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Press Release

May 8, 1997

The 'Family Hour':
No Place for Your Kids

By Thomas Johnson

I. Introduction

For decades, virtually all television shows airing between 8 and 9 p.m. Eastern and Pacific time (7-8 p.m. Central and Mountain time) were suitable for children. When exceptions to this rule became fairly common in the mid-1970s, the networks, in response to prodding from Congress and the Federal Communications Commission, formally agreed to make the first hour of prime time a "family hour," to set it aside for all-ages programming. The Writers Guild of America and other groups went to court to challenge the restriction on First Amendment and antitrust grounds, and won: the official family hour was struck down in 1976. Nonetheless, the networks continued to abide by its spirit, and in the succeeding decade and a half the 8-to-9 time slot was home to such wholesome series as Happy Days and The Cosby Show.

However, in recent years programs containing sexual material and vulgar language have invaded this time slot in unprecedented volume, rendering the "family hour" almost obsolete. A February 1996 Media Research Center study which analyzed shows from a four-week period in the fall of 1995 found 72 obscenities in 117 hours of 8-to-9 p.m. programming. Moreover, portrayals of sex outside of marriage -- premarital, extramarital, and homosexual -- outnumbered those of sex within it by a ratio of 8 to 1.

Parental outrage over this decline in standards provoked a national debate over the quality of prime time fare. Of greatest concern to all parties was the impact of offensive programming on youngsters. Public policy organizations, elected officials, and even some TV executives recognized that the raunch in the 8 p.m. hour had gotten out of hand.

The industry responded not by changing program content, but by implementing, on January 1, 1997, an age-based parental-guidance ratings system which quickly came under fire from all sides. A Parents Television Council study released in February of this year examined two weeks' of January shows and concluded that the system was so contradictory and inconsistent as to be meaningless. For example, researchers found that more than half of the PG-rated programs contained obscene language or sexual material, even though that rating supposedly indicates a program is appropriate for children as young as ten.

What follows is a sequel to the February 1996 study which reviews four weeks of family-hour shows; it also scrutinizes the performance of the ratings system, as the February 1997 report did. The new study documents that the so-called family hour, once a safe haven for viewers of all ages, may now be the most dangerous time slot for families, a time slot which parents, recalling the favorite TV series of their childhood, may still believe is family-oriented. In fact, though, today's 8-to-9 viewer is inundated with filthy language, sexual innuendo, and perverse storylines.

Nielsen figures indicate that on an average night, the broadcast networks have 13.1 million prime time viewers age 17 and under. Viewership among the young is especially high before 9 o'clock. According to the ratings for the week of April 14-20, eight of the ten most popular shows among 2-to-5-year-olds, and seven of the ten most watched by 6-to-11-year-olds, aired in the family hour. In short, an awful lot of children are regularly exposed to an awful lot of garbage.

II. Study Parameters

We examined four weeks (January 30 through February 26) of family-hour programming on the broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC, UPN, and WB). This was a sweeps period, in which local advertising rates are set. Consequently, networks, in order to boost audience ratings for their affiliates, air almost no reruns during this time; new series episodes and special programs dominate the schedule. The study period comprised 93 hours and 144 programs. Only programming made for television was evaluated. Two two-hour programs -- the February 3 Melrose Place (Fox) and the February 24 Savannah (WB) -- broadcast from 8 to 10 p.m. were treated as if they aired entirely within the "family hour."

Our main concerns were vulgar language (i.e., swearing) and sexual material. The second category comprises only references to, or depictions of, sexual intercourse. Innuendo was not quantified, but it was undeniably frequent. An especially bawdy example, from the February 5, PG-rated Pearl (CBS), illustrates the type of humor children can hear in sit-coms:

College professor: "I have been involved with the finest balls [in the sense of a social dance] this campus has to offer. Some of them have been quite large."

Dean: "You were involved with the president's balls?"

Professor: "Yes, I handled them both."

There was not enough violence to warrant a separate statistical category, but we kept track of violent depictions and describe them where germane.

III. Results


  • A total of 82 obscenities aired, a rate of 0.88 per hour. The fall '95 figure was 0.62 per hour.

  • "Ass" (29 times) was the most-often-used curse word. Runners-up: "bastard" (13) and various euphemistic and bleeped forms of the f-word (10). The top three in '95: "ass" (29), "bitch" (13), and "bastard" (10).

  • Fox was easily the most foulmouthed network, with 2.06 obscenities per hour. A distant second was NBC, at 0.91. Worst in '95: NBC, with 1.26.

  • Exactly one-third -- 48 -- of the programs contained obscenities.

  • There were 60 references to sexual intercourse, a ratio of 0.65 per hour. Thirty-two of those references were to premarital sex; twelve were to marital sex; eleven to extramarital sex. (In five instances, marital status was unclear.) The overall sex-outside-marriage to sex-within-marriage ratio was 3.6 to 1. The '95 ratio was 8 to 1.

  • Fox also was the most sexually obsessed network, with 1.06 references per hour. CBS (0.82) and NBC (0.67) were second and third. Fox led in '95 with 0.88.

  • Almost 31 percent -- 44 -- of the programs contained at least one reference to sexual intercourse.

  • The most family-friendly full-time network, in terms of airing the least foul language and fewest sexual references, was ABC. ABC and CBS were the cleanest in '95.

  • Thirty-two percent of program hours were rated G; 59 percent were rated PG; 9 percent were rated TV-14. In other words, even by the permissive standards of the networks -- which rate their own shows-- only a third of family-hour programming was "suitable for all ages," as the definition of the G rating states.

  • Of the 86 family-hour shows rated PG -- meaning they're supposedly appropriate for everyone except young children -- 31 (36 percent) contained sexual references, and 42 (49 percent) included obscenities.

  • Only WB aired more G than PG programming.

  • No made-for-TV program was rated TV-M, signifying "specifically designed to be viewed by adults."

    The Networks


Totals: 12.5 hours, 7 obscenities (0.56/hour),
4 sexual references (0.32/hour)
20 shows, 4 (20 percent) with obscenities, 3
(15 percent) with sexual references

TV-G (6 shows, 0 with obscenities, 0 with sex)

TV-PG (13 shows, 4 with obscenities, 2 with sex)

TV-14 (1 show, 0 with obscenities, 1 with sex)

Language: More than two-thirds of ABC's curse words were found on Roseanne. During the February 18 episode, the title character says of her estranged husband, Dan, "That bastard! I will certainly not calm down! He can just go [bleeped, but clearly the f-word] himself!" She utters two more bleeped words with her back to the camera. The previous week, Roseanne comments, "I'm gonna be squeezing my ass into size 10 pants." Both episodes were rated PG.

The other obscenities were found on the February 13 High Incident ("Take me to this s.o.b.") and the February 26 Grace Under Fire ("Lucky bastard"), also PG shows.

Sex: Two references to premarital sex on the February 12 Grace Under Fire, and one on the February 19 installment of the same show; both episodes were rated PG. There was also one miscellaneous reference on the January 30 High Incident (TV-14), when a burglar tells the police that he and his fellow crooks used to break into houses and hold orgies.

High Incident can be violent at times. The January 30 episode, which included a shootout and several bloody corpses, was the only TV-14 ABC show in the study period.


Totals: 22 hours, 13 obscenities (0.59/hour), 18 sexual references (0.82/hour)
31 shows, 10 (32 percent) with obscenities, 13 (42 percent) with sexual references

TV-G (13 shows, 1 with obscenities, 2 with sex)

TV-PG (18 shows, 9 with obscenities, 11 with sex)

Language: One G-rated show, Everybody Loves Raymond, contained an obscenity on February 7: Raymond calls the child who gave Raymond's daughter a valentine a "cheap bastard."

CBS had three of the five uses of "piss" in the study; two were found on PG-rated installments of Ink. On February 3, Kate states that she still has feelings for her ex, "and that is why I'm so pissed off." The next week, a woman in an office says, "It really scared...us the day the milkman showed up all pissed off."

PG episodes with more than one obscenity were the January 30 Diagnosis Murder ("bastard," "frickin'"), the February 19 Pearl ("sucks," "frickin'"), and the February 21 Dave's World ("ass," "screw").

Sex: All three episodes of Everybody Loves Raymond, which centers on a couple in their mid-thirties and their children, included sexual references. The PG-rated January 31 episode concerns Raymond's old car, of which he has fond memories inasmuch as he lost his virginity in it during high school. Raymond's wife, Debbie, wants him to sell the car because she wasn't the woman her husband lost his virginity to, but after they make love in the car she feels better about his keeping it.

A continuing plot line on Ink is the lingering attraction between Kate and Mike, a divorced couple. In the PG-rated February 3 installment, they visit a therapist, and during the session agree that sleeping together would dissipate the tension between them. "Let's get it over with," Kate says. "Like a flu shot," adds Mike. They go to a hotel. Other PG shows which more than once dealt with sex outside of marriage were Dave's World (January 31 and February 21) and Pearl (February 5 and 12).


Totals: 18 hours, 37 obscenities (2.06/hour), 19 sexual references (1.06/hour)
24 shows, 17 (71 percent) with obscenities, 11 (46 percent) with sexual references

TV-PG (18 shows, 13 with obscenities, 6 with sex)

TV-14 (6 shows, 4 with obscenities, 5 with sex)

Language: Fox far exceeded last year's cursingest network, NBC, which had 1.26 obscenities per hour. Leader of the pack, so to speak, was the two-hour, TV-14 rated February 3 installment of Melrose Place, with six swear words: "son of a bitch" twice, "ass" twice, "bastard," and "bite me."

The next week, Melrose featured two uses of "son of a bitch" and one each of "bastard" and "bitch." (The soap's 14 obscenities in its four episodes exceeded the totals for all other networks except its own, of course, and NBC, which had 15.)

Honors for second-most curse words in a Fox episode go to the PG-rated February 5 Beverly Hills, 90210, which included three uses of "bitch" and two of "bastard." The network's Sunday-night, PG-rated cartoons were by no means obscenity-free: on February 9, The Simpsons contained "freakin'" and "bastard," and "ass" was heard twice on that night's King of the Hill.

Fox led in the use of "ass" (13 to second-place UPN's 7) and "bastard" (6 to CBS's 3) and dominated both "bitch" and "son of a bitch," airing six of the seven uses of the latter and six of the eight uses of the former.

Sex: Melrose Place's 11 portrayals not only equaled NBC's total, but almost matched the figure for ABC, UPN, and WB combined (12). The episodes of February 10 (PG), 17, and 24 (both TV-14) each referred to premarital, extramarital, and -- a nod to traditional morality -- marital sex. Next to Melrose, Beverly Hills, 90210, with four references to premarital sex (three TV-14, one PG), seemed tame.


Totals: 16.5 hours, 15 obscenities (0.91/hour), 11 sexual references (0.67/hour),
30 shows, 12 (40 percent) with obscenities, 9 (30 percent) with sexual references

TV-G (4 shows, 0 with obscenities, 0 with sex)

TV-PG (25 shows, 12 with obscenities, 8 with sex)

TV-14 (1 show, 0 with obscenities, 1 with sex)

Language: The worst offender was 3rd Rock from the Sun (PG) on February 2, with "screwed," "pissing," and "bastard." As did Fox and CBS, NBC aired three euphemistic f-words, two of them on Wings (PG). For example, when Joe's brother Brian is slated for a sandwich commercial on February 5, Joe complains that his own, supporting role in the ad is that of "a freakin' pickle." Chicago Sons (February 5, PG) and Something So Right (February 25, PG) aired the phrase "this sucks."

Sex: Friends has a well-deserved reputation for being the sexiest sitcom on television, but it's being challenged for that title by Chicago Sons, which debuted in January. On February 12, three adult brothers and a female friend fly to the Bahamas for a vacation. Their first night there, the oldest brother sleeps with the owner of the resort where they're staying, and the friend sleeps with an umbrella boy. The next week, that same brother has sex with his estranged wife on top of a kitchen table, and another brother and the female friend take a sex break from his helping her move in with her boyfriend. Both episodes were rated PG.

The Friends weren't exactly celibate. On January 30, Monica sleeps with her fiftyish boyfriend, with whom she'd broken up because she wanted children and he didn't. That episode was rated TV-14, apparently because of a plotline involving a man whose shorts are so baggy that his privates are visible when he sits and spreads his legs. Three weeks later, Ross, believing his relationship with Rachel is over, spends the night with a woman he met in a bar. That episode was rated PG.


Totals: 10 hours, 8 obscenities (0.80/hour), 6 sexual references (0.60/hour)
17 shows, 4 (24 percent) with obscenities, 6 (35 percent) with sexual references

TV-G (7 shows, 1 with obscenities, 3 with sex)

TV-PG (10 shows, 3 with obscenities, 3 with sex)

Language: All but one of the network's obscenities were "ass." The word was used three times on the February 3 Malcolm and Eddie (PG); in one instance, Eddie declared, "Somebody call a garden, 'cause your ass is grass." "Ass" was used twice on the G-rated February 17 In the House. A regular female character says, "You're about to get your ass busted," and "Your ass is mine."

Sex: Three of four In the House episodes (all rated G) contained sexual references. On February 3, a woman tells an ex-boyfriend, "And, for the record, I faked it." The February 17 Malcolm and Eddie (PG) was quite raunchy; over breakfast, Eddie asks a one-night stand, in so many words, how many orgasms she had.


Totals: 14 hours, 2 obscenities (0.14/hour), 2 sexual references (0.14/hour)
22 shows, 1 (5 percent) with obscenities, 2 (9 percent) with sexual refrences.

TV-G (20 shows, 0 with obscenities, 1 with sex)

TV-PG (2 shows, 1 with obscenities, 1 with sex)

Language: The only curse words ("ass," "bitch") were found on the February 24 Savannah (PG), normally a 9 o'clock series which aired a two-hour episode (8-10 p.m.) that night.

Sex: A newly married couple makes love on the aforementioned Savannah, and a fiftyish couple celebrates their anniversary by making love on the G-rated February 23 Steve Harvey Show.

IV. Conclusion

The family-hour picture is, if anything, bleaker than it was in the fall of 1995. Foul language increased dramatically, and even though marital sex makes a better showing than it did in our first family-hour study, it still appears far less often than sex outside of marriage. Moreover, in the first hour of prime time, when the audience skews young, isn't it reasonable to expect that sexual references of any kind would be extremely infrequent? Alas, in today's television, such an expectation is extremely unrealistic.

As for the ratings system, it's often badly misapplied. That UPN's In the House, which generally contains sexual material and obscenities, is consistently rated G is simply disingenuous. It's likewise misleading, and absurd, that sexually obsessed, vulgar sitcoms such as NBC's Chicago Sons and Pearl on CBS are routinely rated PG. On the other hand, the adult-oriented Melrose Place on Fox is usually rated TV-14, appropriately enough, but why is this kind of show on at 8 o'clock, no matter what its rating?

Blame is not equally distributed among the networks. WB has lived up to its reputation as youth-oriented, and ABC provided a great deal of general-audience fare. CBS boasts of its family-friendliness but disappointed because it was only slightly less racy than NBC, which barely even tries to reach the family audience. UPN needs to clean up certain parts of its act, and Fox...well, the numbers speak for themselves.

The powers that be appear willing to consider junking age-based ratings in favor of a content-based system, but as the abundance of raunch detailed above indicates, how or whether to rate its programs is not prime time's biggest problem. The anything-goes mentality is.

The industry wants to have it both ways. It not only wants to appeal to those who enjoy adult content even between 8 and 9, but also to rate shows deceptively, thereby falsely indicating they're appropriate for youngsters. This dual strategy must end. Networks should air family-friendly programs before 9 o'clock; either that, or unambiguously state that the family hour is dead, that they will broadcast adult-oriented shows in that time slot, and that parents in search of appropriate television entertainment for their children will have to resort to cable or videocassettes. We would prefer a return to the traditional family hour, but if prime time goes the other way and chooses to neglect the family audience, it ought to forthrightly acknowledge having made this choice.

Research compiled by Jessica Bearor, Christine
Brookhart, Thomas Johnson, and Alice Lynn O'Steen Kapoyos.

Parents Television Council
Mark Honig, Executive Director
Kerrie Mahan, Administrator

Media Research Center
L. Brent Bozell III, Chairman
Douglas Mills, Executive Director
Brent Baker, Vice President for Research and Publications
Thomas Johnson, Senior Writer, Entertainment Division
Christine Brookhart, Media Analyst, Entertainment Division
Alice Lynn O'Steen Kapoyos, Media Analyst, Entertainment Division
Kathy Ruff, Marketing Director
Carey Evans, Circulation and Membership Manager
Joe Alfonsi, Web Developer
Kristina Sewell, Research Associate
Sherri Pascale, Receptionist
Jessica Bearor, Intern





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