From laughing to judging in fifty years: The evolution of televised emotion

December 21, 2010, 6:13 PM UTC

A new study from NBC reveals how emotions generated from TV shows have mirrored American society. And ‘judgment’ is the current king of the charts.

Glee's Sue Sylvester, played by Jane Lynch

By Daniel Roberts, reporter

If you’re on TV, whether in a drama or reality show, chances are that Americans are sitting on their couches, silently judging you. Those are the findings from a new study conducted by NBC Universal, which examined the top 20 broadcast programs (via Nielsen ratings) of each year, over the past 50 years. NBC asked nearly 3,500 heavy TV-watchers, ages 18-70, how they felt while watching each show.

According to the study, made available exclusively to Fortune, the emotion most frequently elicited by today’s top shows is ‘judgment,’ defined for the purposes of the study as “this show invites me to pass judgment on the actions of these characters.”

Lauren Zalaznick, President of NBC Universal Women and Lifestyle Entertainment Networks, ran the study and first presented its findings to guests at the TEDWomen conference this month. She believes that the high ranking of ‘judgment’ makes perfect sense based on which type of programming dominated the past couple of years. “From 2009-2010 rankings, reality shows have spots 1, 2, and 3,” she said. Viewers, Zalaznick pointed out, love to watch competition. It’s even better when they can get directly involved in the judging, which shows like American Idol allow them to do.

But the study goes beyond just the current era of TV tastes. In four animated charts below, respondents’ most frequently chosen attributes face off over time, and the results are illuminating:

Inspiration vs. Moral ambiguity
Key: Red is inspiration, blue is moral ambiguity.
“Over 50 years you can see the landscape of America change,” said Zalaznick about this comparison, which begins in 1960. Inspiration was high at that time, and almost none of the most popular programs were morally ambiguous. People watched television to be inspired or uplifted. Zalaznick explained: “Gunsmoke and Andy Griffith and Bonanza are battling it out from ‘60-‘70, and inspiration is teetering, but people are loath to give up their shows. This is what they thought the medium was invented for, was to inspire and give comfort.” In 1970, that expectation withers as people begin to prefer moral ambiguity. Vietnam, anyone? Watergate?

Comfort vs. Social commentary vs. Irreverence
Key: Red is comfort, blue is social commentary, green is irreverence.
For the show Bonanza, the #1-chosen attribute was comfort. But absolutely no one surveyed said that the program had moral ambiguity. Meanwhile, as this video shows, people stopped needing comfort from TV in the late sixties and early seventies. In 1972, it plummets for good, while social commentary and irreverence become the norm. The political sphere led to skepticism, and viewers wanted this same attitude reflected in their programming.

Fantasy/Imagination with unemployment
Key: Blue is fantasy/imagination, red is the actual unemployment rate
Keep in mind for this one that ‘unemployment’ was not an emotion brought on by the shows, but the literal unemployment data from the Department of Labor. Instead, as Zalaznick explained, “I mapped unemployment for that time because I wondered how people dealt with it then.” The results indicate exactly how: by seeking escape from TV shows. In 1974, when this chart begins, the unemployment rate shoots up. Over the next couple decades, it fluctuates, and the attribute for fantasy/imagination mostly sticks right with it.

Humor vs. Judgment
Key: Blue is humor, red is judgment
In the nineties, humor was top dog on the tube. Zalaznick mentioned that shows like Seinfeld, Friends, Frasier, and Cheers were all toward the top in the first few years of the decade. In 1996, they begin a decline, and in 2001—not surprising considering the 9/11 terrorist attacks and subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq—humor crosses with judgment and has yet to recover. Judgment, meanwhile, shoots up, perhaps because American viewers began to feel angry. “You would never in a million years say there won’t be any more comedy,” Zalaznick noted, “but it just isn’t any longer the top shows in the 18-49 Nielsen demo. You can’t ignore the data; in 2001 judgment overtakes comedy, and what is also very interesting is that in the fall of 2005, you see a very slight dip in judgment, which in our view is post-Katrina. People just felt so bad that all of a sudden it was distasteful to look to TV for that emotion.”

As a coda to the study, Zalaznick reminded us not to equate the emotions prompted by shows with emotions people felt about current events. “You map these things,” she said, “and then the tendency is to think, ‘Oh, that’s how people felt about the Vietnam War, or inflation, or unemployment,’ but no. Those attributes are about how people felt while watching those TV shows.”

Yet, one thing the study doesn’t reveal is whether TV watchers felt these emotions because the shows they watched prompted them, or whether popular programs intentionally represented feelings the public was already experiencing. TV may be a relatively new medium, but in that way, the NBC Universal study reposes an age-old question.