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Research on sex, violence, and profanity on Television

Sex Loses its Appeal
A State of the Industry Report on Sex on TV

I.  Introduction

With the increased visibility of raunchy reality series, envelope-pushing dramas, and smutty sitcoms across the broadcast networks, it has become a common perception that television is getting worse with each passing year.  On the surface, it would be difficult to deny the accuracy of such claims.

Indeed, for years conventional wisdom in Hollywood has been that "sex sells," and the more, the better.  That mantra has been reflected in increasingly frequent and increasingly graphic depictions of sex on television.

But does sex really attract more viewers?

In recent years, countless surveys have shown that not only are parents increasingly concerned about how exposure to sexual content is affecting their children, but even adults are turned-off by the rampant sex on TV. 

A 2001 Family Circle survey showed that 93% of respondents had turned off the TV or changed channels during a program because of sexual content.  A Kaiser Family Foundation survey released the same year indicated that 80% of parents were concerned about their children's overexposure to sex and violence, while 63% said they were concerned "a great deal" about sexual content.

It appears that the groundswell of opposition to raunchy programming really is starting to have an impact on program content.  Although it is clear to even casual observers that on the margins, television has gotten much worse, but it is equally undeniable that there has been a real and perceptible improvement throughout much of the prime time schedule. 

Yes, the struggling weblets are continuing to pump out raunchy programming in a desperate attempt to attract viewers.  But it seems that the major broadcast networks are learning that with respect to sexual content at least, less is more.  Some of the major networks are replacing sex-laden series with more family-friendly offerings.  ABC's turn-around this season is illustrative of this trend.  In 2000 and 2001, ABC turned its back on family audiences and paid the price with declining ratings. In the fall of 2002, ABC put renewed emphasis on family programming and it is paying dividends. 

Even the media are taking note of the trend.  The Washington Post's Lisa deMoraes observed, "The hot new trend of the next (2002) television season is an old one straight out of TV's flickering past: programs about families, for family audiences.  After years of chasing the same hip young urban childless viewers, and sending everyone else to cable, the broadcast networks are lining up a solid block of dramas and comedies about moms, dads and their kids next fall."

USA Today columnist Bill Keveney stated, "Television advertisers are increasingly successful with a decidedly non-commercial promotion: families. Networks are intensifying their efforts to offer new shows appealing to parents and children alike." 

But is television really any better now than it was three years ago?  Five years ago?  These are the questions the PTC set out to answer in this study.

II.  Study Parameters and Methodology

PTC analysts examined all prime time entertainment programming on the major broadcast television networks (ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC, UPN and the WB) from the first two weeks of the 1998, 2000, and 2002 November sweeps periods. ITV was not included in this analysis because the network was launched just a few months before the first study period and had limited original programming in 1998 and 2000. A total of 400 program hours were analyzed.

Television broadcasts of theatrical releases, news and sports programs were not included in this analysis.

PTC analysts reviewed the programs for instances of sexual content, including visual depictions of sex (scenes involving amorous couples or nudity) and verbal sexual content (innuendo, suggestive comments or jokes, references or allusions to specific sexual acts).

III.  Statistical Overview

Quantitative Results

Every broadcast network but the WB has experienced a decrease in sexual content during the Family Hour (8-9:00 p.m. ET/PT), and every network but the WB and UPN has shown improvement during the second hour of prime time (9-10:00 p.m. ET/PT). 

Major Findings:


Sexual content on ABC decreased by 19% between 1998 and 2000, and by 56% from 2000 to 2002. Overall, sexual content on ABC was reduced by 64% between 1998 and 2002.

Sexual content during the Family Hour on ABC is down 67% from 1998, with a 60% decrease since 2000 alone.

ABC has also shown a 75% decrease in sexual content during the second hour of prime time since 2000.

ABC was also the only network to show a decrease in sexual content during the last hour of prime time (10-11:00 p.m. ET/PT). Such material is 41% less frequent now on ABC than it was in 1998.

In 1998, ABC was responsible for 20% of all sexual content on television during the Family Hour, 21% of all sexual content during the second hour of prime time, and 47% of all sexual content during the third hour of prime time. By 2002, ABC was responsible for only 7% of all of the sexual content on TV during the Family Hour, 7% of all sexual content on TV during the second hour of prime time, and 10% of all the sexual content on TV during the third hour of prime time.

Sexual content on Fox decreased by 51% between 1998 and 2000, and by 10% from 2000 to 2002. Overall, Fox has reduced sexual content by 56% since 1998.

Sexual content during the Family Hour on Fox is down 48% since 1998.

Fox has shown a 79% decrease in sexual content during the second hour of prime time since 1998, and a 75% decrease in the past two years alone.

In 1998, Fox was responsible for 35% of all of the sexual content on television during the Family Hour, and 17% of all of the sexual content on television during the second hour of prime time. By 2002, Fox contributed 25% of all of the sexual content on television during the Family Hour and 5% of all the sexual content on television during the second hour of prime time.

On CBS there has been a 6% decrease in sexual content during the Family Hour since 1998, and a 39% decrease in sexual content in the second hour of prime time since 1998. While not a significant drop, CBS started out with the second-lowest overall per-hour rate of sexual content of all of the broadcast networks (2.44 instances per hour). The WB had the fewest (2 instances per hour). In 2002, CBS still had the second-lowest per-hour rate of sexual content (with 2.81 instances per hour). Only ABC had a lower frequency of sexual content in 2002 (2.39 instances per hour).

Sexual content on CBS increased by 75% during the 10:00 p.m. ET/PT hour, offsetting the improvements made by CBS in the earlier hours of prime time in terms of overall numbers. In 1998, CBS was responsible for 28% of all sexual content on television during that time slot. By 2002, CBS was responsible for 40% of all sexual content on television during that time slot.

NBC's Family Hour has improved over the past two years by 34%.
NBC has reduced sexual content during the second hour of prime time by 37% in the past two years.

In 2000, NBC was airing 31.9% more sexual content during the 10:00 p.m. time slot than it did in 1998. In 2002, sexual content during that time slot was up an additional 171%.


Sexual content during the Family Hour on UPN is down 13% from 1998.
o The WB and UPN were the only networks to show no improvement during the second hour of prime time (9-10:00 p.m. ET/PT). Sexual content increased by 50% during that time slot on UPN and by 13% on the WB since 2000.


Although the WB showed some improvement during the Family Hour between 1998 and 2000 (sexual content was down by 36%), such content was 88% more frequent in 2002 than in 1998.

The WB was one of the cleanest networks in 1998, contributing only 9% of all the sexual content on TV during the Family Hour. In 2002, the WB was responsible for 21% of all the sexual content on television during the Family Hour.

The WB contributed 5% of all the sexual content on television during the second hour of prime time. In 2002, the WB was responsible for 31% of all of the sexual content on TV during that time slot.

Sexual content is down by 9% across all the broadcast networks during the Family Hour since 1998, and by 12% across all the broadcast networks during the second hour of prime time.

Only three of the broadcast networks, ABC, CBS, and NBC schedule programming for the 10:00 hour (ET/PT). Of those three, sexual content was down only on ABC. Although sexual content was up on CBS and NBC, the networks can be credited for saving their worst content for the latest hour of prime time, the hour when the least number of children are watching television.
Qualitative Results

The quantitative improvements are offset by some coarsening of content. During the Family Hour in 1998, 84% of all sexual content fell into the category of "innuendo." In 2002, 62% of all sexual content was sexual innuendo, and other types of sexual content became more common, including anatomical/genital references (13%), homosexual references (5%), and references to prostitution (4%).

Innuendo accounted for 85% of all sexual content during the second hour of prime time in 1998. By 2002 innuendo accounted for only 47% of sexual content. In 1998, non-marital sex, references to prostitution, transvestitism, adultery, nudity and pornography accounted for less than 3% of all sexual content. In 2002, such material accounted for 26% of all sexual content. In addition, references to masturbation, strippers and oral sex accounted for an additional 8%.

IV. Examples


Examples from 8 9:00 p.m. ET/PT Time Slot

Clueless -- 11/17/98 8:30 p.m. UPN

Murray: Only Amber could suck the fun out of breasts.

The King of Queens -- 11/9/98 8:30 p.m. CBS

Carrie to Doug: "Come on, I do things you wanna do."

Doug: "Oh yeah? Like what?"

Carrie: "Like sex."

Doug: "Oh come on, like you don't enjoy the gravy train, come on."

Dawson's Creek -- 11/18/98 8:00 p.m. WB

Pacey: "That's not fair Andie, you're judging me and you don't even know the circumstances."...

Andie: "Why would you do it...?"

P: "Sex."

A: "Oh, so there were no feeling involved."

P: "Of course there were feelings involved."...

A: "You're not like that."

P: "Of course I'm like that.  I'm a sexual creature and so are you.  Why do you think we talk about it so much..."

A: "That's different, that's completely innocent"

P: "No it's not, the test was about sex, and sex is never innocent.  It's intense, it's passionate, and sometimes it can be life altering, but it's never innocent..."

Melrose Place -- 11/16/98 8:00 p.m. FOX

Ryan follows Lexy into the rest room.

Lexy instructs him to lock the door.

Ryan tells her not to embarrass him again.

Lexy: "Embarrass you, honey you loved it, that's why you're here.  You're back for some more."

Ryan: "Is sex all that matters to you Lexy?"

Lexy: "No, there's always love, and I love having sex with you, now take off your clothes."

Ryan: "No.  You take off my clothes."

Lexy: "Alright honey, that's more like it.  How do you want it, slow or fast."

Ryan: "Fast."

She rips open his shirt, and they begin kissing passionately, he sits her up on the counter with her legs straddling his waist.

Ryan: "What was I thinking."

Lexy: "The question is what were you thinking with?"

Dharma and Greg -- 11/11/98 8:00 p.m. ABC

A boy at the homecoming dance asks Dharma: "Are you a hooker?"  Then he asks her to dance.

Dharma: "Sure? You ever dance with a man before.

Examples from 9-10:00 p.m. ET/PT Time Slot

Diresta -- 11/9/98 9:30 p.m. UPN

Diresta; "How come you never stay awake when the general is at attention?"

Kate: "Because two minutes later the general is at ease."

Becker -- 11/16/98 9:30 p.m. CBS

Reggie: "I'm saying I wouldn't do it in the kitchen with all the food, that's disgusting."

Jake: "You think making it in the kitchen's weird? Try Grant's Tomb."

Reggie: "You did it on Grant's Tomb?"

Jake: "Well not on Grant's Tomb. I'm not gonna do it on top of somebody's resting place. We got naked and fooled around in the little park down there..."

Another customer chimes in: "I can do you one better than that. How 'bout the torch of the Statue of Liberty? I made love to my new girlfriend up there..."

Reggie: "Having sex in public places is very exciting. And the fear of getting caught adds that real erotic kick..."

Becker: "...Look, I did not come here to talk about sex. My most interesting place is none of your business. What the hell's going on today? ...Maybe I've taken a woman to Mt. Rushmore and done it up Lincoln's nose. But you're never gonna find out because I keep those things to myself."

Customer: "I say he's horny as a toad."

Becker: "Shut up will ya?"

Unhappily Ever After -- 11/15/98 9:00 p.m. WB

Jack: "Oh, I want my Cinemax, breast theater."

Ally McBeal -- 11/16/98 9:00 p.m. FOX

Nell: "That could be true, but these girls do make that money with their bodies."

Ling: "They make it by teasing men with something they'll never get their hands on.  That goes to the very essence of a woman... Sex is a weapon.  We all use it.  We tease, we tantalize, we withhold it, something we do in almost every walk of life, be it marriage, business.  God gave us that advantage by giving men the dumb stick..."

Nell: "The dumb stick?"

Ling: "The penis.  They've all got them."

The lawyer for the other side: "So as a woman you see nothing wrong with putting half naked girls in the ring, rubbing mud on their breasts for the sole purpose of titillating men... Nothing at all."

The Drew Carey Show -- 11/11/98 9:00 p.m. ABC

Mimi: "You like what I did with your car?"

Drew: "Yeah.  It looks nothing like a tiny, German-made whore house."

Drew tells Mimi: "When I first got the car I had a date, and we kind of christened it."

Mimi: "Man, one of three times in your whole life, and it had to be in my car?"

Mimi: "...You couldn't have had sex in here because there's no giant ass prints on the windshield."

Examples from 1011:00 p.m. ET/PT Time Slot

Nash Bridges -- 11/6/98 10:00 p.m. CBS

A scene from the swingers club is shown. Couples are in various stages of undress kissing and they are moaning. The criminal couple is shown with an internal affairs agent, they are both kissing her on the arms and cheek. The woman suggests, "Why don't you kiss somebody first that you're more familiar with."

NYPD Blue -- 11/10/98 10:00 p.m. ABC

Jimmy observes that the DOA's pants are down.

Greg suggests that he might have been "Taking a leak in the bushes."

Andy: "Yeah, that'd be the sole purpose anybody'd take their pants down in the park, Medavoy.  He's got defensive cuts on his hands.  No wallet." 


Examples from 89:00 p.m. ET/PT Time Slot

That's Life -- 11/4/00 8:00 p.m. CBS

Jackie: "You miss him having sex with you."

Lydia: "What are you talking about?  It has nothing to do with that."

Candy: "Lydia, you've been living like a nun the past few months."

Lydia: "Exactly, I haven't even been thinking about sex."

Candy: "How long did you think that was going to last?"

Jackie: "Lyd, look, it's the subconscious or something's way of protecting you.  If you thought about sex every time you broke up with somebody, you'd never end a relationship."

Candy: "That's why I monkey bar.  Don't let go of the last one, until I've got a new one."

Buffy the Vampire Slayer -- 11/7/00 8:00 p.m. WB

Harmony and Spike are shown during sex.  They are both in bed, and he is on top of her.  She is groaning.

Boston Public -- 11/13/00 8:00 p.m. FOX

Lauren is coming down the steps and she looks out a window.  She sees a boy and a girl in the hallway of the school.  The boy's pants are down and the girl has just starting standing up from kneeling before him, apparently, she just performed oral sex on him.  The students see that Lauren saw them, so the boy pulls up his pants and they run off. It is later revealed that the girl has traded oral sex for the boys support in the upcoming student election.

Examples from 910:00 p.m. ET/PT Time Slot

Will and Grace -- 11/9/00 9:00 p.m. NBC

Grace: "I always thought of myself as a little kinky."

Will: "It's okay, I've never been in a three way."

Grace: "Yeah, but you're gay.  You have the kinky built in."

Will: "Sure, that's why I joined."

Karen: "How was the sexcapade?  Were you the ham in a Philharmonic Sandwich?  Did you roll over Beethoven?"

Grace: "It was fantastic.  There were so many arms and legs everywhere, Hindus where praying to us."

Angel 11/7/00 9:00 p.m. WB

Virginia's father to Wesley: "She's impure?  She's not a virgin?"

He looks at Wesley and says, "You."

Gunn: "Wooo...that's what 'impure' meant."

Cordelia: "She slept with him?"

Father: "You were supposed to be Angel, this wouldn't have happened.  That's why I hired him.  He's a eunuch."

Cordelia: "You slept with her?"

Angel: "A eunuch?"

Wesley: "Things happens, two young people, danger."

Virginia: "What are you talking about?"

Father: "She was a virgin before you got here."

Virgina: "I was not a virgin."

Father: "What?"

Wesley: "Oh, thank goodness."

Gunn: "I could have told you she wasn't no virgin."

Angel: "Not a eunuch."

Cordelia: "One day as Angel, one day, and he's getting some."

Father: "What?  How could you?  I kept you away from all men."

Angel: "The curse isn't even all that clear."

Virginia: "Daddy, you remember that chauffer from when I was sixteen, and the one at eighteen, I haven't been a virgin for a very long time.  I even dated Rick."

Ally McBeal -- 11/6/00 9:00 p.m. FOX

Fish: "It's Mark, I like Mark, as I'm sure you do.  I want him to be happy.  He's dating a woman.  She's got so many nice qualities.  One of them is a penis.  Ally, are you there?"

Ally: "Did you just say she has a penis?"

Fish: "Yes, that's not my problem, though it's certainly his.  My conflict is, should I tell.  I learned this through a privileged communication and even though privilege runs to the other lawyers in this firm, she forbade me from telling him.  Ally, he's falling in love with her, I can see it.  Don't I have some duty, shouldn't I slip him a note, mayday, something?"

Ally: "The woman Mark is dating has a penis."

Fish: "It's not right."

Examples from 1011:00 p.m. ET/PT Time Slot

Nash Bridges -- 11/10/00 10:00 p.m. CBS

A man is having sex in a bed with a woman.  They are under the covers and the bed is making noise.

Woman: "It's perfect, it's perfect."

Examples from 89:00 p.m. ET/PT Time Slot

Buffy the Vampire Slayer 8:00 p.m. 11/12/02 UPN

Dawn is explaining to Buffy her reasoning for laying on train tracks.

Dawn: "...you're older, and hotter, and have sex that's rough, and kill people. I don't have any of that stuff."

Boston Public -- 11/11/02 8:00 p.m. FOX

Henry: Kids are having sex. It's just a fact. And they're not just having it in school or at home when their parents are gone. Kids are also having sex in dangerous places:  that too is a fact. Kids can't go parking safely anymore. OK, there is no romantic point overlooking a lake.

Lipschultz: Why do you need a lake?

Henry: Kids can't make love in the privacy of their homes. And, I mean, your parents object you. And who can afford a hotel room. I mean, seriously, every week you hear on the news about some teenage couple going to the wrong place for privacy and somebody ends up getting hurt. Right?

Marcy: So you offer a room right in the school.

Henry: Which keeps the kids away from playing hooky, by the way, and we clean the sheets and we provide condoms. We certainly promote safer sex.

Marcy: Why don't you tell us where the money goes?

Henry: Teenage AIDS Foundation. So far we've raised 9,000 dollars.

Lipschultz: From naked nude teenage sex?

Henry: Yeah, we grossed over 100 a week.

Marcy: Don't you think this is wrong, Henry? I mean, you're renting out a room for kids to do the nasty.

Henry: I repeat. This room is been used for kids who are already sexually active. In fact, because of the privacy issues, we pretty much only get established couples who know everybody knows they're being intimate with each other. Look, this isn't about promoting promiscuity; this isn't about kids trying to get away with something. This is about kids doing what they are doing anyway, in a cleaner, safer environment.

Examples from 910:00 p.m. ET/PT Time Slot

Hidden Hills -- 11/12/02 9:30 NBC

Doug and Janine lie in bed kissing and giggling. Doug jumps out of bed and runs away.

Doug: "What the hell was that?"

Janine: "Sara said it was called the Shocker."

Angel -- 11/10/02 9:00 WB

Lorne: "Okay, first of all, she didn't say 'may your words please the gods,' so much as 'may you orally please the gods,' which is a slight...inflection's very crucial in our ...god bless her, it's always nice to hear the mother tongue...as long as it's not from my mother."

Examples from 10 11:00 p.m. ET/PT Time Slot

NYPD Blue -- 11/12/02 10:00 p.m. ABC

A dead prostitute's body is found. Her breasts are shown.

V. Conclusion

To really understand the significance of these findings, we must put this study in perspective.  There is unquestionably still more sexual content on television now than there was fourteen years ago.  The PTC's 2000 study, What a Difference a Decade Makes showed a 300% increase in sexual references between 1989 and 1999, and at that time, it seemed as if things would only continue to get worse with each passing year. 

The fact that this study shows measurably less sex on television -- particularly during the first two hours of prime time -- is not only encouraging, it shatters conventional wisdom about the entertainment industry. Sex doesn't necessarily sell after all.

Even though there have been significant improvements on the major broadcast networks, the struggling weblets (UPN and the WB) are trying, with little success, to attract viewers by ratcheting up the sexual content. Even though sexual content is less frequent on the major broadcast networks, the sexual content that remains is becoming coarser, and more explicit. The last hour of prime time has become a testing ground for envelope-pushing content.

Although there is reason to be encouraged by the results of this study, there is still ample room for improvement.

Statistical Appendix | Executive Summary  | Bozell Statement  | Senator Brownback Press Release




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