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March 15 , 2007
DH 07 JH35
Contact: Joanie Harmon-Whetmore
(310) 243-2740/2001

Communications Professor Researches Mixed Martial Arts Phenomenon

Carson, CANancy Cheever, assistant professor of communications, really likes to watch television, but not in the way one would think. She examines the effects of programming on society, with research projects such as the effects of children’s viewing habits on gender development and how stereotypes of single women on television diminish their self-esteem, while coloring society’s perceptions of them. Her most recent project, however, deals with a much less subtle subject: the popularity of mixed martial arts,(MMA), a combat sport
that incorporates a variety of fighting techniques including striking and grappling.

“In communications, we have the cultivation theory,” she notes, “which says that the more TV you watch, the more you believe its distorted images exist in your world as they do on television. So, people who watch a lot of violent programming, tend to believe there’s a lot of violence in their neighborhood.”

While flipping channels for another project, Cheever experienced an initial disgust and then, a fascination with the show, Ultimate Fighting Championship on Spike TV, a tournament that features MMA. Having done extensive research on women and television, she decided to find out more about the genre’s effects on its predominantly male audience.

“We wanted to find out their viewing habits, their motives for watching, whether they watch it with friends, and what they talk about when they watch it,” she says of the research she conducted with the help of a student.“Some of them said they enjoyed the violent aspects and the blood and all that stuff. But most of them watch it because they appreciated the skills of the fighters.”

Cheever’s next research effort struck pay dirt, when the owner of a MMA Website, Sherdog.com posted a link to Cheever’s survey for viewers. The survey got an overwhelming response from 3,500 fans, 54 percent of whom had actually tried mixed martial arts. She found that 80 percent of the men said MMA has had a positive impact on their lives, and that 63 percent agreed they get a vicarious thrill from viewing MMA. The general demographic that answered her survey was 98 percent male, 77 percent single, and 97 percent under age 40. Eighty percent
of the fans had at least some college education, and 32 percent had earned their degrees. Sixty percent of the participants had been in a street fight, in contrast to the 68 percent that had never been in an organized sport fight.

As an observer of the effects of mass media on society, Cheever points out MMA’s popularity as indicative of how television is always pushing its boundaries to attract viewers.

“Compare what was acceptable to show on television 50 years ago to what they’ll actually show and what we’ll tolerate today,” she says. “It says something about our society, that we tolerate a lot of violence, not only in real combat sport, but also in fictional programming, like Law & Order, The Sopranos, and the CSI series. They’re very graphic and bloody fictional shows, comparable to those aspects shown in mixed martial arts.”

Cheever’s next step is to examine the reactions to MMA of people who are not regular viewers of the sport, and to analyze the psychological traits of the fighters. Hers is the first academic research on MMA, apart from studies of injury rates and content analysis on knock-outs and submissions in matches.

“I wanted to jump in because this was my chance to do some seminal work that’s never been done before on a really hot topic,” she says. “People who are into it, think that it’s more widely covered than it really is. It’s starting to get coverage on mainstream news now, and soon, it’s going to be all over the place.”

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Last updated March 15, 4:58 p.m.
by Joanie Harmon-Whetmore