Federal law bars radio and non-cable television stations from airing references to sexual and excretory functions between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m.
But that anti-indecency standard is only enforced when a complaint is filed with federal regulators, triggering a review and possible fines by the Federal Communications Commission. And the law doesn't address violence.
Sixty-three percent of parents surveyed by the Kaiser Family Foundation said they favor new regulations to limit the amount of sex and violence in TV shows during the early evening hours when children are more likely to be watching.
The survey also found that more than half of all parents, 52 percent, said they would like to see federal regulators apply content standards to cable stations. Forty-three percent opposed the idea.
Neither sex nor violence was defined in the report, so it was unclear if by "sex," parents meant mere kissing or actual depictions of sexual intercourse, or if "violence" referred to fisticuffs or gunplay.
"The folks in the television industry ought to take note of the fact that parents are now supporting content standards for television," said Vicky Rideout, the study's lead researcher and a vice president at the foundation. "If they're serious about avoiding that, it's going to be really necessary to make sure parents are able to use the tools available to them now, namely the ratings (system) and the V-chip."
The study found that many parents still aren't using the tools they have to screen what their children see — or don't know they have access to them.
For example, only 15 percent of all parents surveyed have used the V-chip, which works with the voluntary TV ratings system to allow parents to block specific programs.
The chips were required in new TV sets in 2000. According to the study, four in 10 parents have bought a new television since then, but didn't realize they had a chip in the TV set.
The ratings system fared better. Half of all parents said they have used the ratings to help choose appropriate programming for their children. But 20 percent said they had never even heard of the ratings system, up from 14 percent in 2001.
And many did not know what the ratings mean. Only 4 percent believed correctly that the "FV" rating stands for "fantasy violence." Twice that number thought it stood for "family viewing."
Since Janet Jackson's "wardrobe malfunction," which exposed the singer's breast during this year's Super Bowl halftime show, the FCC has cracked down on broadcast material deemed indecent.
The FCC on Wednesdayfor Jackson's chesty display. Among other recent enforcement action: a $755,000 fine against Clear Channel for graphic drug and sex talk on a "Bubba the Love Sponge" radio program and a record $1.75 million fine, also against Clear Channel, for indecency complaints against Howard Stern and other radio personalities.
Television networks also began taking pre-emptive action by implementing broadcast delays so censors could scrub anything deemed too racy. CBS, for example, aired the Grammy awards ceremony a week after the Super Bowl with a five-minute delay. More recently, the NFL kicked off its season with a live, pregame show on ABC that was aired with a 10-second delay.
The study was done by the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit organization that focuses on health care issues. It is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente or Kaiser Industries.