Statement of Timothy F. Winter
President of the Parents Television Council
on the release of
Happily Never After: How Hollywood Favors Adultery and
Promiscuity over Marital Intimacy on Prime Time Broadcast Television
Good day to everyone from Los Angeles. Thank you for joining us on this call to discuss the findings of the PTC’s latest Special Report, Happily Never After: How Hollywood Favors Adultery and Promiscuity over Marital Intimacy on Prime Time Broadcast Television. My name is Tim Winter, and I am president of the Parents Television Council, a non-partisan education organization advocating responsible entertainment. The PTC was founded in 1995 to ensure that children are not constantly assaulted by sex, violence and profanity on television and in other media. As a national grassroots organization, the PTC has 53 chapters and a growing membership than now exceeds 1.3 million members across the United States. The PTC works with television producers, broadcasters, networks and sponsors in an effort to stem the flow of harmful and negative messages targeted to children. The PTC also works with elected and appointed government officials to enforce broadcast decency standards.
In the ‘50s and ‘60s it used to be that you would never see married couples in bed together. Back then it was because of what we might now consider “quaint” broadcasting standards which stipulated that if a man and woman were in bed together, at least one foot had to stay on the floor. We modern sophisticates laugh about the fact that Rob and Laura Petrie slept in twin beds.
You may notice when you turn on the television now that you still never see married couples in bed together – but for entirely different reasons that have nothing to do with those “quaint” broadcasting standards.
You’ll see teenagers in bed with prostitutes; men in bed with their mistresses; and teachers in bed with their students. You’ll see threesomes, orgies, and strippers. You’ll hear references to masturbation, to kinky sexual practices, and pornography… but you don’t often see or hear about intimacy among happily married couples on TV these days.
It was this observation, made by a PTC analyst at the start of the 2007-2008 television season, which prompted the PTC to more carefully examine how sex and marriage are depicted on television, thus resulting in the study we’re discussing here today.
Our suspicions were confirmed. Today’s prime time broadcast television programming is not merely indifferent to the institution of marriage and the stabilizing role it plays in our society. Rather, the medium appears to be actively seeking to undermine marriage by consistently painting it in a negative light. Nowhere is this more readily apparent than in its treatment of sexual behavior.
Sex in the context of marriage is either non-existent on primetime broadcast television, or it is depicted as burdensome rather than as an expression of love and commitment. By contrast, extra-marital or adulterous sexual relationships are depicted with greater frequency and overwhelmingly as a positive experience. Across the broadcast networks verbal references to non-marital sex outnumbered references to sex in the context of marriage by nearly 3 to 1; and scenes depicting or implying sex between non-married partners outnumbered scenes depicting or implying sex between married partners by a ratio of nearly 4 to 1.
Even more troubling than the marginalization of marriage and glorification of non-marital sex on television is the industry’s recent obsession with outré sexual expression. Today more than ever teens are exposed to a host of once-taboo sexual behaviors including threesomes, partner swapping, pedophilia, necrophilia, bestiality, and sex with prostitutes, to say nothing of the now-common depictions of strippers, references to masturbation, pornography, sex toys, and kinky or fetishistic behaviors. Behaviors that were once seen as fringe, immoral, or socially destructive have been given the imprimatur of acceptability by the television industry – and children are absorbing those messages and, if recent survey data is to be believed, imitating that behavior.
Unlike media violence, which has been examined by social scientists for more than fifty years, overtly sexual content in media readily available to children is a relatively new phenomenon, and has only recently become the subject of scientific research. Most of the medical community now accepts as fact the premise that children who are exposed to high levels of violence in the media are more likely to engage in violent behavior. Recent objective, scientific studies have demonstrated a clear connection between exposure to sexual media content and earlier/riskier sexual activity among teens.
A 2005 study by Dr. Rebecca Collins showed that watching sex on TV predicts and may hasten the onset of sexual activity among adolescents. Collins found that youths who watched more sexual content were more likely to initiate intercourse and progress to more advanced non-coital sexual activities in the year following the beginning of the study.
Research has demonstrated that teens don’t even need visual cues to be influenced by TV’s sexual content. Sexually-charged TV dialogue alone increases the chances that teens will engage in it earlier, according to a 2002 survey of 15-to-17-year-olds by the Kaiser Family Foundation.
Children growing up in this TV environment are experimenting sexually in ways that would have been unthinkable for previous generations. By the time they have reached their senior year in high school, 3 out of 5 young people in the US today have had sex, and 1 in 5 of those has had sex with 4 or more partners, according to the 2001 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance. Just over half of American teenagers ages 15-to-19 have engaged in oral sex. A New York magazine survey of Manhattan teens found that 46% had watched a pornographic movie with a member of the opposite sex; 18% had watched others having sex; 15% had taken pictures during sex or sexual activity; 15% had masturbated while someone watched; and 12% reported having engaged in anal sex.
Given a child’s propensity to readily accept media messages concerning all facets of life, parents must become aware of the nature and frequency of sexual messages their children are exposed to in popular media so they can effectively combat those messages in the home.
Broadcasters, knowing television’s ability to influence behavior, could be more careful in their treatment of sexual situations during primetime hours when impressionable children are in the viewing audience, opting for less graphic visual content, and favoring storylines that don’t celebrate promiscuity, glamorize criminality, or denigrate monogamy – and the American people need to hold the networks and their local broadcast affiliates accountable for pushing questionable content into their homes over the publicly-owned broadcast airwaves.
Advertisers, too, must be held accountable for the messages they underwrite with their advertising dollars and the social cost of supporting those messages. Sponsors unquestionably do have a say in broadcast content because when all is said and done, the broadcasters’ ultimate audience is not the American television viewing public – it is corporate America, and their success as a business depends upon their ability to sell their product to advertisers. As long as advertisers are willing to associate their brand names and corporate image with salacious sexual content, networks will continue to produce it. Only when corporate sponsors band together in the name of responsible entertainment can we expect to see meaningful change from the broadcast industry.
It is too late to put the genie back in the bottle – and no one is advocating a return to the halcyon days of Father Knows Best, but television can and must do better… because our children are watching.