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The Ombudsman Column

The Mailbag: No (Gay) Sex Please, We're American

The headline on this mailbag is a play on a play — a successful British comedy of the early 1970s titled "No Sex Please, We're British" that flopped when it was exported to Broadway. Actually, this is a triple-play because two years ago I first used the British production's title as part of an ombudsman's column. Then, and now, the postings deal with some viewers' reaction to scenes in PBS's blockbuster hit Downton Abbey, the British period drama set in the early 1900s which is now in its third season on PBS and has been viewed by millions of people.

In both cases, those who wrote were objecting to scenes in which men were kissing or, more precisely in the case of this past Sunday's segment, one gay man was attempting to kiss another man who was sleeping. The gay man had been misled by another character into believing that the sleeping man was also gay. He was not.


Downton Abbey is fiction. It is about a large estate, inherited money, aristocrats and their servants. It is a time gone by yet, like all powerful fiction, it deals with human emotions, relationships and actions that are timeless. Fiction is not something that ombudsmen usually deal with. But when you watch it, you know that certain scenes in specific programs are going to provoke letters from some viewers who take strong objection to such displays on public television in prime time.

As a series, Downton contains numerous individual story lines and the scene at the center of criticism by those who wrote to me this week is one of the main themes played out in the two-hour segment that aired on Sunday.

Personally, I think that Downton Abbey is very popular for good reason: it is very well done. I felt, as a viewer, that in a large entourage of family and employees, it would not be unusual for the full range of human attractions to be present. There was no actual sex in this segment, only an attempted, and rejected, kiss. The conflict in the drama centered on the reactions to this encounter, after it was disclosed, by all the inhabitants.

I did get a sense, however, that as the gay encounter and its aftermath unfolded during the program, some of the dialogue struck me, and some others who have commented on this program, as more 21st century than 1920. That, too, has happened before on PBS. Back in May 2006, I got hundreds of emails from viewers upset over an attempt to replicate life in a "Texas Ranch House" in 1867 when the modern family chosen to experience that life brought today's views, especially about the role of women, into that re-enactment.

First, an Explanation; Then the Complaints

Posted below are emails from viewers who were critical of this past Sunday's Downton content. But first, here is how Steven Ashley, the senior producer of Masterpiece at WGBH in Boston, responded to letters to the ombudsman in January 2011, about a scene in which two men were kissing:

"We've heard from a number of viewers expressing disappointment with the inclusion of two men kissing during a scene in episode one of the new Masterpiece drama 'Downton Abbey.' The majority of concern was that there was no warning the series would contain adult themes or scenes they felt were inappropriate for multi-generation viewing. Many regard Masterpiece as a family viewing experience.

"The mini-series was given a Parental rating of TV-PG. That rating is intended to signal to parents that, while it is a generally 'safe' show to watch with your family, a measure of guidance is suggested. These ratings are necessarily subjective, but their application is informed by experience gleaned from producers, viewers' reactions and PBS itself. It seems clear that a higher level of warning would have been useful to many of those who wrote. In that light, we will review our practices, taking in to account these specific concerns."

One More Time

I asked Ashley again to respond to the most recent mail on the same subject, and about the promised review. Here is what he said:

"We did review the scene but found it was, in our judgment, inside the Parental Rating of TV-PG, meaning parental guidance is suggested. It's also consistent with many other Masterpiece titles over the years where mature themes have been present and TV-PG has been used. We exercise great caution in applying advisories beyond those conveyed with the Parental Ratings system used by PBS. In our view, a homosexual story line and its reasonable depiction is not, in and of itself, reason to insert extra warnings for viewers."

Here Are the Letters

For two full years, I have been captivated by Downton Abbey. Finally a show I could watch without the homosexual agenda thrown in my face. Last Sunday's show, I couldn't even watch till the end. Seriously, how forced was the writing to include this! A man who doesn't want anything to do with a REFORMED prostitute or have his daughter lower herself by working for a newspaper would GLADLY accept a non-reformed homosexual into his household! POOR, POOR writing for the sake of this agenda! There wasn't even the thought of 'he is born this way' in the 20's.You lost me and several others I know. I will not even watch the finale. Do you happen to know how many people of faith have rejoiced in this series? And in the end . . . well you don't care. But I had to get this out even though you don't.

Miishawaka, IN

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This past episode of Downton Abbey was such a disappointment. Is it necessary to subject the audience to such scenes? This program like so many others speaks to the decline of our civilization. What a sad comment on the state of our world! It appears there is no room in television for upholding morality and decency. Today's writers always seem to have alternative motives and a social agenda. I will no longer watch this series.

Houston, TX

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It is too bad PBS could not keep Downton Abby a great show for all viewers. We won't be watching any more Downton Abby due to the clearly pro-Gay and Lesbian agenda. The writers so obviously imposed this 2012 social agenda on another time period which makes the program as historically unrealistic as it was in poor taste for family viewing.

Reid Strahan, Ankeny, IA

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All I have heard about was how great Downton Abbey was and then I watched. I was so shocked at the fact that you guys would even consider this story line about 2 gay men . . . and a kissing scene as well and rated PG too. This is unacceptable and I have to break it to you: I will NOT be watching this show or any others made by your company and I will spread the word to others as well. At least make it a PG 14 rating if you are going to have this content.

Ashley A., Greensboro, NC

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(Ombudsman's Note: The following letters were received last month, before the latest episode aired. They appear to reflect viewers who were just recently catching up with the first season of Downton and reacting critically to the earlier male kissing scene.)

I finally watched the first part of Downton Abbey. Please warn us of gay affairs and sexual scenes! I was not in favor of taking away PBS government money but I am re-thinking it now. I can watch trash on cable without my tax money going toward it. I am very disappointed. I wish PBS would just keep family friendly. Thanks for your family friendly shows in the past.

Jeannine Howard, Boise, ID

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I was mortified as I watched the pilot episode of Downton Abbey with my young daughter. I thought PBS carried shows appropriate for all viewers. PG? Really? If you throw stuff like that you really should warn "for mature viewers only." SO disappointed. You just lost a PBS viewer. What you did was like putting poop in brownies. I don't hate the gay community, that doesn't mean I'm keen on it being thrown in the face of my children. Sincerely, an appalled mother and ex-viewer of PBS.

Los Angeles, CA

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I am appalled after watching the first episode of Downton Abbey. I have been interested in watching it for some time and assumed it would be a clean program, being on PBS. Apparently I was wrong. After 58 minutes I saw the gay kiss and turned it off. I'm disgusted and grossed out. I will never return to watching it and PBS has put a very bitter taste in my mouth. Thanks. I will be sure to spread the news to others who have yet to watch it so they're forewarned. You've lost my respect and I'm sure you will lose others' as well.

Red Bank, NJ