LOS ANGELES (AP) _ Broadcast television is facing tough scrutiny for its nearly all-white slate of new fall series. Here's something else to ponder: It's more off-color as well, according to a new study.

A Parents Television Council survey released today found network TV programs in the earliest hour of prime time, 8-9 p.m., contained significantly more foul language and references to sex than a year ago.

Violent content also has risen, according to the council, part of the Media Research Center, a conservative watchdog group. Overall, content deemed objectionable in the survey is up 75 percent to a rate of nearly seven incidences per hour of network TV.

So much for the notion of an early evening ``family hour,'' said Mark Honig, executive director of the Los Angeles-based Parents Television Council.

``If the coming season promos are any indication, it's going to get even worse,'' Honig said.

Fox Broadcasting Co. already is braced for (or eagerly awaiting, depending on one's perspective) the reaction to ``Action,'' a racy spoof of Hollywood with conspicuously bleeped four-letter words.

Honig blames the situation on the TV ratings system, implemented in 1997 to alert viewers to a show's content with labels like TV-PG. Additional notations including ``S'' for sex or ``L'' for crude language also may be applied.

``The networks push the envelope further. They're saying, 'It's rated, now we can do whatever we want. All bets are off,' '' Honig said.

In a two-week May period, Fox's shows were the most sex-laden, followed closely by NBC's, the survey found. CBS, home of action series including ``JAG,'' had few steamy shows but more violence, compared to a February 1998 council report.

Language once frowned on in polite society is a TV staple, according to the study. ``Bitch,'' for example, was used on WB's ``Dawson's Creek'' and ``Buffy the Vampire Slayer,'' and on Fox's ``That '70s Show.''

In the racy-jokes department, the study cited an episode of NBC's ``Mad About You'' whose story line was sustained largely by the persistent effects of a Viagra pill.

As for violence, a burning corpse was part of an episode of NBC's ``The Pretender,'' while ``JAG'' showed a shooting victim's bullet-riddled chest, the council found.

A CBS spokesman responded that the network makes ``every effort to schedule and label all of our programs in a responsible manner.''

The major networks are being pounded by critics, including the NAACP, for the lack of ethnic characters in most new series. Networks have reacted by rushing to add nonwhite actors.

Meanwhile, the Parents Television Council claims to have gathered more than 300,000 responses to full-page ads it has run throughout the nation since last fall urging viewers to complain about offensive TV content.

If anything is changing in family-oriented programming, it may be partly because advertisers are becoming more assertive.

This month, the WB network announced a partnership with 11 sponsors to create ``family-friendly'' series. Procter & Gamble, Johnson & Johnson and General Motors are among those providing $1 million to develop pilots for WB's 2000-01 season.

While supporting family shows may earn companies points for social responsibility, it also makes business sense: Parents and kids represent the young, high-consuming viewers many sponsors are eager to reach.

The pilot fund is a boost for a fledgling network like WB, said Jordan Levin, executive vice president for programming. He said that while the money must go to create family shows, sponsors are ``not dictating creative content.''

``It's a healthy gesture on their part to give us credibility to go to the creative community and say, 'We're serious about this kind of programming' ... and we have support on Madison Avenue,'' Levin said.

WB has enjoyed success with clean-scrubbed fare like ``7th Heaven,'' about a minister's family, and is intent on finding more such shows, he said.

There's another carrot being extended to the TV industry: the new Family Program Awards, which will be held Sept. 9 in Los Angeles to honor new shows and old ones, including ``The Cosby Show.''

The Family Friendly Programming Forum, representing TV advertisers, is launching the awards.

The notion of family-oriented series might strike some as a formula for bland, innocuous television. But one industry veteran disagrees.

``Family-friendly programming does not have to be devoid of thought. It doesn't have to be syrupy, sugary or empty-headed,'' said William Blinn, who wrote the landmark miniseries ``Roots.''

He cited his TV movie, ``A Question of Love,'' which featured a lesbian couple (played by Gena Rowlands and Jane Alexander) who are forced into a child custody battle.

If restoring family TV is a worthy goal, it shouldn't be the result of network pressure or government censorship, Blinn asserted; it's the job of the creative community, which he said is beginning to recognize its responsibility.

``There is a slowly growing percentage of people in the business, largely parents, who are saying we may have gone off the tracks a little bit, may have taken that curve at too high a rate of speed.''

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Elsewhere in television ....

EXPLORING A NEW HOME: The consistently excellent ``National Geographic Explorer'' documentary series is moving to CNBC this weekend after 12 years on TBS. The program is marking the switch with a two-hour special, ``Beyond 2000: The Explorers,'' featuring 10 scientists, journalists and adventurers who ``most capture the new spirit of exploration.'' Among them: Titanic explorer Robert D. Ballard, archaeologist Zahi Hawass and oceanographer Sylvia Earle. The CNBC debut is 8 p.m. EDT Sunday.

Lynn Elber can be reached at lelber''at''ap.org