Intimacy and Marriage: A Network Mismatch, Study Says

By Lisa de Moraes
Thursday, August 7, 2008

Your child is three times as likely to hear about sex with pets, corpses or someone else's wife on prime-time broadcast TV as to see a happily married couple having a roll in the hay, according to a new study by one of the self-appointed television watchdog groups.

I am clearly not watching the right TV shows.

"Everybody's having sex on TV except for husbands and wives," complained Parents Television Council President Tim Winter in re his group's latest study, "Happily Never After: How Hollywood Favors Adultery and Promiscuity Over Marital Intimacy on Prime Time Broadcast Television."

Across the broadcast networks, references to adultery outnumbered references to conjugal sex by a 2-to-1 margin, the study said.

And when marriage is portrayed, it is almost always negative.

"Today's prime-time television programming is not merely indifferent to the institution of marriage and the stabilizing role it plays in our society, it seems to be actively seeking to undermine marriage by consistently painting it in a negative light," PTC concluded in the study, which features on its cover a little blond-haired, blue-eyed, ruby-lipped, apple-cheeked, pearl-necklaced bride doll and, way off in the background, her handsome boy-doll groom in white tie, tails and spongebag trousers.

Even more troubling, the study says, is TV's recent obsession with "outré sexual expression." Which apparently includes threesomes, partner-swapping, pedophilia, necrophilia, bestiality and sex with prostitutes, not to mention strippers, masturbation, pornography, sex toys and something called "kinky or fetishistic behaviors," which we think bears further looking into.

And again, we're not talking MTV here, folks -- just broadcast TV.

ABC had the most references to marital sex, but many of the references were negative, while references to non-marital sex were almost all positive or neutral.

Interestingly, the PTC lumped transsexuals in with bestiality and necrophilia when looking at NBC, as in: "References to incest, pedophilia, partner swapping, prostitution, threesomes, transsexuals/transvestites, bestiality, and necrophilia combined outnumbered references to sex in marriage on NBC by a ratio of 27:1." And yet, no one's watching NBC. Go figure.

NBC, in fact, aired as many depictions of adults having sex with minors as scenes implying or depicting sex between married partners, PTC said.

Fox had only one reference to marital sex in 24.5 hours of programming, with 18 references to non-marital sex and five to adultery.

It all started about a year ago, Winter told The Reporters Who Cover Sex on TV during a phone conference call, when PTC's staff of six full-time TV watchers held one of their twice-weekly meetings to discuss their findings. One of them joked to the others, "Gosh, everybody is having sex on TV except for married couples."

A new PTC study was born, joining the pantheon of PTC studies with such titles as "Dying to Entertain: Violence on Prime Time Broadcast Television 1998-2006," "The Rap on Rap" and, of course, "Wolves in Sheep's Clothing: A Content Analysis of Children's Television."

After four weeks of intensive prime-time broadcast-TV viewing at the start of the last season -- Sept. 23 through Oct. 22, 2007 -- "we were confirmed in what that initial gut reaction was," Winter said. "Everybody is having sex on TV except for husbands and wives."

Speaking of NBC, Winter spoke nostalgically about the 1980s Steven Bochco NBC drama "Hill Street Blues," in which nearly every episode ended with Capt. Frank Furillo and Joyce Davenport -- a married couple -- in bed together.

"Very intimate moment, talking, and it was a very powerful portion of the show, showing the intimacy of the husband and wife," he said. "It seems that that scene has all but disappeared . . . on prime-time broadcast TV today. And it's disappointing. It's unfortunate."

It's also surprising, at least for the Veteran Reporters Who Cover Sex on TV, who remember how knicker-knotted some self-appointed TV watchdoggers got over the "Hill Street Blues" bedroom scenes and other bedroom scenes with married couples when those were all the rage -- "McMillan & Wife," that cute "Mad About You" couple who loved each other so much they'd have sex in the kitchen while their dinner guests wondered what had become of the first course, etc.

Winter said he hopes the study "is something that can be used as a lever for more public scrutiny on what the networks are doing, to perhaps step back and ask a better question about where did intimacy go in the context of a husband and wife."

The networks decided they'd rather not comment.

"Happily Never After" is chock-full of examples for your reading pleasure of non-conjugal sexual shenanigans. Look, here's the "Dirty Sexy Money" episode in which Patrick Darling, married candidate for the U.S. Senate, is shown in bed with his transsexual girlfriend. And there are the horny doctors of "Grey's Anatomy," Meredith and Derek, in bed together, discussing the rules of break-up sex. Here's an episode of "30 Rock" in which a network honcho explains the hit reality series "MIL[WaPo letter of shame] Island" is about "25 super-hot moms, 50 eighth-grade boys -- no rules." (Of course, that "30 Rock" episode was savaging both reality competition series and the spate of reality shows featuring "cougars" looking to attract younger men, but PTC does not distinguish skewering from endorsing in its study.)

Ripped-from-the-headlines stories about high school teachers impregnated by male students appear to have been a favorite with TV writers at the start of last season; PTC includes one from "Law & Order: SVU" and another from "ER."

But, our personal fave is the Sept. 24 episode of NBC's "Journeyman," in which time-traveling journalist Dan has traveled back to a time when his now-presumed-dead wife, Olivia, was still, um, alive:

Olivia comes home and begins to change clothes. She is shown in her underwear. Dan and Olivia lie down on the bed and begin to kiss. Dan, who travels through time, notices his wedding band, apparently considering the fact that he is married to another woman in the future.

Parents Television Council has it filed under "Infidelity/Adultery."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company