Some critics call it "sleaze TV". One MP has even suggested making most of prime time "adults only" to reflect the increased amount of sexual material on offer.

The debate over early evening television programming hit the headlines last week when Labour's Lianne Dalziel claimed regular soaps such as Shortland Street and Coronation Street were unfit for children.

The issue has been bubbling away since September last year when TV researcher Ruth Zanker lamented the sexualisation of what used to be family viewing time, blaming it on the pursuit of advertising dollars.

"Children are being sacrificed on the altar of ratings," she told Herald media writer John Drinnan.

"It may be that if you looked at a lot of the programming that runs before the [8.30pm] adult watershed, it breaches standards."

TVNZ and TV3 say they provide what viewers want. They also claim the Broadcasting Standards Authority is taking an increasingly conservative line with complaints, which is out of step with growing community acceptance of racier themes.

So is early-evening TV no longer fit for family viewing? We sampled TV2's comedy night on Wednesday from 6.30pm to 9pm to test its suitability for Mum, Dad and three school-aged children.

This is what we found.

6.30pm: Friends
In the 1990s some commentators thought this show marked the end of civilisation. It seems tame now, even though Chandler is pimping out Rachel to his friends for a date in exchange for cigars and baseball tickets. He tells them she just wants a fling, she worries about her reputation. At the end he randomly asks her; "Have you ever been with a woman?" She looks stunned. Our kids don't seem to notice.

7pm: Shortland Street
Lianne Dalziel mentioned our longest-running soap as a prime example of what children should not be watching. You can see what she means - previous controversies include a gay oral sex scene and a ticking-off from the BSA for suggesting sexual violence. Tonight, the raciest thing going in a dull half-hour is three nurses gossiping about a naked man from the previous night's episode. "It's all boring" says 10-year-old Joanna.

7.30pm: Two and a Half Men
Colleagues have warned me about exposing my children to this hugely popular show, which stars Charlie "I'm winning" Sheen as a fictionalised version of himself, drinking like a fish and sleeping with prostitutes. Sure enough, in the opening minutes he fills his supermarket trolley with booze and jokes about "girls who cost extra". The show is a string of off-colour gags involving a sagging buttock tattoo that looks like Harry Potter (8-year-old David thinks this is hilarious), a "nutsack-ectomy" and a throwaway line from Sheen referring to three sexual positions in one sentence, which fortunately goes over the children's heads. Apparently this is mild compared with the usual menu.

Meanwhile, the two teenage boys are trying a series of Jackass-style stunts - a human volcano (son vomits in Dad's face), crashing off the roof in a trolley and a fart-rocket, which misfires with unfortunate consequences for personal hygiene. It goes without saying that these jokes were puerile and grossly irresponsible. We all laughed so much we nearly fell off the couch.

8pm: S#*! My Dad Says
According to its star, William Shatner, this new show based on a popular Twitter feed is ahead of the curve, so we get set for some cutting-edge yet tasteful comedy. First there's a tired joke about a couple's noisy sex life. Then the son admires the huge cucumbers in his father's garden. (Uh-oh.) He follows up with a reference to the "zucchini" he saw when his Dad greeted him in his pyjamas. Megan, 13, sniggers knowingly. Joanna instantly asks Mum: "What did he say?" If one moment sums up sleaze in prime time, this is it.

8.30pm: The Big Bang Theory
Technically this show occurs in adult viewing time but many children will still be watching, even though we have just sent our younger two to bed. The plot centres on a group of nerds on a road trip to a science conference. Not a lot of laughs there, so the writers base most of the show on penis envy (male and female).

They move through an extended bed-hopping sequence with Star Trek metaphors to a panel discussion which starts with "nuclear missiles" but this is apparently not explicit enough ("I think they are talking about penises," says one character helpfully).

Apart from the obsession with naughty bits, it's desperately unfunny. We feel relieved to tell Megan it's time for shower and bed.

Family friendly rating
You get the feeling that if Chandler asked Rachel "Have you ever been with a woman?" in a 2011 version of Friends, she wouldn't look shocked at all. She might even describe the experience in detail.

TV sitcoms, which used to be harmless family viewing, are now full of sexual themes and the details aren't just implied, they're stated. This can often make for uncomfortable family viewing, especially for a generation of parents who grew up on Get Smart and Hogan's Heroes and wonder why no one makes shows like that any more. At their best - like some moments in Two and a Half Men this week - they can also be outrageously funny, making it hard for Mum and Dad to show their disapproval of vomit and fart jokes when they have also just cracked up laughing.

Coro shocks as it gets even more raunchy
Coronation Street just got raunchier this week with a new plotline involving the show's favourite bad girl, Rosie Webster.

Days after politicians debated whether the 7.30pm TV One soap was suitable for family viewing, Rosie (played by Helen Flanagan) appeared in a skin-tight cheerleader's outfit with the words "Pop my cherry" on the back.

The programme drew criticism in Britain for screening the storyline - the latest in a series featuring the character as a seductive young temptress - in family viewing time.

Labour MP Lianne Dalziel told a select committee last week that she had seen Coronation Street after years of not watching and was shocked.

Last month the High Court upheld a Broadcasting Standards Authority ruling against the soap Home and Away, which screens at 5.30pm and is classified as suitable for children.

However, Justice Raynor Asher overturned a Broadcasting Standards Authority ruling against an oral sex scene in the adult drama Hung, which screened at 9.50pm with a warning it contained sex scenes. He described the decision as "plainly wrong".

Readers at were divided over the issue. Anna said she was constantly embarrassed watching shows at 7.30pm with her two teenage daughters and finding they were all about sex.

Heylin disagreed; "I don't have kids and I'll be damned if I'm going to be forced to watch family TV rubbish because some overly PC parent can't put on the Wiggles or find the off button."