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Cable Carnal-val

Bill Gibron
Image from an episode of Aerobicise, circa 1981.

Exercise or S-exercise? This month's Lost Signal taps into cable's promise of the scandalous and sexy, and comes up with Ron Harris's classic calisthenics as come-on.

When the concept of pay television came crawling out onto the entertainment landscape, looking to be embraced as an alternative to the mighty broadcast networks (all three of them), it had to promise something different. Buried within the befuddling notion of coughing up cash for something that everyone basically got for free, there had to be some manner of salient shilling point, a way to coax coins out of the skeptical and stingy public. Exceptional image and better sound quality were not perks enough. No, cable had to be conceived of as a separate identity, and the result was the introduction of true T&A to the so-called boob tube.

Granted, the jiggle fest had been a staple of the small screen ever since Jeannie had to hide her navel and Goldie Hawn allowed psychedelic slogans to be painted on her frugging form. Heck, one could even go back and argue that many an Eisenhower era boy first discovered the effect of raging hormones on their naughty nether regions when a 'developing' Annette Funicello made Uncle Walt uncomfortable on the set of The Mickey Mouse Club. The sexual associations evoked by the female form have always been a Madison Avenue staple. Advertisers would be downright flummoxed if they had to find a way to sell beer, cars, personal hygiene, toaster strudel, and home radon kits without salacious curves.

It took TV a while to really catch on. Thanks to the '60s, and its outright advocacy of promiscuity and sexual freedom, the broadcast brass saw an opportunity to push the limits of lewd, creating shows (Love, American Style) and stars (Carol Wayne) that used ass-umption and tit-illation to draw in viewers. Perhaps the most brazen example of this ideal was Charlie's Angels. Although it's completely implausible premise about three supermodel quality honeys from the police academy becoming the private eye playthings for a wealthy tycoon is supposed to suggest some manner of serious crime fighting, the series was just an excuse for tight jeans, low cut tops, and lots of breast-bouncing foot chases. It was here where many pre-teen males learned the joys of prime time leering as these sexy super sleuths infiltrated beauty pageants and swimsuit competitions. Yet once the main attraction, Farrah Fawcett Majors, left the series, taking her iconic hair with her, exploitive entertainment needed another outlet.

This was where cable was supposed to step in, filling the void in an entirely entendre-esque fashion. All ability to show R-rated movies aside, pay TV promised it would push the erotic envelope. Instead, it tried to pass off a paltry Canadian comedy showcase called Bizarre as the brassy and bawdy answer. Unfortunately, any series featuring impressionist John Byner as its primary star was already handicapped in the humor department. Imagine ABC's Fridays with flap-jacking jugs and pert protuberances and you have some idea of the show's primary appeal. Nothing more than vaudeville level acts accented by topless trampiness, Bizarre was bought by Showtime, and became the instant centerpiece of the channel, running from 1980 to 1985. Though many have long since forgotten the forced funny business, and the bosoms, the show did spawn a cult comedy favorite in that lunkheaded stunt stud Super Dave Osborne.

Two years later, in 1982, the truly risqué revolution was finally televised, and it's name was deceptively simple. Almost as penance for how plain and unexciting Bizarre was, Showtime gave famed New York photographer Ron Harris a chance to air his most recent visual experiment: an exercise extravaganza featuring two (or more) fetching females working out. Cashing in on the growing exer/jazzer/dancer-cise movement, the straightforward series had an even more uncomplicated name: Aerobicise. Though unitards were utilized throughout and nothing overtly sexual or graphic was offered, Harris' strangely suggestive show became a runaway smash. While he argued that his was merely an opportunity for viewers at home to see well-muscled maidens doing some much needed cardiovascular training, anyone with a libido could read in between the . . . um, visible genital lines.

Usually featuring a blond/brunette dynamic, or sometimes, a redhead/raven-haired concept, Harris got his "performers" to put on the tightest, most revealing spandex he could find, and then trained his all seeing video camera on all their most important parts. Filmed against a completely white backdrop, fleshtones glistened with small beads of sweat. Mammaries maximized the outfits' structural integrity as areola and nipple did a bawdy ballet of pulchritudinous peek-a-boo. When the angle switched from top to bottom, vaginal variables were accented, and occasionally, very well defined. More times than not, bikini areas were not waxed, leaving a tell tale smattering of limited lady fur to get the horny home audience's juices good and going. Small perspiration stains appeared in ever more provocative places, and by the time the derriere came in direct view, the covering cloth would be nearly see-through. With the lens seeking out new erogenous areas to focus on, the ladies continued to lunge and squat, thrust and dip, all in the name of good health.

Watching an episode of Aerobicise was a lot like reading a Playboy with your parents in the room. The man-mind knew that something unbelievably gratuitous was occurring, right there on the TV, but the series kept suggesting its motives were purely based around physical conditioning and toning. If said statement was in reference to the bountiful boners of its demographic, then the show was a success. But even the most eagle-eyed fan could tell that Harris had more up his sleeve than training and fitness. Some of his lithe ladies were a little chunky, twisting and kicking with just a tad too much junk in their tantalizing trunk. A few were so well endowed in the chestical area that they threatened to bruise their own eyes during the mandatory jumping jacks (and no matter the fetish, black and blue is antithetical to the concept of the 'come hither' stare).

Poorly groomed armpits, smeared make-up, and the robotic repetition of each exercise from endless perspectives made Aerobicise a supremely skanky treat. By the time an episode was over, our fine young females would be wasted and worn out, providing a post-coital patina that didn't require hardcore histrionics or some dude's dong to achieve. There was no dialogue, no conversation or attempt to connect � just pulse pounding techno-disco that helped to beat the bountiful booty into your brain. This was cold and calculated voyeurism, centerfolds come to life without the benefit of a bare bodkin, or that distracting "girl next door" context. Harris could argue all he wanted for the seriousness of his show, but with flagrant camel toes and other sex organ based offerings front and center of every shot, arguments for art, aesthetic, or athleticism fell on pretty perverted ears.

Yet Aerobicise did what Bizarre couldn't. It put Showtime on the map, making it a must-own destination for any corporeal-minded cable subscriber. It also had an immediate "me too" effect. When HBO's spin-off Cinemax hit the bandwidth, it too used the raunchy and the randy to lure the cash conscious customer. Originally applying its 'All Movies Only' mantra to more mainstream Hollywood fare, Max made the conscious decision to push the violence � and, or course, the sex � that it's sister station would not show. It was here where the parameters of taste and moral acceptability were truly tested, as Euro-trash classics such as I Like the Girls Who Do were set along side direct-to-video sleaze, frequently starring Sybil Danning. Yet no amount of softcore shilling or faux fornication could steal Harris's down under thunder. Aerobicise continued to be a big hit, even finding a place on the current champion of the mighty carnal kings: the Internet (where Harris has his own pay website).

It's clear that, as the years go by, cable, once the promised land of porn, will never become the fabled land of the vulgar and lascivious. It's too imbedded in the firmament of family, the medium of entertainment access for more than half the planet. If a show like Aerobicise were to somehow make it on the air today � passing all the focus group falderal, marketing apprehension and legitimate legal tests � it would face a firestorm from feminists, a pelting from the pro-faith movement, and a myriad of bad press from a media mired in the sensational and scatological. Bizarre is more the post-millennial medium's speed. It was Man Show stupid without said series' beer belch brazenness. T&A has never really gone away, but cable's pledge of something more prurient has never really come to be. It's one lost signal that will probably never be salvaged � for better or worse.

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