Unscripted TV Reality
Shows Offensive to Families
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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).
was divided into three major categories:
Profanities and mildly
offensive terms: (the words "hell," "damn," and "crap")
"ass," "bitch," "bastard," "dick," "shit," "suck," "screw," "fuck," and euphemisms
Bleeped Obscenities (instances
where the network bleeped, silenced, or obscured words used by the
participants—usually "shit" and "fuck")
by analysts included both depictions of violence and graphic descriptions of
violence; threats of violence; and the effects of violence (dead bodies and
and cable standards of decency are different, the statistics will be presented
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.
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
Bleeped obscenities: 1.1/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
on reality series occurred at a rate of 1 instance per hour.
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
The WB aired
the cleanest reality shows, with only 1.8 instances of objectionable content
per hour for the network.
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
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.
cleanest reality shows were on the cleanest network. The WB's No
Boundaries and Elimidate Deluxe both featured roughly one
objectionable instance per hour.
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
IV. Examples from Broadcast
(The Mole 2: The Next Betrayal, ABC)
(Chains of Love, UPN)
(Boot Camp, FOX)
(Temptation Island, FOX)
Hardy: "I will do what I can to knock that shit down."
(Big Brother 2, CBS)
Dialogue or Innuendo:
you think it was sleazy that I had an affair with a married man?" David:
you ever paid for sex?"
"Yes. It was my first night in Hollywood."
(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)
a 24 hour period, what's the most number of women you've slept with?"
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)
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)
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
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
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.
The per-hour rate for foul language was 24.9. The rate for the
subcategories were as follows:
Mild obscenities: 3.5/hour
Bleeped obscenities: 13.3/hour
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
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
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.
MTV's reality series lead the pack in terms of foul-language
with 31 instances per hour.
VH1's reality series featured the most sexual content, with an
average rate of 10 instances per hour.
USA's reality series contained the most violent content, with an
average of 3 instances per hour.
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.
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.
The Osbournes was also the leader in terms of foul
language with an average of 136.5 instances per hour.
Sexual content hit the highest levels on VH1's Bands on the
Run, with an average of 9.8 instances per hour.
Cable reality violence was at its peak on Eco-Challenge
(USA), with an average of 3 instances per hour.
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
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,
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
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,
Ozzy: "You [bleeped ‘fucking']
dumb [bleeped ‘shit'] mother [bleeped ‘fucker']." (The Osbournes,
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
"What did he say? Like, ‘Can you feel my…dick?'"
"I don't know. He grabbed it."
World X: Back in New York, MTV)
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)
going, ‘Sharon, I'm ready…' I'm lying there like I'm camping with a tent
pole." (The Osbournes, MTV)
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.
"I really don't want to see your penis."
Theo smacks her
on the bottom.
"Smack the ass!"
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,
Michelle: (describing a murder
victim) "Her head was cut off and her hands were chopped off." (Fear,
A man falls off his bike,
breaks his skull, and has blood all over his face. (Eco-Challenge: Borneo,
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:
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)
"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
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.
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.