By Dr. Ted Baehr and Dr. Tom Snyder
There is a common misconception in our popular culture that sex sells. Throw in a little violence and obscenity and you have a popular and award-winning film. But nearly eighty years of experience and research prove that this is not true.
For about 33 years, when Hollywood was run according to the Motion Picture Code of Decency, enforced by the Roman Catholic Church and the Protestant Film Office, the movie industry saw an unprecedented economic boom. That fiscal prosperity only began to wane when Christian churches pulled away from Hollywood in the 1960s and movies reached increasingly new levels of immorality featuring more and more graphic sex, violence, and obscene language.
Toward the end of this Golden Age of Hollywood, the movie industry was selling 9.43 tickets per person in the United States and Canada. Now, it sells about 4.1.
Movieguide®’s Annual Report to the Entertainment Industry finds that, on average, family friendly movies with no graphic sex, violence, or obscene language earn more than two to six times as much money at the box office as movies with such content.
The movie consumer has spoken, and Hollywood seems to be listening.
A recent study of foul language by three Brigham Young University professors focused on G, PG, and PG-13 movie attendance by teenagers, the most frequent moviegoers according to the Motion Picture Association of America. This study shows that 1980s movies averaged 35 obscenities or profanities per movie, but this decreased to 25 per movie in the 1990s and to 16 per movie in the current decade. This is in the wake of Movieguide®’s annual study, which began in 1991.
Indeed, a 2006 poll by The Los Angeles Times and Bloomberg found that most teenagers are offended by depictions of foul language and sex in movies and television.
In the last five years, movies with no foul language averaged nearly $51.48 million at the box office while movies with 26 or more obscenities or profanities averaged less than $24.20 million.
Thus, clean movies make more than twice as much money as movies laced with obscenity and profanity, and Hollywood pays attention to its bottom line.
Ironically, a study released by the Parents Television Council in 2008 revealed that the amount of foul language on Primetime Network TV has skyrocketed since 1998.
If profits are on the side of removing foul language out of on-screen entertainment, why do television networks pursue a bad business practice?
The answer is that television is not responsive to the audience, as are film studios, but to the advertisers and their agencies who may have a completely different agenda from the desires of the public, such as selling their edgy products to a small, niche group of consumers.
The movie industry, despite the decline in movie attendance in the past 40 years since the end of the movie production code of decency, still seems to be economically sound, while primetime television has noticed a significant decrease in viewers in the last 10 to 15 years.
Clearly, the depiction of foul language and obscenity in movies and television does not usually sell. Neither do graphic depictions of sex, nudity, and extreme violence.
In fact, clean family movies and clean action thrillers remain the most financially successful, not only at the North American box office but also internationally and on DVD and Blu-Ray.
This is true despite the huge success of an occasional foul-mouthed, raunchy R-rated comedy like THE HANGOVER.
Movie studios and their stockholders seem to have responded to consumer demand.
When will major television networks start paying attention to the public?
Dr. Baehr is Founder and Publisher of Movieguide®: A Family Guide to Movies and Television, which is approaching its 25th year. Dr. Snyder is Editor of Movieguide®. For more information about their work and Movieguide®, please visit www.movieguide.org.