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TV's Morality, Standards: Loose Across the Board
February 19, 2001
Study finds TV sex more pervasive
___By Ken Camp
___Texas Baptist Communications
___If sex seems more prevalent on TV today than just a couple of years ago, that's because it is, according to a new study.
___"Sex on TV: Content and Context" was the second biennial study conducted by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, an independent national health care philanthropy.
___The foundation released its report Feb. 5 at a conference for entertainment industry leaders.
___The study revealed that the number of programs containing sexual content rose from 56 percent of all shows in the 1997-98 season to 68 percent in the 1999-2000 season. At least one show in four (27 percent) included sexual behavior, with the remainder featuring conversation about sex.
___Television's preoccupation with sex offers a skewed view of reality, according to Bill Tillman, the T.B. Maston professor of Christian ethics at Logsdon School of Theology in Abilene.
___"Sexuality is a major part of life, one of the major shapers of each of our personalities," he said. "Still, we are more than sexual beings. Thus, TV media content proclaims life in an out-of-balanced kind of way."
___The research confirmed what Tillman said he already perceived. Television programs he previously had enjoyed have become "more and more bothersome to my sensibilities," he said. "Sexual content is being used increasingly to draw an audience ... and at an increasingly lowest-common denominator."
___Sex is particularly common in prime-time network programs, the study demonstrated. In 1997-98, 67 percent of prime-time shows included sexual content, while 75 percent did in 1999-2000.
___These results are not surprising, because they just confirm the truism that "sex sells," said Joe Haag, special moral concerns associate with the Christian Life Commission at the Baptist General Convention of Texas.
___"Sex is front and center in television programming and cinematic production because sex attracts viewers, and viewers attract advertisers and investors," Haag said. "What is alarming and discouraging is the overwhelming power of this economic reality."
___Researchers in Southern California examined 1,114 programs that aired between October 1999 to March 2000 on 10 network, syndicated, public television and cable channels. The study examined movies, dramas, sitcoms, soap operas, news magazines and talk or "reality" programs. Only scenes in which sexual behavior was a substantial emphasis were counted in the research.
___The study is available online at www.kff.org .
___ Movies were the most likely type of programming to contain sexual content, at 89 percent. But they were followed closely by situation comedies and soap operas.
___ The increase in sexual content was greatest in situation comedies, rising from 56 percent in 1997-98 to 84 percent of all episodes in 1999-2000.
___ No category showed a decrease in sexual content.
___ Sexual intercourse is depicted or strongly implied in 10 percent of all TV shows.
___ Portrayals of teenagers involved in sexual intercourse increased three-fold.
___ Nine out of 10 TV shows with sexual content included no reference to the risks and responsibilities of sexual activity.
___ References to the risks and responsibility of sexual activity were most likely to be included in dramas and least likely in situation comedies. Programs depicting teen sexual situations were most likely to include them.
Sex on TV: Content and Context:
A Biennial Report to the Kaiser Family Foundation
Embargoed for release until:
8:45 a.m. Pacific, Tues, February 9, 1999
Contacts: Missy Krasner
or Matt James
Most extensive study ever conducted of sexual content on television:
Less Than One in Ten TV Shows With Sexual Content Include Any Reference to Risks or Responsibilities of Sexual Activity;
More Than Half of All Shows and Two-Thirds of Prime Time Shows Contain Sexual Content
Los Angeles, CA - Despite the widespread presence of sexual content on television, less than one out of every ten shows (9%) containing sexual scenes includes any reference to the possible risks or responsibilities of sexual activity, including such topics as contraception, waiting to have sex, or safer sex, according to a major new study released today by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.
The study, which will be repeated every two years, analyzed more than 1300 shows across ten channels, making it the most extensive research ever conducted on sexual messages on television. The results reported here are for all genres of programming other than newscasts, sports, and children's shows.
"Surveys tell us that young people get a lot of their information and ideas about sex from TV," said Drew Altman, president of The Kaiser Family Foundation. "With the problems facing adolescents today, how sex is shown on TV is just as important as how much sex is shown on TV."
References to safer sex issues would seem most relevant in those scenes with more advanced sexual behaviors. But the study found that none of the scenes in which sexual intercourse is either depicted or strongly implied made even a passing reference to these issues. Seven percent of all shows on TV contain scenes with this type of sexual material. In the one week sample collected for this study, there were 88 scenes in which intercourse was either depicted or implied; just half (53%) of these interactions were among characters who had a prior romantic relationship with one another.
Among the various genres on TV, prime time dramas on the major networks have one of the best records, including some reference to sexual risks or responsibilities in nearly one out of every four shows (23%) with sexual content. Sitcoms mention these issues least often, including such topics in just 3% of all shows that contain sexual material.
"Television can play an important role in helping to normalize safer sexual behaviors," said Vicky Rideout, director of the Foundation's Program on The Entertainment Media & Public Health. "This study indicates that some shows are playing such a role today, but that most are not."
Taking a closer look at those shows with sexual content involving teen characters, the study found that nearly one out of five (18%) make some reference to waiting to have sex, safer sex, or the risks of sexual activity, twice the rate of such references across the television landscape as a whole. Overall, eight percent of all shows have some sexual content involving teens.
Amount of sexual content on TV
More than half (56%) of all shows on TV contain sexual content, including either talk about sex or depictions of sexual behaviors. Two-thirds (67%) of all network prime-time shows include sexual content, with those shows averaging more than five scenes with sex per hour. The majority of shows in all genres except reality programming contain sexual material, including more than eight out of ten soap operas (85%) and movies (83%), three out of four talk shows (78%) and more than half of dramas (58%), news magazines (58%) and sitcoms (56%). About one out of every four (23%) reality shows features sexual content.
The study was conducted for the Foundation by Dr. Dale Kunkel of the University of California, Santa Barbara. It analyzed more than 1300 shows, randomly selected from the 1997-98 TV season to represent a typical week's worth of programming. The study includes all genres of programming other than newscasts and sports events. Children's programs were analyzed independently and are not reported on in this release. The ten channels in the study represent all segments of the television industry including network and independent broadcast, basic and premium cable, and public broadcasting.
The Kaiser Family Foundation, based in Menlo Park, California, is an independent health care philanthropy and not associated with Kaiser Permanente or Kaiser Industries. This study was conducted as a part of the Foundation's Program on the Entertainment Media & Public Health, which was established to examine the impact of entertainment media in society, and to work with entertainment industry leaders to help them convey important health messages to the public.
Copies of the complete study and executive summary reported on in this release are available on online in PDF or by calling the Kaiser Family Foundation's publication request line at 1-800-656-4533.