In our combined sample of more than 2,700 program episodes from two consecutive television seasons, we found that about 15% of shows contained at least one instance of sexual behavior or talk about sex related to gays, lesbians, or bisexuals. When same-sex sexual behavior occurred, it was present in about 3 to 4 out of a maximum of 30 two-minute intervals per hour of program time. The rate for talk about nonheterosexual sexual issues was slightly higher at 4 to 5 intervals per hour of program time for those episodes where it occurred. In interpreting these data, it is important to keep in mind that coding a show or a 2-minute interval positively for either variable could occur with as little as a single instance of such content. Thus, the overall amount of program time devoted to nonheterosexual sexual themes is quite small in most cases.
When we looked at patterns in the prevalence of nonheterosexual content across different types of television programs, we found generally that genres' rankings in terms of sexual behavior and talk about sex were similar within and stable across the two content analyses. In addition to children's cartoons, which contained no nonheterosexual content in either year, two nonfictional genres were consistently low in the proportion of shows with same-sex sexual behavior and percentage of shows with sexual talk related to nonheterosexuals—news magazines and talk shows. At the other extreme, the two genres with the highest percentages of shows with nonheterosexual content were feature film and variety/comedy. Some divergent patterns, however, did emerge when we examined the frequency data. For example, although feature film was one of the genres with a high proportion of shows containing such content, it ranked among the lowest in terms of frequency across shows that contained nonheterosexual content. Similarly, the reality genre, which was in the midrange in terms of prevalence of sexual content related to gays, lesbians, or bisexuals ranked high in terms of frequency of nonheterosexual content in the subset of shows with such content present. These findings for nonheterosexual content in feature films and reality shows mirror the patterns we found in our main content analyses for sexual content in general (Fisher, Mill, Grube, & Gruber, in press
). In the larger content analyses, feature films were characterized by a high prevalence of episodes containing sexual behavior and sexual talk (92.7 and 93.2%, respectively), but they were also among the lowest in terms of the rate of presentation of such content (5.3 intervals per hour for sexual behavior, 7.0 intervals per hour for sexual talk). Similarly, the reality genre was not at either extreme in terms of prevalence of sexual content (55.2% for sexual behavior and 64.7% for sexual talk), but it had the greatest number of intervals per hour with sexual behavior (13.8) and with sexual talk (16.5) among shows that contained sexual content. These data suggest that for some genres, sexual content overall as well as that related to sexual minorities is widely dispersed across episodes but typically not a central theme. For other genres, such content is confined to only a relatively small proportion of episodes, but when it appears it is a major focus of program content.
With respect to differences across the three network types, we found commercial broadcast networks to be consistently lower than premium cable movie channels regarding the prevalence of sexual behavior and sexual talk related to nonheterosexuals; most often, the comparisons of commercial broadcast networks to cable music entertainment networks—which fell in between—were also significant. Interestingly, few cross-network differences emerged from the frequency data suggesting that although a greater proportion of cable shows are likely to include some nonheterosexual sexual content, such material is still sparse throughout the television landscape.
With respect to time of day of broadcast, prime-time shows had significantly higher proportions of shows with sexual behavior and sexual talk related to nonheterosexuals in year 1. By year 2, however, the prime-time/nonprime-time differences were no longer significant as the proportion of shows with both types of nonheterosexual content increased somewhat in late afternoon/early evening and decreased slightly in prime-time. There are at least two possible explanations for the increase in nonheterosexual content during nonprime-time. One reason is that there was a greater proportion of reality shows in the afternoon/early evening time block in the year 2 sample (18.4%) compared with the year 1 sample (9.8%). Many of these afternoon/early evening reality shows such as Blind Date, Ex-Treme Dating, and Road Rules contained nonheterosexual content. A second reason is that the situation comedy Will and Grace, which almost always has nonheterosexual content, was broadcast only during prime-time in year 1, but it appeared as a syndicated afternoon/early evening show as well as a prime-time series in the year 2 sample.
Overall, the findings from this research suggest that portrayals or discussions of sexual situations related to gays, lesbians, and bisexuals are still relatively infrequent, especially compared with the prevalence of sexual content on television associated with heterosexuals. Based on cultivation theory, television viewers may be more likely to believe that nonheterosexual behavior is extremely unusual or deviant. The relative infrequency of nonheterosexual content on television may be partially offset by the publicity received by the few shows with prominent gay characters (e.g., Will and Grace, Ellen, Queer as Folk, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy). However, gay, lesbian, and bisexual youth still have few examples of nonheterosexual characters, especially if they do not have access to cable or satellite television.
This study is one of the first to attempt to quantify the amount of sexual content on television relating to sexual minorities. Although it provides a gauge of how pervasive such content is, many questions remained unanswered. For example, we coded any sexual behavior that occurred between two people of the same sex, even though these individuals were not always gay, lesbian, or bisexual (e.g., two straight women flirting with each other to discourage the unwanted advances of men trying to hit on them). We chose to code simply based on the visual image because the sexual orientation of individuals shown on television engaging in sexual behavior is often unknown, especially to viewers who are not familiar with a show and its characters. Using this coding rule, however, may overstate the actual frequency with which sexual behaviors are portrayed between individuals belonging to sexual minorities. Second, we did not code the valence of the talk related to gays, lesbians, and bisexuals. Although we did use criteria to avoid coding comments that were irrelevant to nonheterosexuals' sexuality, we cannot assess with our data how often the nonheterosexual talk refers in a negative manner to the sexual desires, interests, or actions of gays, lesbians, and bisexuals. We examined the quantity of talk about sex related to nonheterosexuals as a starting point for determining the extent to which gay, lesbian, and bisexual youth may have access to information and role models on television relevant to their sexual orientations. It is important to note, however, that the impact of such sexual talk on the attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors of both sexual minority viewers and heterosexual viewers will rely heavily on the tone and manner in which such comments are presented. Thus, critical issues for future research will be to examine the qualitative nature of sexual talk (and sexual portrayals) related to gays, lesbians, and bisexuals (e.g., negative and derisive, neutral, or positive and accepting) and the relative frequency with which such comments are made by heterosexuals and members of sexual minorities to better understand the potential effect of such content.
In terms of the sexual socialization of gay, lesbian, and bisexual youth, an important factor in addition to the volume of nonheterosexual content or gay characters and closely related to the quality of presentation of nonheterosexual material is the overall programmatic context—serious versus humorous—in which issues relating to sexual orientation are presented. As the literature review indicated, criticism has been leveled at portrayals of gay characters for reinforcing stereotypes, such as gay men as promiscuous. Our analyses indicate that a substantial portion of the sexual content related to gays, lesbian, and bisexuals occurs in various forms of comedies, which are likely to present such material in a humorous manner and may include stereotypical and negative portrayals. Among reality shows, a genre where nonheterosexual content occurs with a high frequency within shows that contain such content, issues surrounding sexuality often occur in very contrived dating situations, with little serious discussion. To the extent that nonheterosexual content occurs largely in such contexts—where gay characters and comments about gay sexual orientation appear primarily for comic value—young nonheterosexuals will continue to receive few media messages about healthy and responsible sexual relationships.