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Reality TV: Race to the Bottom

A content analysis of prime time broadcast reality series

By Aubree Rankin

I. Introduction

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.[1] 

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."[2]

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."[3]  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.[4]  

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 114.5 hours.  

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 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," "fuck," and extremely offensive terms for sexual organs)

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).

III. Results 

  • 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 study.

  • 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 said. 

  • 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 sex.

  • 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.

IV. Examples

Foul Language

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 p.m. ET)

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?"

Apple: "No."

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 porn?" 

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 scream.

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: "No."

Brian: "Why?"

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. ET)

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)


V. Conclusion

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.

[1] McMullen, Cary. "Final Four: How Ethical is Reality TV?" Lakeland Ledger. D1. August 23, 2000.

[2] Morrison, Nick. "Can Reality TV Really Damage Your Health?" The Northern Echo.  Pg. 10. June 9, 2003. 

[3] Mapplebeck, Will.  "How Reality TV Can Damage Your Health." Newcastle.co.uk. October 24, 2003.

[4] Goode, Erica.  "Survivor's Nobler Roots: Psychologists Have Long Been Studying How Situations Influence Our Behaviour." The Gazette. A6. August 27, 2000.

Executive Summary




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