TV’s Family Hour Filled With Sexual Content, Study Finds

Three out of four shows on network TV during “family hour” contain sexual behavior or verbal references to sex.

And the barrage of sexual messages comes with little or no information about the risks or responsibilities of such behavior, according to a landmark San Francisco Bay area study, “Sex, Kids and the Family Hour,” released Wednesday.

“It documents that networks have replaced violence on television with sex,” said Milton Chen, director of KQED’s Center for Education and Lifelong Learning, in response to the report.

The study, released by the Oakland, Calif.-based advocacy group Children Now and the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation in Menlo Park, Calif., focused on the 8 to 9 p.m. period, dubbed the family hour.

There are an average of 8.5 incidents of sexual behavior in an hour of family programming, and the study noted that children were offered little information about the risks or responsibilities of such behavior.

“Parents need to be aware of what their kids are watching,” said Victoria Rideout, director of the Children and Media Program at Children NOW. “And I think network executives need to take a look at this study and think about what kind of programming they’re producing for this hour of programming and its impact on children.”

The study, conducted by the University of California at Santa Barbara communications Professor Dale Kunkel, surveyed 122 hours of network programming encompassing 182 shows over 20 years.

The family-hour slot is significant because more children watch TV in this hour than on Saturday mornings or weekday afternoons. This means more than 1 million children under age 11 watch such shows as “Beverly Hills 90210,” “Roseanne,” “The Nanny” or “Friends.”

Children in a focus group indicated sexual content does not “go over their heads,” the study said. “Even children as young as 8 understood a reference to whipped cream in the bedroom, and others understood veiled references to male anatomy and jokes about virginity.”

In the focus groups, most children ages 8 to 10 understood a joke in CBS’ comedy “The Nanny” about the title character losing her “Virgin … airlines ticket.”

The presence of sexual content in programming might not be a shock, but its prevalence is, Kunkel said.

“It’s the degree of the findings that is most surprising,” he said. “It was much more extreme than I expected.” The study’s aim is to alert parents, Kunkel said.

“Parents should absolutely be aware that part of the television environment that they might have thought was entirely benign could raise some important issues,” he said.

Indeed, parents queried by the study indicated they worried more about TV’s sexual content than about violence.

Some 43 percent said they worry a great deal about sexual content. comparison, 39 percent said they worried to the same extent about TV violence.

Yet parents often do nothing about it.

KQED’s Chen points to “the real disconnect between families and television. Somehow, as families, we just use television for hours on end without really considering it much.”

It’s partly because today’s parents were raised on TV.

“We remember Huckleberry Hound and the Lone Ranger,” said Chen, author of “Smart Parents’ Guide to Kids’ Television.” “We just assume TV is like what we watched when we were little.”

Instead, what their children routinely get are “jokes about breast size and orgasms. One show even had a mistaken circumcision. The plot lines are amazing.”

xxxx Major findings Some of the major findings: Seventy-five percent of family-hour programs contain some sexual content either talk about sex or sexual behavior. In 1986, 65 percent of programming had such references. In 1976, 43 percent had such content. Especially dramatic was the rise in sexual behavior - from kissing to sexual intercourse - which rose from 26 percent in 1976 to 61 percent in 1996. Only 6 percent of shows with sexual content emphasized sexual risks and responsibilities. One such show was “Malibu Shores,” which has been canceled. Twelve percent of sexual interactions involved teens. Most of the talk about sex was in sitcoms in the form of double entendres and jokes about physical traits.

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