Parents Television Council study: Anatomy of a trend


In case you hadn’t noticed, there are an awful lot of lady parts being discussed on broadcast TV these days. And they aren’t the only ones exposed — the male anatomy is explicitly mentioned on prime time as well, markedly more than even a few years ago.

So says a new study from the conservative watchdog group the Parents Television Council that tracks the number of times the words “vagina” and “penis” are spoken in dramas, comedies, TV movies and reality shows.

The research found that in just nine fall episodes of CBS’ hit sitcom “2 Broke Girls,” characters said the word “vagina” more times than anyone did on broadcast TV across all networks in an entire season a decade ago.


In fact, the anatomical term gets tossed around eight times more frequently on TV now than it did during the 2001-2002 season, which served as a benchmark. The word “penis” was used nearly four times as often in a recent season as it was in the relatively tame early 2000s.

With tallies for individual series, the study cites CBS’ “2 Broke Girls” and “Two and a Half Men,” NBC’s “The Office” and “30 Rock,” Fox’s “American Dad” and “Family Guy,” and ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy” as those that invoke the words most frequently.

“It’s a broader reflection of the progression of raunch,” said Tim Winter, president of the PTC, which took up the study after TV critics and industry watchers noticed the trend. “So many shows and networks seem to think they need it to be funny or successful.”

Although the mini-study wasn’t timed to the current U.S. Supreme Court deliberations about broadcast standards, it may add fuel to the fire for those arguing against relaxing the existing rules about profanity, sex and nudity on TV.

The Supreme Court, which started debating the issue early this year, has regularly ruled in favor of free speech claims. But justices have spoken publicly about the need to retain Federal Communications Commission guidelines about what can be aired on NBC, CBS, ABC, Fox and the CW.

At the heart of the court case is “fleeting profanity” that was uttered during live awards shows on Fox and a partially visible bare bum shown on an ABC drama. There’s no firm date on when the court will issue a judgment, but it’s expected within the next month or two.


“Broadcast networks say they have to compete against cable and that’s why they’re pushing the envelope like this,” Winter said. “They’re forgetting that they’re broadcast networks that use public airwaves and go out to every single person who has a TV.”

It’s a point of contention for some family values advocates, but not everyone gets fired up about hearing terms common in any dictionary during their favorite shows. In fact, the clinical nature of the words makes them a bit of a throwback, said Marty Kaplan, entertainment and media professor at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism.

“Words that you can hear in any 10th grade biology class are probably the most benign end of the spectrum,” he said. “I don’t think there’s a danger of growing up culturally malformed by hearing these words.”

The PTC study is strictly a numbers cruncher. It doesn’t concede, for instance, that an episode of Fox’s “New Girl” dealt with Jess (Zooey Deschanel) and her discomfort with saying the word “penis.” And it makes no distinction between comedies, where “penis” and “vagina” are most often used as punch lines, and medical dramas or crime procedurals that may put the words in a different context.

In the 2001-2002 season, NBC led the way in using the word “penis” 16 times, and Fox was second with 13 references. The other networks barely registered, if at all. The total across all networks was 30 penis references.

Fast-forward to the 2010-11 season and NBC was still in front, but the number leaped to 63. Fox shows made 24 penis references and ABC’s series made 15. The total nearly quadrupled from the previous decade, to 116.

The word “vagina,” though spoken much less frequently than the male counterpart, went from four references across all networks in 2001-2002 to 35 references a decade later. (And those figures were compiled before the fall 2011 launch of “2 Broke Girls”).

NBC still tops the list, this time with 13 “vagina” references during the 2010-2011 season, followed by ABC and Fox with nine utterances each. “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Parenthood” and “House” had the most uses of the word “vagina.”

A snapshot of “2 Broke Girls,” “Two and a Half Men” and “New Girl” showed that there were 22 penis references during this past fall’s episodes, and 12 vagina references on “2 Broke Girls” alone. At this rate, any prior year’s tallies will be blown out of the water by May sweeps.

Yet, to give the discussion a historical context, Kaplan said there was a time not so long ago, in the ‘70s, when characters couldn’t use the word “abortion” on network TV.

“Cultures change, and we’ve broken the barriers of this kind of discourse long ago,” he said. “Using ‘penis’ and ‘vagina’ is an attempt by these shows to be edgy and hip and get attention, but unless you live in a hermetically sealed bubble, you’ve heard it all before.”