With teen pregnancy rates on the rise for the first time in more than a decade, two new TV series are gaining attention as they tackle the hot-button issue from very different angles.
NBC’s reality show “The Baby Borrowers,” which debuted last week, is giving teen couples a “Scared Straight”-style introduction to the realities of child rearing, while ABC Family’s drama “The Secret Life of the American Teenager,” which premieres Tuesday night, deliberately avoids having a social-message agenda.
The shows arrive following a wave of pregnancy-related media headlines: The unplanned pregnancy story lines of theatrical hits “Juno” and “Knocked Up,” the 17 Boston-area teens who supposedly made a pact to become pregnant, and the pregnancy of 16-year-old Nickelodeon star Jamie Lynn Spears.
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill professor Jane Brown, who runs the Teen Media Project, said the media’s portrayal of teen pregnancy is having an impact that some have dubbed “The ’Juno’ Effect.”
“It may have had a kind of agenda-setting effect, and that’s what may have happened with ’Juno,’ ’Knocked Up’ and the celebrity baby-bump watch we’re on -- all that is glamorized pregnancy,” Brown said.
The media fascination with pregnancy comes after U.S. teen birth rates rose 3% between 2005 and 2006, after declining 34% between 1991 and 2005, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Experts say it’s unclear if the rise in pregnancy rates is tied to any specific societal cause or is just an aberration.
The increased media attention on teen pregnancy has made the topic fertile ground for the networks. NBC’s “Borrowers” gave NBC its best new series debut rating all summer. The series has also drawn praise for showing the work required to parent a child.
“The timing has been amazing,” “Borrowers” creator Richard McKerrow said. “Obviously it’s not good news that there are things such as girls having a pregnancy pact, but it’s great that NBC had the courage to commission this. All the research tells us (teen moms having babies) is not emotionally or mentally the best scenario, but that does not mean it’s always a bad scenario. This show is saying, ’Don’t grow up too fast, just enjoy life, you don’t need all that right now.”’
PSA urges parents to talk to kids about sexOn ABC Family, “American Teenager,” from “7th Heaven” creator Brenda Hampton, tells the story of a 15-year-old who falls for what might be the perfect guy -- but is impregnated by a less-than ideal guy. The show demonstrates the effect of behavioral choices on teens and those around them, though Hampton said “Teenager” has no social agenda other than to tell a compelling story.
“I don’t have anything to say about the issue of teen pregnancy,” Hampton said. “I’m just telling a story about a girl who happens to get pregnant.”
ABC Family intends to air a public service announcement midway through the premiere urging parents to talk to their kids about sex. Hampton said that if her show continued for years it might be viewed as a “cautionary tale” about teen pregnancy, but she doesn’t believe that TV significantly alters teens behavior, regardless of the content.
“I think that’s kind of a hysterical response,” Hampton said. “Did watching ’Friends’ make everybody friends? Did ’The Sopranos’ make people commit murder? Did ’7th Heaven’ make anybody a Christian? I don’t think that young women are so impressionable if they see a show about pregnancy that will make them go out and get pregnant.”
Brown counters that because parents are so reluctant to talk about sex, and since government-approved programs lean so heavily on abstinence, the media have filled the teaching void to become sex educators. That said, she noted that not all teen pregnancy depictions are considered to have a negative effect.
“And we now know that from 50 years of research on the effects of media, if you see a negative consequence of a behavior you are less likely to commit it,” she said. “If you see it rewarded or not punished, you are more likely not to imitate it.”
For television producers, however, such restrictions are creatively reminiscent of the theatrical Hays Code, the morals-based censorship guidelines replaced in the late 1960s by the current MPAA film ratings system.
“Teens have been getting pregnant for a long time,” Hampton said. “And without watching television.”