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Sex Scandal On TV (Ho Hum)

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First, the president of the United States discusses on national television his sexual relationship with a young intern. For a sequel, there's the prospect that the woman, Monica Lewinsky, will come before Congress and the American public via TV to elaborate on their encounters.

An outsider (from Mars, perhaps) wouldn't be blamed for confusing today's news programming with, say, the outrageous shock-talk TV of "Jerry Springer" or even the steamy soap-opera fiction of "Melrose Place."

But these days, even TV-soaked earthlings no longer draw a firm line between "serious news" and the rest of the TV landscape, some media theorists say. The sex-saturated TV environment, they maintain, has permanently lowered the public's threshold of shock - along with its expectations for public behavior.

"We are in a culture that talks so much more frankly and frequently about sex," says Robert Thompson, head of the center for the study of popular TV at Syracuse (N.Y.) University. Talk about sex "by itself it doesn't have the shock value to [push President Clinton] out of office." In an era of ribald TV fare such as talking excrement on Comedy Central's "South Park," the viewing public has become so inured to extreme content that many Americans have lowered their expectations - even for their president.

Mr. Thompson maintains that if the Lewinsky story had hit the airwaves just 15 years ago, the unsavory nature of the disclosures would have been enough to send a president from office.

But for audiences today, sexual content on TV is commonplace, almost obligatory. "Sex sells," says media guru George Gerbner, dean emeritus of the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School for Communication. In a reversal from a generation ago, today it is the absence of sexual activity in prime-time programs that strikes critics and the public as unusual. "The viewing public has become jaded to sexuality," agrees Professor Gerbner, because it is the norm for TV.

Less shock value

Precisely because people are no longer shocked by the sexual details, the revelations about Clinton's conduct "lack serious traction," says communications professor Kevin Sargent at Furman University in Greenville, S.C. "They may have initial impact, but it is not lasting," he says.

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