Reality TV: Race to the Bottom
A content analysis of prime time broadcast reality series
By Aubree Rankin
Recently, The Hollywood Reporter declared
that "the 2003-'04 television season is poised to go down in the annals of
broadcasting history as the year when reality programming roared."
Reality shows have proliferated over the past five
years. Today, reality shows constitute 13% of broadcast programming, up from 4%
in 1999, according to a recent analysis by media negotiator Magna Global.
Reality series are challenging the supremacy of top-rated scripted series; in
the February 2004 sweeps, Donald Trump's reality series The Apprentice
topped C.S.I. in the ratings.
The rising popularity of reality series,
especially among young viewers, should give parents pause. Even more than their
scripted counterparts, reality series wallow in some of the most explicit foul
language imaginable. Moreover, they frequently depict real people in real – not
staged – sexual situations, turning viewers into voyeurs in a very real sense.
How offensive has reality TV become? To answer
that question, PTC analysts studied the first four episodes of twenty-nine
different reality series airing on the seven broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, Fox,
NBC, ITV, UPN, and the WB) between June 1, 2002 and August 31, 2003, for a total
of 114.5 hours of reality programming, and found not only that reality series
have grown raunchier over time, but also that they are qualitatively and
quantitatively coarser than their scripted counterparts.
During our study period, there were an alarming
1,135 instances of foul language, 492 instances of sex, and 30 instances of
violence logged on 114.5 hours of broadcast reality shows for a total of 1,657
instances of offensive content, an average of 14.5 instances of offensive
content per hour. This represents a 52.6% increase from the per-hour rate of
offensive content on broadcast reality shows documented in the PTC's last study
of the genre, Harsh Reality, released in October 2002.
To put this data in context, the PTC quantified
the amount of sex and foul language on scripted broadcast series during the
first two weeks of the November 2002 sweeps. Sex and foul language combined
occurred on scripted series at a rate of 10.7 instances per hour, meaning there
are on average 3.5 more instances per hour of sex and foul language on reality
series than on scripted series.
Other Findings Include:
The amount of bleeped profanities per hour has
increased by 273% since the 2002 study. Verbal sexual references were also
more frequent in recent reality series, increasing from 0.9 instances per
hour to 3.31 instances per hour, an increase of 373% since 2002.
There were 199 bleeped uses of "fuck" on
reality shows included in this analysis, making it the most commonly used
profanity on broadcast reality programs.
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 two worst broadcast reality shows overall
were CBS's Big Brother 4, with 41.8 instances of objectionable
content per hour, and the WB's The Surreal Life, with 37.5.
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
verbal or visual (images of pornographic magazines, for example) references
The PTC also counted sixteen instances of
sexual activity on reality programs included in this study; two spoken
references to masturbation; eighteen spoken references to kinky sexual
practices; and two implied instances of oral sex.
Reality series airing on the WB and UPN had
the highest levels of offensive content, with 25.4 and 24.2 instances of
offensive content per hour, respectively.
The WB had the most foul-mouthed reality
shows, with a per-hour rate of 20.1 instances of foul language.
Reality series appearing on UPN contained the
most sexual content, with 10.1 instances per hour.
The WB's reality series contained the most
violent content, with 1.7 instances of violence per hour of programming.
Although CBS aired the most offensive reality
series (Big Brother 4), it also aired some of the cleanest reality
programs on broadcast TV.
If children are influenced by behaviors they see
modeled by actors and actresses on scripted programs -- and there's ample
research to show that they are -- common sense dictates that they will be
equally influenced by behaviors they see modeled by real people on unscripted
programs. Networks need to be held accountable for the dangerous and
irresponsible messages they are communicating to young fans of the reality
Sponsors also need to be held accountable for the
messages they are helping to underwrite, particularly those companies that pay
to have their products strategically placed on reality shows or underwrite prize
Networks are clearly pushing the envelope with
reality series, 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.