Am I imagining it or is television becoming even more family unfriendly? For years now, primetime television fare has offered a steady diet of comedies that depend on sexual innuendo and situations for laughs, crime dramas that make the world seem like it's filled with sadistic predators and perverts, often within our own homes, and cable "news" programs that spend as much time dissecting the bizarre antics of this week's celebrity bad girl (or boy) as they do covering real news.
But avoiding objectionable material has become more difficult, despite V-chips, which allow parents to control access to certain programs. And one of the more toxic areas is now the ads.
Not only do commercials try to use sex to sell everything from automobiles to soap, it seems half the ads on TV now are marketing sex itself in the form of sex-enhancing drugs. And there's no avoiding the ads, no matter how careful you are with selecting your programming.
You can block "Desperate Housewives" or "Sex in the City" reruns, but what do you do about the ads in family programs -- like Major League Baseball? I was astonished at what aired between innings of the fourth game in the National League Championship Series between the Colorado Rockies and the Arizona Diamondbacks, for example. The usual impotence drugs led the pack, as they do for most sports programming. You wonder how many kids out there turn to Dad to explain what "ED" stands for.
Then there were the liquor ads, and since the game aired on cable, these were for hard liquor, not just the usual beer commercials. No matter what messages the advertisers tack on to "drink responsibly," pushing alcohol consumption to young audiences is destructive.
But the worst offender during the NLCS was by far Levi's. Remember when the company used to sell its blue jeans with rugged cowboys outfitted in its signature 501 style denims? Now the emphasis isn't how sturdy the pants are but how quickly randy couples can get out of them. The NLCS Levi's ad featured a series of young couples, some appearing to be teenagers, ripping off their shirts as they moved toward each other to reveal yet another hot guy or gal underneath. That is until the last couple embrace, bare-torsoed and wearing only their Levi's.
And it's not just sex, drugs and alcohol that offend decency. Many of the ads are downright horrifying for adults, much less kids. Since its Halloween season, there's the usual Hollywood release of the latest slasher film ad to frighten all ages, plus the many gruesome images used to advertise network shows like "Bones," the various "CSI" and "Law and Order" incarnations, "Close to Home," or others.
The networks plug their own shows relentlessly, as do the supposedly advertising-free premium channels. And if you happen to subscribe to channels like HBO because you're a fan of some particular series (in my case, "The Wire," which may be the best drama ever produced for television), you can be watching something unobjectionable only to have soft-core porn flash on screen in the form of a promotion for another of the network's shows.
Even the program guides that list channel offerings can be a challenge. You may block offensive programs or channels, but just perusing the on-screen guide looking for something decent to watch can be a minefield. Recently, the PG animated movie "Happy Feet" aired right before "Cathouse," which the guide helpfully describes as a documentary on "the Moonlite Bunny Ranch . . . a legal brothel in Nevada." And if you're looking for entertainment after 10 p.m., you'll find listings for shows like "Real Sex," "Sin City Diaries," or the latest HBO affront, "Katie Morgan on Sex Toys."
You don't have to be a child, or even have children in your home, to find this intrusion of Hollywood values into your living room troublesome. But unless you're willing to throw out your set altogether, there doesn't seem much you can do about it.