. Those who are chasing the biggest audiences most effectively may well find that they can do well by doing right. This has been the case at the USA Network, which has been very successful with original series featuring both sound values and vigorous entertainment.

The programmers at Showtime and FX have likewise realized this, and it may be just a matter of time before, like the woman in the Monty Python sketch, there’s a falling-off of sex on the TV.