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The Role of Bleeps and Warnings in Viewers' Perceptions of on-Air Cursing

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This study used a 2 x 2 x 2 design to examine the effects of warning labels, bleeping, and gender on viewers' perceptions and enjoyment of a docu-drama. We also examined the individual difference variable of verbal aggressiveness to test for possible interactions. Overall, the warning labels increased enjoyment of the program containing profanity among college students. Bleeping had no effect on either program liking or perceptions of realism; however, bleeping decreased perceptions of the program's offensiveness, and increased viewers' perceptions of profanity frequently estimates. Lastly, verbally aggressive participants perceived the program as more realistic, and the language as less offensive


The Telecommunications Act of 1996 mandated that broadcasters in the United States adopt program age and content ratings in order to help viewers make program viewing decisions. Since then, not only have program ratings and warning labels become a more familiar sight on television programs, but the very content that viewers are being warned about (e.g., profanity) appears to be occurring more frequently (Bauder, 2002). Research has examined the effect of age and content ratings and warning labels on children's program liking and perceptions of content, and found that in some circumstances, warnings and ratings have effects opposite those intended by the legislators (see, for example, Cantor & Harrison, 1996). Considerably less research has examined the effect on adults' perceptions of content (however, see Bushman, 1997). Furthermore, a majority of the research examines the effects of ratings and warnings on violent content (e.g., Cantor & Harrison, 1996; Cantor, Harrison, & Nathanson, 1998; Herman & Leyens, 1977) or educational content (Krcmar & Albada, 2000). Little, if any research has examined the effect of ratings and warnings on attitudes toward, and perceptions of, other potentially objectionable material such as cursing. It may be interesting to ask, therefore, if assigning a warning label affects how adult viewers interpret and recall cursing when it appears in television programs.

In addition to the use of program warnings, there are increasing numbers of cable channels available to viewers which may have served to loosen some norms regarding appropriate standards for programming. For example, in a recent airing of A Season on the Brink, over 100 instances of curse words (including those restricted by most network television; e.g., goddamn) were recorded. Another airing of the same program self-censored (or "bleeped") the profanity. Therefore, although program ratings have allowed viewers greater opportunity to filter their viewing, lowered norms of self-censorship have perhaps broadened the material available to them. These less restrictive norms, on one hand, and more frequent labeling of material, on the other, lead us to ask how labels and self-censoring affect the enjoyment and perceptions of program content by viewers. Therefore, the current study uses an experimental design to examine the effects of program labels and self-censoring on the perceptions and enjoyment of viewers. First, we will discuss the possible effects of warnings and self-censoring (bleeping) on viewers' enjoyment and perceptions of the content. Next, we will consider possible individual differences in viewers' responses to the manipulations.

The Effects of Program Ratings and Warning Labels

Although few studies on program warnings had been conducted prior to the 1990s (see, however, Austin, 1980; Herman & Leyens, 1977; Wurtzel & Surlin, 1978), the current use of program warnings and ratings by the networks, combined with the increase in parental concern about problematic media content (Cantor, Stutman & Duran, 1996), has created an environment in which research into this issue has become more prevalent. A majority of these studies is grounded in reactance theory (Brehm, 1981). Reactance theory states that people are motivationally aroused when they believe that their freedom or decision-making power is in some way threatened. To deal with this threat, people are motivated to regain their freedom, derogate the restrictive agent, or enhance the perceived value of the restricted item. Based on this premise, it seems likely that restrictive program ratings (e.g., TV-14 for an 11-yearold) and program warnings, which may be perceived by a viewer as limiting their decision-making power, to some extent, could generate reactance in the viewer. In other words, restrictive labels could enhance viewer enjoyment.

Consistent with reactance theory, several studies have found that restrictive labels and warning labels do enhance viewers' enjoyment or selection of those programs (Bushman, 1997), especially for boys (Cantor & Harrison, 1996) and older children (Cantor & Harrison, 1996). In general, the research on viewers' responses to labels seems to suggest that children experience reactance to restrictive labels, especially in cases where the rating restricts their viewing (e.g., PG-13 for a child of 11). Reactance occurs less for children when simple labels are used (e.g., "V"), most likely because no restriction is implied. Therefore, reactance seems to occur with older children; however, some studies have also found support for reactance among adults (for counter evidence, see Austin, 1980; Christenson, 1992; Wurtzel & Surlin, 1978).

For example, Herman and Leyens (1977) examined adult viewing patterns based on 4 years of Belgian television movies. Their main finding was that films carrying violence or sex advisories had larger audiences than those that did not. Their results, then, may seem to support reactance theory. However, because the study was archival, not experimental, movies that received advisories were systematically different from movies that did not have advisories. This study may have demonstrated only that violent or sexual content with or without advisories attracts viewers.

More valid evidence comes from a series of studies by Bushman and colleagues (Bushman & Stack, 1996; Bushman, 1997). Arguing that warning labels may also cause reactance, especially in adult viewers, Bushman and Stack (1996) used made-for-television movies and systematically varied the warning labels. When asked how much they liked the movies, audiences showed a preference for movies with warnings. This result was especially true among those participants who were initially high in reactance. In a second study, Bushman (1997) compared the responses of participants who had read identical movie descriptions with either a content rating, a warning label, or no label. Overall, adult participants showed



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