Alcohol Is Prime-Time TV's Favorite Beverage

October 29, 1998

ITHACA, N.Y. -- Alcohol is shown on prime-time TV programs far more than any other drink or food, and actors, including those portraying adolescents, are shown consuming alcohol on more than 40 percent of network shows, according to a new Cornell University study.

"Particularly disturbing, however, is that when a character is actually shown with alcohol, an adolescent character is almost twice as likely to drink it compared with older characters," says Alan Mathios, associate professor of policy analysis and management at Cornell and an expert on food advertising and labels. "However, one encouraging finding is that although characters who are portrayed consuming alcohol have, on average, positive personality characteristics (such as smart, admirable and powerful), adolescents on prime-time TV who drink tend to have negative personality traits (such as despicable, stupid or powerless)."

Mathios adds: "How teen-age viewers assimilate these contrasting messages and how these messages influence behavior is are intriguing questions that need further analysis."

The researcher and his colleagues analyzed the frequency, nature and meanings of alcohol messages on 276 prime-time television programs on the four largest networks during two nonconsecutive weeks, a total of 224 hours of television viewing. Mathios' Cornell colleagues on the project were Rosemary Avery, also an associate professor of policy analysis and management and a specialist in consumer decision making; Carole Bisogni, associate professor of nutritional sciences; and James Shanahan, assistant professor of communications and an expert on media effects.

Overall they found alcohol was consumed 555 times in the 224 hours of prime time -- about twice a program and 2.5 times an hour. Non-alcoholic beverages, such as sodas and coffee, were the next most frequently portrayed food or beverage, shown being consumed 415 times.

Teenagers between 13 and 18 years of age accounted for 7 percent of all scenes involving alcohol, about the same as their representation in all food and beverage portrayals. "In other words, it's just as common for an adolescent to be portrayed with alcohol as any other food or drink," says Mathios. "This is of concern because teen viewers may get the impression that other teens drink (alcohol) as commonly as they eat or drink other beverages."

Among the Cornell researchers other findings:

-- Male characters -- who are portrayed on television more often than females -- accounted for 66 percent of all alcohol scenes, compared with 34 percent for women characters.

-- About 20 percent of all the food and drink portrayals associated with adolescent female characters was alcohol related, compared with 15 percent for female characters of all ages.

-- In general, characters portrayed drinking alcohol on prime-time television had positive personality characteristics. Characters involved with wine, however, were shown to have significantly more positive personality characteristic than characters linked with hard liquor.

-- When adolescents were shown actually to drink alcohol, however, the adolescents had positive personality ratings in only 8 percent of these scenes; 49 percent had negative ratings. For characters over 50 years of age, 42 percent of those associated with alcohol had a positive personality rating; only 6 percent had a negative rating.

-- Low- and middle-income characters had significantly lower personality ratings than high-income characters; high-income characters associated with alcohol were the only income group to have positive personality ratings.

Considering that the average U.S. household has the television set turned on for 7.2 hours a day and that adolescents, on average, spend more time watching TV than attending school, what is shown on prime-time television can have a powerful impact on viewers, Mathios points out.

The study, published in the "Journal of Studies on Alcohol "(Vol. 59, pp. 305-310 1998), was supported, in part, by The Sugar Association, Inc.
Contact: Susan S. Lang Office: (607) 255-3613

Cornell University

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