In recent weeks, TV viewers have seen: a same-sex kiss between two high school-age girls on ABC's Once and Again, a character give the middle finger salute to another on ABC's Philly, a CBS documentary in which firefighters used the f-word several times and an ESPN movie in which an actor playing volatile basketball coach Bobby Knight used the f-word even more.
But a study released Thursday said the amount of sexual material and violence on TV decreased between 1999 and 2001, countering the expectations of many pundits and industry experts.
According to a survey of more than 300 TV series and movies in prime time examined by the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Media and Public Affairs, sexual material on TV declined by 29 percent, and violence fell 17 percent.
"There's been a drumbeat out there that TV is getting worse, but when you actually get down to it . . . things are improving," said Trevor Butterworth, a researcher who worked on the study.
The center analyzed a selection of prime time TV shows that included syndicated series, network shows, basic cable series and premium cable programs, along with 50 movies. Two episodes from every series on the seven broadcast networks were included, yielding 1,779 images or dialogue references to sex and 1,441 acts of serious violence in 215 episodes.
Other findings: Broadcast networks saw sexual material decline by 31 percent and violence 11 percent; premium cable channels including HBO and Showtime had sexual content drop by 49 percent, violence 65 percent.
Sex and violence in top-grossing movies stayed about the same. Violence in basic cable shows rose 20 percent; sex content remained the same. And syndicated series such as V.I.P accounted for 42 percent of all serious violence on broadcast TV in the 2000-01 season.
In the 2000-01 season, UPN's Girlfriends was tabbed as the series with the most sex content (25 scenes of sexual material per episode), and the now-canceled Xena: Warrior Princess was considered most violent (63 violent scenes per episode). Mel Gibson's The Patriot was the most violent movie (159 violent scenes).
Though the study's findings seemed to contradict the contention TV content is worsening, an official from the conservative Parents Television Council cautioned against jumping to conclusions.
"Our last family hour study indicated that sex was down, but what we saw was an increase in the explicitness . . . more references to pornography and such," said Melissa Caldwell, the council's director of research. "It's a little too soon to be declaring victory and making statements that Hollywood's cleaned up its act."
Butterworth agreed, noting that even though sexual content decreased, the study also revealed that the proportion of explicit material has increased in the material that remains. The study also didn't include many sexually explicit or violent series currently on TV, including FX's The Shield, ABC's Alias and Fox's 24.
Butterworth expected future studies, including an upcoming look at profanity, to shed more light on the issue.
"Our study has only begun in 1998," he said. "The key is to come back in two years' time and see if the trends continue."