Reality TV: Race to the Bottom
A content analysis of prime time broadcast reality series
By Aubree Rankin
So-called reality programs have been around in one
form or another since the earliest days of television. Candid Camera,
considered by many to be the progenitor of today's reality series, has been
around off and on since 1948. In general, reality programs are shows that
capture ordinary people in unscripted, producer-contrived situations. Though
the formats vary from program to program, the participants are usually taped
around the clock so that cameras can record every emotional outburst, every
conflict, every intimate moment, and every heart-wrenching confession for the
entertainment of TV audiences. Most also involve some form of competition and
the promise of cash or prizes for the winner.
Although reality series are not new to TV, it
wasn't until the surprising breakout success of Survivor on CBS in the
summer of 2000 that shows of that genre became major players in the prime time
lineup. Despite critics' predictions that the fad would be short-lived, reality
series have not only persisted, they have proliferated. At least 20% of the
prime time schedule during the February sweeps period was composed of reality
programming. From Extreme Makeover to Average Joe to The Swan
to The Apprentice, it's difficult these days to turn on the
television and not end up seeing a reality show.
The driving force behind this programming fad
comes down to dollars and cents. With salaries of top TV actors topping $1
million per episode, developing new scripted series can be a risky proposition.
Reality television series have low production costs and no talent to pay other
than the show's host. Increasing use of product placement and prizes sponsored
by corporations make some of the series virtually free to produce.
In October 2002, the PTC released a comprehensive
study looking at this new TV phenomenon and found that reality programs in
general had high levels of sexual content and foul language. Is such content
any worse because it appears on a reality show than it would have been on a
scripted series? There's certainly ample evidence to suggest it is.
Reality programs thrive on one-upmanship. ABC's
The Bachelor lets a man pick a bride out of a group of single, attractive
women hand-picked by the producers. Fox's Married by America lets the
audience pick the bride. Producers of Big Brother hope for a "hook-up"
they can televise nationally. Fox forces couples to "hook up" or get kicked off
the island on Paradise Hotel. Every time a reality show ups the ante
with outrageous behavior or shocking footage, it's encouraging subsequent shows
to add more skin, more twists, and more shocking behavior, resulting in a
perpetual race to the bottom.
There are also legitimate concerns about the
messages inherent in many of these competitions. Television serves as a model
for social behavior and interaction, especially for young viewers, many of whom
pick up social cues from how they see their favorite TV personalities behave.
Consider the lessons those children are learning from reality programs. "What
you learn from a program like [Survivor] is to be a skunk, to be
conniving and self-seeking. These are things most parents and society generally
tries to teach us we're not supposed to be. But the reward doesn't go to the
best person, it goes to the biggest rat," according to Robert Peters, president
of Morality in Media.
Beyond content concerns, there is also
widespread concern about the voyeuristic aspects of today's reality shows.
Cultural criminologist Mike
Presdee of the University of Sunderland says of the trend, "We're becoming a
nation of voyeurs. It is cheap titillation, cheap entertainment… In
Big Brother, people want to know if they're having sex or want to watch them
going to the toilet… We know that those who brutalize others are brutalized in
the process, even if it means they might well be willing to personally humiliate
somebody, because they have seen it being done and think it is good fun. It is
good fun, but it is also a form of mental cruelty. Domestic violence is not
just physical, it includes mental violence, so what is the difference? Being
cruel to somebody isn't just beating them up."
There is also growing consensus within the medical
community that reality TV is bad for the contestants as well. Newcastle
University (UK) psychologist Joan Harvey told the Newcastle Journal that
she believes reality-show participants don't realize just what they're getting
themselves into when they sign on to do these shows. "The contestants go into it
with a certain amount of ambition but an awful lot of naivety. They are
probably not as extrovert [sic] as they perceive themselves to be. They
are more vulnerable than they think… When your self esteem does take a
knock it can be quite catastrophic."
Indeed it can. One contestant voted off the original Swedish version of
Survivor committed suicide a short time after he returned home, prompting
the producers of many reality programs to keep psychologists on staff.
Reality TV is a trend that's influencing all other
areas of popular entertainment, and because such programs purport to show real
people in real situations, the content can be far more explicit. Even the most
envelope-pushing TV dramas wouldn't dare to use the sort of language that is
constantly employed by contestants on some reality TV shows. Likewise, TV
viewers watching sexual situations on scripted series know they're just watching
two actors pantomiming physical intimacy. That's clearly not the case when
sexual situations are presented on a reality series, making viewers voyeurs in a
very real sense. For these reasons, the PTC chose to make television reality
programs the subject of a second comprehensive content analysis.
II. Study Parameters and Methodology
Reality series are usually designed to last only a
few weeks, so they don't follow the traditional television "season" the way most
scripted series do. Instead, they are scattered all over the broadcast
schedule; new episodes of reality series often air while scripted series are in
reruns, or are used to fill voids left by canceled series. Therefore, limiting
the study period to one four-week sweeps period, for example, would not provide
a sufficient sample on which to base a study. The PTC chose what it thought
would be a sufficiently long span of time (June 1, 2002-August 31, 2003) to find
a representative sample of the second big wave of reality TV for its second
study of the genre. As with the first study of reality TV, the PTC used the
first four episodes of each series in its data analysis. 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. The PTC reviewed twenty-nine series on the seven
broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, NBC, ITV, Fox, UPN, and the WB) for a total of
Reality series included in
this study fit into one of three categories. They are either programs in which
players or teams compete for a big prize (Survivor; The Amazing Race),
seek romantic fulfillment (Cupid; The Bachelor; For Love or
Money), or voyeuristic day-in-the-life shows that follow a family or
profession with constant camera attention (Big Brother; The Restaurant).
Talent competitions, physical makeover documentaries, and home improvement
series were not counted in this analysis. Because shows with returning seasons
usually have entirely new casts, each subsequent run of the show was counted as
a separate series. For example, The Bachelor/Bachelorette show ran three
times in the study period with different men and women seeking a spouse, so each
incarnation was counted as a separate series.
Analysts were primarily 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
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," "fuck," and extremely offensive terms for
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).
In total, there were an alarming 1,657
instances of sex, foul language, and violence logged in the 114.5 hours of
broadcast reality shows; a rate of 14.5 instances of objectionable content
per hour, a 52.6% increase from the previous study's rate of 9.5 per hour.
The per-hour rate for all forms of foul
language was 9.9, up 47.8% from the last study. Broken into our three
subcategories, the rates were as follows:
Mild obscenities: 1.9/hour
Strong obscenities: 3.9/hour
Bleeped obscenities: 4.1/hour
While the per hour rates for mild and strong
obscenities didn't change dramatically from the first study, the number of
bleeped words per hour increased by 273%.
There were 199 bleeped uses of "fuck" on
reality shows included in this analysis, making it the most common vulgarity
on broadcast reality shows.
There were 76 bleeped uses of "shit" in this
Words and phrases that as yet the PTC has not
recorded on scripted broadcast series, including "cunt" and "cock sucking,"
were used on reality shows included in this study. In both instances the
words were bleeped, but viewers were clearly able to decipher what was
The most commonly used unedited vulgarity on
reality TV was "ass."
While innuendo far surpassed all other forms
of sexual content in this study, nudity was the second-most-frequent type of
sexual content on reality TV shows, followed by anatomical references and
references to or uses of pornography.
The PTC also counted 16 instances of sexual
activity on reality programs included in this study; one reference to
bestiality; two references to masturbation; eighteen references to kinky
sexual practices (including group sex); and two implied instances of oral
The per-hour rate for all forms of sexual
content on reality series was 4.3, up 169% from the last study.
There were 3.31 references to sex per hour, a
268% increase from last year.
Depictions of sexual activity had a rate of
0.99 instances per hour, which is virtually the same as 2001-2002, but the
verbal sexual references increased dramatically—up 373%.
Violence on reality series occurred at a rate
of .26 instances per hour, down from 1 per hour in 2001-2002, the only
decrease in the study data this year.
Overall, the worst broadcast networks for
offensive content were the WB, with 25.4 instances of offensive content per
hour of reality programming, and UPN, with 24.2 instances per hour.
CBS aired the cleanest reality shows, with
only 4.5 instances of objectionable content per hour.
The worst broadcast reality shows were CBS's Big
Brother 4, with 41.75 instances of objectionable content per hour and
the WB's The Surreal Life, with 37.5. Big Brother 4 had 58.7%
more offensive content than last year's worst show, Big Brother 2.
In terms of foul language, the WB was the
worst offender, with 20.1 instances per hour.
On a series-by-series basis, Big Brother 4
contained the most foul language of all the reality series airing on the
broadcast networks, with an average of 32.5 instances per hour, the majority
of which were bleeped obscenities (15.5 per hour).
UPN led the networks in sexual content at 13.5
instances per hour, a 209% increase from last year when UPN was the worst
network for sex on reality television. Most of the sex (10.5 instances per
hour) was in the form of verbal references and innuendos rather than visual.
The worst series in terms of sexual content
was NBC's Meet My Folks (seasons one and two), with 12.25 and 11.75
instances per hour respectively. The majority of the Meet My Folks
sexual content was verbal content.
The WB aired the most violence on their
reality shows with a 1.7 per hour rate.
Although sex and foul language had dramatic
increases this year, the PTC was pleased to note that the total violence per
hour on broadcast reality shows decreased by 285%.
The two cleanest reality shows, The
Bachelorette (ABC) and Who Wants to Marry My Dad? (NBC) both
featured an average of two objectionable instances per hour.
Vince: "We're sitting in [bleeped 'fucking']
traffic, you know, miles from where we're supposed to [bleeped 'fucking']
turn...is there a [bleeped 'fucking'] reason why we're just cruising this
[bleeped 'fucking'] thing? If not, let me out at the [bleeped 'fucking']
hotel...we're supposed to go to the [bleeped 'fucking'] Palms, and we're driving
just down the [bleeped 'fucking'] strip on a Saturday [bleeped 'fucking'] night,
no [bleeped 'fucking'] reason? [Bleeped 'fuck'] get to the [bleeped 'fucking']
place...The Palms hotel is back [bleeped 'fucking'] that way...How the [bleeped
'fuck'] can you [bleeped 'fucking'] not, you don't know how to get to a [bleeped
'fucking'] hotel? [bleeped 'fuck']...I'm like 'Where the [bleeped 'fuck'] turn
the [bleeped 'fucking'] bus...Turn that [bleeped 'fucking'] camera off, before I
throw it out the [bleeped 'fucking'] window."(The Surreal Life, WB,
1/30/03, 9:00 p.m. ET)
Elyse, in video tape confessional: "...Robin, how
[bleeped ‘fucking'] dare you show me that 'Foolish is the atheist' Bible verse
this morning and ask me what do I think of it. What the [bleeped 'fuck'] am I
supposed to think of it? You know what I think of you? Foolish is the woman who
believes that [bleeped ‘god'] damn tripe. Giselle, you [unknown bleeped word]
worthless [bleeped 'cunt']. You are so wasteful, bitchy, stupid. You're
worthless. Your parents must be ashamed of you. Jay, you offended me today. I
know that medical school is hard work...it takes a [bleeped 'fucking'] ass to
cover every [unknown bleeped word] place...Damn it, let me [bleeped 'fucking']
die. You bitches." (America's Next Top Model 2003, UPN, 5/27/03, 9:00
When Jun finds out her ex-boyfriend will be a
roommate in the Big Brother house, she can be heard muttering "Oh, fuck."
(Big Brother 4, CBS, 7/8/03, 8:00 p.m. ET)
Scott: "The first couple days I was a total
asshole." (Big Brother 4, CBS, 7/15/03, 8:00 p.m. ET)
Sexual Dialogue or Innuendo
Girl: "Jason likes to be spanked."
Jason: "I liked to be spanked."
Rhoda: "You're making me have this vision of my
daughter spanking your butt." (Meet My Folks Season One,
NBC, 7/22/02, 10:00 p.m. ET)
Eugenia gives Apple (a man trying to win a date
with her daughter) a lie detector test.
Eugenia: "Have you ever been stimulated with an
electrical device while having intimate relations with a woman?"
The test shows him to be lying. (Meet My Folks
Season Two, NBC, 2/8/03, 10:00 p.m. ET)
Kellie asks Jon what the eels feel like and he
says, "They feel like a slippery penis." (The Amazing Race 4, CBS,
6/26/03, 8:00 p.m. ET)
While flirting with a table full of female
customers, Rocco suggestively rubs a woman's leg under the table. Rocco: "Okay,
that's enough. I'm getting aroused...I won't be able to walk around." (The
Restaurant, NBC, 8/3/03, 10:00 p.m. ET)
A man tells Lisa and the other women on the panel
that he is pierced below the waist. Lisa says that she is naive and unfamiliar
with that sort of piercing and wonders if he would explain. He demonstrates
using his finger to represent his penis and shows her where the ring is on the
tip. (Cupid, CBS, 7/16/03, 9:00 p.m. ET)
Errol tells Lisa that he gave a girl a vibrator
with his name on the shaft as a gift once. Then he says, "Do you like watching
Lisa: "I like watching porn."
Errol: "When we get married we can make our own
movie." (Cupid, CBS, 7/16/03, 9:00 p.m. ET)
Depictions of Sexual Activity/Nudity:
Heidi, Jenna, and Shauna are bathing. They take
their bikini tops off and hold their hands over their bare breasts and when
their hands are off, their breasts are pixilated. In a voice-over Heidi says
she thinks it would be good for the younger, cuter girls to go topless if they
make it to the game's merged tribe round so they can distract the men. (Survivor:
Amazon, CBS, 2/27/03, 8:00 p.m. ET)
Jerri, Gabrielle, and Brande are in a limo and
Jerri notes, "This is going to be fun. I have never seen male strippers
before." The scene cuts to them in the strip bar as some shirtless men are
dancing. Jerri says they need some dollar bills. In the next scene, Jerri is
screaming with embarrassment as a guy in a G-string shakes his pelvis in front
of her; it's slightly pixilated, since his genitals is partially exposed by his
dance. (The Surreal Life, WB, 1/30/03, 9:00 p.m. ET)
One of the models is lying on a table while the
bikini waxer applies hot wax to her inner upper thigh. Her pubic region appears
to be covered by a bikini bottom, but her hand is also down there with the
waxer's hand. Ebony's face is shown during the process. We hear a ripping sound
as the wax is removed. We watch as the wax is ripped off the first girl. The
other girls are shown getting their bikini areas waxed.
Robin: "There's only two people who have been down
there, myself and my gynecologist and I give him crap."
The scene continues with clips of people working
on the women's pubic regions--legs spread, legs up in the air. Some of the women
Robin: "A couple of ladies I don't know sayin', ya
know, spread 'em." She is shown with her legs in the air while the waxer works
on her bottom region.
Giselle: "I better be a damn supermodel after
this." (America's Next Top Model 2003, UPN, 5/20/03, 9:00 p.m. ET)
While the houseguests play truth or dare, Michelle
is dared to remove Dana's microphone with her mouth. It is clipped to the scoop
neck of Dana's tank top, so there is a close-up of Michelle caressing Dana's
cleavage with her lips while trying to get the microphone off. Allison has to
give Nathan a lap dance. She straddles his lap and grinds her crotch into his.
She is very close to him and has her breasts in his face as well. Amanda has to
lick Jee's ear for 10 seconds. Robert gives Amanda a lap dance. He takes down
his shorts and in his boxer briefs rubs his butt on her lap. Justin lies on the
kitchen counter face down and Michelle rubs and squeezes his buttocks. (Big
Brother 4, CBS, 7/11/03, 8:00 p.m. ET)
Brian takes one of the strippers to his room and
they go to the bathroom. It seems they are taking off their clothes.
Stripper (referring to Haley, the woman at the
center of the competition): "I don't think she's that great."
Brian: "You don't?"
Stripper: "I'm better. I can show you why."
She moans sexually and there is a distinct sound
of his zipper coming down.
Stripper: "You're probably gonna be in trouble,
huh? With the other girl..."
Later in the episode both Brian and the stripper
allude to the fact that she gave him oral sex. (Mr. Personality, Fox,
4/28/03, 9:00 p.m. ET)
Evan and Sarah are in the woods. Noises of
pleasure can be heard. It's not possible to know exactly what is happening,
other than it is some kind of sexual activity.
Production includes captions such as "smack,"
"slurp," and "Think it'll go better laying down?" (Since this episode aired,
both Evan and Sarah claimed in press interviews there was no actual sex taking
place, just a manipulation of events and sound by production crews. Either way,
the end product was an attempt by the producers to titillate the audience and
imply illicit sexual activity.) (Joe Millionaire, Fox, 1/27/03, 9:00 p.m.
Violence or Graphic Depictions
During the challenge game, Robb grabs Clay tightly
around the neck to prevent Clay from crossing Robb's path. Clay is about eight
inches shorter and 25 years older than Robb, giving Robb an unfair physical
advantage at the time of the choking. (Survivor: Thailand, CBS, 10/3/02,
8:00 p.m. ET)
It has been said that reality TV is turning us
into a nation of Peeping Toms. It's certainly a valid complaint. Shows like
Paradise Hotel and Big Brother are designed to appeal to the basest
instincts of the viewers, invite us all to become voyeurs, and serve no purpose
other than to pander and titillate.
Research shows that viewers, young viewers
especially, are influenced by the behavior they see modeled on TV. As reality
TV continues to spread, we need to be mindful of the messages and values these
shows are communicating to young viewers. What's a young viewer likely to learn
from reality TV? That backstabbing and betrayal will get you ahead in life (Survivor);
that marriage is not to be taken seriously (Married by America); that
money matters more than love when choosing a life mate (Joe Millionaire; For
Love or Money). Parents need to be armed with the information to combat
these harmful messages.
Remove the harmful messages and what's left? Some
of the coarsest and most explicit programming to be seen on TV, as this study
demonstrates. Offensive content is rampant on reality TV. Words that TV
writers would never dream of using in a scripted series are used freely on
reality TV programs. The fact that reality TV producers can get away with this
kind of material can only serve as an inducement for writers of scripted series
to try to keep up. The statistics compiled in this study confirm that reality
programming is a huge contributing factor in the steadily increasing level of
sex and foul language on network television. Reality television is now a
fixture on programming schedules and parents need to be aware that although
these series are promoted heavily and often tailor-made for young viewers, they
are almost never appropriate for impressionable young minds.
The networks have a responsibility to choose their
programming more wisely. It's up to the network executives to nip the most
disgusting and destructive reality series in the bud. When a producer
recommends a show that is prurient in design, the networks should reject the
extreme filth proposed instead of eagerly embracing it for a quick spike in
ratings. Television is a business and financial success is certainly the
motivating factor for a network decision, but responsibility to the viewing
public needs to be a consideration in those decisions as well.
Sponsors are another group that needs to seriously
consider their integrity before attaching themselves to the latest reality
craze. Corporations must take care not only with their ad placements, but also
in underwriting prizes or product placement. A can of strategically placed soda
or a fast-food label in the background of a seedy reality series sends a message
to viewers about the kind of values held by a company. Taking some pride in its
product and avoiding association with foul language and gratuitous sex is a good
strategy for any company.
Networks only do what they can get away with, so
the FCC needs to be vigilant in enforcing broadcast decency standards.
Producers make choices when editing the hundreds of hours of raw footage into
each half-hour or hour-long episode. When those producers choose to leave in
explicit language or graphic content, they need to be held accountable every bit
as much as the producers of scripted series.