The Nature of Close Relationships as Presented in Television Talk Show Titles

Article excerpt

Although much controversy exists about the value of television talk shows, there is an absence of empirical investigation into the nature of these shows. The goal of this research was to analyze the titles from six months of the eleven top-rated television talk shows and corresponding content from one month of these shows. Results indicated that family relationships tended to be portrayed in predominantly negative ways. Personal relationships tended to be portrayed as neutral or negative . Analyses of corresponding content in the form of types of disclosures were conducted. On average, viewers were exposed to over 13 sexual activity, sexual orientation, embarrassing situation, abuse, and criminal disclosures per one hour talk show. Sexual activity disclosures occurred significantly more often in personal relationship shows, sexual orientation and embarrassing situation disclosures occurred significantly more often in positive topic personal relationship shows, while abuse disclosures occurred significantly more often in negative relationship topic shows. Individual attributes most often portrayed were sexual activity, personality traits, criminal behavior, celebrity status, anger, and appearance. An analysis of the valence of personality traits revealed that they, too, were portrayed predominantly in a negative manner. The findings are discussed in terms of the ways that television talk show events may function to distort viewer's judgments about close relationships.

Much has been written about the sensationalistic and negative nature of talk shows. They have been called sordid (Mifflin, 1995), raunchy, immoral, sleazy (Gregorian & Kuntzman, 1995), bizarre, trashy (Allen & Schwartzman, 1995) degrading (Oldenburg, 1995) revolting (Alter, 1995) and rot (Cass, 1995). Senator Lieberman states that talk shows "make the abnormal normal" (Alter, 1995). Despite these criticisms, daytime talk shows on television reach an estimated 14 million viewers per day (Schmuckler, 1997). In 1994 they earned between 400 and 500 million dollars--about the same amount earned by all of NBC (Gregorian & Kuntzman, 1995). The hosts of these shows contend that they offer a public service in that the talk shows depict people who are coping with personal and relational problems, and these hosts further claim that their shows are positive in that they focus on the value of openness (Heaton & Wilson, 1995).

Abt and Seesholtz (1994) assert that talk shows are causing "a crisis in the social construction of reality" (p. 195) because they show persons who are breaking cultural rules, norms, and rituals, and that these portrayals serve to redefine deviance and appropriate reactions to it. Heaton and Wilson (1995) maintain that talk shows serve to make their viewers distort reality, exaggerate abnormality, and maintain stereotypes.

These criticisms of the potential effects of television talk shows are consistent with mass communication theories such as the cultivation hypothesis (Gerbner, Gross, Morgan, & Signorielli, 1980; Gerbner, Gross, Signorielli, Morgan, & Jackson-Beeck, 1979) which proposes that "viewers who say they are exposed to greater amounts of television are predicted to be more likely to exhibit perceptions and beliefs that reflect television world messages" (Potter, 1994). For example, portrayals of antisocial behavior on television can lead to the belief that this type of behavior frequently occurs in the real world (Berkowitz, 1984). This theory has been tested over the past twenty years by many empirical studies which have shown that heavy television viewing (four or more hours daily) has a strong relationship to perceptions of societal norms and social reality. This effect is reported more strongly by those under thirty years of age (Infante, Rancer, & Womack, 1997).

Shapiro and Lang (1991) provide a discussion of how unconscious processes in the construction of social reality might operate within television viewers. …