Channel surfers across the country are finding it increasingly difficult to avoid a reality television program. According to recent Nielsen ratings, shows such as Survivor, American Idol, Fear Factor, Big Brother and The Bachelor are attracting more than 18 million viewers per episode. Many people say these shows possess no redeeming value and are simply blatant voyeurism. However, a researcher at the University of Missouri-Columbia discovered these shows actually have a positive impact on viewers.

"Entertainment needs are met through reality television because these shows allow people to make comparisons with media images -- comparisons that ultimately help them feel better about themselves and their personal circumstances," said Cynthia Frisby, assistant professor of advertising at the Missouri School of Journalism at MU.

In the study, participants ranging in age from 19 to 29 years old -- similar to the 18 to 34 age group most attracted to reality television -- completed a survey to measure their moods and thoughts regarding reality television. The survey indicated 78 percent were regular viewers of reality shows. They then watched a 40-minute segment of Joe Millionaire while recording their reactions to the program. Another survey was taken immediately following the episode.

Frisby found that the participant's exposure to reality television resulted in a positive increase in mood state, with no difference between men and women. Interestingly, Frisby said, of all the gratifications obtained, viewers reported watching reality shows specifically to make comparisons, the factor that determined entertainment value.

Frisby believes the results of this research can be used to provide new insights concerning psychological, cognitive and behavioral processes that motivate television viewing preferences and program choice.

"Television and other media provide the thrill of observing danger without allowing people to suffer consequences," Frisby said. "Audiences know that when the curtain comes down and the lights come on in the theater, everything is back to the way it is. That's what reality television does for the regular viewer. These shows are distracting from today's tragic events and give viewers an outlet for watching others overcome hardships, escape danger, live in a rainforest, learn to survive under the roughest conditions, and yes, find love."