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Researcher Patrick Jamieson’s project analyzes unhealthy behavior on TV programs.

Credit: Courtesy of Patrick Jamieson

Is television programming getting better or worse for us? A research team at the Annenberg Public Policy Center has launched a study to find out.

The Coding of Health and Media Project, dubbed CHAMP, is being led by Patrick Jamieson at the Annenberg Center. For more than 10 years, the Center has been tracking unhealthy behavior featured in television shows and movies dating back to 1950. They made notable observations on issues ranging from gender representation to suicide depictions to gun violence.

In December 2015, the team received a new, three-year, $745,000 grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation in order to expand their study to the additional area of healthy behavior on TV. Such behaviors include exercising, the respect for difference among people and social cohesion. Among these, Jamieson explained that social cohesion is the most difficult to track.

“For this category, we are basically forcing a quantitative frame on a qualitative question, which can be problematic,” Jamieson said.

He further explained that this was a general challenge to the project because healthy behaviors tend to be more difficult to objectively identify than alcoholism or violence, citing the example of the TV show “Modern Family.”

“A cast-level analysis, that is, one that looks at the demographics of the cast, may pick up that this show features a gay couple. However, it is much more difficult to determine, quantitatively, if their interactions with their child, with each other and with society, are positive.”

College junior Britt Brown, who is a member of the preprofessional LGBTQ group Wharton Alliance, agreed. She said that having a gay couple on “Modern Family” is great, but that it is still important to consider if the portrayal of this couple perpetuates stereotypes or excludes members of the LGBTQ community.

Apart from re-orientating towards healthy behavior, CHAMP is also expanding to include more shows popular among Latinos and blacks, both of whom are coming to comprise a greater percentage of the United States population. Such shows include “Blackish” and “Empire” as well as programs on the Spanish-language network Univision.

In addition, CHAMP aims to track 3,000 hours of television in three years, up from the 1,600 hours that the CHAMP initiative completed during its first five years.

“What makes us unique is that we cover multiple variables, with large samples observed over a long time,” Jamieson said.

Research Director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center Dan Romer agreed, explaining that many studies look at snapshots of TV portrayals, but only the Annenberg team investigates the history of entertainment media on a year-by-year basis to uncover long-term trends.

CHAMP is labor intensive and logistically complex, but Jamieson and his team strongly believe that this work is necessary to capture a more comprehensive understanding of television.

“What is potentially really interesting,” Jamieson said, “is combining the trends for positive and negative behaviors on television and developing a ratio. This would allow us to see if genres of television, as a whole, are becoming healthier or unhealthier for us.”

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