Masturbation on TV: Yet Another Lasting 'Seinfeld' Innovation

Some advertisers balked, but America 20 years ago turned out to be surprisingly cool with televised self-service.

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Twenty years ago this week, NBC headquarters began receiving some very unusual phone calls.

Sponsors of NBC's evening hour were phoning the studio, frantically trying to stop the network from running their ads during that week's episode of Seinfeld. Why were advertisers pulling their commercials from a mega-popular, top-rated primetime sitcom? Because Seinfeld was about to show a full 30-minute episode about masturbation.

On November 18, 1992, Seinfeld aired its groundbreaking episode "The Contest." The premise: George (Jason Alexander) gets caught in the act by his mother, he and his three friends Jerry, Elaine, and Kramer discuss it over lunch, and the foursome marches out of Tom's Restaurant having begun a contest to see who can go the longest without, as George puts it, "you know."

Today, masturbation on TV draws only a small kerfuffle, if that. Neither Sally Draper's prepubescent self-exploration on Mad Men nor her mom's passionate encounter with a washing machine caused much of a commotion, for example, and even Louis C.K.'s darkly funny self-gratification after a meaningful moment with a beautiful anti-masturbation activist garnered only mild surprise when it aired in 2011. But back in 1992, even the suggestion of a little solo sex was a big deal. Nine out of 10 of NBC's scheduled advertisers pulled their ads before the broadcast, and Seinfeld's writers and cast braced themselves for a backlash.

"I figured, No. They're gonna shut it down. ... You cannot base an entire episode on masturbation," Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who played Elaine on the series, remembered later. "Not only just masturbation, but everybody masturbating. The idea of broaching the subject of a woman masturbating?! My God!"

But according to a Star-News report from December 1992, NBC managed to replace every one of its dropout advertisers in a matter of hours. Tapes of the episode were sent to all the potential replacements—and all chose to air their commercials during the episode's time slot.

That proved to be a wildly lucky gamble. "The Contest," now widely considered one of the best TV episodes ever, went on to score the show's highest rating of the season. And in the process, it proved that Americans—and network censors—were surprisingly OK with masturbation on TV, so long as it was handled elegantly.

At the time, the FCC's regulations on indecency and obscenity were similar to what they are now: They prohibited "patently offensive terms" that depict or describe "sexual or excretory organs or activities," as well as material with "a tendency to excite lustful thoughts," if it could be proven to lack serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value. Material that dwelled on or repeated at length "descriptions or depictions of sexual or excretory organs" could also be pulled from the airwaves if it appeared to pander or exist only for the purpose of titillating or shocking the audience. Scripted TV was subject to intense scrutiny, too, if it aired between the hours of 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. (Seinfeld, then in its fourth season, was airing at 9.)

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Ashley Fetters is a former associate editor at The Atlantic.

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