Producers of TV Soaps Asked to Be Less Steamy And More Abstemious

AS seen on daytime television, the young could be getting less restless and the beautiful may no longer be so bold. After 50 years, the soaps may be out to clean up their act.

The writers who churn out midday melodrama for 30 million Americans on shows like ``All My Children'' and ``Days of Our Lives'' say the winds of social change are blowing through daytime TV. That means more responsible portrayals of sex, teen pregnancy, and other behavior are going on the storyboards.

Dealing more realistically with love and relationships, following moves in recent years to minimize portrayals of drinking and smoking, won't change how the world turns but it could have an impact.

As many as 17 percent of Americans tune into daytime soaps, many of whom will be watching tonight as the industry celebrates its first half century with a television special. Because the audience is so large, steady, and young - 31 percent of viewers are 18- to 29-year-old women - social scientists say soap operas offer an opportunity to engender social change across the country and around the globe.

``There is no clear causal relationship between what people watch on TV and how they behave,'' says Brian Stonehill, a media analyst at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif. ``But soap producers are trying harder [to portray more responsible actions] because they've realized Americans do get a sense that behaviors are OK when they see them on TV.''

With that premise, Population Communications International (PCI) - an advocacy group that promotes population control and more responsible attitudes toward sexuality, childrearing, and women - is urging writers and producers of soap operas to think about the behaviors they dramatize.

Several scriptwriters say they will draw heavily on information gleaned at PCI's first-ever ``Soap Summit'' recently held here. US Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders, UN population adviser Dr. Allan Rosenfield, and director of the California Department of Social Services Eloise Anderson were among the 45 experts helping to stir dialogue between top writers and producers.

The goal: how to incorporate story lines that ``will affect US attitudes toward reproductive behavior.''

``Let us change from a market saturated with the glamour of sex to one saturated with the necessary caution, responsibility, and understanding such an experience requires,'' said Ms. Elders in a keynote address. She called on writers and producers to aid in reducing teen pregnancy by having characters say ``no'' to sexual advances and exhibit possible consequences of sex such as unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.

``They came to us without accusations and without an agenda except to expose and illuminate us on the realities of these issues,'' said Lucy Johnson, CBS vice president of daytime programming. ``Is it having an effect? Absolutely. My impression is that we were all inspired because we were not attacked.''

Jeff Beldner, head writer for ``All My Children,'' was impressed at the thoroughness with which organizers laid out statistics on destructive behaviors from physical, sexual, and emotional abuse to the results of high-risk sex. ``I think we [writers] have an obligation to do something about portraying these things more accurately,'' he said. ``My notes are full of ways to do it.''

PCI has taught producers in third world countries how to use soap operas as a means of promoting population control. Now their focus is the most-watched TV market of all.

To raise consciousness on the amount of sexual behavior portrayed in current daytime dramas, organizers released just-completed findings of a Michigan State University study commissioned by the Kaiser Family Foundation.

The study analyzed 10 episodes each of five different soap operas for the presence of sexual incidents, defined in a list including long kisses, married/unmarried intercourse, rape, and portrayals of prostitution. It identified 333 sexual incidents - defined as ``visual or verbal incidents or references to sexual activity'' - or 6.6 per hour episode.

Comparing the 1994 average of three ABC programs with the same three programs in 1985, the study found an increase of 35 percent.

Though the efforts of PCI have been attacked by some conservative groups that would like to see sexual portrayals eliminated altogether, analysts like Mr. Stonehill see the PCI trend as a start. ``No one wants entertainment or art to be an instrument of social conformity, political or cultural correctness,'' he says. Warning that producers will find it harder to make responsible behavior as entertaining as irresponsible behavior in a profit-minded industry, he adds: ``It's encouraging that the industry is giving such thought to its effect on viewers.''

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.