Blood and gore don't always win the ratings wars.
- A recent study shows that viewers actually prefer nonviolent programming, even though they still want action.
- The researchers showed clips of five TV shows to participants, some with violence edited out.
- Gender, personality and other variables did not appear to impact the results.
February is sweeps month -- one of four times throughout the year that Nielsen checks in with Americans to find out what they're watching. The media research giant polls an enormous portion of the American television audience during these sweeps months -- February, May, July and November-- and the networks do whatever they can to attract as many people as possible.
If history is any guide, you can bet that there will be plenty of violence on the shows found on small screens in the country all month long.
But the networks vying for attention this month may want to take a look at a recent study out of the University of Indiana. Contrary to conventional wisdom and prior research, violence in television programs may actually decrease viewer enjoyment, according to the researchers. All of the casualties from explosions, gunplay and physical violence that appear prominently in many prime time shows might not be as attractive as producers think.
For their study, communication researchers Andrew Weaver and Barbara Wilson edited episodes of five popular prime time shows that typically depict violence -- 24, The Shield, The Sopranos, Oz and Kingpin.
Each show was edited in one of three ways. One set of clips kept the show's depictions of graphic violence intact, so these acts and the resulting blood and gore were present in the episodes. Another set included violence, but not blood and gore. The final batch were a nonviolent version of the shows, where these acts of aggression were edited out altogether.
Wilson and Weaver recruited 400 college students and asked them to sit before a monitor with headphones on to view one of the randomly selected episodes. Some watched a nonviolent version of the cop show The Shield; others watched a graphically violent episode of the prison drama Oz.
What the researchers found, was that the people who watched the nonviolent versions of these shows said that they enjoyed them significantly more than people who watched either of the two violent versions.
The two researchers also looked into whether factors related to personality might be responsible. Were their participants abnormally unaggressive or averse to thrill-seeking? Did gender play any role in the participants' responses?
Even when the researchers looked at these traits, they found that people still overwhelmingly found nonviolent episodes more enjoyable than violent ones.
These findings may appear counterintuitive: If audiences don't really enjoy watching violence, then the violent shows found on cable and network television should eventually die out due to weak ratings, not thrive as they do.
In their study, Weaver and Wilson come to suspect that it is the action associated with violence -- or the excitement it arouses -- that viewers find entertaining.
Jonathan Freedman, a social psychologist at the University of Toronto who is unrelated to the study, agrees that attraction to violent shows is likely based on the excitement they elicit. He feels that it goes even further than just action, however.
"My guess about enjoyment of these kinds of programs is that it depends on excitement rather than action," Freedman tells Discovery News.
Screenwriters churn out shows laden with violence because it's an easy avenue to that excitement viewers crave, Weaver suggests. But he also points out that this shortcut to excitement can backfire; it can also produce an adverse reaction that detracts from attention to the programs. It seems that viewers can get just as much enjoyment, if not more, from good writing.
"Suspenseful, nonviolent content is again just as arousing, but without the aversive reaction," Weaver says. "In fact, it's associated with more attention to the program."
So, networks looking to attract and keep viewers with action-packed shows may do better with lots of action without the violence.
Television audiences continue to be attracted to action-packed television shows, not for the violence, Weaver says, but because there aren't too many alternatives on television where viewers can get that excitement.
"Even if you don't like violence per se, you have no choice but to seek out the violent programs," says Weaver. "In a sense, then, we've been trained to expect that the violent programs are going to give us what we want, even if the violence itself actually reduces enjoyment."