"Sex in the Soviet Union," airing at 10 tonight on WJZ-TV (Channel 13), is classic Ted Koppel television. It's a sexy topic treated in enough of a high-road fashion for the show to cut it both ways: earn ratings and respect. It's a walk along the tightrope "Nightline" has trod so successfully with shows ranging from Jim and Tammy Bakker to Madonna.
"Unprecedented freedom of expression" in the Soviet Union, Koppel tells viewers at the start of tonight's show, "has resulted in a jarring explosion of sexual images, which themselves reflect the far more profound changes that are convulsing that country. . . . This is a program about the moral, practical and economic problems in the Soviet Union as seen through the prism of sex."
The sexual images in the unfinished version of the program, sent to television critics this week, were pretty jarring. They include tape from a Soviet television show which features a nude man and woman in bed. The scene shows the woman putting a condom on the man. There is also tape of a stripper and a circus clown. The stripper appears to be part of a circus act.
ABC's cameras show us wide-eyed Russian children in the audience watching the stripper.
ABC News sent an advisory to television critics saying that the nudity seen in their tapes will be electronically distorted for broadcast tonight. Even such distortion or editing won't leave much to the imagination.
But the fact of the matter is that almost all the images make worthwhile observations about life in the Soviet Union and some of the ways the human spirit finds expression after too many years of darkness.
Koppel's bottom line is that, while this flood of sexual images rolls across the Soviet Union, the government has no idea how to deal with an increase in sexual activity. Like so many things there, it's a mess. There is virtually no sex education, no birth control, nor any modern abortion facilities. Like everythingelse in short supply, condoms are difficult to obtain. Many Russian women have had several abortions, which they use as a form of birth control. Meanwhile, the number of AIDS cases mounts, and the government barely acknowledges the existence of the disease.
"Sex in the Soviet Union" works because it focuses on people and their intimate, inner lives. It is about more than sex. It is about the collision between desires and a government's inability to meet the needs of its people.