One of the dominant functions of modern media is entertainment (Zillmann & Vorderer 2000). Moreover, entertainment offerings presented by virtually all mass media seem designed to provide immediate gratification of the diverse hedonic needs of modern media consumers.
If entertainment is the primary goal of modern media, why are so many critics concerned that those who consume such fare will suffer detrimental social and psychological effects? Indeed, if the real purpose of modern commercial fare were to create high levels of audience enjoyment, negative effects might not be such a major issue. However, in reality, in the US and other capitalistic media systems, creating a satisfying entertainment experience is barely a secondary goal of the executives in charge of modern media institutions. The dominant goal is to garner the attention of as many consumers as possible for those omnipresent advertisements and commercials. In other words, the primary objective of commercial media systems is profitability. Entertainment reactions are a functionally necessary by-product if one is to gain and retain the eyes and ears of consumers and guarantee ample advertising exposure for profitability. Entertainment really is the means to an end, not the goal.
Although the distinction between entertainment as a means rather than an end may be subtle, it is important. If your primary goal is audience attention to commercial messages, entertainment programs become vehicles for advertising. Moreover, commercial potential is best served through audience maximization; that is, by attracting the largest possible audience of desirable entertainment users. How much those consumers really enjoy the entertainment is of little importance, unless lack of enjoyment motivates audience defection or adversely affects processing of or responses to advertising messages.
The heavy reliance on various media ratings systems as the primary performance indicators of media messages is strong evidence of the pre-eminence of this drive for potential exposure to advertising. In general, such ratings are measures of exposure that are designed to serve the advertising industry; they are not ratings of the entertainment value of media message systems. The end result of this drive toward numbers is that media producers, distributors, and exhibitors consistently favor content that they believe will attract the largest possible audience. This is the primary reason for media’s over-reliance on violence, sexual titillation, voyeurism, and other sensationalistic fare.
This hypercapitalistic, sensationalistic programming provides the financial infrastructure of most modern media and is a primary reason why critics are perennially concerned about harmful side-effects of consuming popular (or “pop”) culture, including watching entertainment television, playing video games, reading romance novels, browsing fashion or fan magazines, surfing the net, and the like.
Typologies Of Media Effects
Many different typologies of media effects have been posited. A popular system of categorization is to divide effects into cognitive (e.g., learning) versus affective (e.g., emotional displays) versus behavioral (e.g., aggression) effects. However, such typologies work best when types of media content other than entertainment are also considered (e.g., education, news and public affairs, commercial messages, political communication). Therefore, we employ a relatively simple system in which four types of detrimental effects of entertainment are considered: displacement, stereotyping, sexual attitudes and behaviors, and violence and aggression.
Communication scholars have often discussed media effects as being either contentdependent or content-irrelevant; displacement effects fall into the latter category. Displacement effects occur as a result of devoting time to entertaining media fare instead of engaging in other activities.
When television was a new medium of communication, discussions of displacement effects were commonplace. Classic early large-scale investigations in England, North America, and Japan addressed issues such as whether television viewing was associated with later bedtimes, less time spent on homework, less recreational and educational reading, and a variety of other displacement issues. These early studies presented an array of mixed findings, although a common summary was that watching television typically resulted in less time spent in general play but not in substantial losses in other realms (Furu 1962; Himmelweit et al. 1958; Schramm et al. 1961). Canadian Tanis McBeth Williams (1986) designed and conducted a classic longitudinal field investigation to attempt to clarify displacement effects. The findings of this naturalistic investigation were complex. For example, it was reported that television viewing does displace some activities directly, such as playing sports. However, other activities, such as reading, were often time-shared with television viewing and did not appear to be affected markedly by displacement mechanisms.
More recent research has combined investigation of displacements effects with examinations of content-specific programming factors. For example, displacement research conducted in Europe, especially in the Netherlands, found that although viewing highly violent programs reduced imaginative play, viewing so-called neutral programs seemed to have no detrimental effects, and in some cases, viewing entertaining educational television enhanced creative play (Valkenburg 2001).
With citizens of information societies devoting increasing time to playing video games and using the Internet in addition to consuming traditional entertainment media, displacement effects have become of increasing concern to many modern social critics, especially in light of highly publicized reports on the poor state of health of citizens of various information societies. For example, Robinson (1999; 2001) has argued that heavy usage of entertainment media causes obesity by one or more of three mechanisms: (1) displacement of physical activity, (2) increased caloric consumption while watching or via direct effects of advertising food products, and/or (3) reduced resting metabolism.
When discussing displacement effects, two cautionary notes offered by Perse (2001) appear germane: (1) displacement appears to assume that time is spent on only one activity at a time, whereas research documents that media usage often is a secondary activity to other tasks – it often accompanies rather than displaces activities; (2) some displacement effects of entertainment may include consuming content that is also educational or inspirational, which may be more enriching than the activities the entertainment usage replaced.
The use of overly simplistic or overly narrow representations of a particular group without consideration of their true diversity occurs in entertainment media for a variety of reasons. Writers, producers, and directors may not have had primary experience with anyone of the ethnicity of the character they are being asked to present in a program, so they rely on prevailing “pop culture” representations without finding out how accurate their images are. An even more common reason for relying on stereotypes is because they serve as dramatic shortcuts. In short-form fiction, including magazines, television programs, and video games, creators rarely have enough time to develop a character in full-blown form. In fact, true character development is extremely rare in popular electronic media fare. Therefore, in order to present a hero, villain, agent of justice, or whomever efficiently and parsimoniously, writers and directors rely on commonly held stereotypes to present easily understood and identified character types. Essentially, stereotyping is a cost-effective way of taking shortcuts in drama, and it is an all-too-common practice.
Unfortunately, media stereotyping can have very detrimental effects. Much of what people learn about the world outside of their immediate sphere comes from the media. In other words, media are potent agents of socialization that can cause entertainment-message consumers to classify the world around them to some extent in the terms and categories provided by television’s reality. Portrayals that are biased, overly narrow, or lack diversity in depictions of one or another gender or ethnic group can affect the way in which people create the scripts they use to deal with real life. Although research has been conducted on several categories of stereotypes – racial, gender, age, sexuality, disability, occupation, etc. – we will focus primarily on the effects of racial and gender stereotypes in entertainment programming.
Research over the past 30 years consistently has found that minorities are underrepresented and misportrayed in entertainment fare. Another common form of stereotyping in entertainment television is gender stereotyping. Although some improvement has been made during the past three decades in this regard, media messages are still infused with stereotypes of both men and women. In general, women are portrayed less often in entertainment media fare than are men, and women typically are presented in roles of lesser status or importance than their male counterparts (Signorielli 2001).
So what do consumers learn from stereotypes on entertainment fare? Social learning theory, social cognitive theory, and cultivation theory suggest that media consumers should learn stereotypical attitudes and may perform associated behaviors from watching, listening to, or reading about a steady stream of stereotyped roles. In most cases, this is what the research has shown. Meta-analyses of research on television stereotyping, for example, conclude that entertainment television has a significant overall effect on holding gender-role stereotypes in all age groups; however, among children younger than 6, the relationship is more pronounced; and for children younger than 3, the relationship is most pronounced (Van der Voort & Valkenburg 1994). Moreover, the findings on racial/ethnic stereotyping in entertainment programming indicate that media portrayals of racial/ethnic minorities influence majority group members’ real-world perceptions about minority groups in addition to minority group members’ evaluations of self (Greenberg & Collette 1997; Greenberg et al. 2002).
Sexual Attitudes And Behaviors
According to a 1998 Time/CNN national poll, 29 percent of American teenagers indicated that television was their primary source of information about sex, whereas only 7 percent cited parents and 3 percent cited sex-education classes as primary sources. Given the way that television presents human sexuality, that finding is very frightening. The nature of sexual content in the media – e.g., sex is presented or alluded to frequently; fictional media characters and live media “personalities” are preoccupied with sex; media role models often behave irresponsibly about sexual behaviors – adds dramatically to the nature of public concern about vulnerable audience members’, especially young people’s, exposure to sexual content via the media.
What kind of social and psychological effects might exposure to hypersexual entertainment media content and even explicitly sexual materials have? Here are just a few of the many extant findings (Zillmann & Bryant 1984). Because depictions of sex in the media often take place outside of supposedly durable, legal relationships like marriage, regular exposure to such content may undermine the values of marriage and having a stable family. Feminists often claim that depictions of sexual behavior in the mainstream media have tended to show women as sex objects and subordinates to men, and repeated exposure to such images may create images of women as promiscuous, hypersexual creatures whose primary function is to serve men. Rape and rape victims are commonly alluded to if not depicted on television, films, and video games. Some evidence suggests that repeated viewing of such materials leads to more callous attitudes about rape, less sympathy for a rape victim, and more sympathy for those accused of rape. Whatever else sexually oriented entertainment fare does, it serves as informal sex education for millions of readers, listeners, and viewers.
Violence And Aggression
Over the years, far and away the most active area of media-effects inquiry has been that of media violence. Literally scores of books and thousands of scholarly and popular press articles have been devoted to this topic. Obviously doing the topic justice in a short space is impossible, so the key elements of the social issue have to be summarized succinctly. They include recognition of the common assumption of entertainment message designers that media violence attracts numerous readers, listeners, and viewers. Therefore, pop culture fare is replete with violence. Moreover, entertainment consumers around the world consume a great deal of this fictional and real-world violence.
What effects does this steady diet of symbolic violence have? Abundant research has addressed this question from a variety of perspectives, and several theories have been advanced both to generate hypotheses and to clarify findings. In terms of theoretical mechanisms, the most prominent theories of the effects of media violence on human aggression fall into the general categories of: social learning, priming, arousal, cultivation, desensitization, and catharsis.
What does the research say? In general, the bulk of the extant empirical evidence – bolstered by findings from several recent meta-analyses of the effects of violence across types of media – concludes that consuming a heavy diet of media violence in entertainment fare results in higher levels of personal and societal violence (Sparks & Sparks 2002).
With the advent of newer forms of mediated communication, in which the end-user is both producer and consumer and assumes considerable agency over media content, through interactivity and other means of selectivity and control, the potential for entertainment – and for productive entertainment-effects research – is almost unlimited. Understanding entertainment needs – and creating media content to address these needs beneficially – while at the same time avoiding unwanted detrimental social and psychological effects, is almost certain to be one of the new frontiers in media-effects inquiry.
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