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Scripted Reality: How Children and Adolescents Interpret Familien im Brennpunkt (2011)

A collaborative study with the Landesanstalt für Medien Nordrhein-Westfalen (LfM) (North Rhine Westphalia State Media Authority) investigated what children like about the scripted reality format Familien im Brennpunkt (“Families in Focus”) (RTL) and how they interpret the programme. This involved putting general questions to 861 children and adolescents between the ages of six and 18 and detailed questions to 294 viewers of Familien im Brennpunkt. In addition, media analyses were carried out.

Results: Viewers mainly discover Familien im Brennpunkt when they are flicking through the channels. The basic structure, with short plot sequences, frequent summaries and dramatic plot developments, seems to fit structurally into the children’s and adolescents’ afternoon television viewing. In terms of content, children and adolescents are interested in problem situations within families, as they are very concerned with these issues and they feel familiar with them from their everyday lives. Seeing “others” going through everyday conflicts in an exaggerated form makes them feel good, giving rise to the impression that children are being given a voice here. What children and pre-teens like about the programmes is the simplicity with which complex situations are related. Familien im Brennpunkt presents a simplified narrative of crisis situations, severely condensing and exaggerating events and romanticising solutions to problems. The bad people are punished and to some extent realise where they went wrong; the good people get the satisfaction they deserve. This connects with familiar content in children’s media, confirming existing moral paradigms. Particularly the youngest viewers and the 13 to 14 year-old female Hauptschule pupils (German secondary school for average to low academic ability) feel Familien im Brennpunkt provides strategies for solving problems. A key motive for watching the programme, particularly for adolescents, is the differentiation they make between themselves and the protagonists, which gives them the opportunity for self-elevation. Not all of them realise that the programme is scripted. Just under a third of Familien im Brennpunkt viewers believe the programme is a documentary. Around half believe the stories re-enact true events. However, only older adolescents aged 15 and above can reliably recognise that the programme is not a documentary. From a pedagogical point of view, this is clearly a problem.