Television Programs Rarely Depict Smoking But Drinking Scenes Increase, Study Shows

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Since the U.S. Surgeon General's warning about the dangers of cigarettes, depictions of smoking have virtually disappeared from television programming, and the association of style and grace with the habit is found principally in reruns of old movies.

But the same is not true of drinking, says a researcher who has just completed a study of alcohol, tobacco, and drug use on television. It remains an essential part of most televised social situations as the most common way to relax. The drinkers, moreover, are usually portrayed as friendly, boisterous, or comic.

And drinking is shown more often now, according to the study by Bradley S. Greenberg, professor of communication and telecommunication at Michigan State University. Mr. Greenberg found that the incidences of drinking on television almost quadrupled from 1977 to 1979.

In an earlier study of the 1976-77 commercial-television season, Mr. Greenberg found the rate of instances of alcohol consumption for all series broadcast between 8 p.m. and 9 p.m. was 1.8 per hour.

His most recent study, involving the 10 top-rated prime-time programs, revealed that the four programs broadcast between 8 p.m. and 9 p.m. depicted drinking at a rate of 7.4 instances per hour.

The next logical step in this research, Mr. Greenberg says, is to examine whether--and how--these portrayals affect TV viewers. He speculates that they could develop such impressions about drinking as: "(a) everyone does it; (b) it's fun to do it; (c) nothing bad happens to you if you do it; and (d) it's readily available."

Among those viewers are millions of young people, who spend much of their leisure time before the television, and about whom Mr. Greenberg wrote in an earlier study: "Young viewers are expected to be particularly vulnerable because childhood and adolescence are periods of information-seeking during which the child learns what to expect from the world...."

Significant Impact

Television commercials for beer and wine have already been shown to have a significant impact on teenage drinking habits. Another Michigan State researcher, Charles K. Atkin, has demonstrated a positive correlation between greater exposure to such commercials and acceptance and use of alcohol.

And several studies in recent years have documented continued heavy use of alcohol by adolescents. The Fourth Special Report to the U.S. Congress on Alcohol and Health (January 1981), cites a 1978 study which shows that more than half the 10th-, 11th-, and 12th-graders surveyed described themselves as moderate to heavy drinkers.

Mr. Greenberg's findings, which will appear in the October issue of The Journal of Drug Education, are in agreement with the findings of other television researchers, such as Lorraine Bouthilet, a psychologist whose paper on television and health will be included in the forthcoming update of the Surgeon General's 1972 report on television (see Education Week, Sept. 7, 1981), and George Gerbner, dean of the Annenberg School of Communications at the University of Pennsylvania.

In Mr. Greenberg's study, drinking was shown most often on Archie's Place, a program set in a bar. It averaged 16.5 instances each hour.

Researchers can only speculate on why drinking is still so common on television, and people directly involved in television seem unwilling to talk about it.

Dramatic Business

But some said they concur with a comment made by the producer Norman Lear at a conference last year on health and children's television. The act of drinking, he asserted, is a piece of dramatic business relied on so heavily by actors and directors that they cannot stop using it.

Smoking was once such a tool, but television scriptwriters have abandoned it almost completely, Mr. Greenberg reports. In his latest study, he found only 11 incidents of smoking in 40 hours of top-rated commercial programs--a rate of one instance of smoking for every four hours of programming.

"One might believe," he writes, "that smoking has almost been formally banned from fictional series, although no network's code does that. It is also possible to suggest that the removal of smoking from TV series coincides closely in time to the banning of cigarette commercials from the networks. Smoking is out and one can find little reason to expect it to reappear."

Peggy Charren, president of Action for Children's Television (ACT), a Boston group that monitors children's programming, agrees that the subject warrants further study.

"They [studies] alert the industry to what the industry is doing as a whole," she commented. "Any single incident or any single program never teaches a child very much. This study shows the pattern that may exist showing that alcohol is a terrific solution to the way you feel at any given time. It is rarely the goal of those television shows to teach, but you get the message if you watch enough. And that's not a terrific message."

"I would speculate," Mr. Greenberg said, "that the number of scenes and the joys associated with drinking would lead young viewers to be more interested in experimenting with alcohol."

Vol. 01, Issue 03, Page 6

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