MTV and Teen Pregnancy

Economists Melissa S. Kearney, who has appeared on this blog and our podcast before, and Phillip B. Levine have a new NBER paper (abstract; PDF) that looks at the influence of MTV's reality-TV show 16 and Pregnant on teen pregnancy. Levine explained the study's assumption to The New York Times:

Ms. Kearney and Mr. Levine examined birth records and Nielsen television ratings, finding that the rate of teenage pregnancy declined faster in areas where teenagers were watching more MTV programming — not only the “16 and Pregnant” series — than in areas where they did not. The study focuses on the period after “16 and Pregnant” was introduced in 2009 and accounts for the fact that teenagers who tuned in to the show might have been at higher risk of having a child to begin with.

“The assumption we’re making is that there’s no reason to think that places where more people are watching more MTV in June 2009, would start seeing an excess rate of decline in the teen birthrate, but for the change in what they were watching,” Mr. Levine said.

The authors found that the show "led to more searches and tweets regarding birth control and abortion, and ultimately led to a 5.7 percent reduction in teen births in the 18 months following its introduction. This accounts for around one-third of the overall decline in teen births in the United States during that period."

The Substitution Effect: How Reality TV Killed the Soap Opera

The Wall Street Journal has a story about all the long-running soap operas that are going off the air. A cohort of die-hard fans is protesting the move, arguing that the shows are more popular than their ratings suggest, and even threatening to sue ABC's parent company Disney for causing them "mental distress" by canceling the shows. But the fact remains that their viewership is down, and sponsors have been pulling out, making the shows unprofitable for the television stations even in non-prime-time slots. One might think it is because of rising female labor-force participation--but the increase has been quite slow for the past 20 years. The reason is competition for viewers with a new, cheaper product—“reality TV.”

Apparently soaps and reality shows attract similar viewers—they appear to be substitutes for the average consumer. As with any new product that is hot, its substitutes suffer when it enters the market. As the World Turns and Guiding Light have given way to such pathetic substitutes as The Apprentice and Let’s Make a Deal.

Reality TV Show Casting Call: Perfect for Freakonomics Blog Readers

I received the following e-mail today. If you read this, apply, and make the show, we’ll give you a month’s supply of Freakonomics T-shirts and yo-yos, as long as you agree to wear them on the show: Hi, My name is Laina Rose, I’m currently casting a new reality show. You are being contacted because […]

And Today Is…

August 23 the day in 2000 when the first season finale of CBS’ Survivor attracted 51 million viewers, a record audience at that time for a reality show. Only seven short years later, we’re willing to believe a reality show offering a kidney giveaway.