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- June 14, 1982
- Vol. 17
- No. 23
Skin and Sin on the Soaps
How Does All That Bad Behavior Affect Viewers? Social Scientists and the Stars Argue It Out
So it goes on a typical day on CBS' new daytime series, Capitol. A few channels and minutes away, on ABC's One Life to Live, Tony Lord (Chip Lucia) is melting like butter on a hot plate as chic blond Pat Ashley (Jacquie Courtney) sensuously massages his back. Finally he huskily implores, "I want you to spend the night with me." And on NBC's Another World, Sandy Alexander (Chris Rich) and Blaine Ewing (Laura Malone) stroke each other's faces, rumple each other's hair and kiss passionately as the camera pans to the bedroom.
That kind of titillation, all televised on a single afternoon last month, has prompted researchers across the country to draw dramatic new conclusions about the content and effects of the soaps on their estimated 30 million daily viewers. Among them:
•That heavy watching of daytime TV can distort a viewer's ideas about adult sexuality.
•That there are significant differences in the sexual content of daytime and prime-time series.
•That there is an inverse relationship between teenage drug use and heavy soap opera viewing.
•That the overwhelming number of televised sexual acts involve unmarried partners.
The most ambitious analysis of the soaps is a four-part study published by the University of Pennsylvania's Annenburg School of Communications. One report, by Dr. Bradley Greenberg, 47, and his colleagues in Michigan State's communication department, documented daytime's boom in sexuality the hard way: They painstakingly counted the number of propositions, kisses, copulations, rapes and homosexual acts shown or implied on the air. In comparison to prime-time shows, Greenberg found, soaps "titillate viewers with heavy breathing and kissing," while evening shows make "stronger allusions to more intimate acts." In the afternoon the most common sexual activity was "explicit petting—more intense than simple kissing, touching and hugging, but not including sexual relations."
Greenberg notes that the soaps average two "intimate sexual acts" per hour. (Greenberg defines "intimate sexual acts" as "explicit or implied acts of sexual intercourse, any type of illicit sexual behavior, homosexuality or petting.") Of the networks, CBS ranked highest (2.19 sexual acts per hour) and ABC close behind (2.18 sexual acts per hour). NBC's soaps had only 1.64 sexual acts hourly. But Ralph Daniels, an NBC vice-president for broadcast standards whose job it is to police such matters, sounds a little apologetic about it, joking, "I'm not asking for a raise. I am suspicious of body counts that say we have .5 fewer sexual acts per hour than the other networks. I think the criteria have to be evaluated before we put any weight in a particular number."
Spokespersons for all three networks deny that daytime serials have become raunchier because of ratings competitions and insist they receive few complaints from viewers about sexy scenes. "I don't think there's a big difference between what we're doing now and what we were doing a couple of years ago," says NBC's Daniels. "Our viewers must think it's at an acceptable level because we are getting no reaction."
Predictably, perhaps, what constitutes on-air sexual behavior is in the eye of the viewer, social scientists included. In his Annenberg report on 12 soaps, Dr. Dennis Lowry, now a journalism professor at Liberty Baptist College in Lynchburg, Va., scored ABC's General Hospital with the highest number of sexual acts per hour, followed by Search for Tomorrow, which recently moved from CBS to NBC. ABC's All My Children ranked last. But in a 1980 study of seven soaps conducted by Dr. Mary Cassata, associate professor of mass communication at the State University of New York at Buffalo, All My Children was rated the most "socially irresponsible" for its gratuitous portrayal of sexual behavior. "You can't judge a soap by the number of kisses or by the number of people jumping into bed," Cassata argues. "You have to look at it in context to see if its sexual portrayals are necessary and relevant to the story line and to character development." Using those criteria, General Hospital was the most "socially responsible" soap, Cassata contends, even though it had nearly twice as much sexual behavior as All My Children. (General Hospital excepted, Lowry found no correlation between a soap's sexual quotient and its Nielsen rating.)
There is some consensus among researchers, however, as to the impact soaps have on viewers. "Heavy television watchers may develop a picture of real life close to TV life," observes Greenberg. "Young viewers are liable to overestimate the amount of sex between unmarried partners and underestimate sex between married partners." (By Greenberg's reckoning, 94 percent of all daytime copulations, if rape and prostitution are included, occur between unmarrieds.)
"It's the preteen soap audience we should be concerned about," concurs Dr. Kenneth Haun, a psychology professor at New Jersey's Monmouth College, who teaches a course called Psychology of the Soap Opera. "Unlike high school and college students, pre-teens have a hard time separating fantasy from reality." Haun's studies have not yet verified the long-term effects of soap opera watching on preteens. Greenberg, on the other hand, concludes in a recently published study that children don't become more susceptible to soaps the longer they watch them: "After some period of regular watching, perhaps as short as six months, their views of the characters are established and don't change."
Many researchers suspect that teenagers use the soaps as an escape, and Haun maintains that isn't all bad. In one sample of 150 youths, he found that those who watch soap operas were less likely to be drug users. "The teenage years are obviously a time of conflict," Haun explains. "Some kids turn to drugs to escape. Others turn to soaps, which serve the same narcotic function."
Some college students who are soap fans can lose touch with reality, notes former Greenberg student Nancy Buerkel-Rothfuss, now an assistant professor at Central Michigan University. In her Annenberg report, she found that college-student soap viewers tend to overestimate significantly the number of unfaithful spouses, divorces, illegitimate children and abortions in the real world, as well as overstate the number of doctors, lawyers, criminals and housewives.
How much soaps affect not only viewers' perceptions but also behavior is debatable. "Kids are learning it's okay to hop into bed with whomever they want," rues Dennis Lowry. But, scoffs Rev. Everett Parker, communications director for the United Church of Christ and an opponent of TV censorship, "I don't believe teenage pregnancies come from watching soaps. Kids are surrounded with explicit sex all the time." He argues, "Some soaps, like General Hospital, are realistic, well written and believable, even though they may exaggerate real-life problems."
The outspoken Rev. Donald Wildmon, leader of the Coalition for Better Television, disagrees. A longtime critic of what he calls "excessive and gratuitous sex" on TV, Wildmon told PEOPLE he may soon turn his attention to the soaps but wouldn't comment on a possible boycott. Based on studies of soap viewers, however, Cassata at SUNY figures, "The Coalition won't crusade against soaps because most of its members are soap viewers."
In any case, people who object to sexual portrayals on prime-time television, Cassata notes, often find sex on the soaps more acceptable. "Heroes and villains are painted in broad strokes so that viewers know who will
eventually be rewarded and punished."
Veteran soap writer Agnes Nixon, creator of All My Children and One Life to Live, affirms, "Evil cannot win. If we don't want to lose a character, we don't let him go beyond the point where he would have to pay society by going to jail." She adds, "We're not blazing any trails. Soap operas reflect the mores of the day. I'm against gratuitous sex and violence. But I think child abuse, wife beating and teenage prostitution should be brought out of the closet—if done properly."
Sex-by-suggestion on the soaps is only video foreplay, predicts Haun. "I wouldn't be surprised to see frontal nudity on soaps in this country within the next 10 years," he says, noting Australian serials are already showing it. Of a recent bed scene on ABC's Ryan's Hope, Haun marvels, "The man and the woman were wrapped around each other, erotically touching, lying there exhausted with their legs hanging out. It couldn't have been more suggestive, except by actually taking the blanket off." Though the networks emphatically agree that won't happen soon, Haun insists, "If it sells, the networks will figure out a way to put it on the air, no matter what."
Too much lust in TV's afternoons? 'Rubbish,' says Tristan Rogers
"Saying there is too much sex on the soaps is a whole lot of rubbish," snorts Australian-born Tristan Rogers, 35, who as the mysterious secret agent Robert Scorpio has replaced Tony Geary as General Hospital's top soap stud. "I get nothing on the show," he gripes about his lackluster TV love life. "I would sooner see sex portrayed on TV than violence. I'd like to see Scorpio have an intimate romance with someone on his own level who could kick him around a bit. But he will never be married on the show. His strength is his unpredictability."
Even without explicit dallying, Tristan is sending afternoon pulse rates up. Rogers is inundated with presents and up to 2,000 fan letters a week. (The irreverent GH crew gave the besieged star something too: a dressing room doormat imprinted "Piss Off.") "It's like being in an avalanche," says Tristan. "You're moving so fast, you don't always have control."
The son of a Melbourne truck company manager, Rogers has worked variously as a draftsman, rock band drummer, Paris model, disco deejay in London (he sported long, silver hair and eight-inch platform shoes) and TV star in Sydney and then Hollywood. "I've lived with insecurity all my life," he says. "It makes you hungry."
"I nagged him into coming here," says his wife, former Australian actress Barbara Meale, 35. "I knew he was perfect for the market, and I loved America." Her only complaint is their downscale (by L.A. standards) car: "It's a bit embarrassing, when I'm all done up in my mink and we arrive in a beat-up old  Mustang."
Rogers was taking $150-an-hour voice lessons to eradicate his Down Under accent before he began a two-week stint on GH in 1980. That led to a three-year contract and a request from the producers that he keep the accent. In 1983, he says, he'd like to look for a new property, preferably a play, then a film. "You have to weigh your moves carefully," he says. "When you get to the top, there is only one place to go—the bottom."
Guiding Light's Lisa Brown: Nola watches where she puts her hands
Whatever Nola Reardon wants, Nola doesn't always get on The Guiding Light, but her naughty methods have generated a torrent of love-hate mail since she slithered into mythical Springfield two years ago. They've also caught the attention of CBS Program Practices officers. "They call if I have my arms around a man below the waist," says doe-eyed Lisa Brown, 28, who portrays the scheming sexpot. "But I get away with a lot. We no longer just do coffee table scenes and talking about your Aunt Suzie."
A tomboy back in Kansas City, Lisa was the only child of a construction company estimator and at 13 marched with the Kansas City Chiefs dance-and-drill team. She made her acting debut in the bus-and-truck tour of the musical Seesaw, then waited tables in New York before joining the national company of Hello Dolly! with Pearl Bailey. Later she did commercials ("I got to point out ring around the collar").
In October she plans to wed GL co-star Tom Nielsen, the affable musician Floyd whom Nola abandoned at the altar when she gasped "I can't" instead of "I do." While she continues playing Nola by day, Lisa will soon step into the Ruby Keeler role in Broadway's 42nd Street. Would Nola approve? "I'm determined, the way Nola is," Lisa says. "I don't lie, but I have a fighting instinct that doesn't give up."
Melody Thomas (Nikki Reed on The Young and the Restless): Stripping and high morals can mix
In her three years as the feckless flirt Nikki Reed on The Young and the Restless, Melody Thomas, 26, has been trapped in a prostitution ring, brainwashed by a cult, and kidnapped by a psychopath. Then it got kinky: Nikki was supposed to become a mud wrestler. Edgy censors scotched that notion. Instead, she became a stripper.
Still, Thomas insists, "I don't think there is any more sex now than there was on soap operas. We've always had high morals on our show."
She defends her own character, too. "Nikki gets to do things I would never do myself," understates Melody. "Not that my goal in life is to strip, but she can pretend that she doesn't know things and be manipulative. I couldn't get away with that because everyone knows I know what's going on."
Soap art does imitate life, though. A new story line has blossomed around Melody's real pregnancy. Her roommate, Y&R makeup artist Carlos Yeaggy, 28, fathered the child, due in September. There is talk of casting the infant on the show. But Melody, who's confident it will be a boy, is wary: "I'd like him to have a normal life. I started in showbiz so early [at age 3], I never knew if I was loved as Melody the kid or only as a performer."
With two brief marriages over, Thomas has settled into a storybook Sherman Oaks, Calif. house with Carlos. She plans to continue working until the baby's birth, then take six weeks off. "Just being able to lie in bed and watch television is such a luxury," she confesses. What does she watch? All My Children and Guiding Light.
- Kristin McMurran.
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