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From laughing to judging in fifty years: The evolution of televised emotion

December 21, 2010: 1:13 PM ET

A new study from NBC reveals how emotions generated from TV shows have mirrored American society. And 'judgment' is the current king of the charts.

Glee's Sue Sylvester, played by Jane Lynch

Glee's Sue Sylvester, played by Jane Lynch

By Daniel Roberts, reporter

If you're on TV, whether in a drama or reality show, chances are that Americans are sitting on their couches, silently judging you. Those are the findings from a new study conducted by NBC Universal, which examined the top 20 broadcast programs (via Nielsen ratings) of each year, over the past 50 years. NBC asked nearly 3,500 heavy TV-watchers, ages 18-70, how they felt while watching each show.

According to the study, made available exclusively to Fortune, the emotion most frequently elicited by today's top shows is 'judgment,' defined for the purposes of the study as "this show invites me to pass judgment on the actions of these characters."

Lauren Zalaznick, President of NBC Universal Women and Lifestyle Entertainment Networks, ran the study and first presented its findings to guests at the TEDWomen conference this month. She believes that the high ranking of 'judgment' makes perfect sense based on which type of programming dominated the past couple of years. "From 2009-2010 rankings, reality shows have spots 1, 2, and 3," she said. Viewers, Zalaznick pointed out, love to watch competition. It's even better when they can get directly involved in the judging, which shows like American Idol allow them to do.

But the study goes beyond just the current era of TV tastes. In four animated charts below, respondents' most frequently chosen attributes face off over time, and the results are illuminating:

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