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Nudity in American television has always been a controversial topic. Aside from a few exceptions, nudity has traditionally not been shown on terrestrial television. On the other hand, cable television is much less restrictive as far as nudity is concerned.
Public Broadcasting Service, which features nudity in anthropological documentaries as well as some films, was the first network to display national programming that featured frontal female nudity on television.
Throughout the United States, many metropolitan areas had independent television stations that were not affiliated with any of the national networks and showed programming only to people within their limited broadcast range. During the 1980s, many of these stations experimented with showing frontal female nudity in movies during the prime time hour.
KTLA in Los Angeles, for example, showed an unedited version of Academy Award-winning One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, which features fully exposed female breasts, between 7:30 and 11 p.m. The channel began the time slot with a video of director Milos Forman stating that the film was too controversial to be allowed a faithful television broadcast (NBC's earlier broadcast had cut the film to fit the two hours format with commercials), but that KTLA believed that the culture had changed such that a complete broadcast would be tolerated and appreciated. Then, it was followed by a disclaimer that was repeated after each commercial break.
KTVU in the San Francisco Bay Area regularly showed uncensored films that contained nudity, such as Magnum Force (Suzanne Somers), Big Bad Mama (Angie Dickinson and William Shatner), and Walkabout, which features full frontal nudity in a scene with teenage actress Jenny Agutter skinny dipping.
A number of stations in this era even went so far as to run promotions during which they would show a series of movies known for nudity in an attempt to get higher ratings for the week. In almost all cases, the nudity was restricted to showing exposed buttocks and female breasts.
By the end of the 1980s, most of these stations had started to receive complaints about such nudity and these broadcasts eventually stopped. In addition, some of these stations became Fox affiliates and were no longer able to make independent programming decisions during prime time.
From early 1990s until mid-2000s, some primetime series (such as ABC's NYPD Blue and Once and Again, CBS's Chicago Hope  and Fox's John Doe) experimented with nudity. NYPD Blue is noteworthy for featuring nudity in the context of people engaging in sexual activity. While fully exposed female breasts were never shown, the show often depicted full back nudity of men and women, usually in darkened rooms.
In 1997, NBC broadcast an unedited version of Steven Spielberg's holocaust movie Schindler's List in prime time. The film features brief full-frontal nudity of both sexes in non-sexual contexts. Then-congressman Tom Coburn criticized NBC's airing of the film for its nudity, violence and profanity. Both Democrats and Coburn's fellow Republicans criticized Coburn for his reaction, and defended the film and NBC's choice to air it in full. Coburn subsequently apologized for his reaction.
After Justin Timberlake exposed Janet Jackson's breast during a live performance at the Super Bowl XXXVIII halftime show on February 1, 2004, a moral panic occurred, and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) tightened its indecency rules due to public pressure. As an instant result of the scandal, major networks edited some of their shows. CBS removed a shot of a naked man from Without a Trace, while NBC deleted a two-second shot of an elderly woman's breast from ER. Subsequently, prime time television networks became more reluctant to show even non-explicit nudity in their TV shows. In the current climate, nudity is almost unknown on any broadcast television show - with the exception being animated series such as The Simpsons and Family Guy (which spoofed the conservative phase of American television in the episode "PTV").
Cable television, on the other hand, is not bound by FCC rules and can show whatever material their executives consider suitable. While cable channels that rely on advertising still do not show nudity during primetime hours, nudity is often shown on premium cable channels such as Showtime and HBO. FX is one of the few commercially dependent cable channels that features nudity in its programming (notably the controversial Nip/Tuck). Discovery and other documentary-related channels may show nudity in a journalistic context, such as that of indigenous peoples.
While nudity practically disappeared from network television, a Kaiser Family Foundation study of sex on television released in November 2005 showed that TV characters are having sex twice as often as they were in 1998. The study examined more than 1,000 hours of programming.