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Sex on Television: Do You Know What Your Kids Are Watching?

Aired February 6, 2001 - 1:02 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

NATALIE ALLEN, CNN ANCHOR: Our first story is as close your fingertips: your TV remote control. The largest study ever conducted of sexual content in television concludes that there's been a big increase just over the course of the past three television seasons. The Kaiser Family Foundation says that, while half of all programs had sexual content during the 1997-'98 season, two-thirds of all programs had sexual content during the 1999-2000 season.

The study found that prime-time programs have even more sexual content, but references to safer sex are few and far between.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

VICKY RIDEOUT, KAISER FAMILY FOUNDATION: We actually believe that television has the opportunity to play a positive role in helping young people to make healthier sexual choices. Every year in this country, there are three-quarters-of-a-million teen pregnancies and four million cases of sexually transmitted diseases among teens.

Now, we're not blaming TV for this. But we are saying that young people watch a lot of television. There's obviously a lot of sex on TV. So it's important to think about the messages about sex that television is communicating and for TV to try to play that positive role.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ALLEN: When television was in its infancy, people worried about discussing Lucille Ball's pregnancy and showing Elvis' hips. Those lines were crossed a long time ago, but half-a-century later television is still crossing lines.

And as CNN's Garrick Utley reports, some people wonder where it will end.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "GOOD MORNING AMERICA")

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Here comes the baby!

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GARRICK UTLEY, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): There he was, little Jackson, entering our live television world on ABC's "Good Morning America," the blessed event shown as it happened, as all media compete for our attention by pushing all available emotional buttons: the button of life and death.

This commercial for Toshiba is designed to touch our deepest fears. A man who may be dying relives his life and sees how much of it he has wasted at the copying machine when he could be making copies from his computer.

(on camera): All right, we see this and we know what is happening. With more information flooding over us than we can or care to absorb, those fighting for our attention are upping the ante. They're doing almost anything to "intrude" -- that's the word they use -- into our lives.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, NBC)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: One of the many intrusive technological innovations.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

UTLEY (voice-over): In the very first XFL game this past weekend, intrusiveness, in the form of cameras and attitude, was the star.

GOV. JESSE VENTURA, MINNESOTA: And I love intrusiveness.

UTLEY: Intrusion here is another word for voyeurism: cameras and microphones in the huddles, in the locker rooms, plus the appeal of sex and conflict.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: XFL is basically sitting there saying: You want to see theater? You want to see entertainment? You want to see carnage? Here it is.

It is the gladiator. It is the gladiatorial games all over again.

UTLEY: Which may be why the film "Gladiator" cleaned up at the box office and is a strong contender on Oscar night. If the Roman emperors were the first to know how to fill a coliseum with spectacle, Vince McMahon, who owns the XFL along with NBC, will not be the last.

(on camera): So how are we to react to this? As proof positive that the United States is headed for the same fate as the Roman empire? Or do we say: Hey, it is just a show?

(voice-over): We know reality when we see it: Indians being pulled from earthquake rubble alive, while the dead are burned on a pyre. And we know what is less than real on a "Temptation Island" or in the Australian Outback, where the reality is carefully cast and edited. Which brings us back to death as a sales tool and birth on live television. Now that all our buttons are being pushed, where do we go from here? UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The joke on Madison Avenue today is: If ABC can show live birth, maybe Fox maybe will push that envelope a little bit further and show the baby being conceived.

UTLEY: In the meantime, in the reality of our hypermedia age, Jackson Hornung doesn't have to worry about when he will have his 15 minutes of fame. He just had them.

Garrick Utley, CNN, New York.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ALLEN: Well, many observers are particularly concerned about the effects of today's TV programing on young people, especially when it comes to sex and violence. Dr. Vic Strasburger is a professor at pediatrics at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine and the author of the 1995 book, "Adolescence and the Media." He joins us from Albuquerque.

Thank you, Doctor, for being with us.

DR. VIC STRASBURGER, AMERICAN ACADEMY OF PEDIATRICS: My pleasure.

ALLEN: We also see that the American Academy of Pediatrics is trying to get parents more involved in what their children are watching. Why are doctors getting involved in this?

STRASBURGER: Because it's an issue that's been around now for 20 years. The American Academy of Pediatrics has been concerned about it for that long. And it really reaches into every aspect that parents are concerned about: violence, sex, drugs, obesity.

All these things have -- are impacted by media. And parents need to take control of the media that their kids are seeing and particularly get the TV set out of the bedroom.

ALLEN: Yes, that's one of the things that you are advocating: that kids shouldn't have TVs in their bedroom. Kids under 2 shouldn't watch TV and no more than two hours a day of quality programming. Every time, Doctor, we talk about the topic on CNN, I'm reminded of that PBS special on children in Rockdale County, who they found were acting out in group sex. These are high-schoolers. And they said they were just mimicking what they saw on their parents' Playboy Channel.

It sounds like parents aren't getting the message how children are being impacted. What do you find when talking with parents about their responsibility over what their kids watch?

STRASBURGER: I find that it -- TV and other media rank about number 43 on the list of things that you've got to worry about with your kids. I've got two children of my own. Obviously, it's -- you want to save your strength and your energy to fight about what you think is really important. What the American Academy of Pediatrics is saying is, this is really important. This may not be number one on your list, but it needs to be number three or four on your list, because it really affects your children's values, your children's health, your children's school performance.

And this is a way that you can help them interpret some of the thousands of messages that they're getting that may not be healthy for them.

ALLEN: So you're putting the responsibility on parents not so much getting involved in what's produced and put on television.

STRASBURGER: There are some extraordinarily good things on television. And we would like to work with the industry to make things even better for children. But, yes, there is a parental responsibility. There is a school responsibility.

The United States is one of the few Western nations that doesn't teach children how to view media; 100 years ago, to be literate in this country meant to be able to read. In the year 2001, to be literate means to be able to decode television, the Internet, movies, music videos, a whole host of things. We have to teach kids to be media literate. And we can probably protect them against some of the -- the bad or unhealthy aspects of media in the classroom.

ALLEN: We all know that, eventually, television and the Internet are going to become one. That will present new problems, where pornography is just a button -- a click away. What would you say to parents? You mentioned that some have what their kids watch on the TV or have access to on the Internet way down on their list of priorities. What would you say to the parents who say: Oh, my child wouldn't look at that, or my child is not seeing that?

STRASBURGER: Your child is seeing it, whether he's seeing it at your house or someone else's house. And the easiest, the safest thing to do is to get the TV set out of the bedroom, to get the computer hookup that has the link to the Internet out of the bedroom. That way you can monitor what shows or where your child is going online. And you can really begin to talk with them about what they're seeing.

We know that two-thirds of teenagers have TV sets in their bedrooms, about a quarter of preschoolers. That is not a healthy situation. And pediatricians need to practice what they preach. We need to get TV sets out of our waiting rooms and be concerned about what kids are seeing in the hospitals as well.

ALLEN: Dr. Vic Strasburger, thank you.

STRASBURGER: My pleasure.

ALLEN: Thank you for joining us.

STRASBURGER: We'll be talking more about this subject -- unfortunately. Thanks so much.

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