The 'Grammar' of Television and
Television and film use certain common conventions often
referred to as the 'grammar' of these audiovisual media. This list
includes some of the most important conventions for conveying
meaning through particular camera and editing techniques (as
well as some of the specialised vocabulary of film production).
Conventions aren't rules: expert practitioners break them for
deliberate effect, which is one of the rare occasions that we
become aware of what the convention is.
Camera Techniques: Distance and Angle
Long shot (LS). Shot which shows all or most of a fairly large
subject (for example, a person) and usually much of the
surroundings. Extreme Long Shot (ELS) - see establishing shot:
In this type of shot the camera is at its furthest distance from the
subject, emphasising the background. Medium Long Shot
(MLS): In the case of a standing actor, the lower frame line cuts
off his feet and ankles. Some documentaries with social themes
favour keeping people in the longer shots, keeping social
circumstances rather than the individual as the focus of attention.
Establishing shot. Opening shot or sequence, frequently an
exterior 'General View' as an Extreme Long Shot (ELS). Used to
set the scene.
Medium shots. Medium Shot or Mid-Shot (MS). In such a shot
the subject or actor and its setting occupy roughly equal areas in
the frame. In the case of the standing actor, the lower frame
passes through the waist. There is space for hand gestures to be
seen. Medium Close Shot (MCS): The setting can still be seen.
The lower frame line passes through the chest of the actor.
Medium shots are frequently used for the tight presentation of
two actors (the two shot), or with dexterity three (the three
Close-up (CU). A picture which shows a fairly small part of the
scene, such as a character's face, in great detail so that it fills the
screen. It abstracts the subject from a context. MCU (Medium
Close-Up): head and shoulders. BCU (Big Close-Up): forehead
to chin. Close-ups focus attention on a person's feelings or
reactions, and is sometimes used in interviews to show people in
a state of emotional excitement, grief or joy. In interviews, the
use of BCUs may emphasise the interviewee's tension and
suggest lying or guilt. BCUs are rarely used for important public
figures; MCUs are preferred, the camera providing a sense of
distance. Note that in western cultures the space within about 24
inches (60 cm) is generally felt to be private space, and BCUs
may be invasive.
Angle of shot. The direction and height from which the camera
takes the scene. The convention is that in 'factual' programmes
subjects should be shot from eye-level only. In a high angle the
camera looks down at a character, making the viewer feel more
powerful than him or her, or suggesting an air of detachment. A
low angle shot places camera below the character, exaggerating
his or her importance. An overhead shot is one made from a
position directly above the action.
Viewpoint. The apparent distance and angle from which the
camera views and records the subject. Not to be confused with
point-of-view shots or subjective camera shots.
Point-of-view shot (POV). A shot made from a camera
position close to the line of sight of a performer who is to be
watching the action shown in the point-of-view shot.
Two-shot. A shot of two people together.
Selective focus. Rendering only part of the action field in sharp
focus through the use of a shallow depth of field. A shift of
focus from foreground to background or vice versa is called rack
Soft focus. An effect in which the sharpness of an image, or
part of it, is reduced by the use of an optical device.
Wide-angle shot. A shot of a broad field of action taken with a
Tilted shot. When the camera is tilted on its axis so that
normally vertical lines appear slanted to the left or right, ordinary
expectations are frustrated. Such shots are often used in mystery
and suspense films to create a sense of unease in the viewer.
Camera Techniques: Movement
Zoom. In zooming in the camera does not move; the lens is
focussed down from a long-shot to a close-up whilst the picture
is still being shown. The subject is magnified, and attention is
concentrated on details previously invisible as the shot tightens
(contrast tracking). It may be used to surprise the viewer.
Zooming out reveals more of the scene (perhaps where a
character is, or to whom he or she is speaking) as the shot
widens. Zooming in rapidly brings not only the subject but also
the background hurtling towards the viewer, which can be
disconcerting. Zooming in and then out creates an ugly 'yo-yo'
Following pan. The camera swivels (in the same base position)
to follow a moving subject. A space is left in front of the subject:
the pan 'leads' rather than 'trails'. A pan usually begins and ends
with a few seconds of still picture to give greater impact. The
speed of a pan across a subject creates a particular mood as well
as establishing the viewer's relationship with the subject.
'Hosepiping' is continually panning across from one person to
another; it looks clumsy.
Surveying pan. The camera slowly searches the scene: may
build to a climax or anticlimax.
Tilt. A vertical movement of the camera - up or down- while the
camera mounting stays fixed.
Crab. The camera moves (crabs) right or left.
Tracking (dollying). Tracking involves the camera itself being
moved smoothly towards or away from the subject (contrast
with zooming). Tracking in (like zooming) draws the viewer into
a closer, more intense relationship with the subject; moving
away tends to create emotional distance. Tracking back tends to
divert attention to the edges of the screen. The speed of tracking
may affect the viewer's mood. Rapid tracking (especially
tracking in) is exciting; tracking back relaxes interest. In a
dramatic narrative we may sometimes be drawn forward
towards a subject against our will. Camera movement parallel to
a moving subject permits speed without drawing attention to the
Hand-held camera. A hand-held camera can produce a jerky,
bouncy, unsteady image which may create a sense of immediacy
or chaos. Its use is a form of subjective treatment.
Process shot. A shot made of action in front of a rear projection
screen having on it still or moving images as a background.
Cut. Sudden change of shot from one viewpoint or location to
another. On television cuts occur on average about every 7 or 8
seconds. Cutting may:
change the scene;
vary the point of view; or
build up an image or idea.
There is always a reason for a cut, and you should ask yourself
what the reason is. Less abrupt transitions are achieved with the
fade, dissolve, and wipe
Matched cut. In a 'matched cut' a familiar relationship between
the shots may make the change seem smooth:
continuity of direction;
a similar centre of attention in the frame;
a one-step change of shot size (e.g. long to medium);
a change of angle (conventionally at least 30 degrees).
*The cut is usually made on an action (for example, a person
begins to turn towards a door in one shot; the next shot, taken
from the doorway, catches him completing the turn). Because
the viewer's eye is absorbed by the action he is unlikely to notice
the movement of the cut itself.
Jump cut. Abrupt switch from one scene to another which may
be used deliberately to make a dramatic point. Sometimes boldly
used to begin or end action. Alternatively, it may be result of
poor pictorial continuity, perhaps from deleting a section.
Motivated cut. Cut made just at the point where what has
occurred makes the viewer immediately want to see something
which is not currently visible (causing us, for instance, to accept
compression of time). A typical feature is the shot/reverse shot
technique (cuts coinciding with changes of speaker). Editing and
camera work appear to be determined by the action. It is
intimately associated with the 'privileged point of view' (see
narrative style: objectivity).
Cutting rate. Frequent cuts may be used as deliberate
interruptions to shock, surprise or emphasize.
Cutting rhythm. A cutting rhythm may be progressively
shortened to increase tension. Cutting rhythm may create an
exciting, lyrical or staccato effect in the viewer.
Cross-cut. A cut from one line of action to another. Also applied
as an adjectuve to sequences which use such cuts.
Cutaway/cutaway shot (CA). A bridging, intercut shot between
two shots of the same subject. It represents a secondary activity
occurring at the same time as the main action. It may be
preceded by a definite look or glance out of frame by a
participant, or it may show something of which those in the
preceding shot are unaware. (See narrative style: parallel
development) It may be used to avoid the technical ugliness of a
'jump cut' where there would be uncomfortable jumps in time,
place or viewpoint. It is often used to shortcut the passing of
Reaction shot. Any shot, usually a cutaway, in which a
participant reacts to action which has just occurred.
Insert/insert shot. A bridging close-up shot inserted into the
larger context, offering an essential detail of the scene (or a
reshooting of the action with a different shot size or angle.)
Buffer shot (neutral shot). A bridging shot (normally taken
with a separate camera) to separate two shots which would have
reversed the continuity of direction.
Fade, dissolve (mix). Both fades and dissolves are gradual
transitions between shots. In a fade the picture gradually appears
from (fades in) or disappears to (fades out) a blank screen. A
slow fade-in is a quiet introduction to a scene; a slow fade-out is
a peaceful ending. Time lapses are often suggested by a slow
fade-out and fade-in. A dissolve (or mix) involves fading out one
picture while fading up another on top of it. The impression is of
an image merging into and then becoming another. A slow mix
usually suggests differences in time and place. Defocus or ripple
dissolves are sometimes used to indicate flashbacks in time.
Superimpositions. Two of more images placed directly over
each other (e.g. and eye and a camera lens to create a visual
Wipe. An optical effect marking a transition between two shots.
It appears to supplant an image by wiping it off the screen (as a
line or in some complex pattern, such as by appearing to turn a
page). The wipe is a technique which draws attention to itself
and acts as a clear marker of change.
Inset. An inset is a special visual effect whereby a reduced shot
is superimposed on the main shot. Often used to reveal a
close-up detail of the main shot.
Split screen. The division of the screen into parts which can
show the viewer several images at the same time (sometimes the
same action from slightly different perspectives, sometimes
similar actions at different times). This can convey the
excitement and frenzy of certain activities, but it can also
overload the viewer.
Stock shot. Footage already available and used for another
purpose than the one for which it was originally filmed.
Invisible editing: See narrative style: continuity editing.
Screen time: a period of time represented by events within a
film (e.g. a day, a week).
Subjective time. The time experienced or felt by a character in
a film, as revealed through camera movement and editing (e.g.
when a frightened person's flight from danger is prolonged).
Compressed time. The compression of time between sequences
or scenes, and within scenes. This is the most frequent
manipulation of time in films: it is achieved with cuts or
dissolves. In a dramatic narative, if climbing a staircase is not a
significant part of the plot, a shot of a character starting up the
stairs may then cut to him entering a room. The logic of the
situation and our past experience of medium tells us that the
room is somewhere at the top of the stairs. Long journeys can
be compressed into seconds. Time may also be compressed
between cutaways in parallel editing. More subtle compression
can occur after reaction shots or close-ups have intervened. The
use of dissolves was once a cue for the passage of a relatively
long period of time.
Long take. A single shot (or take, or run of the camera) which
lasts for a relatively lengthy period of time. The long take has an
'authentic' feel since it is not inherently dramatic.
Simultaneous time. Events in different places can be presented
as occurring at the same moment, by parallel editing or
cross-cutting, by multiple images or split-screen. The
conventional clue to indicate that events or shots are taking place
at the same time is that there is no progression of shots: shots are
either inserted into the main action or alternated with each other
until the strands are somehow united.
Slow motion. Action which takes place on the screen at a
slower rate than the rate at which the action took place before
the camera. This is used: a) to make a fast action visible; b) to
make a familiar action strange; c) to emphasise a dramatic
moment. It can have a lyric and romantic quality or it can
Accelerated motion (undercranking) . This is used: a) to make
a slow action visible; b) to make a familiar action funny; c) to
increase the thrill of speed.
Reverse motion. Reproducing action backwards, for comic,
magical or explanatory effect.
Replay. An action sequence repeated, often in slow motion,
commonly featured in the filming of sport to review a significant
Freeze-frame. This gives the image the appearance of a still
photograph. Clearly not a naturalistic device.
Flashback. A break in the chronology of a narrative in which
events from the past are disclosed to the viewer. Formerly
indicated conventionally with defocus or ripple dissolves.
Flashforward. Much less common than the flashback. Not
normally associated with a particular character. Associated with
Extended or expanded time/overlapping action. The
expansion of time can be accomplished by intercutting a series of
shots, or by filming the action from different angles and editing
them together. Part of an action may be repeated from another
viewpoint, e.g. a character is shown from the inside of a building
opening a door and the next shot, from the outside, shows him
opening it again. Used nakedly this device disrupts the audience's
sense of real time. The technique may be used unobtrusively to
stretch time, perhaps to exaggerate, for dramatic effect, the time
taken to walk down a corridor. Sometimes combined with slow
Ambiguous time. Within the context of a well-defined
time-scheme sequences may occur which are ambiguous in time.
This is most frequently comunicated through dissolves and
Universal time. This is deliberately created to suggest universal
relevance. Ideas rather than examples are emphasised. Context
may be disrupted by frequent cuts and by the extensive use of
close-ups and other shots which do not reveal a specific
Use of Sound
Direct sound. Live sound. This may have a sense of freshness,
spontaneity and 'authentic' atmosphere, but it may not be
Studio sound. Sound recorded in the studio to improve the
sound quality, eliminating unwanted background noise ('ambient
sound'), e.g. dubbed dialogue. This may be then mixed with live
Selective sound. The removal of some sounds and the retention
of others to make significant sounds more recognizable, or for
dramatic effect - to create atmosphere, meaning and emotional
nuance. Selective sound (and amplification) may make us aware
of a watch or a bomb ticking. This can sometimes be a
subjective device, leading us to identify with a character: to hear
what he or she hears. Sound may be so selective that the lack of
ambient sound can make it seem artificial or expressionistic.
Sound perspective/aural perspective. The impression of
distance in sound, usually created through the use of selective
sound. Note that even in live television a microphone is
deliberately positioned, just as the camera is, and therefore may
privilege certain participants.
Sound bridge. Adding to continuity through sound, by running
sound (narration, dialogue or music) from one shot across a cut
to another shot to make the action seem uninterrupted.
Dubbed dialogue. Post-recording the voice-track in the studio,
the actors matching their words to the on-screen lip movements.
Not confined to foreign-language dubbing.
Wildtrack (asynchronous sound). Sound which was
self-evidently recorded separately from the visuals with which it
is shown. For example, a studio voice-over added to a visual
Parallel (synchronous) sound. Sound 'caused' by some event
on screen, and which matches the action.
Commentary/voice-over narration. Commentary spoken
off-screen over the shots shown. The voice-over can be used to:
introduce particular parts of a programme;
to add extra information not evident from the picture;
to interpret the images for the audience from a particular
point of view;
to link parts of a sequence or programme together.
The commentary confers authority on a particular interpretation,
particularly if the tone is moderate, assured and reasoned. In
dramatic films, it may be the voice of one of the characters,
unheard by the others.
Sound effects (SFX). Any sound from any source other than
synchronised dialogue, narration or music. Dubbed-in sound
effects can add to the illusion of reality: a stage- set door may
gain from the addition of the sound of a heavy door slamming or
Music. Music helps to establish a sense of the pace of the
accompanying scene. The rhythm of music usually dictates the
rhythm of the cuts. The emotional colouring of the music also
reinforces the mood of the scene. Background music is
asynchronous music which accompanies a film. It is not
normally intended to be noticeable. Conventionally, background
music accelerates for a chase sequence, becomes louder to
underscore a dramatically important action. Through repetition it
can also link shots, scenes and sequences. Foreground music is
often synchronous music which finds its source within the screen
events (e.g. from a radio, TV, stereo or musicians in the scene).
It may be a more credible and dramatically plausible way of
bringing music into a programme than background music (a
string orchestra sometimes seems bizarre in a Western).
Silence. The juxtaposition of an image and silence can frustrate
expectations, provoke odd, self-conscious responses, intensify
our attention, make us apprehensive, or make us feel dissociated
Soft and harsh lighting. Soft and harsh lighting can manipulate
a viewer's attitude towards a setting or a character. The way
light is used can make objects, people and environments look
beautiful or ugly, soft or harsh, artificial or real. Light may be
used expressively or realitically.
Backlighting. A romantic heroine is often backlit to create a
halo effect on her hair.
Text. Titles appear at or near the start of the programme. Their
style - typeface, size, colour, background and pace - (together
with music) can establish expectations about the atmosphere and
style of the programme. Credits listing the main actors, the
director, and so on, are normally shown at or near the beginning,
whilst those listing the rest of the actors and programme makers
are normally shown at the end. Some American narrative series
begin with a lengthy pre-credit sequence. Credits are frequently
superimposed on action or stills, and may be shown as a
sequence of frames or scrolled up the screen. Captions are
commonly used in news and documentaries to identify speakers,
in documentaries, documentary dramas and dramatic naratives
to indicate dates or locations. Subtitles at the bottom of the
screen are usually used for translation or for the benefit of the
Graphics. Maps, graphs and diagrams are associated primarily
with news, documentary and educational programmes.
Animation. Creating an illusion of movement, by inter-cutting
stills, using graphics with movable sections, using step-by-step
changes, or control wire activation.
Subjective treatment. The camera treatment is called
'subjective' when the viewer is treated as a participant (e.g. when
the camera is addressed directly or when it imitates the
viewpoint or movement of a character). We may be shown not
only what a character sees, but how he or she sees it. A
temporary 'first-person' use of camera as the character can be
effective in conveying unusual states of mind or powerful
experiences, such as dreaming, remembering, or moving very
fast. If overused, it can draw too much attention to the camera.
Moving the camera (or zooming) is a subjective camera effect,
especially if the movement is not gradual or smooth.
Objective treatment. The 'objective point of view' involves
treating the viewer as an observer. A major example is the
'privileged point of view' which involves watching from
omniscient vantage points. Keeping the camera still whilst the
subject moves towards or away from it is an objective camera
Parallel development/parallel editing/cross-cutting. An
intercut sequence of shots in which the camera shifts back and
forth between one scene and another. Two distinct but related
events seem to be happening at approximately the same time. A
chase is a good example. Each scene serves as a cutaway for the
other. Adds tension and excitement to dramatic action.
'Invisible editing'. This is the omniscient style of the realist
feature films developed in Hollywood. The vast majority of
narrative films are now edited in this way. The cuts are intended
to be unobtrusive except for special dramatic shots. It supports
rather than dominates the narrative: the story and the behaviour
of its characters are the centre of attention. The technique gives
the impression that the edits are always required are motivated
by the events in the 'reality' that the camera is recording rather
than the result of a desire to tell a story in a particular way. The
'seamlessness' convinces us of its 'realism', but its devices
the use of matched cuts (rather than jump cuts);
changes of shot through camera movement;
the use of the sound bridge;
The editing isn't really 'invisible', but the conventions have
become so familiar to visual literates that they no longer
consciously notice them.
Mise-en-scene. (Contrast montage). 'Realistic' technique
whereby meaning is conveyed through the relationship of things
visible within a single shot (rather than, as with montage, the
relationship between shots). An attempt is preserve space and
time as much as possible; editing or fragmenting of scenes is
minimised. Composition is therefore extremely important. The
way people stand and move in relation to each other is
important. Long shots and long takes are characteristic.
Montage/montage editing. In its broadest meaning, the process
of cutting up film and editing it into the screened sequence.
However, it may also be used to mean intellectual montage - the
justaposition of short shots to represent action or ideas - or
(especially in Hollywood), simply cutting between shots to
condense a series of events. Intellectual montage is used to
consciously convey subjective messages through the
juxtaposition of shots which are related in composition or
movement, through repetition of images, through cutting rhythm,
detail or metaphor. Montage editing, unlike invisible editing, uses
conspicuous techniques which may include: use of close- ups,
relatively frequent cuts, dissolves, superimposition, fades and
jump cuts. Such editing should suggest a particular meaning.
Talk to camera. The sight of a person looking ('full face') and
talking directly at the camera establishes their authority or
'expert' status with the audience. Only certain people are
normally allowed to do this, such as announcers, presenters,
newsreaders, weather forecasters, interviewers, anchor-persons,
and, on special occasions (e.g. ministerial broadcasts), key public
figures. The words of 'ordinary' people are normally mediated
by an interviewer. In a play or film talking to camera clearly
breaks out of naturalistic conventions (the speaker may seem
like an obtrusive narrator). A short sequence of this kind in a
'factual' programme is called a 'piece to camera'.
Tone. The mood or atmosphere of a programme (e.g. ironic,
comic, nostalgic, romantic).
Formats and other features
Shot. A single run of the camera or the piece of film resulting
from such a run.
Scene. A dramatic unit composed of a single or several shots. A
scene usually takes place in a continuous time period, in the
same setting, and involves the same characters.
Sequence. A dramatic unit composed of several scenes, all
linked together by their emotional and narrative momentum.
Genre. Broad category of television or film programme. Genres
include: soap operas, documentaries, game shows, 'cop shows'
(police dramas), news programmes, 'chat' shows, phone-ins and
sitcoms (situation comedies).
Series. A succession of programmes with a standard format.
Serial. An ongoing story in which each episode takes up where
the last one left off. Soap operas are serials.
Talking heads. In some science programmes extensive use is
made of interviews with a succession of specialists/ experts (the
interviewer's questions having been edited out). This
derogatively referred to as 'talking heads'. Speakers are
sometimes allowed to talk to camera. The various interviews are
sometimes cut together as if it were a debate, although the
speakers are rarely in direct conversation.
Vox pop. Short for 'vox populi', Latin for 'voice of the people'.
The same question is put to a range of people to give a flavour
of 'what ordinary people think' about some issue. Answers are
selected and edited together to achieve a rapid-fire stream of
Intertextuality. Intertextuality refers to relationships between
different elements of a medium (e.g. formats and participants),
and links with other media. One aspect of intertextuality is that
programme participants who are known to the audience from
other programmes bring with them images established in other
contexts which effect the audience's perception of their current
role. Another concerns issues arising from sandwiching
advertisements between programmes on commercial television
(young children, in particular, may make no clear distinction
James Curran, David Morley & Valerie Walkerdine (Eds.):
Cultural Studies and Communications. London: Edward
Arnold, 1996 (£15.99 paperback; £40.00 cloth)
Goldsmiths vs. Fiske
This substantial collection of papers (371pp.), edited by James
Curran, Professor of Communications (a historian), David
Morley, Reader in Communications (a sociologist), and Valerie
Walkerdine, Professor of the Psychology of Communications, all
at Goldsmiths' College, University of London, is presented as 'a
companion volume' (back cover blurb) to an earlier reader-Mass
Media and Society (Curran and Gurevitch 1991)-which was
itself initially intended as a revised edition of Mass
Communication and Society (Curran and Gurevitch 1977),
though only Curran remains an editor of the current volume.
The book's pedigree is certainly distinguished.
It has to be said that some British academic publishers no longer
seem as keen as they once were to publish such collections of
papers; the managing editor of one university press reported to
me some years ago that this was because they no longer saw
much of a market for them. Edward Arnold (and others such as
Routledge in particular) should be commended for continuing to
produce such collections when, whilst journals proliferate,
universities are increasingly cutting back on subscriptions. In this
context 'readers' can represent good value-for-money. The
fashionable 'modularization' of university courses has
contributed to the need for undergraduates to have easy access
to short, recent papers by leading figures in the field (particularly
so that they encounter alternative perspectives), and these
students are much more likely to consult books than journals in
any case. From this perspective, multiple copies of suitable
collections are useful in university libraries.
The book offers a selection of papers from 'the interface of
cultural studies and media/communication studies' (p. 1). Four of
the sixteen papers are reprinted from journals: these being by
David Morley (1992), James Curran (1990), Stuart Hall (1985)
and Dick Hebdige (1987) (no criticism is implied by this
observation: it is useful to have ready access to such papers in
book form). As the editors themselves note, there are many
other edited collections in the fields of both media and
communication studies (Allen 1991; Alvarado and Thompson
1990; Mellencamp 1990; Corner and Hawthorne 1994;
Newcomb 1995; Boyd-Barrett and Newbold 1995; Marris and
Thornham 1996) and cultural studies (Barker and Beezer 1992;
Grossberg, Nelson and Treichler 1992; Blundell, Shepherd and
Taylor 1993; During 1993; Gray and McGuigan 1993). In
seeking to cover both of these two related fields, the editors of
this volume make a virtue of their book being 'more hybrid' (p.
4), presumably through blurring boundaries which some might
seek to erect between them. Suggesting that other editors had
sought to produce 'authoritative definitions' of their fields (which
I suspect might be denied by most of these other editors), the
editors of this book proclaim their 'more limited' aim as being 'to
produce a collection that indicates how a range of cultural
studies perspectives might be applied in the study of issues in the
field of media and communications' (p. 4) and invite readers to
judge their success on this basis. This would certainly be a
worthwhile aim which would be appropriate in such a text, but
since I could discern no specific attempt to illustrate how readers
could apply any particular 'perspective' beyond the context in
which it was employed by an individual author my own
judgement was that this claim was not justified. This is
disappointing, because undergraduates commonly experience
difficulty in disembedding procedures from particular
applications. They need books which not only illustrate the
application of particular approaches to specific contexts but
which are also sufficiently explicit about what procedures are
being adopted to enable them to attempt to explore for
themselves their application to related phenomena. However, I
would not dismiss the book on the grounds that it seemed not to
meet its editors' stated intentions; as readers we have purposes
of our own.
The collection is divided into three sections labelled: Cultural
Theory; Cultural Production; and Cultural Analysis and
Consumption. Those seeking to decide whether the book's
general or specific coverage might suit their courses need to
know that the papers included deal with: Althusser and ideology
(Stuart Hall); identity (Paul Gilroy); postmodernism (Morley);
cultural practices in a London street (Dick Hebdige); the
production of subjectivity (Walkerdine); the history of media
sociology (Curran); magazines for girls and women (Angela
McRobbie); popular music (David Hesmondhalgh); the 'New
Hollywood' (Yvonne Tasker); feminism and technology (Sarah
Kember); 'the New Revisionism' in audience research (Curran
and Morley); feminism and media consumption (Christine
Geraghty); 'The Eroticization of Little Girls' (Walkerdine) and
anthropology and ethnography (Gareth Stanton). I will not
attempt to offer an abstract of each paper here. In terms of
coverage (as well as general quality), my own judgement is that
the purchase of at least one library copy of this book would be
desirable for any university offering courses related to these
In seeking to deal with not only the vast field of media and
communication studies but also that of cultural studies, editorial
selectivity inevitably leads to some topics being noticeable by
their absence. The editors themselves (p. 3) regret the absence
of papers on certain topics-they list class and gay politics, the
State and globalization; readers will no doubt notice many other
gaps. I was surprised to find so little discussion of cyberspace
(there are limited references only in Sarah Kember's paper), and
noted Paul Gilroy's observation that, for instance, 'the mediation
and reproduction of national and postnational identities in
cyberspace and on virtual paper await a definitive interpretation'
In the interests of opening up the practices of editorial power and
the processes of academic framing I would have liked to have
seen a genuine discussion of how and why topics were chosen or
excluded, and why they were framed as they were. In my
opinion such a debate would have formed a better focus than the
relatively unproductive 'dialogue' between Curran and Morley.
As for why these particular contributors were selected, the
editors note that the authors all 'either work in, or have close
connections with, the Department of Media and Communication
Studies at Goldsmiths' College' (p. 1). Since this was not a
publication of the University of London, this seems a
problematic principle of selection, even if (or especially
because!) the editors insist on their diversity 'of intellectual
background, inclination and belief' (ibid.). Whatever the cultural
roots of individual contributors, in terms of current institutional
affiliations the collection is not only overwhelmingly 'British'
(only Dick Hebdige was based outside the UK at the time of
publication, and his contribution was written when he lived in
London), but also both English (there are British universities in
Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland) and predominantly
metropolitan. And this issue remains unproblematized.
In tune with the rhetoric of postmodernism the editors make a
virtue of the book's 'multivocal' character and the 'unusual
degree of catholicism' of the contributors. I question none of
these claims; I suspect that most of us who teach within the field
are likely to welcome the diversity of approaches in such a
collection (though we may perhaps differ more strongly in our
reactions to the scope of this text). However, a potential
purchaser is entitled to ask how this selection of papers from
such a vast field relates to their own priorities and what broad
concerns seem to be reflected in the editors' choices.
One key issue which very clearly united the three editors was
their antagonism towards John Fiske, Professor of
Communication Arts at the University of Wisconsin-Madison
(who is unsurprisingly not a contributor). Previously, Fiske, the
general editor of Cultural Studies, taught at Curtin University in
Western Australia, but he was born and educated in Britain,
where he also taught for some time. He is credited by David
Morley as having had a heavy influence on 'a recent (and
principally American) inflection of cultural studies' (p. 286).
Morley declares that the use of Fiske's books and articles (Fiske
1987, 1989a, 1989b, 1989c, 1991, 1992) is largely confined to
American courses (p. 286), but I would suggest that Fiske's
writings and ideas are far more widely used and cited-even if not
at Goldsmiths' College in the English metropolis. Curran accepts
that Fiske is 'influential' and, he adds (is this
dismissive?)-'prolific' (p. 260).
Criticism of Fiske's approach is evident both in the editorial
introductions and in the personal contributions of each of the
editors. The striking editorial stance regarding Fiske in this book
may merit some exploration here. Hostilities break out as early
as page 3, where Fiske is identified as the prime example of the
'regrettable' 'inanity' of cultural studies' 'uncritical (or 'pointless')
populism' in celebrating 'rituals of resistance' which are described
here as 'no more than over-romanticized celebrations of an
illusory form of consumer sovereignty' (p. 3). These early
criticisms are made less direct by their attribution to other critics
of the stance, such as Seaman (1992), McGuigan (1992), Harris
(1992) and Tester (1995).
Valerie Walkerdine refers to Fiske's argument that working-class
audiences are not passive victims of television and popular
culture but are able both to raid texts for progressive meanings
and to make resistant readings. Walkerdine comments: 'I wonder
if there is not a defensive optimism in the way in which these
authors see a working-class that can make "progressive"
readings, that has not wholly been taken in' (p. 109). 'This
attempt to suggest that audiences make active meanings in their
consumption and are neither passive consumers nor have their
identities determined by the text invokes an American discourse
of empowerment, of voicing and authentic creation' (ibid.). Here
the stance seems to be condemned simply as distastefully
un-British. Walkerdine adds that she regards the Fiskean stance
as 'not only wrong but patronizing... Look folks, they are not
taken in and they are actually bright enough to make their own
meanings!... It makes working-class readings seem like the
consumption of pick-and-mix sweets in a postmodern shopping
mall' (p. 109-10). Finally, she adds that 'while I think that it is
correct to assert that people make what they can of what is
available' (p. 110), stances such as Fiske's represent too extreme
a move away from textual determinism towards voluntarism.
James Curran notes Fiske's 'embrace' of the (conservative)
ideology of 'sovereign consumer pluralism'. In such as view,
argues Curran, 'there are no dominant discourses, merely a
semiotic democracy of pluralist voices' (p. 268). Fiske presents
people from (in his own words) 'a vast shifting range of
subcultures and groups' as constructing their own meanings
within what Curran describes as 'an autonomous cultural
economy' (p. 260). Curran suggests that this is 'not very
different from the American liberal tradition in which the media
are analysed in isolation from power relationships or are situated
within a model of society in which, it is assumed, power is
widely diffused' (p. 259-60). The Fiskean stance is seen by
Curran as overestimating the autonomy of audiences and
underestimating media influence. Firstly, media texts, notes
Curran, are 'rarely wholly open': as Hall noted in his now
famous discussion of the encoding/decoding model (Hall 1973),
although alternative, negotiated or oppositional readings are
possible, media texts do have preferred readings. Secondly,
Curran notes that:
Audiences do not have an infinite repertoire of discourses to
draw upon in adapting TV meanings. The location of individuals
in the social structure will tend to determine which discourses
they have ready access to. This influences in turn the range of
'readings' that they will derive from media content. (p. 268).
These two qualifications to the notion of audience creativity are,
of course, fair points, echoed by Morley (p. 287).
Whilst acknowledging 'the force' of some of Fiske's insights (pp.
287-8), David Morley seeks to distance his own conception of
cultural studies from Fiske's 'particular version', partly as a
defence of cultural studies (and himself) against some of the
criticisms of his own colleague the communications scholar,
James Curran. Morley sees Fiske's influence in 'recent reception
studies (both in America and Scandinavia) which document
audience autonomy and offer optimistic/redemptive readings of
mainstream media texts' (p. 286). He also fears that the
emphasis of Fiske and others on intertextuality might lead to a
situation where 'the text is simply dissolved into its readings' (p.
287), instancing Fiske's remark that 'there is no text, there is no
audience, there are only the processes of viewing' (Fiske 1989c:
pp. 56-7). Morley sees Fiske's emphasis on diversity of
interpretation as being at the expense of 'the discovery of
regularities and patterns of behaviour' in making sense of media
texts (p. 287). More broadly, he rejects Fiske's emphasis on
audience pleasures and agrees with Curran's criticism of the
rejection of any media influence. Also in line with Curran,
Morley criticizes a lack of emphasis on the issue of power (p.
288). He notes the importance of the availability of the power or
cultural resources for audiences to generate certain meanings
(ibid.) and cites the point made by various commentators (Budd
et al. 1990, Jensen et al. 1990, Evans 1990, Ang 1990) that the
oppositional interpretation of media texts of itself does nothing to
change society or even to truly empower the audience: being
'active' in interpreting the text is not synonymous with being
'powerful' in shaping the agenda within which the text is
constructed. Morley also agrees with Frow (1991) that there is a
danger of a 'populist ventriloquism' whereby media audiences
seem to speak with the voices of middle-class intellectuals (p.
290). He associates what he sees as the excesses of Fiskeanism
with cultural relativism, seeing Fiske as reflecting 'a populist
neo-liberal rhetoric which would abandon any concern with
cultural values', a position which Morley sees as offering support
both to 'the deregulators who would destroy any version of
public service broadcasting' and to Hollywood's power in the
world television market (p. 286).
Rightly, I feel, Morley notes a tendency in Fiske to avoid
empirical audience research (p. 287) and to generalize too widely
from exceptional examples (p. 289). It has to be said, however,
that there is very little empirical research in the current
collection, and a fair amount of generalization too. Papers such
as Angela McRobbie's on 'More! New Sexualities in Girls' and
Women's Magazines' comes close, but (insightful as it is)
involves no detailed exploration (or graphical illustration-a
publishing restriction?) of particular examples-perhaps she could
have been offered more space to do so. I would have liked to
have seen the inclusion in this collection of some short and
accessible empirical studies which could have served as
exemplars for students of the subject, including some
psychological (rather than psychoanalytical) papers.
Of course, the editors' critical observations make a great deal of
sense as an attempt to redress an overemphasis on audience
creativity at the expense of constraints on interpretation.
However, I know of no university courses in which
consideration is not given to the kind of points raised here, so
Fiskeanism (if it is fair to call it that) is something of a paper tiger
(the strategy might almost have seduced me into playing
something of the same game with 'Goldsmithianism' were it not
such an elusive beast). As a mode of unifying a collection of
essays such solidarity of Goldsmiths' colleagues against 'the
other' (which it seemed clearly to be), I for one found it not only
surprising but questionable and even disturbing, and it has to be
said that it verges on a distastefully ad hominem assault. It is
also a rhetorical strategy which I found became rapidly irritating.
I would suggest that Fiske's ideas, whatever their limitations,
remain valuable in counteracting widespread popular
assumptions of audience passivity, and are particularly useful in
provoking student discussion of the issues.
In keeping with the attack on Fiske's precccupation with
audience interpretation the editors note pointedly that they are
concerned with 'the entire communication circuit from
production to consumption' (back cover blurb). Indeed, the
structure of the book reflects this framework. I always find such
terms problematic (suggesting, for instance, an unwarranted
fixity of roles as well as audience passivity) and was encouraged
to note the unease of one of the contributors, Angela McRobbie
(though she seems to shoot herself in the foot in her concluding
I want to suggest that the language of production and
consumption, most often deployed in recent cultural studies
work, is too broad, too general, and for this reason unable to
generate a more rigorous account of the complex and
multilayered relation between the production of meaning... and
the diverse ways in which these meanings are consumed by
readers. (p. 178)
In his readable paper, 'Rethinking Popular Music after Rock and
Soul', David Hesmondhalgh-whilst echoing the editorial critique
of 'cultural popularism' (p. 198)-also alludes to the reductionism
involved in framing our engagement with media in terms of
production and consumption, noting in passing that:
An adequate analysis of musical culture needs to continue to
address debates on aesthetics, rather than resorting to the
presentation of data about the consumption and production of
music, a phenomenon Wolff calls 'sociological imperialism'
.(Wolff 1993: xiv) (p. 206)
As if to justify what some might see as unseemly behaviour
regarding outsiders, Morley and Curran seemed just as happy to
launch into acrimonious tussle of their own in a 'dialogue'
between them consisting of some reprinted papers together with
fresh commentaries and occupying almost 50 pages. The
simulated dialogue form could no doubt be both interesting and
fruitful-potentially offering students 'leverage-points' at instances
of disagreement for unspoken interventions of their own.
However, I did not find that this particular interchange led to
sufficient substantive insights to justify the space which the
editors decided (somewhat self-indulgently) to devote to it.
Whilst I found Curran's reprinted paper to be an excellent
overview (and agreed that it required some kind of up-to-date
commentary) it felt to me that the purpose of the interchange (of
four papers) between Curran and Morley served more to
(re)define these authors' respective personal positions than to
shed light on the subject. Perhaps some readers might find it
mildly entertaining, but I was left wondering whether such
already prominent figures really need to promote themselves in
this way. It could at least have been much shorter. Some would
indeed query whether the editors should devote 147 pages (40%
of the book) to their own contributions (quite apart from editorial
matter). And I regret that this striking feature has led me to focus
primarily on the contributions of the editors themselves. I should
add that I say all this despite being a great admirer myself of the
work of Morley, Curran and Walkerdine-including much of what
appears in this book.
Whilst this book is by no means avante-garde in style and
structure (I do not suggest that it should be), the authorial
interchange near the end is not the only break from more
traditional academic written forms. Dick Hebdige's (reprinted)
paper, 'The Impossible Object: Towards a Sociology of the
Sublime', also incorporates an experiment with form, intercutting
televisually, as it were, between discussion of theory and a very
specific (and insightful) account of the issues explored in relation
to the author's own locality (at the time of its original
publication); it even ends in the recounting of a dream! Valerie
Walkerdine's 'Subject to Chage without Notice: Psychology,
Postmodernity and the Popular' (the text of an inaugural lecture)
is another well-woven blend of the personal and the theoretical.
Even Stuart Hall's generally rather heavy paper does include
reflections on the personal meaning for the author of some of the
issues discussed theoretically. Effective breaks from the closure
of traditional academic styles and structures (which, as these
examples demonstrate, need involve no sacrifice of academic
'rigour') are to be welcomed. By this I do not mean simply as
reflections of postmodernist leanings, but, far more importantly,
for the educational benefit of our students. Firstly, such
examples may offer some of them 'openings' in finding their way
as readers of academic prose. Secondly, the best of these may
serve as examples for students's own writing-facilitating access
to academic discourse for those to whom conventional papers
may seem forbidding. The ideologies reflected in our own
writing practices should be examined more closely for their
reflection (or in so many cases, subversion) of what our verbal
claims suggest (perhaps this review should have been more
Turning to the issue of the intended readership of the current
volume, I have to say that I regard this as a fundamentally
problematic. The three editors declare explicitly that they
intended the book to be 'a genuinely introductory text' (p. 4); this
is emphasized as a key feature differentiating it from other
collections. Its progenitor Mass Communication and Society
was produced as a reader for Open University students, whilst
Mass Media and Society-and by implication this companion
volume-are described here as 'essential reading for students and
scholars alike' (back cover blurb). Certainly, the papers in the
current volume are by prominent academics whose publications
are justly familiar to those in the field (including the editors
themselves, together with Stuart Hall, Dick Hebdige and
Christine Geraghty). However, whilst I personally found many
of these papers useful and illuminating, I would not regard most
of the individual papers or the book as a whole as being
'genuinely introductory' for undergraduates who are absolute
beginners in this field - from this light I would suggest that in
many cases far too much background knowledge is taken for
granted. I felt that the editors even assumed knowledge of the
preceding incarnations of the volume itself (which flies in the
face of a common-albeit irritating-tendency for today's
undergraduates to regard older texts as supplanted rather than
supplemented by those of the most recent vintage). Similarly,
some individual contributors also tended to assume more
knowledge of their own previous work and of that of others in
the field than seemed justified in the context of undergraduate
readers for whom such papers might represent their primary
reading on the topic. The editors of a genuinely introductory text
should surely be expected to tailor individual contributions more
closely to the needs of the intended readers, and I did wonder
whether the major contributors were perhaps given too free a
hand in the light of their eminence in the field. Alternatively, the
editors should have abandoned the claim (perhaps springing from
a desire to achieve greater sales) that this was a truly
introductory volume. None of these reservations, I should add, is
intended to undermine the undoubted worth of the book as a
contribution to scholarly literature in the field.
Symptomatic for me of the misleading labelling of this book as
'introductory' is the surprising choice of Stuart Hall's
paper-enlightening as I personally found it-as the first paper in
the collection. Important as a consideration of Althusserian
Marxism is (my own third year undergraduate students are
expected to negotiate this topic), undergraduates often comment
that Hall's papers can be 'heavy going'. To be fair, this paper
includes some readable passages offering welcome insights into
Hall's own experiences (and the current paper seems a little more
accessible than some of his other papers). There is, for instance,
a delightful aside at one point where Hall notes:
When I was a child and I was taken to the church by one of my
grandmothers, I thought the black minister's appeal to the
Almighty: 'Lord, lighten our darkness,' was a quite specific
request for a bit of personal divine assistance. (p. 31)
However, for beginners it is my judgement that Hall is not
always the best introduction either to the field or even to Hall
(whose influential ideas I would nevertheless regard as being
essential for students to come to grips with). Readers of a review
are entitled to expect some consideration of 'suitability for
purpose'; Hall's paper is, unfortunately, a clear example of how
too much background knowledge is required on the part of the
intended readers about both the author's own previous
publications and about how the topic had been framed by others.
The opening sentence -which poses few problems for those of
us who are experienced in unpacking the distinctive 'Hallese'
(which we know will be worth the effort)-is likely to stop many
undergraduate students in their tracks:
Althusser persuaded me, and I remain persuaded, that Marx
conceptualizes the ensemble of relations which make up a whole
society-Marx's 'totality'-as essentially a complex structure, not a
I would certainly not suggest that undergraduates should never
be stopped in their tracks; hopefully, slowing students down to
rexamine their assumptions is a widespread practice in university
teaching. But whilst academics are well used to dense text and
tortuous phrasing (I am guilty even here!), for a student audience
this is surely not the most effective way of promoting genuine
reflection on the ideas involved. True, the authorial 'I' humanizes
the piece and might help to dismiss still-surviving prejudices
against its presence in students' own essays. But I would not
want my own students to emulate other stylistic features of this
sentence. For the complete beginner, far too much needless
unpacking is involved here. Reading always requires us to make
inferences, of course, but complex sentences such as the
example given and the assumed knowledge required to make
sense of them are liable to lead to a widespread feeling of
exclusion for which I see no justification (and which I am certain
is not intended). Hall's initial sentence might present a
surmountable hurdle for the most determined undergraduates,
but it is far from the most difficult of the sentences to come, and
when few of those following are much easier to deconstruct,
such a paper is likely to deter all but the deeply committed. This
is a pity, since I found the article to be a valuable contribution to
my own understanding of Althusserian ideas. Since it may seem
somewhat unfair for me to single out one paper for stylistic
criticism, I should add that this example of a limitation of writing
style for the stated readership is not intended to reflect a
weakness confined to, or even most strongly exemplified by, this
particular paper, but it does highlight a difficulty which surfaces
in other contributions. Nor should the author shoulder
responsibility in this context, since his paper was not written for
this volume or as an introduction for undergraduates but for an
academic journal; the editors of this book chose to reprint Hall's
paper (originally published in 1985) for inclusion in the current
volume (the option was surely open to them to invite Hall to
write a paper which was tailored to their specific purposes).
Not all of the papers seemed to me to be quite so vulnerable to
such a criticism. I have already mentioned McRobbie's
interesting paper on magazines which I think most
undergraduates would find accessible. This may well be true for
David Hesmondhalgh's paper on popular music. Curran's own
contributions also struck me as likely to be accessible for
newcomers to the field. His paper on 'Rethinking Mass
Communications' in particular seemed a particularly useful guide
to mapping out stances on media and society-in fact I felt that
this chapter might encourage some students to draw up their
own 'maps' (I was very tempted to reach for a large sheet of
paper myself!). With due apologies to Professor Hall, this
chapter by Curran might have been more encouraging for
undergraduates as an opening chapter of this particular book. My
singling out of these three examples is not meant to suggest that
these are necessarily the only 'accessible' papers here.
On a more mundane level, I commend the publishers and editors
for ensuring that the collection had a subject index-and an
excellent one at that (if only every academic publisher insisted on
this in all of their books!) but I would have liked to have seen a
name index as well. Not all of the references at the end of some
papers were complete-some references to journal articles lacked
page numbers; this is particularly unfortunate when one seeks to
encourage careful referencing by students.
Perhaps my criticisms suggest that I expect too much of such a
book, but no academic achievement is beyond improvement. To
ensure that casual readers don't 'misread' the preferred reading
of this review I should emphasize that despite my reservations,
as a collection of papers useful for scholars in the field and for
advanced undergraduate and postgraduate courses, I recommend
this book, but I would caution course tutors that despite the
editorial claim, it is not, in my opinion, a multiple-copy purchase
for first-year undergraduates.
9th December 1996
E-mail Daniel Chandler: email@example.com
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This review is also published in print form in Cultural
Why do People Watch Television?
Uses and Gratifications
Watching TV Soap Operas
Watching TV Quiz Programmes
Criticisms of 'Uses and Gratifications'
Some Related Reading
Uses and Gratifications
One influential tradition in media research is referred to as 'uses
and gratifications' (occasionally 'needs and gratifications'). This
approach focuses on why people use particular media rather than
on content. In contrast to the concern of the 'media effects'
tradition with 'what media do to people' (which assumes a
homogeneous mass audience and a 'hypodermic' view of media),
U & G can be seen as part of a broader trend amongst media
researchers which is more concerned with 'what people do with
media', allowing for a variety of responses and interpretations.
However, some commentators have argued that gratifications
could also be seen as effects: e.g. thrillers are likely to generate
very similar responses amongst most viewers. And who could
say that they never watch more TV than they had intended to?
Watching TV helps to shape audience needs and expectations.
U & G arose originally in the 1940s and underwent a revival in
the 1970s amd 1980s. The approach springs from a
functionalist paradigm in the social sciences. It presents the use
of media in terms of the gratification of social or psychological
needs of the individual (Blumler & Katz 1974). The mass media
compete with other sources of gratification, but gratifications can
be obtained from a medium's content (e.g. watching a specific
programme), from familiarity with a genre within the medium
(e.g. watching soap operas), from general exposure to the
medium (e.g. watching TV), and from the social context in
which it is used (e.g. watching TV with the family). U & G
theorists argue that people's needs influence how they use and
respond to a medium. Zillmann (cited by McQuail 1987: 236)
has shown the influence of mood on media choice: boredom
encourages the choice of exciting content and stress encourages
a choice of relaxing content. The same TV programme may
gratify different needs for different individuals. Different needs
are associated with individual personalities, stages of maturation,
backgrounds and social roles. Developmental factors seem to be
related to some motives for purposeful viewing: e.g. Judith van
Evra argues that young children may be particularly likely to
watch TV in search of information and hence more susceptible
to influence (Evra 1990: 177, 179).
An empirical study in the U & G tradition might typically involve
audience members completing a questionnaire about why they
watch a TV programme. Denis McQuail offers (McQuail 1987:
73) the following typology of common reasons for media use:
finding out about relevant events and conditions in
immediate surroundings, society and the world
seeking advice on practical matters or opinion and decision
satisfying curiosity and general interest
gaining a sense of security through knowledge
finding reinforcement for personal values
finding models of behaviour
identifying with valued other (in the media)
gaining insight into one's self
Integration and Social Interaction
gaining insight into circumstances of others; social empathy
identifying with others and gaining a sense of belonging
finding a basis for conversation and social interaction
having a substitute for real-life companionship
helping to carry out social roles
enabling one to connect with family, friends and society
escaping, or being diverted, from problems
getting intrinsic cultural or aesthetic enjoyment
Blumler & Katz (1974) argued that audience needs have social
and psychological origins which generate certain expectations
about the mass media, leading to differential patterns of media
exposure which result in both the gratification of needs and in
other (often unintended) consequences. This does assume an
active audience making motivated choices. However, McQuail
suggests that the dominant stance of recent researchers in this
tradition is now that:
Personal social circumstances and psychological
dispositions together influence both... general habits of
media use and also... beliefs and expectations about the
benefits offered by the media, which shape... specific acts
of media choice and consumption, followed by....
assessments of the value of the experience (with
consequences for further media use) and, possibly...
applications of benefits acquired in other areas of
experience and social activity. (ibid: 235).
James Lull (1990: 35-46) offers a typology of the social uses of
television based on ethnographic research.
Social Uses of Television
Environmental: background noise; companionship;
Regulative: punctuation of time and activity; talk patterns
Communication Facilitation: Experience illustration;
common ground; conversational entrance; anxiety
reduction; agenda for talk; value clarification
Affiliation/Avoidance: Physical, verbal contact/neglect;
family solidarity; family relaxant; conflict reduction;
Social Learning: Decision-making; behaviour modelling;
problem-solving; value transmission; legitimization;
information dissemination; substitute schooling
Competence/Dominance: Role enactment; role
reinforcement; substitute role portrayal; intellectual
validation; authority exercise; gatekeeping; argument
(Lull 1990: 36)
Watching TV Soap Operas
A major focus for research into why and how people watch TV
has been the genre of soap opera. Adopting a U & G
perspective, Richard Kilborn (1992: 75-84) offers the following
common reasons for watching soaps:
regular part of domestic routine and entertaining reward for
launchpad for social and personal interaction
fulfilling individual needs: a way of choosing to be alone or
of enduring enforced loneliness
identification and involvement with characters (perhaps
escapist fantasy (American supersoaps more fantastical)
focus of debate on topical issues
a kind of critical game involving knowledge of the rules and
conventions of the genre
Watching TV Quiz Programmes
McQuail, Blumler and Brown (1972) offered the following
summary of clusters of 'uses' that people made of TV quizzes:
Gratifications of TV Quiz Shows: Selected Responses
I can compare myself with the experts
I like to imagine that I am on the programme and doing
I feel pleased that the side I favour has actually won
I am reminded of when I was in school
I laugh at the contestants' mistakes
Basis for Social Interaction
I look forward to talking about it with others
I like competing with other people watching with me
I like working together with the family on the answers
The children get a lot out of it
It brings the family together sharing the same interest
It is a topic of conversation afterwards
I like the excitement of a close finish
I like to forget my worries for a while
I like trying to guess the winner
Having got the answer right I feel really good
I get involved in the competition
I find I know more than I thought
I find I have improved myself
I feel respect for the people on the programme
I think over some of the questions afterwards
(McQuail, Blumler & Brown 1972)
Social class seemed to be related to gratifications here. McQuail
et al. noted that most of those who watched quiz programmes
for 'self-rating' gratifications lived in council houses and were
working-class. 'Excitement' was most commonly reported as a
gratification by working-class viewers who were not very
sociable. And those who reported 'educational appeal' as the
major gratification were those who had left school at the
minimum age. John Fiske suggests that these could be seen as
compensatory uses of the media 'to gratify needs that the rest of
social life frustrates' (Fiske 1982: 136). In contrast, people who
reported having many acquaintances in their neighbourhood
tended to see the quizzes as a basis for social interaction.
Criticisms of 'Uses and Gratifications'
The use of retrospective 'self-reports' has several limitations.
Viewers may not know why they chose to watch what they did,
or may not be able to explain fully. The reasons which can be
articulated may be the least important. People may simply offers
reasons which they have heard others mention. More promising
might be the study of people's engagement with media as it
Some degree of selectivity of media and content is clearly
exercised by audiences (e.g. choice or avoidance of TV soap
operas. However, instrumental (goal-directed) accounts assume
a rational choice of appropriate media for predetermined
purposes. Such accounts over-emphasize informational purposes
and ignore a great deal in people's engagement with media: TV
viewing can be an end in itself. There is evidence that media use
is often habitual, ritualistic and unselective (Barwise &
Ehrenberg 1988). But more positively, TV viewing can
sometimes be seen as aesthetic experience in which intrinsic
motivation is involved.
The U & G approach has been criticized as 'vulgar
gratificationism'. It is individualistic and psychologistic, tending
to ignore the socio-cultural context. As a theoretical stance it
foregrounds individual psychological and personality factors and
backgrounds sociological interpretations. For instance, David
Morley (1992) acknowledges that individual differences in
interpretation do exist, but he stresses the importance of
subcultural socio-economic differences in shaping the ways in
which people interpret their experiences with TV (via shared
'cultural codes'). U & G theorists tend to exaggerate active and
conscious choice, whereas media can be forced on some people
rather than freely chosen. The stance can also lead to the
exaggeration of openness of interpretation, implying that
audiences may obtain almost any kind of gratification regardless
of content or of 'preferred readings'. Its functionalist emphasis is
politically conservative: if we insist that people will always find
some gratifications from any use of media, we may adopt a
complacently uncritical stance towards what the mass media
U & G research has been concerned with why people use media.
Whilst this approach sprang from 'mainstream' research in social
science, an interpretive tradition has arisen primarily from the
more arts-oriented 'cultural (and 'critical') studies'. The approach
sometimes referred to as reception theory (or reception
analysis) focuses on what people see in the media, on the
meanings which people produce when they interpret media
'texts' (e.g. Hobson 1982, Ang 1985, Seiter, Borchers, Kreutzner
& Warth 1989). This perspective tends to be associated with the
use of interviews rather than questionnaires. Such interviews are
often with small groups (e.g. with friends who watch the same
TV programmes). The emphasis is on specific content (e.g. a
particular soap opera) and on specific social contexts (e.g. a
particular group of working-class women viewers).
Some Related Reading
Ang, Ien (1985): Watching 'Dallas': Soap Opera and the
Melodramatic Imagination. London: Methuen
Barwise, D. & A. Ehrenberg (1988): Television and its
Audience. London: Sage
Blumler J. G. & E. Katz (1974): The Uses of Mass
Communication. Newbury Park, CA: Sage
Evra, Judith van (1990): Television and Child
Development. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum
Fiske, John (1982): Introduction to Communication
Studies. London: Routledge
Hobson, Dorothy (1982): Crossroads: The Drama of a
Soap Opera. London: Methuen
Kilborn, Richard (1992): Television Soaps. London:
Lull, James (1990): Inside Family Viewing: Ethnographic
Research on Television's Audiences. London: Routledge
McQuail, Denis (1987): Mass Communication Theory: An
Introduction (2nd edn.). London: Sage
McQuail, D., J. Blumler & R. Brown (1972): 'The
television audience: a revised perspective' in D. McQuail
(ed.): Sociology of Mass Communication. London:
Morley, David (1986): Family Television: Cultural Power
and Domestic Leisure. London: Routledge
Morley, David (1992): Television, Audiences and Cultural
Studies. London: Routledge
Rosengren, K. E. & S. Windahl (1989): Media Matter.
Norwood, NJ: Ablex
Seiter, Ellen, Hans Borchers, Gabriele Kreutzner &
Eva-Maria Warth (eds.) (1989): Remote Control:
Television, Audiences and Cultural Power. London:
This page has been accessed times since 18th
Cultivation theory (sometimes referred to as the cultivation
hypothesis or cultivation analysis) was an approach developed
by Professor George Gerbner, dean of the Annenberg School of
Communications at the University of Pennsylvania. He began
the 'Cultural Indicators' research project in the mid-1960s, to
study whether and how watching television may influence
viewers' ideas of what the everyday world is like. Cultivation
research is in the 'effects' tradition. Cultivation theorists argue
that television has long-term effects which are small, gradual,
indirect but cumulative and significant.
They emphasize the effects of television viewing on the attitudes
rather than the behaviour of viewers. Heavy watching of
television is seen as 'cultivating' attitudes which are more
consistent with the world of television programmes than with the
everyday world. Watching television may tend to induce a
general mindset about violence in the world, quite apart from
any effects it might have in inducing violent behaviour.
Cultivation theorists distinguish between 'first order' effects
(general beliefs about the everyday world, such as about the
prevalence of violence) and 'second order' effects (specific
attitudes, such as to law and order or to personal safety).
Gerbner argues that the mass media cultivate attitudes and
values which are already present in a culture: the media maintain
and propagate these values amongst members of a culture, thus
binding it together. He has argued that television tends to
cultivate middle-of-the- road political perspectives. And Gross
considered that 'television is a cultural arm of the established
industrial order and as such serves primarily to maintain, stabilize
and reinforce rather than to alter, threaten or weaken
conventional beliefs and behaviours' (1977, in Boyd- Barrett &
Braham 1987, p. 100). Such a function is conservative, but
heavy viewers tend to regard themselves as 'moderate'.
Cultivation research looks at the mass media as a socializing
agent and investigates whether television viewers come to
believe the television version of reality the more they watch it.
Gerbner and his colleagues contend that television drama has a
small but significant influence on the attitudes, beliefs and
judgements of viewers concerning the social world. The focus is
on 'heavy viewers'. People who watch a lot of television are
likely to be more influenced by the ways in which the world is
framed by television programmes than are individuals who watch
less, especially regarding topics of which the viewer has little
first-hand experience. Light viewers may have more sources of
information than heavy viewers. Judith van Evra argues that by
virtue of inexperience, young viewers may depend on television
for information more than other viewers do (van Evra 1990, p.
167), although Hawkins and Pingree argue that some children
may not experience a cultivation effect at all where they do not
understand motives or consequences (cited by van Evra, ibid.).
It may be that lone viewers are more open to a cultivation effect
than those who view with others (van Evra 1990, p. 171).
Television is seen by Gerbner as dominating our 'symbolic
environment'. As McQuail and Windahl note, cultivation theory
presents television as 'not a window on or reflection of the
world, but a world in itself' (1993, p. 100). Gerbner argued that
the over-representation of violence on television constitutes a
symbolic message about law and order rather than a simple
cause of more aggressive behaviour by viewers (as Bandura
argued). For instance, the action- adventure genre acts to
reinforce a faith in law and order, the status quo and social
justice (baddies usually get their just dessert).
Since 1967, Gerbner and his colleagues have been analysing
sample weeks of prime-time and daytime television
programming. Cultivation analysis usually involves the
correlation of data from content analysis (identifying prevailing
images on television) with survey data from audience research
(to assess any influence of such images on the attitudes of
viewers). Content analysis by cultivation theorists seeks to
characterize 'the TV world'. Such analysis shows not only that
the TV world is far more violent than the everyday world, but
also, for instance, that television is dominated by males and
over-represents the professions and those involved in law
Audience research by cultivation theorists involves asking
large-scale public opinion poll organizations to include in their
national surveys questions regarding such issues as the amount
of violence in everyday life. Answers are interpreted as reflecting
either the world of television or that of everyday life.
Respondents are asked such questions as: 'What percentage of
all males who have jobs work in law enforcement or crime
detection? Is it 1 percent or 10 percent?'. On American TV,
about 12 percent of all male characters hold such jobs, and
about 1 percent of males are employed in the USA in these jobs,
so 10 percent would be the 'TV answer' and 1 percent would be
the 'real-world answer' (Dominick 1990, p. 512).
Answers are then related to the amount of television watched,
other media habits and demographic data such as sex, age,
income and education. The cultivation hypothesis involves
predicting or expecting heavy television viewers to give more TV
answers than light viewers. The responses of a large number of
heavy viewers are compared with those of light viewers. A
tendency of heavy viewers to choose TV answers is interpreted
as evidence of a cultivation effect.
In a survey of about 450 New Jersey schoolchildren, 73 percent
of heavy viewers compared to 62 percent of light viewers gave
the TV answer to a question asking them to estimate the number
of people involved in violence in a typical week. The same
survey showed that children who were heavy viewers were more
fearful about walking alone in a city at night. They also
overestimated the number of people who commit serious crimes
(Dominick 1990, p. 512). One controlled experiment addressed
the issue of cause and effect, manipulating the viewing of
American college students to create heavy- and light-viewing
groups. After 6 weeks of controlled viewing, heavy viewers of
action-adventure programmes were indeed found to be more
fearful of life in the everyday world than were light viewers
(ibid., p. 513).
Cultivation theorists are best known for their study of television
and viewers, and in particular for a focus on the topic of
violence. However, some studies have also considered other
mass media from this perspective, and have dealt with topics
such as gender roles, age groups, ethnic groups and political
attitudes. A study of American college students found that heavy
soap opera viewers were more likely than light viewers to
over-estimate the number of real-life married people who had
affairs or who had been divorced and the number of women
who had abortions (Dominick 1990, p. 512).
The difference in the pattern of responses between light and
heavy viewers (when other variables are controlled), is referred
to as the 'cultivation differential', reflecting the extent to which
an attitude seems to be shaped by watching television. Older
people tend to be portrayed negatively on television and heavy
viewers (especially younger ones) tend to hold more negative
views about older people than lighter viewers. Most heavy
viewers are unaware of any influence of television viewing on
their attitudes and values.
Cultivation theorists argue that heavy viewing leads viewers
(even among high educational/high income groups) to have more
homogeneous or convergent opinions than light viewers (who
tend to have more heterogeneous or divergent opinions). The
cultivation effect of television viewing is one of 'levelling' or
'homogenizing' opinion. Gerbner and his associates argue that
heavy viewers of violence on television come to believe that the
incidence of violence in the everyday world is higher than do
light viewers of similar backgrounds. They refer to this as a
Misjudging the amount of violence in society is sometimes called
the 'mean world syndrome'. Heavy viewers tend to believe that
the world is a nastier place than do light viewers. Pingree and
Hawkins (1981, cited in Condry 1989, p. 127) studied 1,280
primary schoolchildren (2nd-11th grade) in Australia using
viewing diaries and questionnaires. They found that heavy
viewing led to a 'television-biased' view of Australia as a 'mean
and violent' place. The children with the bleakest picture of
Australia were those who most watched American crime
adventure programmes. Oddly, they did not judge the USA to
the same extent by these programmes.
Gerbner reported evidence for 'resonance' - a 'double dose'
effect which may boost cultivation. This is held to occur when
the viewer's everyday life experiences are congruent with those
depicted in the television world. For instance, since on television
women are most likely to be victims of crime, women heavy
viewers are influenced by the usual heavy viewer mainstreaming
effect but are also led to feel especially fearful for themselves as
women. The cultivation effect is also argued to be strongest
when the viewer's neighbourhood is similar to that shown on
television. Crime on television is largely urban, so urban heavy
viewers are subject to a double dose, and cultivation theorists
argue that violent content 'resonates' more for them. The
strongest effects of heavy viewing on attitudes to violence are
likely to be amongst those in the high crime areas of cities.
Criticisms of cultivation theory
Cultivation theory offers a very plausible case, particularly in its
emphasis on the importance of mediation and on the symbolic
function of television in its cultural context. However, the theory
is subject to a number of criticisms. Gerbner has been criticized
for over-simplification. Denis McQuail argues that 'it is almost
impossible to deal convincingly with the complexity of posited
relationships between symbolic structures, audience behaviour
and audience views, given the many intervening and powerful
social background factors' (in Boyd-Barrett & Braham 1987, pp.
99-100). Our attitudes are likely to be influenced not only by
TV, but by other media, by direct experience, by other people,
and so on.
A correlation between television exposure and the beliefs of
viewers do not, of course, prove that there is a causal
relationship, although it may suggest the possibility of one. There
could be a another common factor influencing the apparently
associated ones. Hawkins and Pingree could not find conclusive
proof of the direction of the relationship between television
viewing and viewers' ideas about social reality. Rather than
heavy TV viewing leading people to be more fearful, it may be
that more fearful people are drawn to watching more television
than other people. There might be a reciprocal relationship:
'television viewing causes a social reality to be constructed in a
particular way, but this construction of social reality may also
direct viewing behaviour' (Hawkins & Pingree 1983, cited in
McQuail & Windahl 1993, p. 101). In any case, surveys cannot
Cultivation research does avoid the artificiality of laboratory
experiments - it is based on normal viewing over a long period -
but it is subject to the usual criticisms of both content analysis
Some studies have shown that careful controls of various
variables tend to reduce or eliminate cultivation effects. Doob
and MacDonald (1979, cited in Condry 1989, p. 130) report that
in the study of the topic of violence, controls for neighbourhood
were more reliable than the controls for income used by
Gerbner. Hirsch (1980, cited in Livingstone 1990, p. 16), argued
that an apparent relationship between exposure to violence on
television and fear of crime can be explained by the
neighbourhood viewers live in. Those who live in high-crime
areas are more likely to stay at home and watch television and
also to believe that they have a greater chance of being attacked
than are those in low-crime areas. Cultivation theorists do tend
to underplay the point that heavy and light viewers do vary in
other ways in addition to their TV viewing habits, such as in age,
sex and education.
Pingree & Hawkins have argued that breakdowns by content
type are more useful than measures of total viewing, because
viewers are selective. More specifically content-based measures
would show stronger correlations in cultivation analysis (Condry
1989, p. 128). Over- reliance on content analysis misses
subtleties and assumes that meaning resides 'in' television
programmes (although Gerbner does emphasize connotative
rather than denotative meaning unlike many in 'effects'
tradition). Also, different genres - and even different
programmes - contribute to the shaping of different realities, but
cultivation analysis assumes too much homogeneity in television
programmes (though some commentators would argue that there
is increasing homogeneity in television programmes which may
make the cultivation case stronger).
Asking viewers for their estimations of crime statistics is a crude
measure of their beliefs about crime. Doob & MacDonald note
that there is evidence of a cultivation effect with social questions
(e.g. 'How many muggings were there in your neighbourhood
last year?') but less so with personal questions (e.g. 'Are you
afraid of being mugged?'). Even in the context of a symbolic
function, some critical theorists go further than cultivation
theorists, arguing for instance that the relative absence of female
characters on television is a symbolic statement about their lack
of importance in current social reality: women are 'symbolically
Condry (1989, p. 139) makes the point that viewers don't
usually use people on television for 'social comparison'. We are
not worried by contrasts between how people on television look
and live and the way we do. If we were, then the heaviest
viewers would be most concerned about their appearance, health
and weight because television actors and actresses tend to be
young, thin and attractive. But the heaviest viewers are in fact
least concerned about their health and weight.
There is relatively little evidence of cultivation effects outside the
USA. Wober (1978, cited in Condry 1989, p. 130) found no
British evidence of a link between heavy viewing and insecurity.
But this may be because there is less violence on British
television than in the USA, and Condry suggests that there may
be a critical level of the televisual distortion of social reality
before it is reflected in the attitudes of viewers. Or it may be that
Britain has a more diverse media culture.
More recent theories stressing the active viewer downplay the
power of television to influence viewers which is assumed by
cultivation theory. Cultivation theory focuses on the amount of
television viewing or 'exposure', and does not allow for
differences in the ways in which viewers interpret television
realities. Viewers do not necessarily passively accept as 'real'
what they see on television. Television programmes are open to
varying interpretations. The degree of identification with
characters by viewers may play a part. Motivations to view also
vary greatly. Joseph Dominick comments that 'individuals who
watch TV simply to pass time or because it becomes a habit
appear to be more affected than people whose viewing is
planned and motivated' (Dominick 1990, p. 514).
Cultivation theorists tend to ignore the importance of the social
dynamics of television use. Interacting factors such as
developmental stages, viewing experience, general knowledge,
gender, ethnicity, viewing contexts, family attitudes and
socio-economic background all contribute to shaping the ways in
which television is interpreted by viewers. When the viewer has
some direct lived experience of the subject matter this may tend
to reduce any cultivation effect.
There is some evidence that lower socio-economic groups tend
to watch television as a source of information more than other
groups, but the viewer's framing of television 'reality' also needs
to be considered here. It is often argued that cultivation may be
enhanced when the viewer interprets the content of programmes
to be realistic; sceptical viewers may be less likely to be affected.
There is some evidence that ethnic minorities exhibit more
sophistication in 'perceived reality' than others do (van Evra
1990, p. 169). There is also evidence that working class mothers
are more likely to confirm the realism of programmes offering
negative depictions of undesirable behaviour to discourage such
behaviour, whereas middle-class mothers may tend to make less
Boyd-Barrett, Oliver & Peter Braham (eds.) (1987):
Media, Knowledge & Power. London: Croom Helm
Condry, John (1989): The Psychology of Television.
Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum
Dominick, Joseph R. (1990): The Dynamics of Mass
Communication. New York: McGraw-Hill
Evra, Judith van (1990): Television and Child
Development. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum
Livingstone, Sonia (1990): Making Sense of Television.
McQuail, Denis & Sven Windahl (1993): Communication
Models for the Study of Mass Communication. London:
Daniel Chandler, UWA
This page has been accessed times since 18th
The TV Soap Opera Genre and its
What is a soap opera?
Soaps compared with other genres
Subject-matter and style
The openness of soaps
Dallas and Dynasty
UK Soap Audience
Women as viewers
What is a soap opera?
The soap opera genre originated in American radio serials of the
1930s, and owes the name to the sponsorship of some of these
programmes by major soap powder companies. So, like many
television genres (e.g. news and quiz shows), the soap opera is a
genre originally drawn from radio rather than film.
Television soap operas are long-running serials concerned with
everyday life. The serial is not to be confused with the series, in
which the main characters and format remain the same from
programme to programme but each episode is a self-contained
plot. In a serial at least one storyline is carried over from one
episode to the next. A series is advertised as having a specific
number of episodes, but serials are potentially endless.
Successful soaps may continue for many years: so new viewers
have to be able to join in at any stage in the serial. In serials, the
passage of time also appears to reflect 'real time' for the viewers:
in long-running soaps the characters age as the viewers do.
Christine Geraghty (1991, p. 11) notes that 'the longer they run
the more impossible it seems to imagine them ending.' There are
sometimes allusions to major topical events in the world outside
Soaps compared with other genres
One related genre is the melodrama, with which it shares such
features as moral polarization, strong emotions, female
orientation, unlikely coincidences, and excess. Another related
genre is the literary romance, with which it shares features such
as simplified characters, female orientation and episodic
narrative. However, soaps do not share with these forms the
happy ending or the idealized characters. British soaps are
distinctively different from these related genres in their debt to a
social realist tradition (e.g. 'kitchen sink' dramas) and an
emphasis on contemporary social problems.
Some media theorists distinguish between styles of TV
programmes which are broadly 'masculine' or 'feminine'. Those
seen as typically masculine include action/adventure programmes
and Westerns; those seen as more 'feminine' include soaps and
sitcoms. Action-adventures define men in relation to power,
authority, aggression and technology. Soap operas define women
in relation to a concern with the family. The relative 'openness'
of soaps in comparison with other genres will be discussed
Subject-matter and style
Recurrent events in soap opera include courtships, marriages,
divorces, deaths and disappearances. Gossip is a key feature in
soaps (usually absent from other genres): in part it acts as a
commentary on the action. Geraghty notes that 'more frequently
than other TV genres, soaps feature women characters normally
excluded by their age, appearance or status' (1991, p. 17).
Broadcast serials have the advantage of a regular time-slot (often
more than once a week), but even if some viewers miss it they
can easily catch up with events. Any key information which
might have been missed is worked into the plot when necessary.
Nevertheless knowledge of previous events can usefully be
brought to bear by habitual viewers, and doing so is part of the
pleasure of viewing for them. Viewers are also in an omniscient
position, knowing more than any character does. The form is
unique in offering viewers the chance to engage in informed
speculation about possible turn of events.
Unlike a play or a series there is always a wide range of
characters in a soap opera (which means that no single character
is indispensible). The large cast and the possibility of casual
viewers necessitates rapid characterization and the use of
recognizable 'types'. British and Australian soaps which are not
in 'prime-time' slots typically operate on a small budget.
Soaps are frequently derided by some critics for being full of
clichés and stereotypes, for having shoddy sets, for being badly
acted, trivial, predictable and so on. Soap viewers (often
assumed to be only women, and in particular working-class
housewives) are characterized unfairly as naive escapists. Given
the great popularity of the genre, such criticisms can be seen as
culturally elitist. Robert Allen (1992, p. 112) argues that to
emphasize what happens when in soaps (in semiotic terms the
syntagmatic dimension) is to underestimate the equal importance
of who relates this to whom (the paradigmatic dimension).
Certainly relationships are more important than plot.
The openness of soaps
Some feminist theorists have argued that soap operas spring
from a feminine aesthetic, in contrast to most prime-time TV.
Soaps are unlike traditional dramas (e.g. sit-coms) which have a
beginning, a middle and an end: soaps have no beginning or end,
no structural closure. They do not build up towards an ending or
closure of meaning. Viewers can join a soap at any point. There
is no single narrative line: several stories are woven together over
a number of episodes. In this sense the plots of soaps are not
The structure of soaps is complex and there is no final word on
any issue. A soap involves multiple perspectives and no
consensus: ambivalence and contradiction is characteristic of the
genre. There is no single 'hero' (unlike adventures, where the
preferred reading involves identification with this character), and
the wide range of characters in soaps offers viewers a great deal
of choice regarding those with which they might identify. All this
leaves soaps particularly open to individual interpretations (more
than television documentaries, suggests David Buckingham
1987, p. 36).
Tania Modleski (1982) argues that the structural openness of
soaps is an essentially 'feminine' narrative form. She argues that
pleasure in narrative focuses on closure, whilst soaps delay
resolution and make anticipation an end in itself. She also argues
that masculine narratives 'inscribe' in the text an implied male
reader who becomes increasingly omnipotent whilst the soap has
'the ideal mother' as inscribed reader. Narrative interests are
diffused among many characters and her power to resolve their
problems is limited. The reader is the mother as sympathetic
listener to all sides.
Easthope argues that the masculine ego favours forms which are
self-contained, and which have a sense of closure. 'Masculine'
narrative form favours action over dialogue and avoids
indeterminacy to arrive at closure/resolution. It is linear and
goal-oriented. Soaps make consequences more important than
actions, involve many complications, and avoid closure.
Dialogue in masculine narratives is driven by plot which it
explains, clarifies and simplifies. In soaps dialogue blurs and
delays. There is no single hero in soaps, no privileged moral
perspective, multiple narrative lines (non-linear plot) and few
certainties. Viewers tend to feel involved interpreting events
from the perspective of characters similar to themselves or to
those they know.
Not much seems to 'happen' in many soaps (by comparison
with, say, an action series or an adventure serial) because there
is little rapid action. In soaps such as Coronation Street and
Brookside what matters is the effect of events on the characters,
This is revealed through characters talking to each other.
Charlotte Brunsdon argues that the question guiding a soap story
is not 'What will happen next?' but 'What kind of person is this?'
(in Geraghty 1991, p. 46). Such a form invites viewers to offer
their own comments.
Viewers differ in the extent to which they judge soaps as
'reflections of reality'. Whilst American soaps such as Dallas and
Dynasty are seen (at least by British viewers) as largely in the
realms of fantasy, British soaps are more often framed by
viewers in terms of 'realism'. However, it is misleading to regard
even 'realist soaps' as simply 'representing real life'. The
representation of 'reality' is not unproblematic: television is not a
'window' on an objective and unmediated world. British soap
operas are often described as 'realistic', but what this means
varies. There are several philosophical positions underlying
people's assumptions about the nature of 'reality':
Realism: The world has an objective existence which is
independent of our use of any means of representation. An
attempt to represent the world in words or images may
'distort reality', but at its best can 'mirror reality'.
Relativism: We unavoidably contribute to 'the construction
of reality' - of the world - in our use of words and images.
We do this within cultural frameworks (Stanley Fish refers
to 'interpretive communities'), so realities are not entirely
personal and unconstrained.
Idealism: 'Reality' (or 'the world') is purely subjective and
is constructed by human interpretation, having no
independent objective existence.
'Common-sense' theories tend to be 'realist' theories in this
philosophical sense. Philosophical realism is involved when
viewers consider soaps in terms of the extent to which they offer
a 'distorted image of reality' of 'the outside world' (Ang calls this
empiricist realism on the part of viewers). From the perspective
of the programme makers, documentary realism (Colin
MacCabe calls this classic realism in the case of the novel)
involves foregrounding the story and backgrounding the use of
the conventions of the medium (e.g. using 'invisible editing').
This 'transparency' of style encourages viewers to regard the
programme as a 'window' on an apparently unmediated world
rather than to notice its constructedness. Realism in drama is no
less a set of conventions than any other style, and it serves to
mask whose realities are being presented. 'Transparency' is
associated with a close sense of involvement by the viewers. It is
found in most soaps, although in American soaps such as Dallas
and Dynasty lapses into implausibility may tend to distance the
British soaps also employ the transparency of classic/
documentary realism, but owe a great deal to the social realist
tradition (associated with late 50s British films and kitchen-sink
dramas). Social realism emphasizes 'relevance' - a sympathetic
portrayal of everyday social problems recognizable to the
working class (see Jordan, in Dyer 1981, p. 28). Plausibility and
credibility is also valued more than in American prime-time
soaps. Geraghty suggests that 'British soaps, because of their
greater dependence on realism, are less daring [than US soaps]
in displaying their own fictionality' (1991, p. 20).
John Fiske (in Seiter et al. 1989, p. 68) notes that minimal
post-production work on 'realist' soaps (leaving in 'dead' bits)
may be cost-cutting, but it also suggests more 'realism' than in
heavily edited programmes, suggesting the 'nowness' of the
events on screen. Published stories about the characters in soaps
and the actors who play them link the world of the soap with the
outside world, but they also allow viewers to treat the soap as a
kind of game.
Ien Ang (1985) argues that watching soaps involves a kind of
psychological realism for the viewer: an emotional realism
which exists at the connotative rather than denotative (content)
level. This offers less concrete, more 'symbolic representations
of more general living experiences' which viewers find
recognizably 'true to life' (even if at the denotative level the
treatment seems 'unrealistic'). In such a case, 'what is recognized
as real is not knowledge of the world, but a subjective
experience of the world: a "structure of feeling"' (Ang 1985, p.
45). For many viewers of Dallas this was a tragic structure of
feeling: evoking the idea that happiness is precarious.
I would argue that especially with long-running soaps (which
may become more 'real' to their fans over time) what we could
call dramatic realism is another factor. Competence in judging
this is not confined to professional critics. Viewers familiar with
the characters and conventions of a particular soap may often
judge the programme largely in its own terms (or perhaps in
terms of the genre) rather than with reference to some external
'reality'. For instance, is a character's current behaviour
consistent with what we have learnt over time about that
character? The soap may be accepted to some extent as a world
in its own right, in which slightly different rules may sometimes
apply. This is of course the basis for the 'willing suspension of
disbelief' on which drama depends.
Producers sometimes remark that realistic drama offers a slice of
life with the duller bits cut out, and that long-running soaps are
even more realistic than other forms because less has to be
excluded. However, dramatists do more than produce shortened
versions of 'the film of life': the construction of reality is far
more complex than this, and whose life is it anyway?
Jordan (in Dyer 1981) identifies several broad types used
extensively in Coronation Street: Grandmother figures;
marriageable characters (mature, sexy, women; spinsterly types;
young women; mature, sexy, men; fearful, withdrawn men;
conventional young men); married couples; rogues (including
'ne'er-do-wells' and confidence tricksters). Buckingham refers
also refers to the use of the stereotypes of 'the gossip', 'the
bastard' and 'the tart'. Anthony Easthope adds 'the good girl',
and Peter Buckman cites 'the decent husband', 'the good
woman', 'the villain' and 'the bitch' (in Geraghty 1991, p. 132).
Geraghty herself adds 'the career woman' (ibid., p. 135ff).
Coronation Street is a Granada production which is broadcast
nationally in the UK on ITV. First shown in 1960, it is the
longest-running British TV soap opera. It is watched by about
one-third of the British population, by rather more women than
men, by older people, and especially by people from lower
socio-economic groups (Livingstone 1990, p. 55). It offers a
nostalgic perspective on northern industrial working-class life as
group-centred, matriarchal, commonsensical and blunt but also
It includes strong and positive middle-aged females who are the
first to spring to mind when viewers are asked to recall the
characters. It deals with personal events. Work away from the
home is seldom shown. Political and social explanations for
events are largely supplanted by personal explanations based on
the innate psychological factors of individuals or (occasionally)
on luck (Jordan, in Dyer 1981). People meet in shops and the
pub to comment on events. Life seems to revolve around finding
a partner. The introduction of outsiders to the community is
usually presented as a threat.
It departs from realism in its use of caricature, stereotyping,
bursts of stylised repartee and occasional use of melodrama,
some of these features sometimes being employed almost
self-mockingly. It has been criticized for the minimal role of
non-whites. There is little of the inner searching of 'psychological
realism'. Viewing ratings dropped when an attempt was made to
introduce more contemporary themes, and there was then a
move towards a lighter, more humorous style. One producer said
in 1985: 'We are in the business of entertaining, not offending'
(in Goodwin & Whannel 1990, p. 122). Rival soaps have led to
some attempts to update the style. However, it has been
criticized as having grown old with its audience.
The camerawork and editing is very conventional. Cutting is
largely motivated by dialogue. Camerawork consists primarily of
group shots, 2-shots or 3-shots (in medium to medium close-up),
shot-reverse shot, occasional panning, and close-ups of single
characters for emphasis.
Brookside, set in a modern Liverpool housing estate, first
appeared in 1982, and it became Channel 4's highest-rated
programme with around 6 million viewers (it also appears on
S4C in Wales). Producer Phil Redmond declared that it would
'tell the truth and show society as it really is', dealing with what
are seen as topical issues and problems such as unemployment
(in Goodwin & Whannel 1990, p. 123). 'The Close' uses part of
a real housing estate rather than a constructed studio set.
It features a range of characters from different social classes,
and some of the actors are similar to the characters they play. It
has a number of young characters (including some still at school)
so not surprisingly it appeals very much to younger viewers. It
also offers a wider range of male characeters than the traditional
British soaps. Geraghty suggests that the programme has also
given more prominence to 'male preoccupations': 'Brookside has
developed story lines which depend more on action and
resolution rather than the more soap-oriented narrative strategies
of commentary and repetition' (Geraghty 1991, p. 169). It has
sometimes drawn on the genre of the crime series.
The use of real houses tends to restrict it to a single-camera
approach. There are no real meeting places, which makes it
difficult to weave several stories together. And it has sometimes
been criticized for being too didactic.
Eastenders, a BBC production, was first broadcast in 1985. It is
watched by a little under a third of the British population, by
more women than men, and more by those in lower
socio-economic groups (Livingstone 1990, p. 55). The BBC is
aware of its 'responsibility' as a public service (unlike
commercial British television companies) to be of benefit to the
public, and to produce 'serious' programmes of 'quality'. The
characters tend to be mainly working class. In addition to
women, young characters and men are given strong roles, so that
the potential audience is wide. It has become particularly popular
with teenagers. Buckingham notes that 'much of their fascination
- and particularly that of the younger children - arose from its
inclusion of aspects of adult life from which they were normally
"protected"' (1987, p. 200).
Set in London's East End, it is in the social realist tradition. The
programme makers emphasized that it was to be about 'everyday
life' in the inner city 'today' (in Goodwin & Whannel 1990, p.
124). They regard it as a 'slice of life'. Producer Julia Smith
disingenuously declared that 'we don't make life, we reflect it'
(Geraghty 1991, p. 32). She has also reported: 'We decided to
go for a realistic, fairly outspoken type of drama which could
encompass stories about homosexuals, rape, unemployment,
racial prejudice, etc. in a believable context. Above all, we
wanted realism. Unemployment, exams, racism, birth, death,
dogs, babies, unmarried mums - we didn't want to fudge any
issue except politics and swearing' (ibid., p. 16).
Eastenders has also featured single-parent families, teenage
pregnancy, prostitution, arranged marriages, attempted suicide,
drug problems, alcoholism, generational conflicts, a protection
racket, a cot death, extra-marital affairs and marital bust-ups,
sexism, urban deprivation, mental breakdown, disappearances,
muggings, a fatal road accident and a suspected murder: it has
sometimes been criticized for being bleak! Perhaps in an attempt
to attract more male viewers once can sometimes notice a
tendency to shift a little towards the genre of the crime series.
Nevertheless, much of the action remains deliberately mundane.
Although it was part of the intention to handle 'controversial
social issues' the programme makers insist that Eastenders is not
'issues-based' (i.e. storylines are not developed simply to
illustrate predetermined issues). They see themselves as pursuing
'documentary realism' and their dramatic use of conflict leads to
issues arising 'naturally' (Buckingham 1987, pp. 16; 30; 83).
They accept that the programme has an informational or
educational function for viewers, offering a discussion of topics
of concern to them, but they are more concerned with raising
questions than with offering answers. Entertainment is seen as
the main purpose. The programme makers probably seek to
avoid putting viewers off by seeming to be patronising.
However, critics have occasionally noted episodes involving a
very didactic style.
The programme does not confine itself to the naturalistic mode,
but sometimes shifts towards either melodrama or sitcom.
Buckingham observes that the camerawork and editing is in the
naturalist tradition, supporting an interpretation of the
programme as a 'window on the world': the use of the camera is
unobtrusive and largely static, with only rare use of close-ups
and tracking; the editing seeks to be 'invisible'; the background
sound has a 'density of naturalistic detail'; lighting is usually flat,
with no harsh shadows (ibid., p. 74). However, he also notes
that it tends to have more simultaneous storylines, more scenes,
more meeting-places, more characters per episode, and a faster
pace than either Coronation Street or Brookside (ibid., p. 54).
Dallas and Dynasty
Dallas, a high-budget American weekly prime-time soap first
screened in 1976, has been broadcast in over 90 countries. One
fifth of the British population watched it; viewers included more
women than men (Livingstone 1990, p. 55). Some theorists
distinguish the American prime-time soaps Dallas and Dynasty
from British social realist soaps by referring to these US soaps as
'melodramatic serials'. They certainly featured the villains,
villainesses and emotional excess of melodrama and sometimes
drifted into total fantasy. Elements of the Western were also
These soaps focused, of course, on the rich: 'poverty is
eliminated by the simple tactic of ignoring it' (Geraghty 1991, p.
121). Glamour was a key feature: locations were often exotic
and the costumes of the main actresses were often extravagant;
viewers were invited into a world of abundance. Most of the
characters were physically very attractive, and almost all were
white. Dallas also made more use of cliffhangers than British
soaps: usually a 'psychological cliffhanger', Ang notes (1985, p.
53). Dallas featured the rivalry between the Ewing family and
the Barnes family, but business life was far more central than in
British soaps. The story also featured murder, marital crisis,
adultery, alcoholism, illness, miscarriage, rape, air and car
accidents, kidnapping, corruption, illegitimate children, secret
pasts, chance meetings and so on.
Some critics say that 'too much happens' in US soaps by
comparison with British ones: the pace tends to be faster. An
episode typically featured 20-30 short scenes, most of which
consisted of conversation. Camerawork and editing remained
conventional, to avoid distancing the viewer. Facial expressions
are sometimes shown in close-up and held for a few seconds
before the next scene. Regarding soaps in general, Tania
Modleski (1982, pp. 99-100) notes that close-ups (seen by
Robert Allen as a key feature of prime-time soaps) provide
training in the 'feminine' skills of 'reading people' - in
understanding the difference between what is said and what is
meant - as well as an invitation to become involved with the
This Australian soap was aimed at young people, and attracted
many young viewers in the UK. It has been criticized for its
bland stereotyping. It tends to feature primarily physically
attractive people and there is also a notable absence of people of
colour. Maire Messenger Davies suggests that 'nothing goes
wrong in Neighbours for very long and that's why children like
it' (in Hart 1991, p. 136).
UK Soap Audience in 1988 (%)
Eastenders Corona- Emmer- Brookside Neighbours
week- omni- tion dale week- omni- lunch after-
days bus Street Farm days bus time noon
4-15 16 17 11 10 16 18 8 32
16-24 14 17 10 8 19 18 12 15
25-34 18 16 14 12 19 18 17 14
35-44 15 13 12 10 14 12 14 13
45-54 12 13 13 12 10 12 12 10
55-64 11 10 14 16 11 11 11 7
65+ 14 14 26 32 11 11 26 9
Male 40 39 40 41 36 41 30 40
Female 60 61 60 59 64 59 70 60
AB 12 8 10 9 12 11 11 14
C1 22 20 19 18 18 18 21 22
C2 32 33 29 27 34 30 29 33
DE 34 39 42 46 36 41 39 31
Average audience (millions)
13.4 6.5 16.2 11.2 4.0 2.4 6.6 10.8
(Adapted from Hart 1991, p. 35)
Socio-economic grades: A higher managerial, administrative or
professional; B intermediate managerial, administrative or
professional; C1 supervisory or clerical, and junior managerial,
administrative or professional; C2 skilled manual worker; D semi
and unskilled manual workers; E state pensioners or widows (no
other earner in household), casual or lower grade workers, and
Women as viewers
Soaps in general have a predominantly female audience,
although prime-time soaps such as Dallas and the most recent
British soaps are deliberately aimed at a wider audience.
According to Ang, and hardly surprisingly, in Dallas the main
interest for men was in business relations and problem and the
power and wealth shown, whereas for women were more often
interested in the family issues and love affairs. In the case of
Dallas it is clear that the programme meant something different
for female viewers compared with male viewers.
In 'realist' soaps female characters are portrayed as more central
than in action drama, as ordinary people coping with everyday
problems. Certainly soaps tend to appeal to those who value the
personal and domestic world. The audience for such soaps does
include men, but some theorists argue that the gender identity of
the viewer is 'inscribed' in programmes, and that typically with
soaps the inscribed viewer has a traditional female gender
identity. And 'the competences necessary for reading soap opera
are most likely to have been acquired by those persons culturally
constructed through discourses of femininity' (Morley 1992, p.
As housewives and mothers, women need to be able to do
several things at once, to switch from one task to another, to
deal with other people's problems, to be interrupted.
Redundancy and repetition make interrupted viewing possible; it
has even been suggested that soaps are made to be heard rather
than seen. Modleski argues that watching soap operas habituates
women to distraction and fragmentation.
Dorothy Hobson interviewed women office workers in
Birmingham and found that their free-time conversation was
often based on their soap opera viewing. Some had begun
watching simply because they had discovered how central it
seemed to be in lunchtime discussions. It involved anticipating
what might happen next, discussing the significance of recent
events and relating them to their own experiences. Hobson
argues that women typically use soaps as a way of talking
indirectly about their own attitudes and behaviour (in Seiter et al.
1989: pp. 150-67). Geraghty (1991, p. 123) also notes that there
is some evidence that families use soaps as a way of raising and
discussing awkward situations.
Most viewers seem to oscilate between involvement and distance
in the ways in which they engage with soaps.
Allen, Robert C. (1992): Channels of Discourse,
Reassembled (2nd edn.). London: Routledge
Ang, Ien (1985): Watching Dallas: Soap Opera and the
Melodramatic Imagination. London: Methuen
Buckingham, David (1987): Public Secrets: Eastenders
and its Audience. London: British Film Institute