Thursday, December 26, 2002

Group shapes TV's sexuality



By Lynn Elber
The Associated Press

When Felicity discussed safe sex, when an ER worker coped with HIV, when Judging Amy debated sex education and abstinence, the Media Project was there.

Without a direct hand in creating or writing any TV series, the nonprofit advisory group has helped shape the medium's handling of sexual topics, particularly those about teenagers.

Like it or not, said Media Project director Robin Smalley, Hollywood serves as a sex-education counselor for many youngsters.

One survey, conducted in 2000, found that teenagers between 13 and 15 ranked entertainment media as the leading source of information about sexuality and sexual health.

"Writers will say, 'It's not our responsibility to educate. It's our responsibility to entertain.' And they're right," Ms. Smalley said. "They shouldn't be put in the position of being educators - but you know what, that's what they are."

Media Project's goal is to help them fill that role in an informed way, she said. The group, in its 18th year, represents a partnership between Advocates for Youth and the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.

The project offers "one-stop shopping for anything having to do with sexuality," Ms. Smalley said.

Research on subjects ranging from teen pregnancy to sexually transmitted diseases to parent-child communication are available through the group, which also lines up experts and those with firsthand experience for TV writers and producers.

"Peer-pressure resistance, healthy body images, healthy relationships" are among other topics Media Project tracks, Ms. Smalley said, adding, "anything that helps young people make healthy choices."

The group has its work cut out. A Kaiser study of major broadcast networks and cable channels found TV's sexual content was increasing, with nearly 70 percent of shows in the 1999-2000 season featuring talk about sex or showing sexual behavior. The figure was 56 percent in a study of the 1997-98 season.

Ms. Smalley works regularly with about 20 shows in a season and fields calls from others.

Dr. Neal Baer, executive producer of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and a pediatrician, is one longtime customer. He first used the group's resources in 1989, for an ABC Afterschool Special about a girl facing a venereal infection.

The association continued through Dr. Baer's years with ER, when he sought details for stories including medical assistant Jeanie Boulet's (Gloria Reuben) AIDS virus and one about the sexually transmitted virus linked to cervical cancer.

"That was very big," Dr. Baer said of the February 2000 episode that cited the human papilloma virus. A follow-up survey showed that among ER viewers, knowledge of the virus had tripled from 9 percent to 28 percent.

The Media Project is invariably helpful but not intrusive, he said.

"A writer decides how to tell a story. I've never found they (the Media Project) have an agenda and said, 'Don't do a story about this or that,' " Dr. Baer said. "They're not pushing an agenda per se, unless you call an agenda of accuracy an agenda, which I don't."

Ms. Smalley said she's faced the opposite criticism, that Media Project is fostering the depiction of sex.

"Well, that's ridiculous," she said. "The fact is there's going to be sex. If there is going to be sex on television, would I like them (characters) to use a condom? Yes. Would I like them to show responsible sex rather than irresponsible sex? Yes, of course."

As an encouragement, the group hands out annual Shine Awards honoring thoughtful portrayals of sexual and reproductive health issues. This year's winners included episodes of Sex and the City, Strong Medicine and Guiding Light.

Media Project was started by Advocates for Youth, a nonprofit that focuses on adolescent sexual health and which supports both abstinence and birth-control education. The Kaiser foundation, an independent philanthropic group that studies health care, began contributing primary funding about five years ago. (The foundation is unaffiliated with the Kaiser medical organization.)

The same Kaiser foundation study that found teenagers rely heavily on Hollywood for sexual enlightenment had another key finding: Seventy percent of parents with children under 18 said they've had a conversation with their child about a sexual issue because of a TV show.

Ms. Smalley, mother of a 13-year-old and 9-year-old, said her priority is to help television encourage family communication.

"As far as I'm concerned, the best job we can do is in helping writers create programming that is going to inspire parents to talk to their children. That's the best-case scenario."




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