Television is the world’s storyteller, telling most of the stories to most of the people, most of the time. As such it has become our most common and constant learning environment, one that very few can or even want to escape or ignore. Children today are born into homes in which most stories are told by a centralized commercial institution rather than parents, peers, schools, or the church. Television shows and tells us about life – who wins, who loses, who is powerful, who is weak, as well as who is happy and who is sad (Weimann 2000).
Television is only one of many venues that help explain the world. What is different about television is that its version of reality bombards everyone with basically the same perspectives at the same time. These views are not much different from those found in other media or imparted by other powerful socialization agents. Yet television is unique because it provides a common set of images to virtually all members of society and because people tend to spend more time with television than other media.
Since television’s inception there has been concern about its effects. The popular press and the government continue to ask: what does television do to us? Teachers and parents wonder if television makes children more aggressive or if it helps or hinders learning. Although seemingly simple, these questions are complex and the answers are far from simple or straightforward.
Cultivation analysis is one approach that helps us to find answers to these broad questions. It is the third component of a research paradigm that investigates (1) the institutional processes that underlie the media and the production of its content, (2) the prevalent images in media content, and (3) the relationships between watching television and audience beliefs and behaviors. Simply, cultivation analysis is designed to assess the contribution television viewing makes to people’s conceptions of social reality (i.e., cultivation effects). In its simplest form, cultivation analysis asks if those who watch more television have views that are more reflective of what they see on television compared to those who have similar demographic characteristics but who watch less television.
The methods and assumptions of cultivation analysis differ from those typically found in mass communication research. Research on media effects often focuses on how specific media messages produce immediate change in people’s behaviors or attitudes. Cultivation analysis, on the other hand, is concerned with the long-term, more general, and pervasive consequences of cumulative exposure to television’s messages. Cultivation does not imply a simple, linear, “stimulus–response-model,” or immediate short-term response to exposure. Rather, the focus is on the cumulative exposure to television’s repetitive and stable messages that persist despite today’s increased channel offerings available to most viewers. Cultivation analysis represents the independent contribution of television viewing to people’s conceptions of social reality.
Design Of Cultivation Studies
Cultivation studies typically begin with identifying and assessing the most recurrent and stable patterns in television content, looking for those images and values that cut across most program genres. These findings are used to generate questions designed to uncover people’s conceptions about social reality. These questions are then presented to samples of children, adolescents, or adults using standard techniques of survey methodology. In addition, some cultivation analyses use existing data sets (such as NORC’s general social survey), with the methods of secondary analysis. A key element in these surveys is the assessment of television viewing. Questions about viewing typically ask how much time the respondent watches television on an average day. Researchers then determine which respondents will be light, medium, or heavy viewers on a sample-by-sample basis. Hence the analyses look for differences in amount of viewing, not specific amounts of viewing. The questions about social reality used in cultivation analysis do not mention television but rather provide answers that reflect either the dominant views or images seen on television or those found in reality. The resulting relationships between amount of viewing and the tendency to respond in terms of what is seen on television reflects television’s contribution to viewers’ conceptions of social reality (cultivation effects).
According to cultivation theory, those who watch more television are different from those who watch less television in many ways. Although all demographic groups have people who watch more or less television, there are overall differences between those who watch more and those who watch less in terms of sex, age, education, income, occupation, race, and other demographic and social variables. In short, cultivation analysis assumes that those who watch less television are exposed to more varied and diverse information (from both mediated and interpersonal sources) compared to those who watch more television and thus rely more upon television for their information. It stands to reason that if you spend most of your time watching television then you will have little free time to explore other options that might provide different views or information about the world. Consequently, cultivation theory predicts that the more time a person spends watching television and being immersed in this mediated world, the more likely it is that their views about reality will reflect what they have seen on television.
Similar to findings for many studies about media effects, cultivation analyses typically generate small effects. Even those who watch very little television may watch 7 to 10 hours a week and certainly interact with those who watch more television, so the cards are really stacked against finding evidence of cultivation. Consequently, even though the effects may be small, finding even small differences between light and heavy viewers may indicate far-reaching consequences. Moreover, small effects may have profound consequences. For example, a difference of one percentage point in ratings may indicate the success or failure of a program, and a difference of a few percentage points in an election may determine who wins or who loses.
Variations In Cultivation: Resonance And Mainstreaming
Cultivation is a continual, dynamic, ongoing process, not a unidirectional flow of influence from television to viewers. Scholars have found two processes that reflect differences in how cultivation may work, i.e. “resonance” and “mainstreaming.” First, direct experience may be important for some viewers, and the phenomenon called resonance illustrates how a person’s everyday reality and patterns of television viewing may provide a double dose of messages that “resonate” and amplify cultivation. For example, those who live in high-crime urban areas often show stronger relationships between amount of viewing and stated fear of crime.
Second, television provides a shared daily ritual of highly compelling and informative content for diversified viewers. Television programs typically eliminate boundaries of age, class, and region. Consequently the mainstream effect is a relative commonality of outlooks and values that is cultivated by consistent and heavy exposure to the world of television. The phenomenon of mainstreaming means that heavy viewing may override differences in perspectives and behavior that result from numerous factors and influences. In other words, attitudes or behaviors that would ordinarily be attributed to different social or political characteristics may be diminished or absent in groups of heavy television viewers. For example, for some topics, the beliefs of those who designate themselves as liberal or conservative are often very different when they are light television viewers. But, when heavy television viewers who call themselves liberal or conservative are asked about these same topics, those classified as liberals may give responses that are somewhat more conservative and the conservatives may give responses that are somewhat more liberal. The result is that both groups reflect beliefs that are more moderate or middle-of-the-road. In short, mainstreaming reflects the sense in which television cultivates common perspectives, a relative homogenization that illustrates how television viewing has become the true melting pot of the American people and increasingly the world.
Evidence Of Cultivation
Cultivation analysis is most often associated with concerns about television violence. Studies of television content conducted in the cultural indicators perspective have consistently found that US television’s prime-time world has had a consistent and fairly high level of violence for more than 30 years. Approximately six out of ten programs are considered to have violent components, with violence occurring at the rate of four to five acts of violence per program (Weimann 2000). Similarly, other studies of television violence, including the content analysis of the US national television violence study in the mid-1990s, found similar levels of violence across all channels (cable and broadcast, and throughout the day, with the most similarity during the prime-time hours).
As a result of this consistent level of violence viewing, cultivation studies have predicted and found that those who watch more television tend to see the world as a more violent place. These studies have found that those who watch more television are more fearful and believe that they are living in a mean and dangerous world. These individuals are more likely to buy guns and watchdogs for protection, and to install more locks on windows and doors. Heavy viewers also tend to overestimate the likelihood that they will be involved in violence and the numbers of police and others in law enforcement and crime detection. In short, viewing tends to heighten perceptions of danger and risk and reinforce an exaggerated sense of mistrust, vulnerability, and insecurity.
Evidence of cultivation is not, however, limited to studies of fear and violence. For example, television programs consistently underrepresent women and women’s roles. Analyses have found that those who watch more television tend to give more gender-stereotyped answers to questions about the roles of men and women in society. They also found that youngsters who watch more television tend to say that boys and girls should do chores that are gender-stereotyped, such as boys should mow the lawn while girls should clean the house. Other studies examine television’s content about aging and the elderly. These studies have shown that those who watch more television typically underestimate the number of older people in the US and are more likely to say that the elderly are infirm. They also tend to give more stereotypical responses about how people age. In addition, cultivation analyses have been conducted in areas pertaining to people’s health and nutrition. For example, two studies of middle-school-aged children found that those who watch more television tend to say that the types of foods often advertised to children (sweetened cereals, fast food restaurants, candy, and soda) are more nutritious than they actually are.
Knowledge of cultivation and the cultivation process is by no means complete. Scholars are currently looking at the conceptual and methodological implications of cultivation on numerous levels. Cross-cultural studies are helping us to understand the generalizability of cultivation on a worldwide basis. New technologies also are increasingly relevant for cultivation effects research, although the continued concentration and interdependence in media industries, continued imitation of successful formats and genres, as well as greater competition for media audiences should continue to enhance rather than fragment television’s contribution to people’s conceptions of social reality.
- Gerbner, G. (1973). Cultural indicators: The third voice. In G. Gerbner, L. P. Gross, & W. Melody (eds.), Communication technology and social policy. New York: John Wiley.
- Gerbner, G., Morgan, M., Gross, L., Signorielli, N., & Shanahan, J. (2002). Growing up with television: Cultivation processes. In J. Bryant & D. Zillmann (eds.), Media effects: Advances in theory and research, 2nd edn. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
- Signorielli, N., & Morgan, M. (eds.) (1990). Cultivation analysis: New directions in media effects research. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
- Weimann, G. (2000). Communicating unreality: Mass media and reconstruction of realities. Thousand Oaks and London: Sage.