Television Awash in Sex, Study Says

Times Staff Writer

More than a year after federal authorities launched a crackdown on broadcast indecency, television remains so awash in sex that 7 in 10 episodes include some kind of racy content, a study released Wednesday shows.

The results from the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation also found that the number of sexual scenes in sitcoms, dramas and reality shows nearly doubled since 1998, while depictions of abstinence or “safe sex” were on the wane.

However, the study found that overt sexual activity and references were far less common than talk about sex, and many of the activities it tallied consisted of banter, kissing and touching. Only 10% of the shows depicted or implied sexual intercourse, the study found.

One example cited came from “The Gilmore Girls,” a WB network drama popular with teens, in which the character Lorelai Gilmore urges her daughter, Rory, to get angry after they spot her boyfriend kissing another woman on the neck in public.


“Aren’t you guys sleeping together?” Lorelai asks.

“Mom, it’s college.... We’re both busy, you know; we have classes; we have friends. It’s good to just keep things casual,” Rory says.

The report also cited an episode of ABC’s “Hope & Faith” in which Faith shows up for her first day of work at a dental office in stiletto heels and a low-cut nurse’s outfit, aiming to seduce a male patient.

Kaiser, a nonprofit group in Menlo Park, Calif., makes no recommendations in its report. But Kaiser officials said they hoped it would focus attention on whether television influenced casual attitudes toward sex by teens, who the study estimates watch 20 hours of TV a week.


“We are not saying TV is to blame for this phenomenon,” said University of Arizona communications professor Dale Kunkel, who helped conduct the study. “But research is indicating that TV has an impact.”

Kaiser said it studied what its researchers considered to be a representative sampling of programs on major broadcast and cable channels. Not included were sports or children’s programs, nor were some channels, such as MTV and Comedy Central, that carry a high level of sexual content.

Kaiser’s sample found 3,780 scenes with sexual activity, compared with 1,930 seven years ago when it first examined the issue. In that report, 56% of the shows studied included sexual content, compared with 70% today.

Breaking down the numbers by genre on broadcast television, the study found that 91% of comedies had sexual content, compared with 87% of dramas, 73% of newsmagazine shows and 41% of reality programs.

“What we are taking is a Dow Jones industrial average of sexual content,” said Vicky Rideout, a Kaiser vice president who oversaw the study.

Results were unveiled at a Washington news conference attended by Sen. Barak Obama (D-Ill.), Fox Networks Group President Tony Vinciquerra and Federal Communications Commissioner Kathleen Q. Abernathy.

Obama called on television broadcasters to improve their program ratings system by making content advisories more prominent on the TV screen. He also said TV executives should make it easier for parents to locate family-friendly shows.

“If the industry fails to act -- if it fails to give parents advanced controls and new choices -- Congress will,” Obama said.


The government has been cracking down on broadcast indecency in the wake of singer Janet Jackson’s breast-baring incident during the halftime show at the 2004 Super Bowl.

One main concern of legislators is whether the proliferation of sex on TV is contributing to teenage pregnancy. Last year, a Rand Corp. survey of 1,792 adolescents found that teens who watched a lot of sexually suggestive TV shows were almost twice as likely to have sex earlier than teens who didn’t.

However, Robert J. Thompson, founder of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University, noted that teen pregnancy rates soared in the U.S. long before sex became a staple of TV shows.

Still, Tony Perkins, president of the Washington-based Family Research Council, said the Kaiser study underscored the belief among many parents that television was having a coarsening effect on their kids.

“It’s not the same today as when I was growing up and parents left their kids in front of the TV to watch ‘Captain Kangaroo,’ ” Perkins said. “The sex depicted on television does have an effect on kids. If we are what we eat, then we become what we watch.”



What’s showing


Sexual content on TV has increased

Percentage of programs with any sexual content*

1998: 56%

2002: 64%

2005: 70%


And in prime time, every type of show had sexual content

Percentage of shows with sexual content by genre**

Movie: 100%

Comedy series: 91%

Drama series: 87%

Newsmagazine: 73%

Reality: 41%


Here’s a breakdown of what was depicted

Percentage of shows that had the following**

Sexual talk only: 39%

Other sexual behavior: 28%

No sexual content: 22%

Sexual intercourse depicted or implied: 10%


Numbers do not add up to 100% because of rounding. Los Angeles Times

*Data are based on a composite week of shows on ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC, PBS, WB, Lifetime, TNT, USA and HBO that were randomly selected from October 2004 to April.

**Data are based on three weeks of prime time on ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC.

Source: Kaiser Family Foundation