WASHINGTON - Television these days is loaded with sex, sex, sex - double the number of sex scenes aired seven years ago, says a study out Wednesday. And the number of shows that include "safer sex" messages has leveled off, it said.
There were nearly 3,800 scenes with sexual content spotted in more than 1,100 shows researchers studied, up from about 1,900 such scenes in 1998, the first year of the Kaiser Family Foundation survey.
Vicky Rideout, a vice president at Kaiser, says the number of shows that included a message about the risks and responsibilities of sex is still very small, and has remained flat since 2002.
About 14 percent of the shows with sexual content also had discussions of contraception, waiting to having sex or other "safer sex" messages. While that figure is about the same as it was in the last study, it's still up from 9 percent in 1998, and Rideout says that's encouraging.
Writers and producers are "seeing they can do it in a way that is entertaining, that doesn't cost them anything in the ratings ... and we know from research we've done that it makes a real difference to the kids in the audience," she said.
The study examined a sample of a week's worth of programming on ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, WB, PBS, Lifetime, TNT, USA Network and HBO. Sexual content, as defined in the study, could be anything from discussions about sex to scenes involving everything from kissing to intercourse.
The study found that 70 percent of all shows included some sexual content, averaging about five sex scenes per hour. That's up from about three scenes per hour in 1998, and from nearly 4.5 scenes an hour three years ago.
The proportion of shows with sexual content in prime-time on the major broadcast networks - ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox - also increased, the study said. Nearly eight in 10 network shows, or 77 percent, included sexual content. That's up from 67 percent in 1998 and 71 percent in 2002.
Media watchdog groups say there's way too much sex on television during the hours that kids may be watching.
"Kids who have repeated exposure to sexual content become sexually active at an earlier age. The research is absolutely there," said Tim Winter, executive director of the Parents Television Council.
But an advocacy group funded in part by the entertainment industry says the V-chip and other tools can help parents screen the shows their kids watch.
"Some activists will only see another opportunity to push government as parent, but parents make the best decisions about what is appropriate for their family to watch and have the tools to enforce those decisions," said Jim Dyke, executive director of TV Watch.
Teens watch an average of three hours of TV a day, according to Kaiser.
The examples of sexual content cited in the study ranged from discussions of sex on the WB's "Gilmore Girls" and "Jack & Bobby" to depictions of oral sex on NBC's "Law and Order: Special Victims Unit" and sexual intercourse on Fox's "The O.C."
The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation is a philanthropic group that studies health care, including reproductive and AIDS-related issues. It is not affiliated with the Kaiser medical organization.