To the chagrin of certain advertisers, including Procter & Gamble, a "Sex on TV" study has found that the number of TV programs showing some form of sexual content has increased from about half of all shows during the 1997/1998 season to two thirds in 1999/2000.
The research, conducted by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation (a non-profit health advocacy organization not associated with Kaiser Permanente), also found that sexual intercourse is depicted or strongly implied in 10% of all shows, a climb from 7% during the 1997/1998 season. Two years ago, 3% of all television characters involved in intercourse were teens; that figure is now 9%.
"At Procter & Gamble, as with most advertisers, we have guidelines as far as what we will and won't sponsor. The guidelines say that we don't want to associate with excessive or gratuitous sex," said P&G's global marketing officer Robert Wehling in response to the study's findings, billed as the largest ever look at sexual content (including talked about behaviors and actual actions) on TV. "And it's getting harder and harder and harder to tell which shows we will be in."
Wehling admitted, during a panel discussion in Los Angeles, that if the trend continues towards more sexually explicit material on TV, advertisers will start placing their spots on alternative media, like the Internet and magazines. But he doesn't condemn sex on TV period. He said that he approved of the "responsible" sexual content in WB's Gilmore Girls (which P&G helped develop through its family-friendly programming development fund) but strongly opposed Fox's Temptation Island.
"I'm not saying we're right. They have the right to put the show on the air. But we have the right to put our commercials where we want."
Beyond business concerns over TV and sex, the Kaiser Foundation found positive news in the fact that programs showing teen characters in sexual situations are more likely than other shows to include references to risks and responsibilities of sex. It showed that 10% of TV shows in general make a passing reference to safe sex, compared to 17% of shows with sexual content involving teens.
- Susanne Ault