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Harsh Reality: Unscripted TV Reality Shows Offensive to Families

I.       Introduction

Although reality-based television series are not a new phenomenon (MTV created The Real World over a decade ago), it was not until the debut of Survivor on CBS during the summer of 2000 that the "reality" genre managed to overcome the "lowbrow" stigma attached to it by sensationalistic specials like When Animals Attack and Caught in the Act, and became not only popular, but respectable too.  Survivor reinvented the reality genre by placing ordinary people in producer-contrived scenarios and adding the possibility of a cash award.  On the heels of Survivor came many competition-driven imitators, including Boot Camp, The Mole, Big Brother, The Amazing Race, and other game-show style competitions that pitted contestants against one another in search of a cash prize.

After two years the reality craze has gone from fad to fact.  Last year the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences added "Best Reality Show" as an Emmy category.  Several new shows were created for summer 2002 and many current shows have sequel installments coming in the fall of 2002.  In short, reality series have become the fastest-growing trend in television.

Reality programs have become immensely popular with television executives and advertisers alike.  Production costs are minimal for most reality series, so networks have come to use them in highly competitive time slots where a costly scripted series' prestige or future profitability might be sacrificed.  Reality series also enable the network to quickly and inexpensively fill gaps in their prime time schedules left by cancelled series.

Reality shows also have proven to be popular across all demographic groups – making them an advertisers dream.  Survivor II was one of the most-watched programs by 2-11 year-olds during the May 2001 sweeps, 3.5 million of whom tuned in to watch the final episode.

The proliferation and popularity of reality programs is not necessarily problematic.  They can be educational and worthwhile as PBS's 1900 House and Frontier House proved.  Unfortunately, too often these series become a thinly veiled excuse for encouraging the contestants' reckless behavior for the sake of an entertaining half-hour or hour of TV.  Series like Temptation Island, Chains of Love, Big Brother, The Bachelor, and Real World exploit the participants' hunger for attention, and revel in their eagerness to publicly parade their lack of moral integrity.

Reality TV has become a cultural phenomenon, and it is here to stay.  Which is why the PTC chose to make it the subject of this analysis.

II.      Study Parameters and Methodology

The PTC encountered a few complications in constructing a methodology for this study.  Because reality series are designed to last only a few weeks, they don't follow the traditional television "season," the way a scripted series does.  Instead, they are scattered all over the broadcast schedule; new episodes of reality series often air while scripted series are in re-run, or are used to fill voids left by cancelled series.  Another complicating factor was the relative scarcity of reality shows on both network television and basic cable.  If a narrow study period, the May sweeps, for example, had been selected, there would be only a handful of series to review – such a sampling would not have been sufficient to observe overall trends or to draw any conclusions.

The PTC wound up choosing what it thought would be a sufficiently long span of time (January 1, 2001 to May 1, 2002) to find a representative sample (the first four episodes of each series).  Some series did not air four episodes either because of cancellation or because the program was designed to last only a couple of weeks.  In those cases, the episodes that did air were kept in the study.

Overall, the PTC reviewed thirty-eight series, (twenty-five of which were broadcast series, thirteen were cable) for a total of 125.5 hours of programming (89.5 broadcast, 36 cable).  For series like Survivor, The Mole, The Real World and others that returned for sequel installments with new casts, each season was treated as a separate series.

Analysts were concerned with three types of content: sexual references, foul language, and violence. Sexual content was subdivided into two categories, visual acts (scenes involving amorous couples or nudity) and verbal material (sexual innuendo, suggestive comments or jokes, and references or allusions to specific sexual acts).

Foul language was divided into three major categories:

  • Profanities and mildly offensive terms: (the words "hell," "damn," and "crap")

  • Obscenities ("piss," "ass," "bitch," "bastard," "dick," "shit," "suck," "screw," "fuck," and euphemisms for "fuck")

  • Bleeped Obscenities (instances where the network bleeped, silenced, or obscured words used by the participants—usually "shit" and "fuck")

Violence noted by analysts included both depictions of violence and graphic descriptions of violence; threats of violence; and the effects of violence (dead bodies and wounds).

Because network and cable standards of decency are different, the statistics will be presented separately.

III.    Results for Broadcast


In total, there were 847 instances of sex, language, and violence logged in the 89.5 hours of broadcast reality shows.  The overall rate of sex, foul language and violence was 9.5 instances per hour.

 The per-hour rate for all forms of foul language was 6.9.  Broken into our three subcategories, the rates were as follows:

·        Mild obscenities: 2.4/hour

·        Obscenities: 3.4/hour

·        Bleeped obscenities: 1.1/hour

The per-hour rate for all forms of sexual content on reality series was 1.6.  The rate for our two major subcategories was:

·         References to Sex: 0.9/hour

·        Depictions of sexual activity: 0.7/hour

 Violence on reality series occurred at a rate of 1 instance per hour.

 Overall, the worst overall broadcast networks for offensive content were NBC with 19 instances per hour (of reality programming), and UPN with 14.9 instances per hour. 

The WB aired the cleanest reality shows, with only 1.8 instances of objectionable content per hour for the network. 

The worst broadcast reality show was Big Brother 2 (CBS) with 26.3 instances of objectionable content per hour.

In terms of foul language, NBC was the worst offender, 16 instances per hour.

On a series by series basis, Big Brother 2 contained the most foul-language out of all the reality series airing on the broadcast networks, with an average of 21.8 instances per hour.

UPN and Fox led the networks in sexual content at 3.4 instances per hour and 3.1 instances per hour respectively. 

The worst series in terms of sexual content was UPN's Chains of Love, with 6.5 instances per hour. 

UPN and NBC very nearly tied for first place for airing the most violence on their reality shows.  Their per-hour rates of violence were 3.1 and 3, respectively.

The two cleanest reality shows were on the cleanest network.  The WB's No Boundaries and Elimidate Deluxe both featured roughly one objectionable instance per hour.

 Looking only at relationship-based reality series (Love Cruise, Temptation Island, The Bachelor, Elimidate Deluxe, Chains of Love, and Temptation Island 2), the per hour rate of sexual content rose to 3.9.

IV.     Examples from Broadcast

Foul Language:

  • Al: "And not to give a [bleeped ‘fuck'] about anybody else." 

(The Mole 2: The Next Betrayal, ABC)

  • Kirsten: "I'm pissed at Andy, that's for sure.  I think he's kind of a dick."

(Chains of Love, UPN)

  • Rosenbaum: "Did you take Yaney's [bleeped ‘shit'] the other day?"

(Boot Camp, FOX)

  • Ytossie: "I can be a real bitch."

(Temptation Island, FOX)

  • Autumn: "Do you know how much shit we've had to go through?" 

Hardy: "I will do what I can to knock that shit down."

(Big Brother 2, CBS)

Suggestive Dialogue or Innuendo:

  • Jennifer is asking the men chained to her questions while they are hooked to a polygraph machine. 

Jennifer: "Do you think it was sleazy that I had an affair with a married man?"  David: "No." 

Jennifer: "Have you ever paid for sex?" 

Wade: "Yes.  It was my first night in Hollywood."

(Chains of Love, UPN)

  • A man talks about the woman he is pursuing to the camera: "Hey, maybe she'll show me her boobs."

(Elimidate Deluxe, WB)

  • Kent: "These people are free-wheeling.  They'll tell you right now, and there's you know, 4 or 5 guys sitting out there right now that'll say hey, if I get a chance to screw somebody, I'm gonna do it in this house." 

(Big Brother 2, CBS)

  • Several contestants play a truth or dare type game: 

Hardy: "Within a 24 hour period, what's the most number of women you've slept with?" 

Justin: "Three." 

Sheryl: "Whore!"

Justin: "See now, you have to understand, I had three girls at the same time.  One that lived up the park, one that lived around the corner, one that lived like a half a mile down the road.  It was my birthday." (Big Brother 2, CBS)

  • Amanda: "People often get the wrong impression of me.  Since I am from Kansas, they get the opinion that I'm very innocent, but I'm actually very different.  I am very open sexually with my partners, and one of the craziest things I've ever done was purchase a trapeze for some entertainment."

(The Bachelor, ABC)

Depictions of Sexual Activity:

  • The single men participate in a beauty pageant-style modeling show for the women.  One man wears a thong, his bare behind was blurred out during editing.  Another man drops his towel off-camera while the girls laugh, clap and call out "There are naked boys on the beach!" (Temptation Island, FOX)

  • On her date with Johnny, Mandy licks food from his nipple while he licks something off of her bare stomach. (Temptation Island, FOX)

  • Krista is in the shower stall.  Justin take off his towel and gets in with her, they are both nude. (Big Brother 2, CBS)

  • Tony and Edmundo get lap dances.  The women straddle them and dance suggestively and rub against the men. (Temptation Island 2, FOX)

Violence or Graphic Depictions:

  • Contestants on this reality series compete to solve a staged mystery.  In the beginning, production crews make it look like a man and his daughter are shot to death in their home.  (Murder in Small Town X, Fox)

  • Brian finds a tin of sardines with two (realistic, but fake) severed fingers inside. (Murder in Small Town X, Fox)

  • Justin tells some people about how he wants to hurt Autumn.  "You know what?  I'm going back in there in 15 minutes.  This time I'm going to punch her in the stomach.  And you know, she made a date with the devil, you know what I mean?  If I do get that other one tomorrow, you know, the freakin'… the one I'm gonna give the black eye to?  If I get her, Bro, you will guarantee you'll hear her scream, cause I'm going to do her doggy-style and I'm going to give her such a kidney shot." (Big Brother 2, CBS)

  • Krista is drunk and lying on the kitchen counter.  Justin picks up a sweeper and swings it like a golf club.  "Keep your head right here.  Would you mind if I cracked you over the head with this?" Krista mumbles something about her mother.  Justin: "Would you get mad if I killed you?" 

The scene ends and the host Julie Chen reports:  "At this point, Justin picked up a large kitchen knife and repeated to an intoxicated Krista, ‘Seriously, would you get mad if I killed you?'  He put the knife to Krista's throat as they kissed.  He took the knife away momentarily.  With Krista's encouragement, he put the knife back to her neck and they kissed again."  (Big Brother 2, CBS)

V.      Results for Cable


Ø      In total, there were 1060 instances of sex, language, and violence logged in the 36 hours of cable reality shows.  The overall rate of sex, foul language and violence was 29.4 instances per hour, more than three times the broadcast average. 

Ø      The per-hour rate for foul language was 24.9.  The rate for the subcategories were as follows:

·        Mild obscenities: 3.5/hour

·        Obscenities: 8.1/hour

·        Bleeped obscenities: 13.3/hour

Ø      The per-hour rate for all forms of sexual content on reality series was 3.9. The rate for the subcategories was:

·        Sexual references: 2.9/hour

·        Depictions of sexual activity: 1/hour

Ø      Violence on reality series occurred at a much lower rate (.75 instances per hour) than on expanded basic cable series in general (4.7 instances per hour).  

Ø      The cable networks with the highest rates of offensive content were VH1 with 39.7 instances per hour, and MTV at 36.1 instances per hour.

Ø      MTV's reality series lead the pack in terms of foul-language with 31 instances per hour. 

Ø      VH1's reality series featured the most sexual content, with an average rate of 10 instances per hour.

Ø      USA's reality series contained the most violent content, with an average of 3 instances per hour.

Ø      Not surprisingly, the Fox Family Channel (now ABC Family Channel) contained the cleanest reality series, with only 2.1 combined instances of sex, foul language, and violence per hour.

Ø      On a show-by-show basis, the worst cable reality series overall was MTV's The Osbournes with a combined average of 140.5 instances of offensive content per hour. 

Ø      The Osbournes was also the leader in terms of foul language with an average of 136.5 instances per hour.

Ø      Sexual content hit the highest levels on VH1's Bands on the Run, with an average of 9.8 instances per hour.

Ø      Cable reality violence was at its peak on Eco-Challenge (USA), with an average of 3 instances per hour.

Ø      The least offensive reality series on expanded basic cable was Fox Family's Scariest Places on Earth with a combined average of 2.1 instances of offensive content per hour.

VI. Examples from Cable

Foul Language:

  • Amanda: "Kicking [bleeped ‘shit'] out of each other with like big swords and axes.  It was [bleeped ‘fucking'] great." (Bands on the Run, VH1)

  • Band member: "They're gonna be like, ‘Those guys are assholes, they're such dicks.'" (Bands on the Run, VH1)

  • Jieslea: "Don't play with me, Adam, cause I don't think your [bleeped ‘fucking'] jokes are funny, all right?  You're pissing me off.  That's what you're doing.  You're pissing me off.  I'm tired of your [bleeped ‘shit'].  I did not think that was [bleeped ‘fucking'] humorous." (Road Rules 10: The Quest, MTV)

  • Belou: "Tell me I gotta bring my [bleeped ‘fucking'] baby!" (Real World/Road Rules Battle of the Seasons, MTV)

  • Jack: "She tells me to [bleeped ‘fuck'] off.  Kelly's a little bitch when it comes to it.  Kelly is a big ass mallrat…she told me to [bleeped ‘fuck'] off." (The Osbournes, MTV)

  • Ozzy: "You [bleeped ‘fucking'] dumb [bleeped ‘shit'] mother [bleeped ‘fucker']." (The Osbournes, MTV)

Suggestive Dialogue or Innuendo:

  • One of the Soulcracker band members looks down at his crotch and says, "Well that thing's not going to suck itself."  (Bands on the Run, VH1)

  • Rachel: "All of a sudden he grabs himself and is like, ‘Look baby, you're making me so hard.'"

Lori: "What did he say? Like, ‘Can you feel my…dick?'"

Rachel: "I don't know.  He grabbed it."

(The Real World X: Back in New York, MTV)

Mike: "If you guys are planning on having some fun, we found some condoms."  Mike holds up a glass bowl full of condoms. (The Real World X: Back in New York, MTV)

  • Sharon: "He started to take Viagra and we would wait and wait for it to work.  I'd fall asleep, and he'd be there with a big boner…"

Ozzy: "I'm going, ‘Sharon, I'm ready…' I'm lying there like I'm camping with a tent pole." (The Osbournes, MTV)

Depictions of Sexual Activity:

  • Aneesa is getting in the shower with Theo.  She is naked, and her buttocks are exposed, but pixilated.  Her breasts are also shown, pixilated.

Aneesa: "I really don't want to see your penis."

Theo smacks her on the bottom.

Theo: "Smack the ass!"

Aneesa: "I dropped something, and I don't want to bend over, especially when his schlong is in my face."  (The Real World XI: Chicago, MTV)

  • The roommates go to the Fetico Gallery where fetish art is displayed.  On the walls there are pictures of nude men, many shown partially or with their genitals pixilated. There are also sculptures of male sex organs and homosexually themed art displays.  A song plays in the background repeating the phrase "touch the penis."  (The Real World XI: Chicago, MTV)

  • There is a naked girl in Dominic's bedroom. Her private parts are pixilated. It is implied that she and Dominic have been having sex.  It was earlier established that she is married to someone else.  (Bands on the Run, VH1)

  • A girl has her shirt lifted up, exposing her bare breasts [which are blurred-out on screen].  Dominic leans in and licks some sort of food substance off of them.  (Bands on the Run, VH1)

  • Lori straddles Kevin as he lies on the bed.  She then puts her head in his lap, mimicking oral sex.  (The Real World X: Back in New York, MTV)

  • Mike is nude except for a tiny piece of cloth covering his genitals and a thong in back.  He climbs atop Sharon and simulates sex with her thrusting his pelvis at her crotch and rear end. (Real World/Road Rules: Battle of the Seasons)

Violence or Graphic Depictions:

  • Michelle: (describing a murder victim) "Her head was cut off and her hands were chopped off." (Fear, MTV)

  • A man falls off his bike, breaks his skull, and has blood all over his face. (Eco-Challenge: Borneo, USA)

  • David gets impaled by a tree branch and a bloody wound is visible.  (Eco-Challenge: Borneo, USA)

  • In a medical center, a doctor is shown putting his fingers in a bloody wound on a man's chest. (Eco-Challenge: Borneo, USA)

  • There are close-ups leeches burrowing into the skin of various contestants, and the bloody, oozing wounds left by the leeches. (Eco-Challenge: Borneo, USA)

  • Woman: "He's in my blister, you bastard!"  There is a close up of a woman with a leech crawling in her bloody blister. (Eco-Challenge: Borneo, USA)

VII. Conclusion

The term "reality" has come to encompass virtually all unscripted series, those that follow the day-to-day activities of celebrities, and those that follow the day-to-day activities of ordinary people; those that purport to bring couples together, and those that strive to rip them apart; those that promise cash awards, and those that just offer the possibility of fame, however remote.  These programs are, in fact, nothing more than producer-contrived scenarios, set up to cash-in on the conflict and sexual interaction captured by the ever-present cameras.

 Producers and network executives often talk about how they seek to "push the envelope" of television standards—reality TV serves this purpose to the extreme.  Since shows like Temptation Island, Real World, and Big Brother that have contained graphic sexual activity and nudity are popular with viewers, it is only a matter of time before scripted show writers are scrambling to keep up with the viewers raised expectations of more frequent and more explicit sex on television. Language standards will also erode when producers learn that they can win publicity, critical acclaim, and high-ratings by emulating the successful format of The Osbournes.

The statistics compiled in this study suggest that reality programming contributes significantly to the already high level of sex and foul language on television – particularly on expanded basic cable. Reality-based entertainment programs aren't going away any time soon.  We can expect them only to become more common, and sadly, increasingly outrageous.

Executive Summary




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