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What do Americans really want? TV and sex

In his new book "What Americans Really Want ... Really" Frank Luntz lays out a discussion of Americans' secret hopes, fears, wants and needs. In this excerpt, he writes about what he's found out about Americans' habits when it comes to television and sex. 
/ Source: TODAY books

From restaurant booths to voting booths, Frank Luntz has watched and assessed our private habits, our public interests, and our hopes and fears. What are the five things Americans want the most? What do they really want in their daily lives? In their jobs? From their government? For their families? In his new book, "What Americans Really Want ... Really," Luntz lays out a discussion of Americans' secret hopes, fears, wants and needs. In this excerpt, he writes about what he's found out about Americans' TV and sexual habits. 

What Americans do in their free time
Aside from entertaining at home and eating out at restaurants, these are some favorite leisure-time pleasures, according to the U.S. government:

39 percent read books

23 percent go to the beach

22 percent play cards

20 percent play computer games

18 percent go to bars and nightclubs

18 percent play board games

14 percent do crossword puzzles

What’s next? Eliminate the U.S. Postal Service from the process. It is increasingly easy to download movies from the Web and watch them instantly on your computer. Netflix has 12,000 titles that can be ordered à la carte in this manner, and they cut a deal with TiVo in the fall of 2008 to give TiVo users access to that rental library, combining the convenience of Netflix rentals with the ability to watch your movie on your own television (or computer) screen with the comforts of home.

True, life was simpler just a few decades ago before TiVo and video on demand (VOD), before satellite and cable, when just three networks and a few independent stations were enough to satisfy American entertainment appetites. Now there are hundreds of television channels to choose from, resulting in a painful exodus from the major networks as viewers explore a universe of TV options. More than 80 percent of Americans subscribe to cable or satellite TV. About half of those sign up for premium channels such as HBO or Showtime, where the raciest content is found, as well as a United Nations’ worth of international programming. The mandatory transition from analog to digital broadcast in 2009 has opened up a new world for viewers who switched to providers that offer channels they didn’t even know existed.

But it’s not just what we watch that has changed. It’s also how we watch. True, most of us still consume our television the old-fashioned way — in real time with segments separated by commercial breaks that allow us to get food and use the bathroom. But people are increasingly watching programming on their own timetable by using devices like DVRs (TiVo), DVD recordings, and VOD. About a third of homes now have this capability, and it continues to expand as people forgo more exotic escapes in favor of entertainment closer to home. The couch potato has given way to a newly empowered audience who wants the convenience of watching TV when they want to, and damn the commercials. This is especially true of people younger than forty, who are fully comfortable with digital technology and have a deep disdain for advertising.

Size is also an issue. One in five Americans owns a television 50 inches or bigger. At the opposite extreme, a handful of early adopters are beginning to watch video on the tiniest screen at their fingertips — their cell phones. Only a few million people watch mobile video now, but it will certainly thrive, especially among younger people who rely on their phones for all communication.

We’re a little embarrassed about how much time we spend watching TV and browsing the Internet — 68 percent feel guilty about watching too much television and 53 percent for spending too much time in front of the computer. For many, they start the day with TV and shut it off only when they turn out the lights. In many homes, TV is like wallpaper.

I know something about what consumers really want from television, having worked for NBC, ABC, Fox, MSNBC, CNBC, FX, and the BBC over the past decade. When I first came on board (to test promos for the NBC fall lineup), the network was trying to prepare itself for the eventual loss of two of its most popular comedies since Seinfeld — Friends and Frasier — and so it had to remake itself, or at least its content, to appeal to a different generation of viewers. But today, most of network comedy is gone or going away. Why? They aren’t listening to their viewers. In 1978, all ten most-watched shows in America were thirty-minute sitcoms, led by Laverne & Shirley, Three’s Company, and Mork & Mindy — shows still in reruns somewhere. Today, nobody is laughing at what network TV is showing, and in times like these, Americans really want at least a chuckle. To many of us, cable is the new king of comedy.

Why Americans don't like TV sitcoms anymoreThere’s a reason why only one TV comedy in the 2008–09 season — Two and a Half Men — ever cracks the top ten most-watched shows in America. It’s because the networks have stopped catering to their audiences and started trusting their (unexercised) gut instincts. Having moderated dozens of television focus groups over the years, I have found there’s a pattern of desirability that could help someone launch the next Cheers, Seinfeld, or Friends. Here are the five guidelines for successful sitcom humor:

1. Hold up a mirror. Viewers like to see themselves in the comedies they watch. They want shows and characters they can personally relate to. To them, life is a series of amusing experiences that are even funnier when they happen to other people on TV who look and sound a little like themselves (only better) and their friends. They want quirky, but still grounded in reality.

2. Connect the dots. Viewers overwhelmingly prefer shows where the story lines are unique, so they can miss an episode and not lose contact with the characters. But they are equally clear that they want the characters to build from episode to episode, with occasional references to past episodes.

3. Relationships involving conflict. This is particularly important. Americans aren’t looking for sweet, innocent comedy. They want an edge, something a bit dark but still lovable. The Simpsons has lasted so long and Family Guy was brought back to life because they so perfectly illustrate the graphic humor behind real conflict.

4. Home is where comedy lives. People now prefer a home setting for a comedy rather than the office. It’s not a rejection of the office environment. It’s an embrace of the home and its richness of possibilities. Everybody Loves Raymond was a top-20 show for most of its run even though it primarily had only two sets: Ray’s home and his parents’ home.

5. Go live. The spontaneity and pitfalls of live performances, including all the mistakes and outtakes, are a real crowd pleaser. Very few shows have done this because of the cost, but it changes the viewer dynamic from static to active — and so people tune in and stay with the program. The Drew Carey Show did live episodes — the only recent show to do this on an annual basis.

TV at its best mirrors the reality of our experience. We learn to cope with the lunacy of life by learning to laugh at it, and that is why we identify with characters on TV who are just a little crazier — but not much — than people we really know.

Going to bed
Sexuality is on display everywhere in American culture. Turn on the television, look at a magazine rack in the convenience store, watch movie previews, drive by a billboard — there are half-dressed young bodies everywhere. No wonder Americans are hung up on sex. We live in PG families surrounded by an X-rated world.

Calvin Klein ads show hunky male models wearing low-slung underwear cut down to there, with a suggestive smile. Cosmopolitan magazine covers scream headlines such as bad girl sex: 75 tricks for nights when you want to be just a little naughtier. HBO has stripped away long-held inhibitions on the small screen, pelting viewers with equal doses of profanity and fully nude faux sex.

Americans are having sex — lots of sex — often with more than one partner (and occasionally at the same time). Almost half of all adults report having sex at least once a week. In fact, more people younger than forty have sex once a week than vote for president once every four years.

Americans start having sex in their teens: 63 percent said they lost their virginity at eighteen years or younger. We consider ourselves to be sexually adventurous. A quarter of us have had just one or two sexual partners in our lives. Forty percent of us acknowledge three to ten partners. And 12 percent admit to more than thirty sex partners in a lifetime.

Nearly a quarter of Americans have taken part in a threesome, so next time you’re bored at an office meeting or in line at Starbucks, look around you and try to guess which one out of every four co-workers has engaged in a ménage à trois.

A few more tidbits from the boudoir:

• Almost half said they were satisfied with their sex lives. A few more Republicans categorized themselves as very satisfied than Democrats did — at least, that’s what they tell a pollster.

• 13 percent said they have sex every day or almost every day. A quarter said several times a week. A majority fell into the less frequent window of a few times a month or year.

• Intelligence was the biggest turn-on, followed by sexiness. Far down the scale was beauty.

• Most people consider themselves to be sexually adventurous, but check out this sliding scale of adventurous possibilities: 62 percent have watched pornography with a partner, 40 percent have indulged in sexual role-playing, but only 11 percent have tried S&M.

• One-quarter of all Republicans (25 percent) and a third of all Democrats (35 percent) have had more than ten sexual partners (in their lifetimes, not all at one time).

Some political-sexual notes: Republicans tended to lose their virginity later than Democrats, but once they got the hang of it they were twice as likely to have sex almost every day, even though Democrats think they’re a little better in bed than Republicans. In equal numbers, they claim they’re sexually adventurous, though Democrats were slightly more likely to watch pornography and play out sexual fantasies in bed.

The taboo against extramarital sex is strong. Almost half said they would definitely not have an affair even if there was a guarantee they wouldn’t get caught. Just 20 percent said they might — Democrats a little more likely to say “definitely,” and Republicans “probably.”

One steamy scenario held bipartisan appeal: having a one-night stand in the Oval Office with a president they found sexually attractive. Twelve percent of women said they would definitely say yes (presumably somewhat passionately, as in “Yes, Mr. President, YES!”), and 11 percent said they would “probably” give in to the most powerful leader of the world. At the end of the day, there’s something about a man (or woman) who holds the nuclear codes. Or, as Henry Kissinger once said, “Power is the greatest aphrodisiac.”

Excerpted from "What Americans Really Want ... Really" by Dr. Frank Luntz. Copyright (c) 2009, reprinted with permission from Hyperion.