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Reality TV: Race to the Bottom

A content analysis of prime time broadcast reality series

By Aubree Rankin

Executive Summary

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.

Major Findings:

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 said. 

  • 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 to pornography. 

  • 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 genre.

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 competitions.

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. 

Full Study




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