NEW YORK -- A relationship therapy TV show that premieres Friday gives most participating couples the same prescription: Go into a modular, windowless room onstage and have sex while the studio audience waits until they're done. Not surprisingly, "Sex Box" has attracted some negative attention.
The Parents Television Council, One Million Moms and the National Center on Sexual Exploitation say they've collected more than 38,000 signatures on a petition urging WE TV to shelve the show. WE says it will begin as scheduled Friday at 10 p.m. EST/PST.
"Sex Box" is an adaptation of a British show where three therapists meet with couples who have relationship issues. In the first episode one woman has lost interest in sex after having a baby. The man in another couple doesn't care whether his wife has an orgasm.
After some talking, therapist Chris Donaghue offers what the show clearly hopes will become a catchphrase: "Are you ready to go into the sex box?"
The couple enters the room, which is bathed in hot pink spotlights while occupied.
However titillating the concept, there's really nothing to see. No one undresses in public. There's not even an embrace. When the couple emerges from the sex box, stagehands rush in to make sure their silk pajamas are completely buttoned up.
"The whole sex in the box thing was kind of intimidating at first but kind of exciting," said Chris Crom of Poway, California, featured on the debut with wife, Alexia, who had the post-pregnancy sex pause. "We were there more for the therapeutic time."
Therapy clearly worked to some extent, since Alexia is pregnant again.
For another couple, the conflict was the wife's discomfort with her husband's wish to have another woman live with them for regular threesomes at his convenience. In that case, sending the couple into the sex box seemed like an odd therapeutic solution.
But Donaghue said sex relaxes a couple and brings them closer, and better able to talk through their issues. Here, the man gave up on his desire - for the time being.
Sure, the sex box is a gimmick to attract attention, said Marc Juris, president and general manager of WE TV. But ultimately it's a relationship show designed to help viewers. If the gimmick pulls viewers in, they won't stay without great stories, he said.
"It's very relatable and at the end of the day it's very respectful," Juris said. "It's really about stories that most of us go through. I myself learned I had many problems."
His explanation leaves WE TV's critics unsatisfied.
Leaders of the three groups wrote to WE: "Asking couples to have sex inside a box on a stage in front of a live studio audience is not, at the end of the day, about helping those relationships. It's about pandering to the lowest common denominator, it's about pushing the envelope to see what you can get away with, and it's about ... breaking through the clutter with gimmicks and prurience so that viewers will turn on WE TV, rather than one of your competitors."
Confrontations like these help keep the Parents Television Council relevant, assuring members that it is fighting the good fight. "Sex Box" is being used in the council's campaign for legislation that would allow consumers to individually choose television networks they want to see instead of a lineup bundled together by a cable or satellite provider.
For a television network trying to launch a new program in a crowded marketplace, a pre-premiere protest can, counterintuitively, be a publicity gold mine.
"I believe they are bringing attention to the show, which is good," Juris said. "When they see the show, it is not what I believe they think it is."
Juris moved swiftly to take advantage, putting an ad in a trade publication offering to post a link to the petition drive on WE TV's own Web site if the critics still don't like the show after seeing the first episode. Since the petition calls for WE not to air the show, it's not clear what the practical effect of such a move would be.
"It's not the first time this has happened," said Tim Winter, PTC president. "Whenever you oppose something, you're going to bring attention to it. We can't allow that to dissuade us from condemning that which we feel needs condemnation."