Hollywood just doesn't get it

By Linda ChavezReprinted from USA today, 4/17/96

June 1996 – TV and movie industry execs are out of touch. Poll shows sex doesn’t sell.

Sex sells. Hollywood is simply giving Americans what they want. That’s the explanation entertainment executives and media critics have been giving for years to explain why sex saturates movies and TV.

But a new public opinion survey by U.S. News & World Report suggests they’re wrong. Americans are fed up with the smutty fare the networks dish out.

The magazine surveyed a random sample of 1,000 adults in March and reported the results in the April 15 issue. Overwhelmingly respondents reported that they disapproved of what they see on TV.

More than 80% expressed concern about verbal references to sex, nudity, and premarital and extramarital sex on TV. And 75% were worried about portrayals of homosexual activity.

And huge majorities said they believe that television portrayals of sex or sexual references actually affect behavior. Eighty percent said such portrayals contributed to extramarital sex, 83% to casual sex, 90% to young people having sex, and 94% to violence against women.

Are Americans overreacting?  Or is TV really raunchier these days?

The magazine actually surveyed prime-time shows on the four  major broadcast networks for one week. It found that half of all shows contained sexual acts or references to sex.

Another, more comprehensive study by media analysts Robert and Linda Lichter found a sex act or reference occurs once every four minutes on prime-time shows.

And the sexual depictions are anything but responsible. Casual sex is the basic plot line on NBC’s top rated sitcom Friends, about a group of libidinous twenty-somethings always on the make.

Recent episodes have depicted one-night stands, lesbian moms, homosexual marriage (with House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s openly gay sister performing the ceremony) and intergenerational romance.

The latter plot involving the show’s ingenue Monica (Courtney Cox) and
Richard (played by Tom Selleck – who ironically has been active in the traditional values movement) made much of Richard’s quaint lack of sexual experience.

As a divorced man in his 40s, Richard admits he’s slept with only two women, his wife and Monica.

While that makes him practically a freak as a TV character, it probably puts him in the same category as about two-thirds of men his age.

According to the most comprehensive study of Americans’ sexual behavior ever done, the National Health and Social Life Survey conducted in the early ’90s, 67% of men Richard’s age actually married their first sexual partner, and more than 65% of males remain faithful to their spouses while they are married.

But TV reflects neither reality nor viewers’ preferences. What it does reflect is the values of its creators.

Although U.S. News didn’t conduct a scientific survey of entertainment executives, it did mail out a questionnaire to more than 6,000 Hollywood leaders, about 10% of whom responded.

And the gap in attitudes between the TV executives and the public was huge.

In virtually every category, only a minority of the Hollywood elite who responded showed concern about actual sexual activities on TV.

Less than one-third expressed concern about homosexual activity, compared with three-quarters of the public, for example, and half as many industry executives as the general public were upset by TV nudity or seminudity.

Since these executives took the time to respond to the survey in the first place, their responses may actually overstate general Hollywood concerns about sex on TV.

After all, those who don’t think there’s a problem would be least likely to fill out the survey.

So why not just turn off the TV set or change the channel? More and more Americans may be doing just that, which partially explains why the networks are losing audience share.

But that’s not the total answer.

Hollywood isn’t a society unto itself, and the values it helps create shape the world in which all of us live. It’s hard to imagine even Hollywood executives wanting their own children to behave as promiscuously as the characters they create in prime time.