New Study Claims TV Fails to Balance Sex, Responsibility

Times Staff Writer

American television viewers are bombarded with an average of 27 scenes per hour which depict, discuss or suggest sexual behavior, according to a study released Tuesday by the Planned Parenthood Federation of America Inc.

The study, conducted for Planned Parenthood by Louis Harris and Associates, claims that the three major television networks will broadcast 65,000 references to sexual behavior during prime-time and daytime entertainment programs in the 1987-88 season. Based on the average number of hours that Americans watch television, the study projected that the typical viewer will observe 14,000 references to sex this TV season.

But the barrage of sexual messages is accompanied by virtually no references to sexuality education, sexually transmitted diseases, birth control or abortion to “counterbalance the sexual content in TV programming,” said Humphrey Taylor, president of Louis Harris and Associates.

Of the projected 14,000 instances of sexual messages a typical viewer will see, “only about 165" are balanced by such information, the study said.


The frequency of commercial advertisements and of public-service announcements for contraceptives and birth control, also measured in the study, “turned out to be zero,” Taylor said.

“Clearly the American television networks are doing us--their viewers--a tremendous disservice,” Faye Wattleton, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, said at a press conference announcing the study. “They obviously see no need to balance their overly romanticized and unrealistic portrayals of sex with messages about responsibility.”

NBC and ABC immediately took issue with the report.

Rick Gitter, NBC’s vice president for broadcast standards, East Coast, called the Planned Parenthood findings of no public-service announcements on contraceptives or birth control “absolutely untrue.” He said NBC ran a Planned Parenthood spot last week on “The Cosby Show"--and received “an unusually large number of complaints from viewers who considered it inappropriate.”


“I don’t understand how they support any causal link between television depictions and actual behavior,” Gitter said. He said his network “attempts to infuse responsibility” in all its sexual references.

At ABC, Alfred Schneider, vice president for policy and standards, responded to the study by saying, “We always show the consequences of the actions of teen-agers on television. Great care is taken in this area, especially as AIDS has become a serious concern.”

While stressing that Planned Parenthood is calling for “reason and balance, not censorship,” Wattleton said the organization believes “that prime-time and daytime television often promote the attitude that sex has no consequences.”

Of 12 million sexually active American teen-agers, Wattleton said, “two-thirds do not use birth control at all or do not use it on a consistent basis.” More than 1 million U.S. teen-agers become pregnant each year, she said.


“In that context, we believe that networks do influence the problem of teen-age pregnancy negatively,” Wattleton said.

The study describes programming by genre, rather than by specific titles, and does not break down sexual content by network, examining the phenomenon as a whole instead.

Wattleton cited CBS’ “Cagney & Lacey,” NBC’s “Valerie” (now “Valerie’s Family”), NBC’s “Family Ties” and the ABC-TV movie “Daddy” as programs that dealt with teen-age pregnancy in a “sensitive and accurate” fashion. “But these shows are the exception rather than the rule,” she said.

Procedures for the new Harris-Planned Parenthood study were adapted from a 1978-79 study conducted by Prof. Joyce Sprafkin and reported in the Journal of Communication. At least two people saw each of 129 prime-time and daytime television shows broadcast during the first week of the new season (Sept. 24-30, 1987) over stations affiliated with each of the three major networks. Where there were questions about sexual content, Taylor said, a third observer was brought in.


Counting the frequency of 10 types of sexual messages, the Harris personnel found that the 27 instances of sexual behavior per hour broke down into: 10 instances of sexual innuendo or suggestiveness, nine kisses, five embraces or hugs, one to two references to intercourse and one to two references to “deviant or discouraged” sexual practices.

Taylor said the researchers did differentiate between “non-sexual contact,” including kissing and touching, and more overt sexual contact.

“Our concern is not to call for 30,000 messages about sexual responsibility,” Wattleton said, “but rather, a change in television mentality around the issues of sexual responsibility.”