A corollary of cultivation theory, the concept of “mainstreaming” implies that heavy television viewing contributes to an erosion of differences in people’s perspectives that stem from other factors and influences. It is based on the argument that television serves as the primary common storyteller for an otherwise heterogeneous population. As the source of the most broadly shared images and messages in history, television represents the mainstream of the common symbolic environment into which children are born and in which we all live out our lives. From the perspective of cultivation analysis, television provides a relatively restricted set of choices for a virtually unrestricted variety of interests and publics; programs designed for broad and diverse groups are watched across social and demographic boundaries. People who otherwise have little in common besides television are brought into the same dominant mainstream by cumulative heavy viewing.
Cultivation analysis, developed by George Gerbner and his colleagues, is the study of the contribution of long-term, heavy television exposure to viewers’ conceptions of social reality. The basic hypothesis guiding cultivation analysis is that people who spend more time watching television are more likely than lighter viewers to see the real world in terms of television’s dominant and repetitive images and representations of life and society. In the late 1970s and 1980s, cultivation researchers and critics found that associations between amount of television viewing and people’s assumptions and perspectives were not uniform across demographic sub-groups. Associations were stronger in some groups and weaker or nonexistent in others. It was further observed that these variations could very often be explained by the concept of mainstreaming.
Among light viewers, people who differ in terms of background factors such as age, education, social class, political orientations, and region of residence tend to have sharply different conceptions of social reality regarding violence, interpersonal mistrust, genderrole stereotypes, and a broad range of political and social outlooks. Yet, among heavy viewers across those same groups, those differences tend to be much smaller or even to disappear entirely.
For example, Gerbner et al. (1980) found that low-income respondents were more likely than those with higher incomes to say that “fear of crime is a very serious personal problem.” Among low-income respondents, the amount of television viewing was not related at all to perceptions of crime. In contrast, higher-income respondents as a group were less likely to think of crime as a serious personal problem, yet the heavy viewers among those with higher incomes were much more likely than the light viewers to be especially worried about crime. In other words, heavy viewers with higher incomes had the same perception as all of those with lower incomes; among heavy viewers, the difference stemming from income was sharply diminished. Similarly, among lighter viewers, those with more education were found to express more “progressive” attitudes about gender roles, but this difference disappeared among heavy viewers; more educated heavy viewers expressed the same “traditional” beliefs as did those with less education.
Subsequent studies have explored the political implications of mainstreaming. As television seeks to attract large and heterogeneous audiences, its messages are intended to disturb as few as possible. Therefore, television programs tend to “balance” opposing perspectives, and to steer a “middle course” along the supposedly non-ideological mainstream. In studies done over 20 years, it has been consistently found that heavy viewers are substantially more likely to call themselves “moderate” and to avoid labeling themselves as either “liberal” or “conservative.” The mainstream is not “the middle of the road,” however, in terms of the specific political attitudes that people take. Looking at such topics as racial segregation, homosexuality, abortion, minority rights, and other issues, the expected differences between liberals and conservatives are mainly evident among those who watch little television. Among heavy viewers, liberals and conservatives are much closer to each other than they are among light viewers. While mainstreaming bends toward more conservative positions on many political and social questions, it leans toward more liberal stances on economic issues (e.g., demanding more government spending on social services and programs), reflecting the influence of a marketing orientation and setting up potential conflicts of demands and expectations.
These patterns imply that cultivation is like a gravitational process, in which the angle and direction of the “pull” depend on where groups of viewers and their styles of life are with reference to the line of gravity, the mainstream of the world of television. Mainstreaming thus represents a relative homogenization and absorption of divergent views and a convergence of disparate viewers. Cultivation researchers contend that television contributes to a blurring of cultural, political, social, regional, and class-based distinctions, the blending of attitudes into the television mainstream, and the bending of the direction of that mainstream to serve the political and economic tasks of the medium and the institutions that subsidize it.
- Gerbner, G., Gross, L., Morgan, M., & Signorielli, N. (1980). The “mainstreaming” of America: Violence profile no. 11. Journal of Communication, 30(3), 10 –29.
- Gerbner, G., Gross, L., Morgan, M., & Signorielli, N. (1982). Charting the mainstream: Television’s contributions to political orientations. Journal of Communication, 32(2), 100 –127.
- Shanahan, J. (1998). Television and authoritarianism: Exploring the concept of mainstreaming. Political Communication, 15, 483 – 496.
- Shanahan, J., & Morgan, M. (1999). Television and its viewers: Cultivation theory and research. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Shrum, L. J., & Bischak, V. D. (2001). Mainstreaming, resonance, and impersonal impact: Testing moderators of the cultivation effect for estimates of crime risk. Human Communication Research, 27(2), 187–215.
- Van den Bulck, J. (2003). Is the mainstreaming effect of cultivation an artifact of regression to the mean? Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media, 47, 289 –295.