Laugh tracks not all they are cracked up to be.

Ah, the laugh track. It’s been added to comedy programs and sitcoms on TV since the 1950s, both in the form of live studio audiences and recorded audio files added during the editing process.

Image from Wikipedia

For the industry, this was a carry-over practice from radio, helping to add context and entertainment value. But not all viewers were experiencing recorded laughter positively. In 1983, the television show Cheers added the announcement, “Cheers is filmed before a live studio audience” presumably after viewers complained the laugh track was too loud – a complaint that persisted even after the disclaimer was added.

For researchers, the effect of laughter on the viewer’s experience was key. First, the idea was that laughter was contagious – at least, this is what one would expect when people are face to face. But time and time again, research had a hard time replicating this effect with laugh tracks.

Image from: Happy nice time People blog post by Rick Lewis

It seemed, enhancing the viewers’ perception of how funny television content is using a laugh track depends on several factors, including whether or not it was live or recorded, and if it was a real reaction to that show. Researchers landed on the term ‘social proof’ to describe the degree of validity viewers perceive laugh tracks to have. The more  “proof” the laughter has, the more likely viewer’s will change their rating of how funny the show is.

Laugh tracks do have an important function. They seem to enhance how funny viewers rate content that is already seen as minimally funny. And, they provide that informative context during scenes that may be confusing, sarcastic, or offensive, letting viewers know that humor is the intent. Even some news outlets found it worthy to report on the ‘creepiness’ of some popular sitcoms, minus that background noise, or call for it’s demise.

The take-away for the industry is two-fold: If the goal is to provide context, research confirms adding laugh tracks helps viewers understand when content is meant to be funny. If the goal is to spread laughter like a virus, the more realistic the laughter the better.


The claims made in this post are accumulated from the academic research articles cited below:

See also:

Sex offenders on Reality TV: Not first time.

TLC is debating cancelling their hit 19 Kids & Counting after the eldest son admitted to molesting young girls, including his sisters, when he was a teenager. This outraged Mama June from Here Comes Honey Boo Boosince her show was slashed after a picture of her “cavorting” with a convicted child molester surfaced. But these are just the two recent stories.

In 2014, TLC cancelled Cheer Perfection after one of the star mom’s admitted to sexual intercourse with a 13-year-old boy and Discovery Channel cancelled Sons of Guns after the star was accused of “sex crimes with a minor” twice within a month.

But, TLC didn’t cancel Cake Boss even after cast member Remy’ Gonzales, the Boss’s brother-in-law, was sentenced for sexually assaulting a 13-year-old girl in 2012. Nor did A&E pull Dog the Bounty Hunter in 2008 when co-star Tim Chapman was arrested for publically fondling himself.

And these are just the few examples of this weird phenomenon I found. Tolerance for trash TV shows with unsavory ‘characters’ gracing the casts has reached its limit. Any infraction related to sexual misconduct, and the plug’s likely pulled.

Reality shows are a dime a dozen, and tolerance for reality television still has a ways to go. Personally, a return of To Catch a Predator : The Reality TV Celebrity Edition would not surprise me.

How public opinion is gathered says ‘a lot’ about what opinions are publically valued.

How we present ourselves to others reflects what we, as society, consider valuable or important. We want to be liked, accepted, or judged positively by others, a desire social psychologists have termed “social desirability”. To achieve “rewards” or avoid “punishments” we project a socially acceptable position, even if is not our real opinion. When it comes to measuring public opinion on social issues, the ways opinions are collected can enhance this desire and affect our understanding of true public opinion.

Pew Research Center, the leading organization in public opinion polling and research, recently did a study that showed how answers from telephone survey respondents significantly differed compared to Web respondents. Telephone respondents rated the quality of their family and social life higher, discrimination of particular social groups as more prevalent, and political figures more favorably. They cited the cause as social desirability – the presence of another human on the telephone, recording answers, influenced more positive judgments on socially relevant questions.

However, the big picture is that Pew has also identified and confirmed the values that currently hold social relevance. The larger the discrepancy between the opinions expressed in the presence or absence of another person indicates the social relevance of the issue. Here, Pew has identified that it is still very important to us to have a satisfying family and social life. Also noteworthy is valuing the rights of today’s discriminated groups, while reflecting a lesser bias in gender after years of women’s struggles. The data also confirms today’s political environment –between both groups, anywhere from 16 to 40 percent of respondents have a very unfavorable opinion of four recent or recently passed political figures.

So in addition to figuring out what the real public opinion is (positive or negative), the research is also a crosscheck on what public opinions are important (carry social weight or value). We say what we think other people want to hear on issues that we think we may disagree, offend, or look bad in comparison. The more we attempt to ‘correct’ our opinions to a majority, preferred, or accepted view, the more these subtle techniques highlight what really is important and how difficult it is to assess real public opinion.

Pew explains telephone surveys are a way to eliminate barriers to written and textual language. But in a world full of automated call menus, I wonder why this mode is not one of their basic options. Computer-simulated voices could speak recorded survey items and respondents could press or speak responses. As with most systems a help alert could added to alert a real human of problems. Although the academic theorists in computer-mediated communication may argue that social desirability is still present in these situations, the cost to implement and test this strategy may be worth it. Especially if it frees up researchers to do analyses and distribute reports to the thirsty public in this need-to-know culture.

How to get your Tweet on TV…

That’s the question many second screen-ers hoping for their 5 seconds of fame ask.


The company Spredfast shows how it is managed on the technical side.

How We Get Filtered & Moderated Tweets on TV. Oct. 7, 2011 by Sam Decker

But the rest of the selection rules are not clear. Here are some observations from an informal case study of an episode of Discovery Network’s Deadliest Catch in relation to this chart on how your Tweet may be selected as one of few to grace a live broadcast.

1. Use the hashtag – And only that hashtag. Tweets without it are missed, but producers aren’t trying to promote your agenda so resist adding every hashtag you can think of to boost your ‘tweet-reach’.


2. Don’t use foul language – User-generated comments are fraught with cuss words or symbolize swearing with T-word euphemisms (e.g. sh*t), grawlix or profanitype (e.g. $#!+). Although, some cable networks are more liberal about what they broadcast.


3. Resist the urge to go Emo-happy – smiley faces seems to work ok, but most other emoticons or emoji’s don’t seem to translate well through the filtering stream.


4. Same something positive – Although the Twitter-sphere is for expressing your opinion or pointing out the idiocy of a character’s behavior, don’t expect it to make the screen.


5. Don’t state the obvious – everyone else is watching too.


6. Threats or suggestions to improve the show – probably not the warm and fuzzy the show is looking for, especially if you are going to yell it.




8. Sarcasm – although it can be hilarious, it’s not always appreciated by everyone.


Now, you might think things like punctuation, grammar and proper English might matter, but they don’t seem to.  And there is some suspicion that having a decent profile picture will help, but most on-screen Tweets are devoid of that image once they hit the screen.

The selection process of Tweets that reach the screen may not seem important to most viewers. But when that process contributes to the perception that other viewers are feeling one way about the show, where the backchannel conversations may express a different view. The producers have the ability to frame the viewer’s opinion of what the public opinion may be – an important piece of context when the viewer is watching content ripe with political or social issues.

Twitter as Public Opinion: Can the voice of few impact many?

In a report  published last summer, Senior Researcher Aaron Smith of the Pew Research Center’s Internet, Science and Tech Project noted the tone on Twitter does not necessarily reflect the wider general consensus.

Only 18% of online adults are even on Twitter and less than half of those people check in daily (46%).  Yet Twitter explodes with activity during publicly broadcasted events – like the Super Bowl or Presidential debates. Smith aptly points out that Twitter sentiment  does not always match the ‘true’ public opinion.

Pew Slide 22     Pew Slide 23

However, the reverse may be also true. Academic research suggests that viewers consuming tweets while watching a broadcast tended to report opinions that matched the tone of the Twitter-verse.

Positive, negative and neutral tweets were embedded into short video clips from American Idol and political speeches. One version of each video had mostly positive tweets, another had mostly negative tweets, and a third version had no tweets at all.

Example of video used to test the effect of Tweets on screen

Example of video used to test the effect of Tweets on screen

Results showed, in all but one case, individuals conformed to the expressed opinions. Those who saw mostly negative tweets reported more negative opinions compared to those who saw mostly positive tweets (see data in bar charts below).

The one case where the tweets had no effect was the a political talk from a Congressman about gun rights. As a fairly polarized issues, it is not surprising a few tweets embedded in a short video had no effect.

But what about on longer videos? On issues of similar importance that have not yet polarized?

Smith’s report shows only a few voices are on Twitter, yet those few voices offered to the audience through mass communication such as television broadcasts have the potential to influence the way the audience reacts.

Merging these two research findings sheds valuable practical insight into understanding social media effects, especially for broadcasters and advertising professionals.

Resulting means for different conditions of tweets on-screen for political speech videos.

Resulting means for different conditions of tweets on-screen for political speech videos.

Resulting means for different conditions of tweets on-screen for reality entertainment programming.

Resulting means for different conditions of tweets on-screen for reality entertainment programming.

New, Improved, and South Park approved?

After taking a sabbatical to study for comprehensive exams and craft years of ideas and knowledge into a philosophically elegant, theoretically sound and empirically testable research plan, I was ready to return to the public domain as a bona fide PhD Candidate.

And then it happened…

Comedy Central’s hit show South Park parodied my dissertation topic less than one week after I was admitted to candidacy. I watched in horror as my entire argument was boiled down into punchlines; my thoughts summed up in 47 minutes to millions of viewers.

“#REHASH” and “#HappyHolograms” (episodes 9 and 10 of season 18, respectively) poke fun at the younger generation’s obsession with user-generated online material, especially comments.

As one character exploits “Let’s Play” videos, where gamers include comments on their subjective experience of a video game over recorded game play, another leads a charge to “save the living room” that is dying in favor of mediated environments. Images of kids glued to computer and device screens, a video-in-video commentary window, tweets on-screen, and hashtags galore set the stage for their thesis – the older generation does not understand these new expressions and “art forms” of the younger generation.

Popular “Let’s Play” producer PewDiePie guest starred on South Park’s #HappyHolograms episode. Image screenshot from

Popular “Let’s Play” video producer PewDiePie guest starred on South Park’s #HappyHolograms episode. Image screenshot from

They had summed it all up. I began contemplating my options: change my topic altogether, cite South Park throughout my dissertation, potentially damaging my image, or embrace the fact that my research interests had currency, timeliness, and social relevance worthy of a South Park parody.

I finally chose the latter. South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker are right – this is not a passing trend. But it is something we can better understand.

As Web 2.0 morphs into Web 3.0, the lines between online and off-line content blur, and mass media dissolves into the hands of no-name individuals, new forms of new media emerge before old new media is fully understood.

So what are the effects of Tweets on TV? How does commentary affect the viewing experience? Why do we think the younger generation is driving us towards complete social and cultural collapse because everything they do is online or mediated through internet-connected devices?

I don’t know, but I’m determined to rise above South Park and vindicate my research to provide some practical insight to this growing social phenomenon.

So stay tuned – it is about to get trendy.


Interactive Graphics: Embed with Text or Stand-Alone?

A growing use interactive graphics, many published on stand-alone websites, questions the importance of the traditional text article or report it is quickly replacing.

A recently published case-study found reading a news article prior to using an interactive graphic online  resulted in a distinctly different user experience.  The study mimicked two common routes to an online interactive graphic – straight to the graphic on a stand-alone page (i.e. followed a link on Twitter) or as a hyperlink at the end of a news story, which took them to the stand-alone page.

NY TimesCollege students (n=22) were asked to “use” The New York Times’ interactive graphic, “Student Debt at Colleges Across the Nation”.  Almost half of the students, though, first read a short news article associated with the graphic.Results 1

The graphic had 32 unique interactive “tasks” including changing the year of data displayed, manipulating school characteristics with filters, and typing into text boxes. Screen capture software recorded the students’ mouse activity.

The results showed students who read the story interacted with 4 more tasks and spent 12 more seconds on average compared to the students who did not see the article.

Perhaps more interesting was the way the two groups interacted with the graphic.

More ‘story-primed’ users changed the year (50% vs 18%) and typed into the “Debt at graduation” and “Year graduatResults 2ed” text boxes (38% vs 9%).

More ‘story-primed’ users clicked on the graduation rate filter (67% vs 38%) and sub-filters.

Why were the students who read the story so interested in the graduation rate features?

Simple. The story they read alluded to the relationship between graduation rates and debt.

Practically, this is an important finding. In general, the study participants did little to engage in the interactive features of the graphic overall. So stand-alone interactive graphics meant to convey important information and rely on users to extract meaning may be missing the mark.

However, if that graphic was embedded within the story instead, the user has context for the information behind the graphic. This knowledge may direct information-seeking (perhaps fact-checking the article) or help diminish barriers of uncertainty, anxiety, or disinterest that deter some users from interacting with stand-alone graphics.

Takeaway: Consider the effect design decisions, such as placement, may have on the user experience of interactive graphics and information consumption more generally. The effects of those exact experiences  on recall, credibility, understanding, knowledge gain, persuasion and more are still largely unknown.