New Communication Professor Brings High-Profile Mass Media Research

Lori Harwood
Aug. 19, 2004

A nationally known authority on television programming and children has joined the communication faculty at the University of Arizona in Tucson.

Dale Kunkel is widely considered an expert on children's media policy and has been the lead researcher on high-profile studies concerning sex on TV, violence in the media, V-chip program ratings and advertising to children.

Much of Professor Kunkel's research is funded by grants from agencies like the Kaiser Family Foundation. He has been either the principal investigator (PI) or co-PI on approximately $4.5 million in grants over the last 10 years.

One such grant, from Kaiser, is for the biennial study "Ongoing Monitoring of Media Portrayals of Sex, Sexuality and HIV," begun in 1999. Kunkel and Keren Eyal, also a new professor in the UA communication department and co-PI on the grant, will begin work on the fourth study in the series this fall.

The 1999 study was the first comprehensive content analysis examination of the nature and extent of sexual messages contained in the full range of programming across broadcast and cable networks. Approximately 1,000 programs are examined in the study. The report, which is presented to entertainment leaders, has received substantial attention in the press and been widely cited by academics as the definitive assessment of sexual content on television.

Among the key findings from the 2003 report:

  • the amount of sexual content on television remains high, especially in shows most watched by teens;
  • portrayals of sexual intercourse are found in roughly one of every seven shows examined in the study;
  • very few programs with sexual themes include any mention of "safe sex" or other health precautions.

Research shows that teens often use media to learn how people handle sexual situations.

"It's rare that sex leads to any negative outcomes on television, such as an unwanted pregnancy or an AIDS infection. That conveys an unrealistic message to young people and can contribute to irresponsible sexual behavior with serious adverse consequences," Kunkel says.

(For a copy of the 2003 report, go to The most recent issue to attract Kunkel's attention is the marketing of junk foods to kids in television commercials. Kunkel was senior author on a recent American Psychological Association Task Force Report on Advertising and Children. That report found that young children, age 8 and younger, are uniquely vulnerable to commercial persuasion because they do not grasp the persuasive intent of advertising. The report implicates the media as a contributor to childhood obesity - one of the nation's fastest-growing health problems - and calls for the government to restrict ads aimed at this age group. More information on that study can be found at:

Kunkel comes to the UA from the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he was a professor and director of the UCSB Washington Program in Washington D.C. He earned a doctorate from the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Southern California in 1984. He won a Congressional Science Fellowship in 1984-85, during which time he served as an adviser to Congress on children and media issues, and has testified at hearings before the U.S. Senate, House and Federal Communications Commission.

From 1994 to 1998, Kunkel was the principal investigator on the National Television Violence Study, which examined the risks associated with different types of violent portrayals on television. That project, which systematically evaluated approximately 10,000 programs, is widely recognized as the largest scientific study of television content yet conducted. Kunkel has also completed research examining the television industry's new system of V-chip program ratings.


Resources for the media

Dale Kunkel
Professor of communication
Lori Harwood
SBS communications coordinator