Surprise! Sex and violence on TV declines - U.S. study
3/21/2002

Washington, - An examination of television content shows steep declines in the portrayals of sex and violence on the small screen over the last couple of years, surprising the media watchdog group that conducted it reports the Los Angeles Times.

The Center for Media and Public Affairs, a Washington-based nonpartisan group, found that sexual material fell by 29% and serious violence by 17% from the 1998-99 TV season to the 2000-01 cycle.

The group first analyzed the content of television programs and feature movies in 1998 and 1999 to establish a baseline for violent and sexual material. The most recent findings have attracted the attention of some of Capitol Hill's most forceful critics of Hollywood, Sens. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) and Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.).

The drop in material deemed "objectionable" by critics came during a span of intense political pressure on Hollywood to do more to shield children from violent and vulgar material. Still, the study points out that a similar analysis of feature films shows virtually no change.

Network executives said they doubted that political pressure had brought about the reductions or played a direct role in programming decisions. They conceded that there has been heightened sensitivity to issues of taste since lawmakers acted to give parents more information about programs and the ability to block questionable shows.

The study attributes the decline to shows with high levels of sex or violence going off the air and to thematic changes in popular programs. NBC's blockbuster hit "Friends," for example, went from being tied for the top slot for most sexual material to falling out of the top 10 completely.

The reason for the more family-friendly grade?

The show dropped a running gag about an "ugly naked guy" the characters could see in an apartment across the street and generated less "on-screen heat" between the Monica and Chandler characters, according to the researchers.

NBC, despite a 56% decrease in sexual material, still was rated the "raunchiest" on broadcast television. The study defines sexual material as "behavioral or verbal content" linked to "pleasurable feelings deriving from sexual desires or instincts."

To count incidents of violence and sex, analysts reviewed full episodes of 284 shows, the equivalent of two weeks of fictional programming on television, using randomly selected dates. Two episodes of each show chosen--in broadcast, cable and syndicated venues--were viewed.

Overall violent content declined less than sexual material. The disappearance of a handful of programs accounted for much of the drop. The most violent show on television in 2000-01, according to the study's methodology, was "Xena: Warrior Princess," a syndicated fantasy program no longer in production.

Television executives said they continue to have concerns about the methodology used in studies that rate content. They point out that context is rarely considered in the analysis.

At CBS, given the worst score among major networks for violence, spokesman Chris Ender said a few programs have "artificially inflated" their ranking.

Ender said the network has felt for years that it is unfair to consider a program such as "Walker, Texas Ranger"--the only non-syndicated show to make the top five for violence--in the same vein as shows that portray gratuitous violence. The long-running program is about a lawman tracking down criminals.

CBS, the network with the fewest sex-oriented shows, registered even less sexual material this time. But Ender, who has not yet reviewed the study, said it would be difficult to embrace findings that gave the network credit for reducing sexual content based largely on "The Nanny" going off the air.

"We had that program on at 8 p.m. and were very comfortable with it at that hour," he said. "It comes down to methodology again. We thought 'The Nanny' was a family show and we think we do a pretty good job of policing ourselves in these areas."

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