There are certain things you cannot show on television. The list is short, but it exists.
You can show people getting shot in the head with their brains exploding on the drapes behind them. I saw that recently.
You can show rape. You can show torture. And you can come pretty close to showing nudity.
And that's only the "entertainment" side of television.
When it comes to commercials, you can show a lot of skin and a lot of sex. Wear the right perfume, use the right soap, drive the right car and good sex will be yours. That is the promise of the TV commercial.
You also can now show advertisements on TV which were unheard of just a few years ago:
"BLADDER CONTROL A PROBLEM? WORRY NO MORE!"
"Mom, what do use on days when you don't feel . . . fresh?"
"YEAST INFECTIONS GETTING YOU DOWN?"
So just what is it that you cannot show on TV?
Well, on the three major networks you can't show ads about condoms and the prevention of disease. And, for the most part, you can't show ads about birth control.
This has been true for a very long time. Even as television got "sexier" -- it progressed from sitcoms where the husband and wife had to sleep in separate beds to "Charlie's Angels" and jiggle shows to today's sexually explicit programming -- the rules forbidding talk about the consequences of sex did not change.
In 1985, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, a group of about 25,000 doctors, spent $100,000 to produce public service announcements urging teen-agers to call a toll-free number to get a free pamphlet on birth control.
The doctors were concerned about the more than 3,000,000 unintended pregnancies per year in this country and thought network TV would be a swell way of reaching teen-agers. Especially since TV so relentlessly sells sex on a daily and nightly basis to teen-agers.
The networks, however, turned the physcians down flat. CBS, ABC and NBC said birth control was "too controversial."
Men and women tussling in bed on the daytime soaps was not controversial. But birth control was.
I called NBC and asked whether the doctors could buy time and run their ads as paid commercials. I was told they could not.
"We don't believe that a well-funded movement has the right to promote their views just because they have the money to buy time," the NBC spokesman told me.
In other words, if you are a perfume company, you can buy an ad that promotes sex. But if you are a group of physicians, you cannot buy an ad to tell people how to have sex responsibly.
(Ads for a contraceptive sponge are a strange exception to the no-birth control policy on TV. The only thing I can figure out is that the men in charge at the networks must figure the sponge is for mopping up spills in the kitchen.)
Six years have passed, and this week the Fox network announced it will now run condom ads. NBC and CBS say they will think about doing so and ABC has said no.
If Magic Johnson wants to sell sneakers, fast food, or soft drinks, the networks will be glad to sell commercial time for that in a second.
But if Magic Johnson wants to do a condom commercial, forget it. The major networks either won't allow it or need more time to think about it.
Fox, the country's smallest network, will do its part, but with a major proviso: The condoms can only be promoted as preventing disease; preventing pregnancy cannot be mentioned. And the ads can only run at certain times.
A Fox spokesman told one reporter that the condom ads would be banned from a 7 p.m. Sunday telecast "in deference to a potentially younger audience."
Which makes no sense at all. Young people are the most sexually active segment of our population and the ones who most need to hear about condoms.
CBS will review its policy but can give no date for that review. NBC says it will review things with its affiliates in December. And ABC says: "ABC has no intention of changing its policy. We have not and will not be accepting condom advertising."
But getting people to use condoms is absolutely vital to preventing the spread of AIDS.
Yes, abstinence would work, too -- theoretically. But I want everyone who believes that abstinence is a practical solution to answer one question: Did you abstain from sex in your teen-age years?
And if you didn't, why do you believe that teen-agers will today? Because they can die from AIDS? Unfortunately, most teenagers do not believe in the possiblity of their own death.
So if sex is going to happen, and Ibelieve it will, we ought to try to make sure it is sex with condoms. Sure, some sitcoms on TV have made passing references to condoms, but they usually do so with euphemisms such as "protection."
What we need is clear, unconfusing, non-euphemistic talk about condom use. People need to know how to get them, when to use them and how to use them. And they need to be told about all this during prime time, not just in public service spots that come on at 3 a.m.
Condoms need to be promoted with the same slick, high-powered video that is used to sell any other product. That is the way you reach people today.
But the major networks are scared. The major networks are worried.
That's because sex in our society is not controversial, but safe sex is.
It's no wonder we're in such trouble.