Academic journal article Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media

Aging on Television: Messages Relating to Gender, Race, and Occupation in Prime Time

Academic journal article Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media

Aging on Television: Messages Relating to Gender, Race, and Occupation in Prime Time

Article excerpt

Prime-time network programs broadcast between 1993 and 2002 under-represent elderly characters. More women between the ages of 50 and 64 were classified as elderly rather than middle-aged. The age distribution of minority men resembles that of White women, while minority women are typically cast in younger age groups. The world of work on television is one of diminished options for the elderly. Television celebrates youth while it neglects and negates the elderly.

Television is the central and most pervasive mass medium in American culture and plays a distinctive and historically unprecedented role as our nation's most common, constant, and vivid learning environment. Americans spend much of their time with television, whether watching broadcast programming, basic or premium cable channels, time-shifted programs on the VCR, or theatrical movies on a DVD or VCR. Viewing statistics are stable; in the average home the set is turned on for about 7 hours each day. While the average person watches more than 3 hours a day (Vivian, 2002), children, the older generation, and minorities watch the most and young adults the least. Today, however, given the proliferation of cable systems on most college campuses, even college students watch a considerable amount of television. Consequently, at the beginning of the 21st century, few escape exposure to television's stories.

Television is a primary storyteller, telling most of the stories to most of the people, most of the time. Stories are found in dramas, action adventures, situation comedies, reality programs, the news, and even commercials. Today, however, these stories are the product of centralized commercial institutions rather than parents, churches, or schools. Television's stories show and tell us about life--its people, places, power, and fate as well as how things work and how to solve problems. Characterizations represent the good and bad, the happy and sad, successes and failures, and show who's on the top and who's on the bottom of the economic ladder and/or pecking order. Moreover, characters do not live or die but are created or destroyed to tell the story. This story-telling function is extremely important because television's stories tell viewers about the intricacies of the world and its peoples and provide numerous images about the cycles of socialization and re-socialization through which we all progress during our lifetimes.

Aging is just one of these cycles. Lifestyles associated with different stages in the aging cycle are roles learned in a culture and are inextricably linked to gender and race. Television's images of older men and women contribute to our conceptions of aging and the age roles everyone eventually assumes. Television, with its cast of characters in all phases of the life cycle, provides an almost inescapable set of messages about aging, gender, and race, and serves as one of the major sources for age-role socialization and re-socialization in our society.

This study describes some of the messages television tells its audiences about aging, race, and gender. It examines how aging and elderly men and women were presented in the prime-time network programming broadcast between the spring of 1993 and the fall of 2002. It explores the demography of prime-time network television's population in terms of gender, race, and age, making comparisons with the U.S. population. The study examines how stages in the life cycle (social age) and chronological age are related, seeking to extend analyses conducted in the 1970s (e.g., Gerbner, Gross, Signorielli, & Morgan, 1980) to today's prime-time programs. This analysis also examines the prestige and types of jobs in which older characters are cast in prime time. The study furthers our knowledge about two areas in which television may play a major role in socialization--aging and occupations. It is particularly relevant in that many people, specifically children, have little or no contact with older people and may rely on television's mediated messages in developing their ideas about the inevitable aging process, while most children cannot wait to "grow up," and television's messages about young adulthood are particularly vibrant and interesting, messages about middle and old age present a very different scenario because there are so few vibrant and interesting role models. …

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