Fisting, Anal Sex, Penis Pictures: Broadcast TV's Ratings Grab Gets Raunchy

Illustration by: Dan Woodger

The Big 5 networks push shocking new boundaries amid cable envy and a climate with few, if any, fines from the FCC

This story first appeared in the Nov. 14 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

This season, broadcast TV isn't for the prudish. Nearly two months into the fall, it's clear that explicit jokes and boundary-pushing storylines are changing the definition of what sexual content is acceptable in prime­time. Out are love triangles and awkward dates. In are jokes about anal sex, "fisting" and teen masturbation that Parents Television Council president Tim Winter says are "absolutely inappropriate for primetime broadcast television."

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Fox's New Girl season premiere featured Zooey Deschanel repeatedly muttering "sex fist!" as an expression for the roommates' quest to hook up at a wedding. Multiple fisting jokes followed — as did episodes where the gang got stoned and Deschanel dated a guy with amicropenis. "We got away with murder," exec producer Brett Baer told THR after the premiere. "We've given broadcast standards a run for their money." Over on Fox's The Mindy Project, nearly an entire episode focused on Mindy Kaling and Chris Messina debating whether he "slipped" and attempted to, ahem, go in the back door. That led to discussions of sexual positions, including the "necktie," "ascot" and "bagpipe."

On the drama side, ABC's Scandal — airing in its new 9 p.m. slot — opened the season with Kerry Washington and Scott Foley in an explicit entanglement on the beach. Weeks later,showrunner Shonda Rhimes brought "Eiffel Towering" to primetime when the president's teenage daughter was caught on tape performing a lewd sex act that many had to Google. On Oct. 30, Disney-owned ABC rankled the PTC by airing a Scandal sex scene minutes after a Charlie Brown Halloween special.

"I have no intention of changing what's happening on Scandal at 9," Rhimes told THR in July. "That will be interesting. I look forward to being censored." But she hasn't been. And not to be outdone, Rhimes' 10 p.m. drama How to Get Away With Murder featured a character saying, "He did things to my ass that made my eyes water" and ended an episode with Viola Davis asking, "Why is your penis on a dead girl's phone?"

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What's behind the trend? Competition with cable, of course, and a desire by low-rated shows such as Mindy and New Girl to cause a stir (for the most part it hasn't worked). Some say network censors have pushed back less often now that FCC fines are few and far between, though one top exec downplays the hoopla. "As lines blur between broadcast, basic cable and premium cable, there may be a concentration of pushing sexual boundaries in certain shows," he says. "But it is hardly a mandate or a trend."

Still, Winter says, "We have to start asking if some of these gray area instances really do cross the line." He points to a sketched penis on NBC's Bad Judge. "Hopefully, the FCC will levy a fine or two and let broadcasters know that the law is still in place and they have to respect it."

Email: Lesley.Goldberg@THR.com
Twitter: @Snoodit

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