Originally created 05/05/98

The growth of trash TV concerns media watchers



NEW YORK -- The toilet humor overflows on "South Park," teen-agers joke graphically about impotence on "Dawson's Creek," and it's a surprise when fists DON'T fly on "The Jerry Springer Show."

Is nothing too shocking for television anymore?

The medium that once consigned even married couples to separate beds and refused to show Elvis Presley's swiveling hips is redefining its standards so fast that no one's sure where the limits are.

"Television has gone from being juvenile to infantile," said Robert Lichter, director of the Center for Media and Public Affairs, a Washington research group. "We've gone from dirty sex talk to kinky sex to jokes about bodily functions. It's the stuff that nobody would have imagined a decade ago."

Many of the shows pushing the edge of the envelope hardest are the hottest in the business.

The foul-mouthed "South Park" is a sensation, and last week's episode, in which the character Cartman's father was revealed, won the highest ratings of any entertainment series in basic cable's history.

Besides "South Park," the biggest hit on cable is the crunching antics of professional wrestlers.

Steamy "Dawson's Creek," whose opening episodes featured a 36-year-old teacher's affair with a high school student, is usually the highest-rated show on the WB network.

The producers of "The Jerry Springer Show" agreed Thursday to edit out the fistfights, the chair-throwing and all the other violence on the nation's top-rated daytime talk-show.

The agreement came after a meeting with community activists in Chicago who staged a Springer boycott and denounced his fists-flying program as a pornographic slugfest.

"It's a wake-up call for television," the Rev. Michael Pfleger said after meeting for 2[1/2] hours with Springer executives and management at Fox Broadcasting's WFLD-TV in Chicago. "This kind of trash television has got to go."

The agreement came after a tumultuous week for the show: Former guests said they were coached and the fights staged. The show was dropped by NBC's Chicago affiliate because of its tawdriness. WFLD quickly picked it up but also became the target of the Rev. Pfleger's boycott. And the show's producers ordered Springer to tone down the violence.

Now, the violence will vanish completely, Studios USA Network, the show's producer and distributor, said in a statement.

"I don't know what's going to be left," laughed media analyst and talk-show researcher Chris Ryan.

In its early years, the 7-year-old show actually focused on talk, and violence "was kind of the dessert," Ryan said. "Now it's the whole meat of the show."

Because of broadcasting deregulation during the 1980s, producers are more willing to take chances on content, Lichter said. There are many more outlets available to expose the work, too.

A show like "South Park" would never have gotten on the air a decade ago because broadcasters would have considered its audience of 3 million to be too small, he said. An audience that size on a cable network today makes the show seem like a hit.

The same instinct that causes motorists to stop and peer at auto accidents is behind many of the more shocking shows, said Vicki Abt, a Penn State University professor. Audiences are becoming desensitized to the profanity and violence, she said.

"We get bored very quickly," Abt said. "We need blood and guts to get the same outrage from the audience."

While polls show many viewers are upset by much of what they see, "you're going to see more and more of this until the public is so up in arms that they shout it down," Lichter said.

Coming this summer on many CBS stations: shock jock Howard Stern. His hiring so angered relationships expert Dr. Laura Schlessinger that she broke off negotiations for her own TV show with CBS's syndication arm.

Stern's response: Dr. Laura is "less than a nobody."