Crass wasteland

Culture | Study shows that the majority of TV programs now deal with sex

Issue: "Mel Martinez: HUD's man," March 3, 2001

Over two-thirds of all television shows (68 percent) have some kind of sexual content. This is a jump from the preceding year, in which over half of the programs (56 percent) found a way to get sex into their shows, from dialogue innuendoes to showing couples in bed.

Though sex on TV surged in virtually all categories, the raunch index for sitcoms was particularly dramatic. Today, 84 percent of sitcoms have something to do with sex. This is a 28 percentage-point jump from the preceding season (56 percent), which was bad enough.

These were some of the findings in a new study conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation, which looked at more than 1,000 hours of programming from the 1999-2000 season, comparing them with a similar sampling from 1997-1998. The study surveyed programs from the four major networks (ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox), public television (PBS), the smaller independent networks (WB, TNT, USA, Lifetime), plus a premium cable channel (HBO).

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The study found that TV movies were the most sex-obsessed (89 percent), followed by sitcoms, then soap operas (80 percent), newsmagazines (74 percent), dramas (69 percent), and talk shows (67 percent), with reality programming-despite Temptation Island-coming in as the most chaste (27 percent).

Most of the sex on TV is talk, not nudity or pornography as such, but 10 percent of all programs depicted or implied sexual intercourse (up from 7 percent the previous season). Most disturbingly, of those shows that featured sexual intercourse, 9 percent of the participants were under the age of 18. (This is up from 3 percent the previous season.)

Why is there so much sex on TV? Industry analysts say that the networks are just trying to attract the key demographic that advertisers covet: young adults between 18 and 34.

Advertisers have developed the theory that adults older than that have already settled on their buying habits. Old fogies of 35 and up already know their favorite brands and are less likely to be influenced by commercials. But 18-year-olds, though still dependent on handouts from mom and dad, have a whole lifetime of spending ahead of them. They are easily manipulated by commercials, will try any product that seems cool, and if they get snared by a particular brand name, once the fogey factor kicks in and they get too old for this demographic, they will buy the product the rest of their lives.

Television used to be a mass medium, with the shows scoring the biggest ratings among all age groups being most successful. But today, a big audience does not matter so much as the right kind of audience, namely, the 18-35 demographic.

This is why family-friendly shows like Touched by an Angel typically get big ratings but inspire few imitators, and are crowded out of the schedule by yet another of the indistinguishable sitcoms about swinging singles in the big city. Wholesome shows "skew old" and are thus undesirable for advertisers. But shows about

twenty-somethings on the make attract higher prices for their commercials because they can deliver a younger, though smaller, audience. And many teenagers and twenty-somethings like programs with lots of sex.

This means that writers and producers do not design sex on TV for adults at all, however they might describe it in these terms. They design it for an age bracket that is largely single, and, in particular, teenagers.

Though the stated demographic starts at 18, younger adolescents watch the same shows. With the end of the time-honored "family hour"-the prime time block before bedtime, which the networks used to respect as a safety zone in which parents did not have to worry if their children were watching TV-even younger children tune in to

sex-filled programs.

This is harmful not because the programs are pornographic, but because they portray extra-marital sex so casually. They present it as being normal, as being no big deal, as being expected. TV takes it for granted that you will have sex without being married, creating a cultural climate that can be far more persuasive than anything parents might try to teach their children about sexual morality.

Only 10 percent of the shows studied in the Kaiser report mentioned any possible consequences of having sex, that sex creates babies, not to mention how illicit sex can lead to AIDS or the judgment of God. It is no accident that the most sexually explicit show outside of pay television is Undressed on the teenage channel MTV-a network not even covered in the Kaiser study-which is all about teenagers having every variety of sex with each other.


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