Research suggests Black TV shows send unhealthy food messages

April 28, 2001

Black prime time television contains 60 percent more food and beverage commercials, more images of candy and soda, and more obese characters than general prime time television, report researchers at the University of Chicago Children’s Hospital in a study presented at the joint meeting of the Pediatric Academic Societies and the American Academy of Pediatrics.

“These ads and the programming content may influence the eating behaviors of African Americans,” said Dr. Anjali Jain, senior author of the study and an instructor of pediatrics at the University of Chicago Children’s Hospital. “More than 60 percent of African Americans are overweight, compared to 54 percent of the general U.S. population.”

More food commercials are aired during black prime time than general prime time (4.78 per 30-minute program versus 2.89 per 30-minute program on general prime time). The researchers also found that 30 percent of the food commercials featured candy and 13 percent featured soda, significantly more than on general prime time television.

While the average number of food “episodes”--any program segment where characters eat or refer to food or drink--was similar, black prime time television actually showed food items more often than general prime time television (67 percent of food episodes on black prime time versus 53 percent on general prime time) .

“We know from previous studies that television influences health behaviors, for instance those related to alcohol and tobacco,” said Manasi Tirodkar, first author of the study. “What we do not know yet--because it hasn’t been studied--is if images of low-nutrient foods directly affect obesity in African Americans.

“This study certainly confirms that viewers of black prime time are subjected to a disproportionate number of unhealthy food images,” she added. “In the long run, this may prove to influence obesity, the way alcohol and tobacco advertising have influenced other health behaviors,” Tirodkar said.

Because African Americans are more likely to watch television programs that feature predominately black actors, researchers were not surprised to find that 97 percent of actors on black prime time television were African American.

The team was surprised, however, to discover that more than one-fourth of actors--27 percent--on black prime time were overweight, as compared to only 2 percent on general prime time.

“That’s quite a disparity,” said Tirodkar. “The prevalence of overweight characters on these programs may send a message regarding the general acceptance of obesity in this community.”

One possible effect is that the programs, as an accurate reflection of weight status in the African American population, may help to decrease the stigma associated with being overweight, said Tirodkar.

She pointed to one black prime time program that featured a mother-daughter combination, with both characters being overweight.

“Although the teen-age girl was teased about being overweight, she demonstrated little concern about her weight and was, in fact, very self assured and confident,” said Tirodkar. “The message seemed clear: this character was comfortable with her body.”

However, these portrayals may also have an adverse effect.

The portrayal of overweight characters who appear satisfied with their weight, and who are shown snacking and eating low-nutrient foods, endorses behaviors associated with obesity.

The study also found that black prime time contains younger characters which may target a younger viewer population--although age-specific viewer data is not collected by the Nielsen Media Report, which was used by researchers to identify the top black and general prime time programs.

According to the study, 14 percent of actors on black prime time were adolescents, and 23 percent were young adults.

In contrast, only 1 percent of actors on general prime time were adolescents, and 7 percent were young adults. Eighty-six percent of actors on general prime time were older adults.

African Americans and black prime time television were targeted for the study for two specific reasons: because of the high rate of obesity in this population, and because African American households, on average, watch television approximately 75 hours a week while non-African American households watch an average of 52 hours per week.

Researchers studied the four top-rated 30-minute situational comedies on black prime time and general prime time television, as reported by Nielsen Media Research in fall 1999.

The team selected situational comedies because they tend to be more reflective of “real” life, offering a day-in-the-life perspective of small group of characters or families, said Tirodkar. One-hour dramatic programs, on the other hand, tend to be occupation-related and are usually set in one place, such as a hospital, police station or courtroom, she added.

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