As the Motion Picture Assn. of America prepares to unveil its much-anticipated program ratings system next week, a study by the Kaiser Family Foundation and the child advocacy group Children Now has released a study claiming that 75% of shows that air in the 8-9 p.m. hour of primetime contain “sexual content.”
The study, which will be sure to get much attention across the country as it comes during the heat of the ratings debate, said that there were 8.5 sexual interactions per hour.
The study defined a “sexual interaction” as “sexually related talk or behavior” which includes any comment or portrayal that involves sexuality, sexual suggestiveness or sexual activity. The study looked at shows on Fox, NBC, ABC and CBS between Jan. 28 and March 30 of this year. The study also looked at one week of programming this season, which showed that figure has grown to 9.4.
The point of the study, the parties said, was to show an increase in sexual content during the so-called “family hour” of 8-9 p.m. The only problem is that there is no family hour. The family hour was declared unconstitutional in 1979, which is pointed out in the study.
Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) has introduced legislation to bring back the family hour but the odds of the rule coming back to life are slim, according to Beltway insiders.
The study compared 1996 to 1976 and 1986. The eight sexual messages per hour average, the study said, was “more than four times as much sexual content as was found in programs aired during the same time period in 1976.” On any given evening, the study said, 6 million children between the ages of 2-11 are watching television in the 8-9 p.m. hour.
A CBS spokesman said that “attitudes towards sex and its presentation in primetime have changed dramatically in the past 10 years, so with more content being acceptable, it is not surprising that the volume has increased.”
As for its own programming, the Eye web spokesman added that “we believe we are sensitive and responsible in any presentation of sexual content and we’re very comfortable that our 8-9 p.m. lineup is programming that the entire family can watch together.”
The study did point to an episode of the Eye web’s “Cybill” as an example of “physical flirting” in an episode that aired at 8 p.m. However, CBS has since moved the show to a 9:30 slot.
NBC took the study to task for its generalities. The study, an NBC exec said, does not distinguish between dialogue and sexual activity in determining its totals.
The study said it found 15 instances of sexual intercourse “either implied or depicted” during the three weeks it studied earlier this year. In none of the instances, the study said, “was there any mention of the risks in or responsibilities of sexual activity.”
However, the NBC comedy “Friends” has been criticized for its sexual activity in an episode last year when two roommates fight over the last condom. The one who loses chooses not to have sex. That episode apparently did not air while the study was in progress.
Media has the message
“As evidenced by the television shows already doing so, an opportunity exists for the entertainment media to play a more positive role in communicating important messages about sexual issues. But these kinds of portrayals are still the exception, not the norm,” said Matt James, VP of the Kaiser Family Foundation.
The study will no doubt generate more heat on the MPAA and its head Jack Valenti, who is preparing to release a ratings guideline next week. The service will have six categories of ratings ranging from “K,” which will indicate programming for all ages, to “TV-M,” which is for programming intended for mature audiences (Daily Variety, Dec. 4).
Kidvid activists have panned that concept as too general and want a more descriptive system. Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) wants a “V” rating for violence, a rating that would work in tandem with a TV’s V-chip device.