There was a time when television networks deferred to their own in-house offices of standards, which kept bad language, questionable morals, and salacious behavior off the airwaves. Some might think that such self-imposed restrictions would dampen creativity, but those days even now are considered "the golden age" of television. That today's standards-free TV shows are obsessed with sex is obvious to the most casual viewer. But how bad has it gotten?
According to a major new study of sex on TV, over half (56 percent) of all programming contains sexual content. In prime time, over two-thirds (67 percent) of all shows deal with sex.
The research, sponsored by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation and conducted by the University of California-Santa Barbara, is described as the most comprehensive study of sex on TV. Children's programming, sports, and newscasts were factored out of the calculations, but the other genres were shot through with sex talk and sex behavior.
Eighty-five percent of all soap opera episodes deal with sex. Of TV movies, 83 percent contain sexual content. Talk shows talk about sex more than three-quarters of the time.
Almost six in 10 of the dramas dramatize sex, the same percentage as the supposedly serious and straight-laced TV news magazines. Sitcoms, somewhat surprisingly, deal with sex only 56 percent of the time. "Reality shows"-with their footage of drug busts, car wrecks, and animal attacks-are the "chastest" genre, with only one out of four dealing with real sex.
The study also found that most of the sexual content is talk. About one-fourth of the shows (23 percent) actually depict sexual behavior-usually passionate kissing-and 3 percent show the characters having intercourse. Eight percent of the shows include sexual content involving teenagers.
Furthermore, fewer than one in 10 ever bring up any of the consequences of sex. Comedies score the lowest (3 percent) in mentioning the possibility of pregnancy or AIDS.
Such statistics of the scene-counters, of course, do not give the full picture. The study gave no details about marital, as opposed to extramarital, sex. Of course to most TV shows, there is no difference. And while it is well and good to exclude children's programming from the study, children do not just watch shows made for them. As Neil Postman has pointed out in his book The Disappearance of Childhood, television is the great equalizer of age groups. Children make up a major part of the audience of prime-time programming and take in their share of the 67 percent sexual fare.
If fewer than one in 10 shows depict teen sex, those are doubtless the ones many teens especially relish (such as Beverly Hills 90210 and Dawson's Creek). And South Park, the cartoon about foul-mouthed and gross-behaving sixth graders, is reportedly a big hit among sixth graders.
What difference does it make? Isn't it up to parents, not television, to teach their children sexual morality? But a society's moral norms are not established merely by conveying abstract ideas: Cultural pressure to regulate behavior is also vital. Some things used to be too embarrassing to do or to talk about in public-they were not, to use an old phrase, socially acceptable. But now extramarital sex-like profanity and smarting off to parents-is socially acceptable. Our society now clearly permits such behavior, since it is treated on television as no big deal. Behavior portrayed as normal, by definition, becomes the norm.
Why has TV become so sexually permissive? Cheryl Rhoden of the Writers Guild of America says the fault is not just with the writers, reports the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: "We know from our internal polling that writers are told [by production or network executives] to put sex scenes in twice as often as to take them out."
Although it is possible to go beyond the boundaries of what the public will accept-as in the lesbian chic of the soon-canceled Ellen-sex continues to sell, especially to the older adolescents and young adults coveted by advertisers.
The major networks have been steadily losing audiences to cable, which tends to be even more sexually explicit. One strategy would be to out-cable cable. Another would be to offer a more wholesome alternative. Having tried the first strategy and failed, networks may be considering the second strategy. NBC's new entertainment president, Scott Sassa, recently told the Television Critics Association that "we need to move the pendulum back a little more toward traditional families [and away from] an emphasis on sex."
Ironically, new statistical evidence is showing that traditional families and traditional morality are far superior to the swinging single lifestyle glamorized by TV-even when it comes to sex. About the same time the study on TV sex was released, the National Health and Social Life Survey completed what is being billed as the most comprehensive studies of Americans' sex lives since the (discredited) Kinsey Report over 50 years ago. The findings, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, are surprising to many observers, but not to those who believe what the Bible says about sex.
According to the study, sexually active single folk have the most sexual problems and get the least pleasure out of sex. Men with the most "liberal attitudes about sex" are 75 percent more likely to fail to satisfy their partners.
Married couples are by far the happiest with their sexual lives. And the most sexually fulfilled demographic group of them all turns out to be-confounding the TV fantasies of the young and the restless-married couples between the ages of 50 and 59.