WASHINGTON - Seventy percent of all TV shows include some sexual content, including Desperate Housewives, The O.C., and other shows most popular with teens, according to a report released yesterday.
The report by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that the number of sexual scenes on television has nearly doubled in the last seven years, from an average of 3.2 scenes per hour in 1998 to an average of 5 in 2005. Shows popular with teens have an even higher average number of sexual scenes - 6.7 per hour.
In addition, more TV characters are having sex with strangers, the report found.
Meanwhile, most shows give short shrift to "safe sex" messages, the report found. Among shows with sexual content, 14 percent include at least some reference to "safe sex," but most of these messages are minor elements in a program, the report indicated.
And, of the 20 most highly rated shows for teen viewers, only 10 percent of those with sexual content include a reference to sexual risks or responsibilities, according to the survey, which Kaiser has conducted biennially since 1998.
Kaiser officials emphasized that they weren't taking a stand on the issue, just offering data to help guide policymakers and parents.
"Given how high the stakes are, the messages TV sends teens about sex are important," said Vicky Rideout, the Kaiser Family Foundation vice president in charge of the study. "Television has the power to bring issues of sexual risk and responsibility to life in a way that no sex-ed class or public health brochure really can."
Sen. Barack Obama (D., Ill.), who kicked off a panel discussion of the report by teen health experts, policymakers, and broadcasters, said the report makes clear that mass media, especially television, is making it harder for parents and "contributing to a coarsening of our culture."
Sounding a major theme of the panel discussion, Mr. Obama stressed that parents have a responsibility to limit their children's television viewing, and to watch more programming with their children to know what they're watching.
But broadcasters also have a responsibility to give parents more "tools," such as improving the TV ratings system and ensuring that adult-oriented program promotions aren't aired during family shows, Mr. Obama added.
"If broadcasters don't do it, Congress will," he warned. "There's no reason that the industry can't make it as easy to find family friendly entertainment as it is to program TiVo."
Tony Vinciquerra, president and CEO of Fox Networks Group, said his company has worked to improve the way TV ratings are displayed and to ensure that adult-oriented promotions aren't aired during family shows. He also noted that parents already have the ability to block shows they don't want their children to watch.
But Mr. Vinciquerra acknowledged that his company, and other broadcast companies, haven't done a good job of educating parents or policymakers.
"We are very aware that media has an impact on children. But parental controls are vastly superior to government controls," he argued.
Rebecca Collins, a behavioral scientist with the RAND Corp., said studies by her organization show a clear connection between TV sexual content and teen behavior.
Teens who watched numerous shows with sexual content were twice as likely to initiate sexual intercourse over the subsequent year than those who saw the least amount of sexual content, according to the RAND study.
"It seemed to age kids by at least a couple of years in their sexual behavior," Ms. Collins added.
But Sarah Brown, director of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, contended that "there isn't any one factor" that contributes to teens' sexual behaviors.
Media "absolutely is important, but it's not the only thing," Ms. Brown said. "It's not a straight shot that what goes on in the media leads to teen sexual behavior."
Ms. Rideout contended that "parents are up against a very large marketing juggernaut. We do need to recognize that parents have a responsibility, but at the same time, a lot of money is being spent to create a demand" for shows with sexual content.
Convincing parents to take more responsibility can be difficult, however, because many have no idea how sexually active their teens are or even what they are watching, Ms. Brown said. "As a general matter, they are clueless about the cultural lives of their children."
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