In the spring of 1973, CBS became enmeshed in controversy when it refused to air a “racy” episode of The New Dick Van Dyke Show. The offensive subject? A 12-year-old girl walks in on her parents while they are having sex in the middle of the day. The incident occurs off-screen, neither of the TV parents (Van Dyke and Hope Lange) appears sans clothing, and they discuss the incident with their daughter. Still, CBS decided the episode was “inappropriate,” arguing that America wasn’t ready for such frank depiction of sexual material.
Thirty-two years later, CBS aired an episode of Two and a Half Men in which 10-year-old Jake (Angus T. Jones) walks into his uncle’s bedroom to find him in bed with their crazy neighbor. Uncle Charlie (Charlie Sheen) explains that his one-nighter was a mistake, “because I had sex with someone who knows how to disable the alarm system.”
Such scenes have inspired many viewers to call for a return to the standards of 1973. These critics are right that television portrays sex “inaccurately,” but it is equally wrong about violence, body image, family relations, romance, and just about every other topic it tackles. Family experts have long insisted that parents watch TV with their kids for just this reason: to correct, explain, and evaluate what kids see. Since it is no secret that TV influences children, not always positively, why has the Kaiser Family Foundation’s report concerning sex on TV become a hot topic?
In combination with the 2004 Parents Television Council’s Annual Report on the most and least family-friendly shows, the Kaiser report, Sex on TV 4, suggests that television programming has become a venue for pornography. Sex on TV—in advertising and programming—is hardly news, but today the discussion is inflamed in two ways: hypersensitive critics include even the most innocent of romantic encounters as evidence of promiscuity, and moralists continue to argue that the media are a liberal playground where anything is acceptable.
To understand how we got to the point, we have to delve decades into television history. The 1947 series, Mary Kay and Johnny, was the first to feature a married couple in bed together. The first TV abortion occurred in 1964 on Another World, and the first storyline dealing with homosexuality came that same year on the forgotten series, Espionage. The first regular gay character appeared in 1977 on Soap, and the first regular transsexual character showed up in 1986’s The Last Precinct. Women having been intentionally baring their breasts since Valerie Perrine did so in the PBS production of Steambath in 1973. (Women have been having “wardrobe malfunctions” on TV since the early ‘50s.) The baseball drama, Bay City Blues, featured men’s bare butts 10 years before NYPD Blue, and Mary Beth Lacy (Tyne Daly) had the honor of showing television’s first condom when she gave one to her teenaged son in a 1986 episode of Cagney & Lacey.
All of the above would have been deemed unacceptable by both the Kaiser Family Foundation and Parent Television Council. In fact, the Kaiser Report includes in its standards for evaluating sexual content anything romance-or sex-related. Sex on TV 4 features such vague categories as “Talk about sex,” “Talk toward sex”, “Talk about sex-related crimes,” “Expert advice,” “Physical flirting,” and “Passionate kissing.” Almost any show ever could be included: The Brady Bunch (Mike and Carol in bed together), Happy Days (the Fonz’s libido), even Petticoat Junction (three sisters bathing together in a water tower).
While the report’s premise—that the number and explicitness of sexual situations have increased—is correct, its argument is not. The Kaiser analysts focused most of their attention on network television. As networks are obligated to address social issues in order to keep their FCC licenses, they often do so through “issue” episodes that examine relevant social concerns. Because we have become a sex-oriented society, episodes dealing with AIDS, premarital sex, rape, stalking, and homosexuality have become more relevant. Series are more likely now to examine how a pedophile lures his victims than years ago, when such subjects were taboo, and undoubtedly children’s lives have been saved, thanks to the attention focused on the subject.
While the study does include some cable programming, including HBO and Lifetime, it omits most cable programming, which means Showtime, the Playboy Channel, and Spike TV (all of which have “high” sexual content) as well as the Food Network, HGTV, and CBN (which have virtually no sexual content). In fact, the Kaiser report only looked at 10 networks, out of the hundreds on the air. Sex on TV 4‘s conclusion that television has a “devotion to the topic of sex” is erroneous, even if sexual situations have increased; as always, it depends on where you look and what you look at.
While Sex on TV 4 can be criticized for its questionable research methods, the list of unfriendly shows by the Parents Television Council (PTC) is more easily faulted for its salacious focus. The Council claims that the list was comprised with consideration of the amount of violence or sex on a show, as both can be inappropriate subject matter for children. However, all 10 shows listed were named for sexual content, none for violence. Only two dramas, which typically feature more violence than sitcoms, made the list, and both were crime dramas criticized for sex-related cases. While the Council did mention the graphic scenes of death on CSI, its primary concern was that the victims were involved in “unacceptable” activities. Likewise, Cold Case was cited for stories about snuff films, child porn, and rape.
In an article in USA Today, Melissa Caldwell, PTC’s research director, admitted the organization focuses on sex in the media, not because violence is not objectionable, but because “It’s a little bit more difficult to get people worked up over [violence]” (”Body Count on the Rise on Prime Time TV”, 20 November 2005).
Unsurprisingly, the PTC list and Kaiser Family Foundation report have given conservative pundits plenty of ammunition. Matt Kaufman of Family.org had an easy and offensive explanation for the increase in sex: many shows are written by gay men, and therefore exist “in a gay-type world of near-universal promiscuity and adultery, secrets and betrayals” (“Why TV Programs are So Bent”). During the 1 June 2005 broadcast of Hannity & Colmes, Sean Hannity went ballistic over a condom ad airing on the WB, while Melinda Hines’ review of Desperate Housewives for the Christian Broadcast Network asks the question, “Is it really best for us to view everyone’s dirty laundry in full color, even if it is fiction? ABC gives the show a TV PG rating, although I would have to disagree due to its strong sexual content” (“Desperate Housewives”).
The truth is that at least some of the PTC and the Kaiser Family Foundation’s audience also watches these objectionable shows. CSI is the number one show among people over 55, and Caldwell admits the PTC received complaints from its members for including CSI on its list. Likewise, Myrna Blyth in The National Review lauds the PTC listed show Desperate Housewives, maintaining that at least three of the housewives would be George W. Bush supporters (“Move Over, Lifetime,” 17 November 2004). The series is a ratings hit in even the most conservative areas of the South. John Hawkins, webmaster for Rightwingnews.com, lists Family Guy among his top 10 favorite shows, along with two other controversial cartoons, The Simpson and South Park.
Are the Parents Television Council and Kaiser Family Foundation completely off the mark? No. Sexual content has increased on television, and much of what is shown is considerably more graphic or “deviant” than anything seen in years past. And the organizations are right that this focus has negative effects, as numerous studies have shown that teens often misunderstand appropriate sexual behavior as a result of the sex they see in the media. However, children are getting their sexual information from a variety of sources, from video games to online chat rooms to their peers, not just TV. Parental supervision is more important than ever.
Still, the media fanfare over these studies is misleading. The fact that the PTC claimed it couldn’t even find 10 shows worthy of being on a “Best of TV” list indicates that the Council’s research is not comprehensive. Trading Spaces, Super Nanny, Doc, Joan of Arcadia, and Sue Thomas, F.B. Eye all met the organization’s criteria for inclusion. The PTC lists and Sex on TV 4 are meant to alarm us and make us storm our elected officials with angry demands for stricter regulations.
Such regulations not only threaten free speech, but can’t possibly be effective. Unless they go across the board, limiting sexual innuendo and content in videos, video games, CDs, movies, DVDs, magazines, billboards, books, the internet, and any other venue, such regulations are a waste of time. They ignore the fact that lots of people watch these scandalous shows. And they underestimate parents. Most parents know what is acceptable programming for their kids, and many use technology to block what is inappropriate. Parents who do let their kids watch HBO’s Real Sex, FX’s nip/tuck, or even those edited Sex and the City reruns aren’t going to adhere to any government regulations, and most likely have more parenting problems than can be helped by FCC oversight.
The most alarming aspect of the Kaiser Family Foundation’s report is that it generated so much press. We all know there is sex on TV; we know that much of what is on TV is unsuitable for children. What we still don’t know is why anyone thought we needed to be reminded.