Safe-Sex Images Lag on TV

Television programs contain more depictions of sex than they did two years ago, and only 10 percent of those scenes contain references to safe sex, according to a recent survey.

Two years ago, 56 percent of shows across all dayparts portrayed some type of sexual activity, according to "Sex on TV: Content and Context," a report released Feb. 6 by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. At present, 68 percent of shows feature sex, which the report defines as activity ranging from flirtation and passionate kissing to intercourse.

The study based its findings on a review of 1,114 shows that aired during the last two years. Kaiser surveyed programming on all of the broadcast networks, Home Box Office, Lifetime Television, Turner Network Television and USA Network.

The research was conducted over the last two years by professors and students at the University of California Santa Barbara.

TV producers and executives were invited to the Museum of Television and Radio in Los Angeles for a Webcasted panel discussion on the report's results.

Though morality groups have criticized television for its content, the Kaiser Foundation report focused on sexual content and its possible impact on public health.

Foundation supporters also conducted a secondary study intended to demonstrate the impact of health information packaged alongside sexual content. This study tracked consumer knowledge of the nature of a sexually transmitted disease, human papilloma virus, before and after it was the subject last year of a minor plot line on ER. Understanding of the disease and its effects doubled among those polled after viewers watched the episode, the researchers said.

The greatest percentage of safe-sex messages is in teen-targeted fare, and those mentions were up from the 1997-98 TV season. But they only increased 1 percent to a total of 9 percent, the report said.

Television movies have been most frequently criticized for their sexual content: the study said 89 percent of films on TV contained such scenes. But 84 percent of sitcoms and 80 percent of soap opera episodes also have saucy content, the report said.