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In an episode of "Mad About You" last season, the character of Paul Buchman, played by Paul Reiser, wanders through Manhattan in a Viagra-induced state of sexual excitement looking for his wife.

The segment is built around a series of gags involving Paul's arousal. When his cousin, Ira, suggests to Paul that he "relieve" himself, Paul responds, "I ain't wasting this on a picture of Steffi Graf."

Not everyone was amused.

The Parents Television Council seized on that episode of the popular NBC sitcom and dozens of other suggestive TV snippets in a report last month that lamented the demise of the traditional "family hour" of network TV.

The conservative media watchdog group found a sharp rise in lurid material in the past 18 months in the 8-to-9 p.m. time slot most likely viewed by youngsters, which was once reserved by broadcast networks for wholesome, family-oriented shows.

The council is pressing to restore the family hour to network television. But broadcast executives and industry analysts say that, for better or worse, there is no turning the dial back to days when shows like "Mayberry R.F.D.," "The Beverly Hillbillies" and "Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C." dominated the first hour of prime time.

The notion of keeping the 8 o'clock hour sacrosanct is out of date in an era of fierce competition from cable TV and a widening cultural gap between young and old viewers, they say.

"There was such a thing as a family hour when there were three networks and no cable," said NBC Entertainment President Garth Ancier, who previously was the entertainment chief at Fox Broadcasting and the WB network.

Today, the average American family has access to more than 50 channels of programming and the broadcast networks account for only about half the viewership in prime time, he said.

Nickelodeon's niche

"It seems almost quaint to think that networks are going to be locked into doing family-friendly programs from 8 to 9 o'clock when there's so many other choices (for viewers) to turn to," he said.

"When Nickelodeon has the majority of kids watching television at 8 o'clock, how are you going to get them back?"

Still, Ancier acknowledged that demographics and advertising rates play a major role in driving more adult-themed sitcoms and dramas into earlier time slots.

With prime-time advertising rates based on viewership by adults between the ages of 18 and 49 and children being lured away in droves to such cable outlets as Nickelodeon, the Cartoon Network and the Fox Family Channel, broadcasters' incentive to air family programming is diminished.

"Certainly there's more of a premium for reaching adults on the part of advertisers than reaching families," Ancier said.

Officials at the PTC, whose board members include Motion Picture Association of America President Jack Valenti and U.S. Sens. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) and Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), say networks are dodging the real issue by pointing to cable.

"That's got to be the worst excuse I've ever heard," said PTC Chairman L. Brent Bozell. "The airwaves do not belong to the networks, they belong to the public. So they have a moral responsibility, and they've completely abdicated that."

Bozell also disputed the idea that family programs do not sell, pointing to the success of Nickelodeon and such network shows as CBS' "Touched By An Angel," ABC's now-canceled "Home Improvement" and WB's highest-rated show, "7th Heaven."

Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University, sees the decline of the family hour as more of a "cultural thing."

"The old notion of everyone gathered around the hearth of the television set and watching "I Love Lucy' or "Ed Sullivan' is describing a cultural phenomenon that really doesn't exist anymore," Thompson said.

"The acceleration of cultural change has made the tastes of parents and the tastes of children very, very different."

But he agreed that the proliferation of cable and the recent practice of targeting programs for narrower, fragmented audiences have been major factors.

Bozell, however, dismissed suggestions that the issue of network programming had lost relevance. "Three of the six broadcast networks have a bigger audience than everyone combined," he said. "Their numbers are dropping but they're still the name of the game."

Not all critics of TV programming see the emphasis on sex, per se, as the problem. Dorothy Swanson, president and founder of the Virginia-based grass-roots organization Viewers for Quality Television, said many programs have merely substituted "silly, lame sex jokes" for quality content.

"I don't think we want a total elimination of sex from television," Swanson said. "What we're losing is intelligent writing."

Raunch on the rise

The youth-oriented WB network -- loved by the PTC for its "7th Heaven" but loathed for the hormonally charged dramas "Dawson's Creek" and "Buffy, the Vampire Slayer" -- has made a case for its appeal to a new kind of family audience.

While WB's prime-time lineup is not aimed at children, spokesman Brad Turell said, "We as a network get more teens and their parents watching our shows, which equals families, than any other network."

The concept of a family hour has eroded gradually since it was struck down by the courts as a formalized institution that the industry, with encouragement from regulators, sought to impose in the mid-1970s.

But experts trace the impetus for its wholesale abandonment to the late 1980s and early 1990s, when Fox began airing such shows as the raunchy sitcom "Married ... With Children," the in-your-face sketch comedy "In Living Color" and the steamy evening soap "Melrose Place" in the 8 o'clock hour.

NBC followed suit in 1993 and 1994 with "Mad About You" and "Friends," and CBS in 1993 with family-themed but saucy "The Nanny."

The encroachment of adult-themed fare into the 8 o'clock hour seems set to continue in the upcoming fall season. "Mad About You," "The Nanny" and "Melrose Place" are gone, but the PTC notes that "Spin City," "The Norm Show," Veronica's Closet" and "Just Shoot Me" -- all with heavy doses of sexual innuendo -- are moving to the opening hour of prime time.

And they will be joined by such new shows as UPN's profanity-laced wrestling extravaganza "WWF Smackdown!", the broad, sex-charged UPN comedy "Shasta McNasty" and the Fox teen drama "Manchester Prep," a spinoff of the film "Cruel Intentions."

Stay tuned.

Jeff Simon is on assignment.

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