As early as 1962, Elihu Katz and David Foulkes wondered why communication researchers had almost exclusively addressed mass media’s persuasive capacities and almost completely neglected its role as an agent of entertainment. Their surprise was caused by the simple observation that the bulk of mass media consumption at that time served entertainment needs – an observation that is equally, if not even more, valid today. Cinema movies, television series, radio music, illustrated magazines, and video games (to name just a few examples) frequently attract mass audiences and serve as reliable “cash cows” of the media industries (Wolf 1999). Interestingly, communication research has begun to reflect the remarkable importance of media entertainment very late in the day. Since then, significant theoretical progress has been made on the description and explanation of entertainment experiences (Bryant & Vorderer 2006).
The Diversity of Media Entertainment
Entertainment research is confronted with a huge number of different manifestations of its object. For instance, a broad range of television content is categorized as entertainment programming: crime drama, comedy and situation comedies, reality shows, live shows, call-in shows, melodrama, sports broadcasts, adventure movies, mystery shows, daytime talk shows, late night shows, and many more. Other media offer a similar bandwidth of entertainment, such as dozens of video game genres, countless radio music styles, or highly distinct types of novels. To say that somebody is seeking media entertainment can therefore mean very different things: highly diverse motives may evoke entertainment seeking; highly diverse reaction processes may trigger actual entertainment experiences; and specific person–medium interactions may produce numerous kinds of entertainment media effects.
This diversity challenges the perspective of a unified and simple theory of media entertainment that could describe and explain why people attend to any enjoyable media messages and how media enjoyment unfolds. Therefore, entertainment theory is trying to find the common base for the diverse manifestations of media enjoyment and, at the same time, to collect the many different psychological mechanisms and pathways through which actual entertainment experiences occur (Vorderer et al. 2004, 2006).
Motives Behind Entertainment Seeking
Klimmt (2006) has proposed two general classes of motives that can manifest in the wish to expose oneself to very different kinds of media entertainment. One class of motives refers to a short-term action disposition that is similar to the notion of escapism. Media entertainment provides possibilities to distance oneself from undesired conditions such as boredom, loneliness, overexcitation, sleepiness, or frustration. Individuals who are seeking experiences that contrast their current, undesired condition have the choice between various entertainment media that provide the matching mode of escape. As a consequence, negative moods that accompany the undesired state are improved and repaired (Zillmann 2000). So the experience of media entertainment contrasts the stressful states that arise from day-to-day activities (for instance, professional work, housekeeping, or family conflicts) and contributes to mental relaxation and recovery. The motive to seek media entertainment is thus the desire to overcome aversive and/or undesired short-term (state) conditions through temporal mental distancing (“escape”) from these conditions. What kind of escape is strived for, then, depends on the quality of the undesired state the media user perceives. The short-term compensation motive is thus capable of explaining decisions for very different entertainment media.
While the escape motive to seek entertainment is rooted in communication, the other class of motives underlying entertainment seeking is derived from the psychology of play. Playing displays several striking conceptual similarities with the use of media entertainment, and Klimmt (2006) argues that the desire to cope with life and to resolve developmental challenges drives entertainment seeking. Developmental challenges are typically overcome through learning. Social orientation about what other people do in certain (e.g., emotional or family) situations is helpful to expand one’s repertoire of conceivable actions (Bandura 2001).
Watching talk shows, for instance, can help to cope with specific life situations, as they transport information about what other people have done. Watching action movies can reassure viewers of the world being a just place in which it is worth working for morally good goals and striving for one’s individual happiness. Another good example has been elaborated by Jansz (2005). He argues that violent video games are enjoyable for male adolescents because these games provide a virtual test laboratory to experiment with properties and emotions associated with the male gender role (e.g., courage, honor, competition, defeat, fright). Violent video games are thus a tool to resolve the major developmental task male adolescents are confronted with; that is, the adoption and definition of a male gender role. Playing such games is experienced as negotiation of masculinity, which in turn is enjoyable. In this sense, violent games help male adolescents to cope with life. That does not, of course, mean that this support will necessarily lead to appropriate and socially acceptable role images.
Vorderer et al. (2006) argue in a similar way when they root the wish to be entertained back to evolutionary processes. Playful learning about life is part of humankind’s genetic survival program, as it facilitates gain of competence and flexible adaptation to environmental conditions. In the modern world, entertainment seeking is, according to Vorderer et al. (2006), a residual motive of this urge toward playful learning. The evolutionary perspective thus backs up the assumption of coping with life as generalized (class of ) motives underlying entertainment seeking.
Specific Selection of Media Entertainment
Entertainment seeking is, of course, more than the enactment of a more or less abstract motive to escape from certain states and/or to cope with certain life conditions. Since there is so much media entertainment out there, specific decisions about which media product is to be used are required. The most effective heuristic to decide for a given entertainment offer is prior experience. Zillmann’s (2000) concepts of selective exposure and mood management assume that media users memorize what a specific product of media entertainment has done to their mood and use this memorized information for subsequent media selection. When people face a situation in which they desire a certain kind of mood repair, they will select an entertainment product that they remember to have facilitated that kind of mood repair in the past.
Specific selection of media entertainment may be executed on the base of other heuristics as well. In most entertainment media, people play a central role – for instance, sports stars, movie actors, talk show hosts, or famous video game characters such as “Mario.” Several lines of entertainment theory address the quasi-intimate, social-emotional bonds between media users and people in entertainment media, such as empathy theory, identification, parasocial interactions and relationships, and disposition-based theories of enjoyment. Positive attitudes toward certain media characters (e.g., a favorite actor, a preferred sports team) may thus serve as a heuristic to decide for specific entertainment media (e.g., to decide for CSI: Miami and against CSI: New York).
Readiness to Engage in the Experience
To achieve the desired experience of “being entertained,” media users have to accomplish more than finding and deciding on a suitable entertainment medium. They must also adjust their personal mode of processing to allow the according entertainment experience to occur. Most entertainment media are only enjoyable if their users are deeply absorbed, immersed, and fascinated. Several concepts have been proposed or applied in entertainment research that describe this condition; for instance involvement with media content, presence, and transportation theory, or flow (Sherry 2004).
Such states of “diving into” the media world can be evoked by certain media attributes (e.g., a large screen size or a thrilling story). But media users have to admit this absorption in order to achieve the desired state of intensive entertainment (Wild et al. 1995). For example, movie viewers have to (actively) ignore their knowledge that everything they see is artificial and unreal in order to access a strong experience of the movie world. Deciding for a specific piece of media entertainment, then, also implies some self-adjustment by the users to “let the desired experience happen to them.” Such self-regulatory processes have not been researched extensively so far, but there are theoretical arguments for their importance in the process of media entertainment (Klimmt 2006).
Enjoyment/entertainment seeking is a complex phenomenon that is driven by different motives, can refer to very different media products, and is connected to complex and diverse responses to those media products (e.g., Ritterfeld & Weber 2006). The use of media entertainment is vital for everyday life; it supports coping with aversive states (e.g., stress, loneliness), long-term life situations, and developmental tasks. It can thus impact well-being and life-satisfaction positively. From an evolutionary perspective, seeking entertainment is a “natural” human behavior, and most people benefit from entertainment consumption. However, as with any other activity, an overdose of media entertainment is likely to counteract these benign consequences or even turn them into negative ones. The complexity and the potentially huge implications of entertainment (seeking) for individuals and society therefore justify the increased research efforts in communication and suggest a further expansion of entertainment research in the future.
- Bandura, A. (2001). Social cognitive theory of mass communication. Media Psychology, 3(3), 265 – 299.
- Bryant, J., & Vorderer, P. (eds.) (2006). Psychology of entertainment. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
- Jansz, J. (2005). The emotional appeal of violent video games for adolescent males. Communication Theory, 15(3), 219 –241.
- Katz, E., & Foulkes, D. (1962). On the use of the mass media as “escape”: Clarification of a concept. Public Opinion Quarterly, 26, 377–388.
- Klimmt, C. (2006). Computerspielen als Handlung: Dimensionen und Determinanten des Erlebens interaktiver Unterhaltungsangebote [Playing computer games as action: Dimensions and determinants of the experience of interactive entertainment]. Cologne: Halem.
- Raney, A. A. (2004). Expanding disposition theory: Reconsidering character liking, moral evaluations, and enjoyment. Communication Theory, 14(4), 348 –369.
- Ritterfeld, U., & Weber, R. (2006). Video games for entertainment and education. In P. Vorderer & J. Bryant (eds.), Playing video games: Motives, responses, and consequences. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, pp. 399 – 414.
- Sherry, J. L. (2004). Flow and media enjoyment. Communication Theory, 14(4), 328 –347.
- Steen, F. F., & Owens, S. A. (2001). Evolution’s pedagogy: An adaptionist model of pretense play and entertainment. Journal of Cognition and Culture, 1(4), 289 –321.
- Vorderer, P. (2001). It’s all entertainment, sure. But what exactly is entertainment? Communication research, media psychology, and the explanation of entertainment experiences. Poetics, 29, 247–261.
- Vorderer, P., & Bryant, J. (eds.) (2006). Playing video games: Motives, responses, and consequences. Mahwah: Lawrence Erlbaum.
- Vorderer, P., Wulff, H. J., & Friedrichsen, M. (eds.) (1996). Suspense: Conceptualizations, theoretical analyses, and empirical explorations. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
- Vorderer, P., Klimmt, C., & Ritterfeld, U. (2004). Enjoyment: At the heart of media entertainment. Communication Theory, 14(4), 388 – 408.
- Vorderer, P., Steen, F. F., & Chan, E. (2006). Motivation. In J. Bryant & P. Vorderer (eds.), Psychology of entertainment. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, pp. 3 –18.
- Wild, T. C., Kuiken, D., & Schopflocher, D. (1995). The role of absorption in experiential involvement. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 69(3), 569 –579.
- Wolf, M. J. (1999). The entertainment economy: The mega-media forces that are re-shaping our lives. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
- Zillmann, D. (2000). Mood management in the context of selective exposure theory. In M. E. Roloff (ed.), Communication yearbook 23. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, pp. 123 –145.
- Zillmann, D., & Vorderer, P. (eds.) (2000). Media entertainment: The psychology of its appeal. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Back to Exposure to Communication Content.