Watch at your own risk: study finds reality TV heavier on aggression than fictional shows

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We were still reeling from last night’s episode of ‘The Real Housewives of New York,’ which was a one-way ticket to Crazyville, when we stumbled on a new study about scenes of aggression on television. Turns out that reality TV has it over non-reality programming when it comes to showing acts of aggression. After last night, we’re not surprised.

Reality TV accounted for 61.5% of total aggressive acts, and non-reality TV shows came in at 38.5%.


Researchers watched 60 hours worth of five reality shows and 60 hours of five non-reality shows, some American and some UK-based (shows included ‘The Apprentice,’ ‘Big Brother,’ ‘The Vicar of Dibley,’ and ‘Torchwood’). Acts of aggression were categorized as physical, verbal or relational, and the kind of act (hitting, gossiping, name-calling) was recorded. The researchers also noted if the act was justified or rewarded, if it happened naturally or artificially, and what type of award the aggressor got.

In all, there were 5,099 separate acts of aggression recorded for the study period; reality TV had 3,138 acts, and non-reality TV had 1,961. Although non-reality programming had far more physical acts of aggression than reality TV, all programs had much higher instances of verbal and relational aggression. Reality shows greatly edged out non-reality programming on relational violence; in the paper the authors said, ‘Such aggression often helps the contestant to ‘get ahead’ in the program, for example, by defaming another contestant’s reputation or by turning contestants against each other. However, the extremely high levels of relational aggression in reality programs are somewhat alarming, given the realistic portrayal of the aggression.’

The UK version of ‘The Apprentice’ had the highest number of aggressive acts per program of the reality shows (about 85), while on the non-reality side that honor went to ‘Eastenders’ (about 50). Although the paper concludes by noting that given the vast appeal of reality programs they’re sure to be around for a while, the lead author said in a news release even she was surprised by the findings: ‘I knew the level of aggression was going to be high, but I had no idea it was going to be this high,’ said Sarah Coyne, a professor of family life at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah.

The study appears in the June issue of the Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media.

-- Jeannine Stein