Is There an Epidemic of Nudity on Prime-Time TV?

A study by the Parents Television Council says that blurred or pixilated nudity is increasingly being shown on prime-time TV

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Peter "Hopper" Stone / ABC

Even as the audience for broadcast network television is on an irreversible decline, the incidence of nudity in prime time is on the rise. If departing viewers knew about the latest findings of the Parents Television Council (PTC) — which released a study last week predicting that nudity on the networks will increase 61%, even in shows rated as kid-friendly — they’d surely return in droves.

Not that the conservative-leaning PTC thinks nudity (at any time on TV schedule) is a good thing. “Most parents instinctively know that they need to monitor what their kids watch on television,” said PTC President Tim Winter in a statement, “but our new research shows that it would be almost impossible for them to protect their kids from blurred or pixilated nudity on TV since most broadcast TV networks are rating these shows as acceptable for young children.”

Yes, that’s right, the PTC considers blurred or pixilated nudity just as harmful to kids as the unobscured kind. And it’s pixilated nudity that the PTC study says is on the rise. Alas, the PTC monitors have not documented any cases of actual nudity on the networks this year.

A closer look at the PTC’s findings shows that its eagle-eyed viewers spotted 16 instances of blurred nudity in the first four months of 2013. That’s about one instance per week, or a few seconds of naughty pixels for every 91 hours of prime-time programming. The offending shows were all comedies (including Betty White’s Off Their Rockers, Modern Family, Parks and Recreation, Suburgatory, and the now canceled Go On, Happy Endings and Whitney) or reality shows (Cops and Survivor). In other words, all the obscured nudity was a way to score some cheap laughs at some unfortunate person’s expense, not to provoke or titillate.

Indeed, some of these moments may not even have involved nudity at all, since some shows use pixilation to create the illusion of nudity even when performers are clothed. (In 2011, the PTC filed a complaint with the Federal Communications Commission over X Factor contestant Geo Godley’s pantsless performance, but he was actually wearing a thong behind the graphic obscuring his crotch.)

Still, the PTC isn’t about to give dirty old broad Betty White or any of the other pixilated offenders a pass. After all, some 70% of these shows are rated TV-PG, and 88% of them aired at 9 p.m. or earlier. Which means the networks have decided that fake nudity is pretty much O.K. for kids.

But the PTC isn’t about to let even one pixilated bit of nekkidness in the door. The reasoning: today, it’s faux flashing; tomorrow, it’s the real thing. As Winter noted in his statement, “If this kind of nudity continues to increase — as we believe it will — and the FCC’s proposal to essentially stop enforcing the broadcast indecency law goes into effect, then it’s certain that the networks will continue to push the limits of decency even further.”

That’s what’s really at issue here: the FCC’s current proposal to relax its enforcement of television indecency regulations. Since September, the FCC has pursued only the most blatant incidents cited in complaints filed by the PTC and its ilk while letting more than a million complaints slide because they were too old, outside of the FCC’s jurisdiction, lacking sufficient information, or covered under settled precedents. In April, the FCC solicited comment from citizens on whether it should continue to ignore fleeting expletives and instances of nudity or pursue those complaints as vigorously as those shows marked by deliberate and repeated use of offensive words and images. The public has until June 19 to submit comments on the possible policy change; nearly 100,000 have done so already.

Even if the FCC stopped prosecuting all but what it calls “egregious cases” of indecency, it doesn’t mean prime-time network TV is suddenly going the way of Game of Thrones or Girls. After all, there are forces stronger than the PTC, the FCC and the networks’ own censors. Namely: the sponsors. If advertisers feel a show is too offensive or controversial to provide a friendly environment for their commercials, they’ll stop footing the bills to produce and air that show. And if risqué content doesn’t draw enough pairs of eyeballs to a series to make its commercial time valuable, the networks won’t keep it on the air. Just ask the makers of the three out of the PTC’s nine offending shows that won’t be back to display any pixilated nudity next season.

Even with pixilation, the networks and their sponsors are arguably more skittish about nudity now than they were 20 years ago. So said Steven Bochco, who pushed the envelope for flesh exposure on prime-time network TV two decades ago with NYPD Blue. In hindsight, that show appears more of a special case than the beginning of a slippery slope. “I thought that would be a big game changer for adult content in prime-time TV, and it wasn’t,” Bochco said of NYPD Blue at a Writers Guild of America panel in Beverly Hills last Sunday. “I don’t know if I could get that on a broadcast network today.”