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Reality TV programs more vulgar, sexually explicit than scripted shows, new study finds

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–Reality television shows, which composed at least 20 percent of the prime-time schedule during the February sweeps period, have grown “qualitatively and quantitatively coarser” than their scripted counterparts, according to a new study by the Parents Television Council.

Researchers examined the first four episodes of 29 network reality series broadcast from June 2002 to August 2003 and found 1,135 instances of foul language, 492 instances of sex — either visual act or verbal reference — and 30 instances of violence for an average of 14.5 instances of offensive content per hour. The results, which came from the examination of 114.5 hours of programming, indicate a 52.6 percent overall increase from a similar PTC study in October 2002.

The current study, released June 25, said there was an average of 3.5 more instances per hour of sex and foul language on reality series than on scripted series, something that PTC warns should concern parents.

The study examined such programs as “Big Brother,” “Survivor” and “Meet My Folks.”

“If children are influenced by behaviors they see modeled by actors and actresses on scripted programs — and there’s ample research to show they are — common sense dictates that they will be equally influenced by behaviors they see modeled by real people on unscripted programs,” the study said. “Networks need to be held accountable for the dangerous and irresponsible messages they are communicating to young fans of the reality genre.”

Reality TV now constitutes 13 percent of broadcast programming, up from 4 percent in 1999. The increase may be attributed to the simple factor of money, since low production costs and no talent to pay other than the show’s host make the genre particularly appealing to producers, the study noted. And the route reality television often takes to snag viewers has moral implications found in greater excess than scripted shows.

“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,” PTC said in the study.

Among the findings:

— The amount of bleeped profanities per hour has increased by 273 percent since the 2002 study. Verbal sexual references were also more frequent, increasing from 0.9 instances per hour to 3.31 instances per hour, an increase of 373 percent since 2002.

— A specific obscenity for male-female relations was the most commonly used profanity on broadcast reality programs, the study found. The word was bleeped 199 times, though the audience could easily decipher it.

— Words and phrases PTC has not yet recorded on scripted broadcasts, including descriptive sexual references, were present in reality shows.

— Nudity was the second most frequent type of sexual content on reality television, and PTC counted 16 instances of sexual activity on reality programs during the duration of its study.

— Although the use of foul language and sexual content dramatically increased since 2002, the total violence per hour on reality shows decreased by 285 percent.

— Reality shows airing on the WB and UPN networks contained the highest levels of offensive content, with 25.4 and 24.2 instances of offensive content per hour, respectively, the study said.

— The two worst broadcast reality shows overall were CBS’s “Big Brother 4” and WB’s “The Surreal Life.”

Talent competitions, physical makeover documentaries and home improvement series were not counted in PTC’s analysis of reality television shows.

“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 study concluded.

The underlying theme of reality television, the study said, is unhealthy.

“It has been said that reality TV is turning us into a nation of Peeping Toms,” the study said. “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.”
For the complete Parents Television Council study on reality television, visit www.parentstv.org. (Warning: The study’s content may offend some readers.)

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  • Erin Curry