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A Bridger Cunningham Exclusive -- Do We Really Need to Censor Scripted TV? Time to Blame the 90's!

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Written in Defiance by Bridger Cunningham

Has TV become too lewd and violent for our little eyes and ears?  You be the judge.  For this article, the fourth wall shall be broken and I'll share a conversation with you in first-person, as this is a passionate topic.  In my 35 years, I have watched television push the boundaries.  Not only on the broadcast networks, but also via cable and other platforms.  As a child, I recall my mother noting how much more brash television had become as several words have crept into our TV vocab.  My first experiences with this issue involved a seldom-watched network called FOX.

Back in 1988, I was 6 years old, and my older brother and babysitter used to love the trashy antics of the Bundys on Married With Children.  Much of the humor went over my head, as I viewed these people as just silly and stupid.  My parents were all-too oblivious as my mother never cared for the show, yet never saw the harm.  That changed in early 1989 with an infamous episode "Her Cups Runneth Over."  I remember seeing the two leading male cast members, Al (Ed O'Neil) and Steve (David Garrison) lingerie shopping.  As a child just shy of 7, I thought it was just silly as two guys were in the ladies' underwear section of the store.

Then a Bloomfield Hills, Michigan housewife named Terry Rakolta began a movement against the network to have the show removed from the air as it was obscene.  As I lived not too far away in the Detroit metro area, her story was all over the local news.  I remember her exclusive being covered on local ABC affiliate WXYZ, a prominent player in our news world.  I remember seeing the piece and blurting out "They are talking about the Bundys."  From that moment on, my mother forbade my brother and I from watching that show.

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Terry Rakolta, a local mother and sister of politician Ronna Romney (then a member of the Republican National Committee from Michigan), crusaded a movement against the show, encouraging advertisers to pull from MWC due to its contents.  Several argued "You should change the channel".  Yet she took it further, evident in her views this should not be airing on broadcast television.  The ensuing controversy initially nicked the show, yet backfired on Rakolta's cause.  Due to her vocal stance and need to get on her soapbox, people who had never heard of Married With Children were now curious about this show bantered through the media.


As evident by the ratings surge, Married With Children's ratings more than doubled during this season and would remain in the top 50 for the next 7 seasons.  It also helped more more markets scramble to find affiliates to air the newer 4th network.  FOX owes its establishment to Rakolta's movement, as the controversy helped increase affiliates and exposure.  Rakolta's movement is an example of the Streisand Effect, which someone attempts to censor or remove something due to their own passionate stance, resulting in a counter effect.

Controversy would soon follow FOX inside that calendar year as they debuted mid-season replacement The Simpsons.  A colorful cartoon of sorts, children were drawn to the poor behavior of 10-year old Bart Simpson, who shamelessly held "damn" and "hell" in his vocab.  Again, parents argued the show was inappropriate for children, hitting deep into the heart of schools.  By this time, my mother took a differing approach to boundary-pushing shows her children were drawn to.  After catching my brother and I trying to sneak peeks at MWC, she finally laid down the ground rule that we could only watch if an adult was watching with us.  

Under the circumstance something was too racy for little eyes, the channel was changed.  It was a healthy compromise, along with the caveat we not discuss this show with our classmates as other childrens' parents may not want their kids watching.  So when the Simpsons debuted, my brother and I were glued to our sets.  I was in 2nd grade, and the Simpsons was all the rage.  After my teacher caught a group of us discussing this show on the playground, she made the six of us write a letter home to our parents, telling them we were discussing an inappropriate TV show.  

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And of course, it was discussed the next time my mother and teacher talked.  I thought I was in the doghouse, yet my mother calmly asked me not to ever discuss the Simpsons at school, and never repeat any obscene words uttered.  The Simpsons' ratings exploded during the 1989-90 season, leading FOX to move the TV show to its fledging Thursdays to take on NBC ratings juggernaut The Cosby Show.  The Season 2 debut posted a record 18.1 Nielsen Demo, tying Cosby.  Continued controversy helped cement The Simpsons' place in TV history, nearing the close of the 28th season and an unprecedented record for longstanding sitcoms.

Over time, the Simpsons pushed the boundaries on vocab and topics.  Now, in 2017, it is just an ordinary old show against the network's other offerings such as Family Guy and The Mick.  FOX owes its existence to pushing boundaries and reality TV, as it currently rests in 3rd place among the broadcast networks' five English-speaking offerings.  FOX would continually offer edgier programming, starting with all-too-topical teenage soap, Beverly Hills, 90210 in 1990.  Not as controversial as the previously mentioned, it still perked several parental groups' radars.  Two years later, they debuted Melrose Place.

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Initially a heartfelt soap opera with self-contained episodes about the struggles of young Gen X-ers, the show upped the ante by hiring Dynasty sexpot Heather Locklear to fuel up the plots.  By the end of the 2nd season in 1994, ratings (and overt sexuality doused with sensations grabs for shocking plots) were on the rise.  Aaron Spelling's latest foray into primetime kept a healthy sexual appetite as a staple plot, as nearly everyone in the building had courted each other by the series' end in 1999.  Censors argued too many scenes were suggestive.  Yet they should have just allowed the shows' writers to take their course, as they overdosed viewers on "shocks" so heavily that ratings eroded beginning in 1996.

Sexuality took on a different taboo in the 1990's.  It wasn't just women pouncing on men clad with lingerie as their bait weapon.  The LGBT scene began to crack America's rigid stance on visibility, beginning with ABC's crass-com Roseanne.  Already on Parental Activists' radars for its coarse language and discussion of risky topics such as teenage sexuality, a 1994 guest appearance by Mariel Hemingway sparked controversy coupled with an opening "Viewer Discretion is Advised" disclosure.  The controversy?  Roseanne socializes with her bisexual friend at a gay bar and is kissed by Hemingway.

The scene is nothing too suggestive, as it is common play in today's viewing.  But the fact that the lead of the show engaged in the act sparked outrage.  Roseanne Barr has been an outspoken advocate of the LGBT community, having two siblings in that community.  So she incorporated gay and bisexual characters as part of her artistic delivery.  The show already profiled TV's first female on female kiss between Morgan Fairchild and Sandra Bernhard the previous season with little push back.  Yet the network felt the need to restrain this plot development.

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Was that fair, considering NYPD Blue flaunted showing its principles' rear ends so often?  As unjust as this development appeared for Roseanne in 1994, it opened the door for progressive developments in incorporating mainstreamed LGBT characters into shows years later.  Conversely, ABC issued a similar "Viewer Discretion is Advised" disclosure for Ellen Degeneres' famous coming out episode in 1997 in her self-titled sleeper sitcom.  Never controversial (and quite G-rated for its time), Degeneres made the creative decision to have her character come to an about-face realization she was a lesbian.  

The episode was tame and tasteful, and sadly the show ended the following season.  Several charged it was due to this development, but Ellen was always a modest success and was washed out in a declining ABC's schedule.  The Disney-owned network had little issue foisting social issues such as gun control down viewers' throats in its sitcoms, so why the disclosures for the last-two referenced scenes?

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New material in the 1990's was not the only entertainment scrutinized by the Political Correctness Movement.  Mid-20th Century classics such as The Three Stooges and animated cartoons from Warner Brothers and MGM were also deemed "too violent for children."  Therefore, Turner Entertainment censored several classics such as Bugs Bunny and Tom and Jerry, removing references to cigarettes, fires, explosions and poor dialects reflecting ethnic groups in negative demeanor.  

The result?  Tragically, it washed out the beautiful artistry vocal actor Lillian Randolph as grammatically poor, larger than life character Mammy Two Shoes.  While the move modernized cartoons to be "suitable" for children, it whitewashed Randolph's career efforts in vain.  During the 1940's and 1950's, entertainment careers for the Black American demographic were scarce, making Randolph's vocal beauty lost to a panicked movement.  And the censoring of these cartoons has not alleviated overreacting parents from banning their children from watching these shorts, because "they are too violent."

The problem is not the cartoons, but rather the parenting.  Should parents take an active approach and teach children themselves that "hitting is wrong," "fire is dangerous" or "that is not appropriate for children to say," kids could enjoy the slapstick antics of these cartoons and the Three Stooges.  Somehow, the Baby Boomer and Gen-X generations managed to grow up into well-adjusted adults who know setting fires indoors is wrong.  I had an active parent who continually reminded me "that is a TV show" or "children do not use those words, and you will be punished if you do so."  Why cannot parents do the same today?

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Not too long after this whitewash movement to sterilize cartoons, animators Trey Parker and Matt Stone unleashed the unholiest and filthiest of cartoons, South Park.  However, they were wise to hide out on paid cable behind a TV-MA rating.  Still, Parental Activist groups found a new eyesore to occupy their open schedules.  In the all-too-brilliant episode "Death", local housewife Sheila Broflovski took offense to the language on her child's cartoon Terrence and Phillip all the way to the networks.  Displaying outlandish brilliancy, Parker and Stone displayed the asinine efforts of these activist groups, who all too hypocritically left their children unsupervised as the Grim Reaper chased them around town.

The same sentiment can be echoed with parents who complain about their children watching inappropriate TV shows.  The question remains -- Why weren't they watching their kids?  If you abhor a TV show or concept, change the channel!  Put a parental block on your TV's and be the boss of your household viewing.  Educate your children about fiction and what is appropriate to act out or discuss in society.

As the PC movement seemed to fade out of the 90's like Jennifer Anniston's Friends hairdo, so did much of the censorship trend.  However, it creeps back into our media like an uninvited in-law showing up unannounced on our doorstep.  It was instigated by an all-too-obviously choreographed "Wardrobe Malfunction" concocted by Justin Timberlake and Janet Jackson, part of Jackson's bare breast was exposed with a pasty during Superbowl XXXVIII.  The FCC and several Parental Groups resurrected their hovering efforts to "clean up television."  Such actions at the infamous Superbowl Halftime show do not warrant any visuals.

In 2004, Marc Cherry not only reinvigorated dramedies with Desperate Housewives, but also Sunday nights on television outside of sports.  Still, the show caught Parental Activists' unoccupied routines as it was deemed racy for network television.  Particularly when Teri Hatcher's annoyingly clumsy Susan loses her towel and must get back into her house in slapstick fashion.

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Thankfully, like the Streisand Effect made viewers tune in past the fore-mentioned controversy to see a clever, crafty and witty lampooning of the hypocritical suburbs, sprinkled with some cleverly constructed mysteries.  The 21st century offers too many choices for viewing, leaving Parental Activists to realize their efforts to ban or remove TV shows were in vain.  They still pout and get on their soap boxes, sadly realizing their cries are falling on increasingly deaf ears and showrunners intentionally pushing the boundaries.

Recent entries into the Parental Groups' radars are anything with the brand "Chuck Lorre" attached, as well as FOX, again.  The Mick has pushed this envelope with a grifter raising three haughty children, and everyone seems pleased.  So how much should be censored?  Very few vocalized the suggestive nudity in the opening five minutes of NBC's heralded "This is Us."  Those moments featured part of Milo Ventimiglia's bare behind slipping past the towel, or Chrissy Metz' all too revealing scene from behind as she steps onto the scale partially clad in only red panties.  All viewers noticed was the plot was interesting and ripe with rich characters waiting to be explored.

Showrunners are continuing their efforts to produce entertainment which remains contemporary for the times and reaches viewers.  A mild dose of controversy draws eyeballs and ears.  And lightening up the stigmas and stereotypes against the LGBT community, as well as ethnic groups shows progression in America's tastes.  The rest of the world outside of America ridicules their uptight, rigid cultural standards.  They are not offended by what is seen and heard in our scripted shows, but rather our callow and callous newscasts.

No one in America seems to care about censoring the media's tasteless exploitation of news coverage, so why punish the people creating fictitious pieces?  Just remember folks -- It is just a [bleepin'] TV show!