Children watching the most popular primetime cable cartoons are exposed to a "shocking" amount of adult content, a new Parents Television Council (PTC) study says.
According to a PTC news release, the study, called "Cartoons Are No Laughing Matter," tracked the animated primetime programming that Nielsen data indicates children ages 12-17 most frequently watch on basic cable: Adult Swim, Cartoon Network, Disney Channel and Nick at Nite.
The study found an abundance of sexual content, violence, drug references and depictions, and profanity, mostly on Adult Swim.
"Adult content isn't just creeping into the cartoons that kids today are watching the most; it has overtaken much of that animated programming," PTC President Tim Winter said in the news release. "We're not talking about cartoon characters slipping on banana peels and ramming into doors. Our data demonstrates that today's norm is profanity-laden storylines involving everything from rape and cocaine to STDs and crystal meth."
Winter warned that many parents don't realize how popular Adult Swim is becoming among teens and pre-teens, or that it airs at 9 p.m. ET (8 p.m. CT) on the same channel as kid-focused Cartoon Network.
"Parents need to understand just how explicit these cartoons are so they can make better viewing decisions for their family," he said.
PTC gave Disney Channel and Nick at Nite highly positive "A" ratings for their content, citing a near total absence of any adult content. By contrast, Adult Swim and Cartoon Network received "F" grades.
The study singled out Adult Swim and Cartoon Network for failing to warn parents about adult content through TV rating systems. Winter said in the news release that profanity and graphic sexual depictions aired during the study period on programs rated TV-PG.
"Cartoon Network failed to use the ratings system to warn parents about sexual content, suggestive dialogue and explicit language 100 percent of the time," Winter said. "We also discovered the networks are directly marketing adult entertainment products to kids during TV-PG programming, including R-rated movies and TV-MA shows and DVDs."
According to the news release, PTC documented 1,487 incidents of drugs, sexual content and explicit language during the study period, adding that young viewers saw adult content an average of once every two minutes and 31 seconds.
Parents should be allowed to unsubscribe to explicit cable networks, Winter said, and that even then, there's still a lot of work to be done.
"In addition to cable choice and more responsible programming decisions by the networks, the entire television content ratings system needs to be overhauled," Winter said. "The current system fails parents and families when it comes to accuracy, consistency, transparency and accountability."