Who Knew Pledge Drives Could Boost Sex Drives?


I like to watch.

TV, I mean. I like to watch TV.

And sometimes, in fact, I like to watch PBS.

“PBS,” the slogan says. “What do you get out of it?”

The question seemed pretty dull the first time I considered it. I like the documentaries, mostly, and sometimes a little “News Hour.” But the other night, the PBS slogan took on a more provocative meaning after reading in Newsweek about a new study that found that people who “watch lots of TV, especially PBS” are more sexually active than those who don’t.

Never before had it occurred to me that PBS, home of Big Bird and Barney, of Mister Rogers and Jim Lehrer, of “Masterpiece Theater” and “This Old House,” might have some aphrodisiac effects.

It all seemed very odd, so I called up L.A.’s own public broadcasting station, KCET, to try to make sense of this study. And, by the way, do you know what KCET’s new slogan is?


“Infinitely more.”


“It’s not surprising at all,” said Barbara Goen, KCET’s vice president of communications. “I think PBS viewers are well-rounded, well-grounded and physically, emotionally and mentally sound. And having a healthy sex life plays into that.”

Interesting how Goen equated a lot of sex with “a healthy sex life.” She was clearly pleased with the findings of John Robinson of the University of Maryland and Geoffrey Godbey of Penn State, who crunched data from a survey performed by the National Opinion Research Center. Media reports have mostly focused on Robinson’s and Godbey’s finding that people who are well-educated and make higher incomes generally have sex less frequently than those with less education and income. “In fact,” Newsweek summed up, “men earning more than $75,000 a year average 12 fewer sexual episodes a year than guys in the high 20Ks.”

Now, this seemed somewhat surprising, since other studies have found high-powered CEO types to have busy libidos. The study also seemed to contradict itself. Don’t PBS watchers tend to be college grads with above-average incomes?

Not true, Goen said. “Our demographics are very, very broad--much broader than people usually perceive them to be. They very much mirror the local community socioeconomically.”

The demographics are different, Goen explained, for people who donate to KCET, the so-called “members.” They tend to be more educated, more affluent, older, Caucasian and female, she said. “But viewership is very broad.”

Robinson and Godbey do not suggest any causal relationships in their findings, just correlations. But Goen seemed to find a possible clue in another confounding conclusion--that the most sexually active people tend to be married and “have two or more kids.”


I’m willing to stipulate that there is a causal relationship between sex and kids. Still, the notion that having kids leads to more sex would, I’m sure, be a shocker to certain friends of mine who tell me their experience is quite the opposite.

But maybe my friends are just the unlucky exceptions to the rule. And so, as Goen sees it, certainly people with two or more kids must watch plenty of Barney, Big Bird, Mister Rogers and Shari Lewis. “The best programming for children,” she boasted, “is on KCET.”

Interesting point. And all the more so when you consider that the researchers also found that sexually active Americans “watch or approve of pornography.” This fact, which must please one of the San Fernando Valley’s trademark industries, seems more logical than the PBS connection.

And that got me to thinking. Commercial TV is gaudy and loud. PBS is known for subtlety and understatement. It’s Jerry Springer versus Bill Moyers. It’s “When Animals Attack” versus “Nova.”

Just think how executives at the major networks would react if a scholarly study found high sexual activity among their viewers. Imagine how NBC could react to the loss of “Seinfeld.” They could drop “Must see TV” and go with, say, “NBC: You gettin’ any?”

But public broadcasting is too civilized for that sort of thing. And so PBS will still ask, “What do you get out of it?” and KCET will answer, “Infinitely more.”


And perhaps public broadcasting isn’t just subtle, but sly.

You remember those studies that showed how images of popcorn spliced intermittently into a film, though imperceptible to the naked eye, would register on a viewer’s subconscious and make him thirsty. What if PBS were doing the same thing? What if Ken Burns was sneaking frames of erotica into his documentaries on the Civil War, baseball and Lewis & Clark? Or what if a Freudian cabal at PBS was doing it behind Burns’ back? What if the conspiracy spread to Julia Child and Sister Wendy?

But that might be too graphic. Maybe, instead, they’re sneaking in images of those suggestive flowers painted by Georgia O’Keeffe. That would seem be more like PBS’s style.

“I don’t know about that,” Barbara Goen said with a short laugh when I theorized that subliminal shenanigans could explain the sex appeal of PBS.

Notice that Goen didn’t actually deny it--she just claimed she didn’t know.


Scott Harris’ column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. Readers may write to him at The Times’ Valley Edition, 20000 Prairie St. , Chatsworth CA 91311, or via e-mail at Please include a phone number.