Blanket coverage for sex on US television, study says

MUMBAI: Remember the Janet Jackson "nipplegate wardrobe malfunction" and the storm it created around broadcast indecency in the US just over a year ago? Fact is American television is awash with sex, sex and more sex than ever before so it's obviously back to business as usual for those who run broadcast television in the US of A.

A study released yesterday has found that 70 per cent of all shows (that's seven in ten episodes) include some sexual content, and that these shows average 5.0 sexual scenes per hour, compared to 56 per cent and 3.2 scenes per hour respectively in 1998, and 64 per cent and 4.4 scenes per hour in 2002.

The number of sexual scenes on television has nearly doubled since 1998, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation's biennial study "Sex on TV 4". And while the inclusion of references to "safer sex" issues -- such as waiting to have sex, using protection, or possible consequences of unprotected sex -- has also increased since 1998, that rate has leveled off in recent years. The study examined a representative sample of more than 1,000 hours of programming including all genres other than daily newscasts, sports events, and children's shows. All sexual content was measured, including talk about sex and sexual behavior.

There are nearly twice as many scenes of sexual content on TV today than in 1998 (going from 1,930 to 3,780 scenes in the program sample totaling a 96 per cent increase between 1998 and 2005). If there is some consolation for concerned parents it is that despite these overall increases in sexual content, the number of shows in which sexual intercourse is either depicted or strongly implied is down slightly in recent years (7 per cent in 1998, 14 per cent in 2002, and 11 per cent in 2005).

"Given how high the stakes are, the messages TV sends teens about sex are important," said Vicky Rideout, a Kaiser Family Foundation vice-president who oversaw the study. "Television has the power to bring issues of sexual risk and responsibility to life in a way that no sex ed class or public health brochure really can."

"Sex on TV 4" was released yesterday at a forum that included opening remarks by Kaiser Family Foundation President and CEO Drew Altman, a keynote speech by Senator Barack Obama, and a roundtable discussion featuring Federal Communications Commission Commissioner Kathleen Abernathy (who it might be recalled was one of the keynote speakers at the India Television Summit 2005, organised by and Media Partners Asia). Other speakers included Fox Television Networks president and CEO Tony Vinciquerra; Law & Order: SVU Executive producer Neal Baer; behavioral scientist and RAND Corporation researcher Rebecca Collins; and National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy executive director Sarah Brown.

The increase in the number of TV shows with sexual content, combined with the increase in sexual scenes per show has led to a dramatic overall increase in sexual content on TV since 1998," said Dale Kunkel, lead researcher on the study and University of Arizona professor. "During the same period, the percentage of these shows that include "safer sex" messages has also increased significantly, but has leveled off in recent years.

Additional findings:

Sexual Content on TV

-- Among the top 20 most watched shows by teens, 70% include sexual content, and nearly half (45%) include sexual behavior.

-- During prime time hours sex is even more common with nearly 8 in 10 (77%) shows including sexual content, averaging 5.9 sexual scenes per hour.

-- Two-thirds (68%) of all shows include talk about sex and 35% of all shows include sexual behaviors.

-- Reality shows are the only genre of programming in which less than two-thirds (28%) of shows include sexual content. The percentage of shows with sexual content by genre includes movies 92%, sitcoms 87%, drama series 87%, and soap operas 85%.

Safer Sex Messages

-- Two-thirds of all references to sexual risks or responsibilities on TV are "minor or inconsequential," compared to one-third that are "substantial" or "primary" elements of the scene. Since the first study was conducted in 1998 this ratio has remained consistent.

-- One in nine (11%) network prime time shows with sex include a reference to risks or responsibilities. This rate in prime time has held relatively steady over the years -- 11% in 1998 and 13% in 2002.

-- Among the 20 most highly rated shows for teen viewers, 10% of those with sexual content include a reference to sexual risks or responsibilities at some point in the episode.

"Over the past seven years, more and more Hollywood writers have incorporated health messages into their programming," said Vicky Rideout. "But the potential is there to do much more."

Sexual Intercourse

-- The vast majority (89%) of characters on TV involved in sexual intercourse appear to be adults age 25 or older. One in ten (10%) appear to be teens or young adults, down from one in four (26%) in 1998 and one in six (17%) in 2002.

-- About half of all scenes with intercourse (53%) involve characters who have an established relationship with one another. Fifteen per cent of scenes present characters having sex when they have just met - up from 7% in 2002.


The Sex on TV 4 study was designed and analyzed by Professors Dale Kunkel and Keren Eyal and their colleagues at the University of Arizona in consultation with researchers at the Kaiser Family Foundation.

The study examined a representative sample of a week's worth of programming across the four major commercial broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC), one independent broadcast station that is a WB network affiliate, one public broadcasting station (PBS), three top-ranked basic cable channels (Lifetime, TNT, and USA Network), and one premium cable channel (HBO). A composite week sample of programs was collected from each channel, from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. Mountain Standard Time (the equivalent to 7 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. Eastern or Pacific time.) In addition, the top 20 most watched teen shows from all networks were analyzed and reported on separately. All genres other than daily newscasts, sports events, and children's shows were included.

Across the four studies conducted since 1998, a total of 4,742 television programs have been analyzed. For this report, a total of 1,154 programs were analyzed for the 2004-2005 television season. This includes 959 programs in the composite week sample, 261 in the prime-time broadcast over-sample, and 60 from the teen programming sample (because of overlap in the programs, these numbers cannot be summed). Programs for each of these three samples were digitally recorded and then systematically evaluated using scientific content analysis procedures applied by trained coders.

Sexual content includes both talk about sex and depictions of sexual behavior, ranging from kissing and fondling to sexual intercourse. Only those scenes in which the sexual behavior was a "primary" or "substantial" emphasis of the scene were counted. "Talk about sex" includes characters discussing their own or others' sexual actions or interests. Sexual behaviors range from kissing and fondling to sexual intercourse.

The Kaiser Family Foundation is a non-profit, private operating foundation dedicated to providing information and analysis on health care issues to policymakers, the media, the health care community, and the general public. The Foundation is not associated with Kaiser Permanente or Kaiser Industries.

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