The Presence and Portrayal of Social Groups on Prime-Time Television

By Harwood, Jake; Anderson, Karen | Communication Reports, Summer 2002 | Go to article overview

The Presence and Portrayal of Social Groups on Prime-Time Television


Harwood, Jake, Anderson, Karen, Communication Reports


This paper describes a content analysis of the presence and portrayal of age, sex and ethnic groups in all prime-time dramas and comedies from the major networks in 1999. Older adult, child, female, and Latino characters were underrepresented, whereas middle-aged, male, and white characters were overrepresented. No group differences were found in terms of whether the characters were shown in major or minor roles. A measure incorporating assessments of attractiveness, quality of dress, personality, and story function revealed that older characters, males, and Latino characters were portrayed somewhat less positively than others. Results are discussed in terms of socialization processes and intergroup theory.

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* During the past thirty years, considerable research has described the portrayals of characters on television. The purpose of the current study was to update our understanding of characters on prime-time television, specifically in terms of characters' social group memberships. Theoretically, we suggest that such work is important for two related reasons. First, considerable research has described the role of television and other media in socialization processes related to social groups. Viewers' orientations to their own and other social groups have been shown to be influenced by television portrayals (Abrams & Eveland, 2000; Harwood, 1999a). Second, work in the realm of intergroup social psychology has shown the role that media play in shaping the relative status of groups in the broader sociostructural context (Giles, Bourhis, & Taylor, 1977). Hence, television is a crucial location in which relationships between social groups, stereotyping, group identity, and the like, are played out. Three social group memberships are the focus of this work--age, sex, and ethnicity. These are group memberships that are easily observed and coded, and which are relatively obvious to even casual viewers of television shows. In addition, they are groups that are central to current intergroup issues in the United States. The vast majority of civil rights/affirmative action debates in recent years have centered on these groups. Below, we present a brief theoretical rationale for the current research and review previous research concerning portrayals of these social groups on television before presenting our empirical research.

Theoretical Rationale

Two theoretical frameworks provided a rationale for the current research. First, some prior research has demonstrated that the media can affect individuals' conceptions of their social groups and their perceptions of intergroup relations. For instance, studies examining Cultivation Theory have shown that individual conceptions of the demographic make-up of the real world relate to television viewing (Gerbner, Gross, Signorielli, & Morgan, 1980). Specifically, individuals who watch large volumes of television tend to make demographic estimates that are closer to the television population than the actual population in terms of age (Gerbner et al.) as well as sex and race (Gerbner, Gross, Morgan, & Signorielli, 1986). Research in the area of socialization indicates that group portrayals can influence attitudes. For instance, Gerbner et al. (1980) detected small but significant correlations between exposure to television and endorsement of age stereotypes. Others have demonstrated correlations between sex-role attitudes and exposure to stereotypical television content (Herrett-Skjellum & Allen, 1996; Ross, Anderson, & Wisocki, 1982), while still others show that children's attitudes become significantly more sex-typed after the introduction of television to a previously television-free town (Kimball, 1986). Likewise, experimental evidence shows the negative effects of stereotypical portrayals of blacks (Ford, 1997; see also Graves, 1999; Mok, 1998), and Tan and Tan (1979) provide correlational evidence that exposure to stereotypical portrayals is negatively associated with black viewers' self-esteem. …

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