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HIGH RATINGS FOR SEXY EPISODE OF 'DAWSON'S CREEK' ARE REVEALING

This is what I'm thinking:

Talk about bad timing. The day after another survey came out that reminded us that television is loaded with more sex than ever, the coming-of-age drama "Dawson's Creek" carried an episode in which high school teenagers Joey (Katie Holmes) and Pacey (Joshua Jackson) had sex on a ski trip.

The results of that episode explain why there is so much sex on television. It was the highest-rated episode of "Dawson's Creek" since November.

When teens have sex on television, generally it is followed by some painful side effects - regret and loss of self-esteem being the primary ones.

Which is why I looked at tonight's episode (8 p.m., Channel 49) in which "Joey and Pacey explore their feelings about their intimate night together" and "Joey is again forced to choose between admitting her love for Pacey and breaking Dawson's heart."

Those are the words from a WB release that came with the tape. Regrets? Joey appears to have a few. But you really can't tell because she has so much difficulty being honest - with herself and others. Her words say one thing, her attitude and facial expressions say another.

In other words, her reaction is complicated. In drama, that's a good thing even if the message isn't quite what a parent might want. I suspect Joey's true feelings will come out over time.

The Joey-Pacey story line is part of a very reflective episode divided into four separate vignettes. In other stories, Dawson (James Van Der Beek) rediscovers his movie-making dream by going through the mementos of a deceased old friend and mentor. And Jen (Michelle Williams) finally goes to a therapist to try to understand why she does bad things.

It is a strong, low-key hour, but it still wouldn't keep me away from NBC's "Ed."

By the way, the Kaiser Family Foundation report on sexuality in television really wasn't very surprising. The foundation reported there has been a significant increase in the number of television shows with sexual content in the last two years and that only 10 percent of the shows include references to safer sex or the possible risk and responsibilities of sex.

According to the report, the number of programs with sexual content rose from 56 percent in the 1997-1998 season to 68 percent in the 1999-2000 season and that prime time content is up eight percent to 75 percent.

These aren't exactly huge revelations when you consider the networks have just about eliminated all the family shows that were least likely to have sexual content. The report also states that more teenage characters are involved in sexual intercourse, which also shouldn't be surprising since the 1999-2000 year was overloaded with teenage programs that would deal with that issue.

It would be more surprising if the sex content increases this season with so many editions of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" and other reality shows diminishing the number of dramas and sitcoms on the air.

In looking for the age 18 through 49 audiences, sitcoms routinely turn to sex for laughs. If programs fail to emphasize responsibility, it is because writers feel it isn't easy to be entertaining when you are lecturing people and it certainly can slow the humor and drama down. That said, NBC's decision to carry 20-minute versions of "Saturday Night Live" at 8:40 p.m. Thursday to fight "Survivor" has been ear-opening. Last week's program had two crude sexual references that usually are reserved for late-night television.

NBC also raised the crude meter bar Saturday by having the Rock use a PG-13 phrase at about 8:15 p.m. when talking about NFL executives.

Oops. Reports of Eddie Fisher's death in this column Monday were greatly exaggerated. If Monday's ABC movie, "These Old Broads," starring ex-wives Debbie Reynolds and Elizabeth Taylor, didn't kill him, nothing will. He isn't dead. Just his career. ABC carried the movie at 8 p.m. instead of 9 p.m. It was listed incorrectly here but accurately in the daily listings. The 8 p.m. start meant there was some pretty risque dialogue on for that time of the night.

First impression of Kelly Ripa, Regis Philbin's new co-host: she has energy, she has enthusiasm, she has a quick wit, she isn't afraid to make a fool of herself. In short, if she had a clothing line, she would be a younger version of Kathie Lee Gifford. Occasionally, she veers off course, as she did Monday describing something called head cheese. She obviously realizes that the head cheese on her show is Regis. After the first two mornings with Kelly, one can see her strengths - and her potential to become as annoying as Kathie Lee.

The national ratings for the XFL dropped by 50 percent but a bigger concern for NBC should be how it did in Buffalo. After opening with a 12.8 rating on Channel 2, the XFL's second game started with a 4.3 (during the Rock's address) and averaged less than a 5 rating until 11 p.m. That means it lost more than 60 percent of its audience in football-crazy Buffalo.

Memo to Mike DeGeorge, who said he quit the Empire Sports Network last week without having a job lined up. I'm all for principle, but in this job market I might wait to see if my concerns are justified before heading out the door. Having been fired by Channel 2 and having resigned from Empire, DeGeorge isn't expected to be in demand here. And the national job market is drying up, too.

More "Temptation." Fox has added a seventh installment of "Temptation Island." It probably means that tonight's episode and next week's will be more boring than usual. After all, Fox is stretching what was supposed to be a six-hour series into seven hours.

Channel 4 is proud to say that it is the only news operation with a 10 p.m. newscast on weekends. It doesn't seem to be that big a deal to viewers yet. On Saturday, the newscast on WNLO-TV (Channel 23) anchored by Kathy Straitiff had a .6 rating and on Sunday it had a 1.6. In other words, like Eddie Fisher, the 10 p.m. weekend news is alive but many people don't know it.

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