BROOKE GLADSTONE: In the current extended season of HBO's Sex and the City, one of the lead characters, Miranda, is expecting a baby. Her delivery will undoubtedly be a much-promoted final episode climax. There's some irony in that particular show deciding to use this familiar TV plot staple, because television's treatment of sex has become more realistic than its depiction of birth. On the Media's John Solomon explains.
JOHN SOLOMON: New York City OB/GYN doctor John Snyder has delivered more than a thousand babies, so he tries to avoid seeing the procedure when he's at home.
JOHN SNYDER: Well I don't like to watch a lot of television; I especially don't like to watch a lot of doctor programs because every time I turn on the television somebody has a baby.
JOHN SOLOMON: But one Thursday night his daughter wanted to watch E.R., so he agreed to make an exception. Plus, she correctly pointed out, babies aren't delivered in the emergency room. Except in this episode.
WOMAN: What's going on in here?
MAN: I intubated. Baby went bad.
JOHN SNYDER: The whole episode was about a woman who came in and they kept her in the E.R. and they gave her pitosin [sp?] in the E.R. She wound up having a shoulder dystocia so that the shoulder got stuck when the baby was born. They had to push the baby back in -- which is a maneuver that I have read about -- forgotten the name of because I've never seen it.
WOMAN: It's a damned mess! What'd you use? A chain saw?
MAN: Well I couldn't just stand around waiting while that baby died.
JOHN SNYDER: I don't know whether the baby survived, but the mother died, and it was just a horrific episode, and all my patients who were pregnant seemed to have seen it! A number of them called extremely upset about what they saw on television and were worried that, you know, could this happen to them?
JOHN SOLOMON: Perhaps no aspect of life is depicted so often and so unrealistically in television dramas and sitcoms as birth. An overwhelming majority of parents responding to a special on line survey conducted for On the Media for Baby Center dot com agree. 96 percent of 6,626 respondents said they have never seen a realistic birth on television or believe TV is way off on realism. And 40 percent of those surveyed said television had an influence on their idea of childbirth before they experienced it themselves. To Snyder, an attending OB/GYN at New York University Medical Center, this misleading impression can add unnecessary anxiety. But he also fully understands why television needs to take major creative liberties to fit its dramatic and comedic requirements. His activities on a recent afternoon emphasize why the normal rhythm of the birth process does not fit the narrative of fiction TV. As on-call obstetrician, Snyder sits in a small spare room with a bed, desk and computer just off the delivery room. He has been listening to a history of the Civil War audiotape, returning phone calls and reading medical articles on the Internet. This waiting game is not part of the job he expects ever to see in prime time. Of course television is not known for its rigorously accurate depictions of other aspects of life. However, since its own inception, the medium has had a particularly difficult time with the birthing process.
ROBERT THOMPSON: Childbirth was something that happened somewhere off in a quiet place that we never saw.
JOHN SOLOMON: Robert Thompson is the director of Syracuse University Center for the Study of Popular Television.
ROBERT THOMPSON: Every single time in the 1950s and into the '60s that a woman would come to the hospital to have a baby, she would disappear, be whisked away, and the next thing we would see is this charming, cleaned-up baby, usually in the arms of a nurse. After all, breaking water, dangling placenta, screams for anesthesia -- this was hardly the stuff of an entertainment environment which in the days of Lucy wouldn't even allow you to say the word "pregnant."
JOHN SOLOMON: That changed in the early '80s as television began to experiment with more gritty realism. Writers and executives were eager to challenge almost every TV taboo -- except one.
ROBERT THOMPSON: Language continued to go places it had never gone before. All the rest of the content continued to evolve and to open up further, but to some extent presentations of childbirth realistically have remained relatively few and far between.
JOHN SOLOMON: Those unrealistic presentations are not all nightmare scenarios like the ER episode. Often, things go smoothly. [MUSIC] A little too smoothly. [WOMAN SCREAMING]
JOHN SOLOMON: Last week on NBC's Providence a woman gave birth to a baby in the back of a bar. The entire process from first contraction to mother's arms took under 4 minutes. As depicted, it would have set records for speed of birth for a first child and for cleanest delivery ever. There was no umbilical cord to cut. The mother's hair and makeup stayed nicely in place. [BABY CRYING]
WOMAN: It's a girl.
JOHN SOLOMON: In fact of those Baby Center dot com respondents who said TV had an influence on their perception of childbirth, a majority indicated that television made the process seem easier and faster than it turned out to be. That's especially true of the typical take on births offered in sitcoms. In fact, Dr. John Snyder thinks sitcoms help loosen up prospective fathers. That was one of the objectives of Eileen Heisler, co-creator of the NBC sitcom Three Sisters, when she wrote a birth episode last year.
EILEEN HEISLER: I think probably a lot of husbands -- I don't know - you could tell me - feel surprised. Probably a lot of husbands prepare for cravings and, and being screamed at - you know - I think we've all seen where the woman is grabbing the husband's arm and saying you bastard! You know? Shut up - you know. [LAUGHS]
JOHN SOLOMON: Heisler modeled the episode after one of her own deliveries, but she acknowledges some compromises for television including a desperate rush to the hospital and a hysterical dad to be.
MAN: Help! Help! Ahhhhh! [LAUGHTER] We're having a baby here! Anyone? My wife is having a baby. [LAUGHTER]
JOHN SOLOMON: It was in the delivery room some time between contractions when Heisler realized that total verisimilitude was not going to cut it.
EILEEN HEISLER: I mean in my labor personally it-- we, we --being a comedy writer I was always kind of stepping out during it and thinking about what I could use later, but sort of a surge of excitement - oh my god - we're going to have the baby - and then it was just like waiting and waiting and waiting and waiting. And it was like, okay, you know the audience would have long left by now.
JOHN SOLOMON: Syracuse's Thompson surmises that television's motives may go beyond just higher viewership.
MAN: It's almost as though television has done what many human beings do which is to try to forget the fact that ever since that fated day in the Garden of Eden we bring children into this world with great pain and suffering. All I've got to think is this has something to do with the preservation of the human race.
JOHN SOLOMON: Of course network execs also know that without the human race, ratings would surely fall. For On the Media, this is John Solomon. [THEME MUSIC] 58:00
BOB GARFIELD: That's it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Janeen Price and Katya Rogers with Sean Landis; engineered by George Edwards and Dylan Keefe, and edited-- by Brooke.
WOMAN: It's a damned mess! What'd you use? A chain saw?
BOB GARFIELD: We had help from Allison Lichter and Jim Colgan. Our web master is Amy Pearl.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mike Pesca is our producer at large, Arun Rath our senior producer and Dean Cappello our executive producer. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. You can listen to the program and get free transcripts at onthemedia.org and e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org. This is On the Media from National Public Radio. I'm Brooke Gladstone.