A high-school guidance counselor agrees to change a student's schedule so that he is more likely to meet a girl who will have sex with him. A cheerleader breaks up with her boyfriend after discovering that he accepted oral sex from the school tramp. A good-girl French horn player discovers she is pregnant after a one-night stand at band camp and debates with a friend whether or not to terminate the pregnancy.
Sound like the kind of racy fare one might see on HBO or its slightly tamer cousin, the CW? Think again. The previous scenes come from The Secret Life of the American Teenager, a hit show on ABC Family that is changing the network's image and may change parents' minds on whether to allow their children to watch the channel.
According to the ratings, most parents aren't concerned. The show, which focuses on the romantic entanglements of a pregnant 15-year-old girl and her friends, has given ABC Family its biggest audience yet, with nearly 4 million viewers per episode. This is millions more than the CW's much-hyped teen drama Gossip Girl draws in, despite the fact that ABC Family broadcasts in far fewer homes. Teen viewers also crowned Secret Life with "Choice Summer TV Show" at the 2008 Teen Choice awards. Yet many argue that the show's material is hardly appropriate entertainment for the 12- to 17-year-old viewers it attracts.
With episodes showing teens in bed together and frank discussion of masturbation and internet porn, the content is so adult, it prompted one Huffington Post critic to quip, "If that's family programming, what would non-family programming look like? Frontal nudity?" But network executives claim that Secret Life isn't pushing the envelope so much as staying right in step with real teen experiences.
"The best way to resonate with your audience is to be authentic," says Disney-ABC Television Group president Anne Sweeney, "and you're only authentic if you are holding up a mirror to your audience and saying, 'I see you.'" The show's creator, Brenda Hampton, agrees. A professing Christian, Hampton is most famous for her saccharine but chaste series, 7th Heaven, the longest-running family drama in television history. She insists that Secret Life is appropriate for a network that bills itself as "family programming," saying in an online interview on the ABC Family website, "It's a story . . . [that] goes back to the Bible. We have . . . a young unwed mother. So it's a story that's always been there; it's just done in a new way."
Yet while teen sex and pregnancy may hardly be ground-breaking subjects, they are certainly new to a network founded by evangelist Pat Robertson as The Family Channel, an arm of the Christian Broadcasting Network (News Corp. purchased The Family Channel in 1998 and Disney bought it in 2001). It's also new to Disney, the company long recognized by moms and dads for providing kid-friendly options in an industry permeated with violent and sexual material. And that, say watchdogs groups, is the problem.
"It's kind of a misnomer to call ABC Family a family channel," said Michele MacNeal, head of a local branch of the Parents Television Council. "When you call something 'family,' it gives the impression that it's safe for all members of the family, even young children."
ABC Family President Paul Lee admits that the shows are part of an ongoing effort to rebrand what family programming means, but he says the new direction better reflects what families look like in the new millennium. "We set out to make the modern family in all its passion and dysfunction, and reclaim that word for what it really is for our audience."
Dawn Campbell, a mother of three in Peoria, Ariz., takes issue with Lee's characterization. "I've seen the show and I know teenagers," says Campbell, "and they don't talk like that. They don't interact like that. The steamy scenes are more like adult characters being played by teenagers." Ironically, while discussing the network's success with Entertainment Weekly, Lee drew a direct line between the teen drama and shows famous for extreme adult material. "On cable, it takes a Sopranos or a Shield to really crystallize a network for the audience," said Lee. "Secret Life put us culturally on the map.'
However, Secret Life isn't the only program changing the cultural landscape at the family channel. If Secret Life is primarily a dialogue about the sex lives of young characters, the similarly themed Greek is a video montage. Centering on a group of college freshmen pledging the fraternity and sorority system, the show not only depicts routine casual sex, it addresses it in a much more lighthearted tone. One episode, for example, features the "virgin whisperer," a girl famous across campus for deflowering virgin boys.
Unlike Secret Life, Greek follows more of a comedic format, making little attempt at cultural seriousness and including none of the public service announcements urging parents to talk with their kids about sex that air at the end of the more successful show. When defending the network's new direction, Disney spokespeople seem less eager to discuss Greek. And interestingly, in releasing the show's ratings, the company groups the numbers into categories of 18-34 and 12-34 rather than breaking down the teen demographic separately, suggesting that they may be uncomfortable publicizing the specifics of the show's underage audience.
From a numbers game, ABC Family's grown-up shift in programming is succeeding. Companies favored by moms like Kohls and Target have stuck with the network in spite of its changing image, and according to TNS Media Intelligence, it has posted a 96 percent rise in ad sales over the last five years. But studies show that regardless of whether such shows are financially profitable, there is a social cost to gearing sexually charged programming toward adolescents.
According to research conducted by the independent, nonprofit firm RAND, watching television programs with sexual content not only makes teens more likely to engage in sex, but also increases the likelihood of pregnancy. A 2008 study published in the Journal of Pediatrics asked 2,000 12- to 17-year-olds to keep track of the television shows they watched that contained sexual content. Those who watched a high amount of such programming were twice as likely to get pregnant or to get someone else pregnant.
Noting that sexual content on TV has doubled in recent years, behavioral scientist Anita Chandra who led the study commented, "Watching this kind of sexual content on television is a powerful factor in increasing the likelihood of a teen pregnancy." This held true even when factors like parental involvement and economic status were accounted for. "We found a strong association. . . . Even when we removed all the other factors," Chandra stated. "We still saw a compelling link between a high exposure to sexual content on television and teen pregnancies."
A previous study by the RAND organization also found that teens who watch such programming are twice as likely to begin engaging in sexual intercourse in the following year as those who don't. And it doesn't matter whether the programs actually depict sexual behavior or merely talk about it-according to the research, both types impact teens' sexual behavior.
Said Rebecca Collins, the psychologist who headed the 2004 study, "This is the strongest evidence yet that the sexual content of television programs encourages adolescents to initiate sexual intercourse and other sexual activities. The impact of television viewing is so large that even a moderate shift in the sexual content of adolescent TV watching could have a substantial effect on their sexual behavior."