Nancy Signorielli. 21st Century Communication: A Reference Handbook. Editor: William F Eadie. Sage Publication. 2009.
Television is the storyteller of our nation and the world, 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 people 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 by parents, peers, schools, or the church. Television thus shows and tells us about life—who wins, who loses, who is powerful and who is weak, and who is happy and who is sad.
Television is only one of many venues that help explain the world. What is different about television is that its version of reality is generated by a small number of multinational media conglomerates whose messages bombard everyone with basically the same perspectives at the same time. These views are not very 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 with 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 to find answers to these broad questions. It is the third component of a research paradigm that investigates (a) the institutional processes that underlie media and the production of their content, (b) the prevalent images in media content, and (c) the relationships between watching television and audience beliefs and behaviors. 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 with people who have similar demographic characteristics but who watch less television (Morgan, Shanahan, & Signorielli, 2009).
Cultivation studies typically begin with identifying and assessing the most recurrent and stable patterns in television content, looking for those images and values that often cut across most program genres. These findings are then used to generate questions to uncover people’s conceptions about social reality. These questions are then posed to samples of children, adolescents, or adults using standard techniques of survey methodology. 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. The analyses then determine light, medium, and heavy viewers on a sample-by-sample basis. Hence, the analyses look for differences in the 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).
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 compared with those who watch more television and thus rely more on television for their information. Consequently, cultivation theory predicts that the more time a person spends watching television and being immersed in this mediated world, the more likely his or her views about reality will reflect what is seen on television.
Does Genre Matter?
Over the years, some researchers have questioned whether exposure to specific genres of media messages should be a critical component in understanding the cultivation phenomenon and effects. Cultivation studies that were conducted by the group of scholars who began this line of research, traditionally associated with the Cultural Indicators Project (George Gerbner. Larry Gross, Michael Morgan, James Shanahan, and Nancy Signorielli), have assessed global amounts of viewing, typically asking how much television (not what types of programs) is watched on a typical day. “Classic” cultivation is thus concerned with the long-term and long-range effects of living with television in general. Consequently, these studies predict that those who watch more, television’s heavy viewers, see more of these images and messages on a regular basis and that their views of social reality will be influenced by the messages and images they see day in and day out.
Others have explored and studied media effects in a cultivation framework but have measured viewing in a more specific than general manner. Some researchers have asked viewers to fill out viewing diaries (Hawkins & Pingree, 1981) or asked viewers to indicate what shows they regularly watch or have watched during the last week, sometimes choosing these programs from lists of available programs in the viewers’ area (Slater & Elliott, 1982; Weaver & Wakshlag, 1986). Potter and Chang (1990), for example, asked high school students how often they watched 12 different television genres (situation comedies, movies, etc.) during a week, using this information to create different measures of viewing. They also calculated a measure of the total amount of viewing, including the amount of viewing of each type of program, and measures that combined the two responses proportionally. This analysis found that students’ viewing was somewhat evenly distributed and that most of the students watched each program category about 4.5 hours a week. Although Potter and Chang did not find substantial cultivation effects in this study, they concluded that a proportional measure of viewing might be the best overall indicator to explore the cultivation phenomenon in future research. Finally, there is also some thought that a measure of attention to media should also be assessed (Chaffee & Schleuder, 1986) and used in conjunction with viewing measures.
Some scholars believe that cultivation research should focus on different genres of programs because they assume that different types of programs present diverse views of the world and social reality. Cohen and Weimann (2000) note that different genres, although typically formula driven, tend to present viewers with diverse views about the world. News, crime, and action programs and programs that explore current events, for example, are thought to focus on social order, examining public rather than domestic life and typically distinguishing right from wrong. The plots of these programs examine events and action, with the characters presenting the motives and the context for the events. On the other hand, situation comedies, family dramas, and soap operas, again formulaic in nature, focus on domestic issues, family relationships, and friendships. Similarly, Grabe and Drew (2007) suggest that one of the reasons scholars have examined possible genre-related cultivation differences is that content analyses typically show variation in portrayals among genres. Situation and romantic comedies present different types of stories from crime dramas, with the former genres having considerably less violence than the latter genres.
Violence, Crime, the Mean World, and Interpersonal Mistrust
The area of study that has received the most attention and been most often associated with the phenomenon of cultivation is people’s conceptions about fear, violence, and interpersonal mistrust. Studies of television content conducted in the cultural indicators perspective have found that network television’s prime-time world has had a consistent and fairly high level of violence for more than 30 years. About 6 out of 10 programs are violent, with violence occurring at the rate of four to five acts of violence per program (Signorielli, 2003). Similarly, other studies of television violence, including the content analysis of the National Television Violence Study (Smith, Nathanson, & Wilson, 2002) in the mid-1990s, found violence across all channels (cable and broadcast throughout the day, with the most similarity during the prime time hours), with somewhat more graphic violence on the cable channels. As a result of this consistent level of violence viewing, cultivation studies have predicted and found that those who watch more television are more fearful and believe that they are living in a mean and dangerous world. They are more likely to buy guns and watchdogs for protection and to install more locks on windows and doors. These heavy viewers tend to overestimate the likelihood that they will be involved in violence and tend to overestimate the numbers of police and others in law enforcement and crime detection. In short, viewing tends to heighten perceptions of danger and risk and maintain an exaggerated sense of mistrust, vulnerability, and insecurity (Gerbner, Gross, Morgan, & Signorielli, 1980).
Some researchers, however, have postulated that viewers’ conceptions about fear and violence are the result of more genre-specific viewing. Several studies show relationships between conceptions about crime and the viewing of crime programs, despite the knowledge that television’s crime programs typically distort statistics about crime in society. Dominick (1974), in a study of fifth-grade children in NewYork City, found that those youngsters who watched more crime shows believed that criminals typically were caught and, when arrested, had knowledge of their civil liberties. Carlson (1983), in a study of sixth-through twelfth-grade children in Providence, Rhode Island, found a strong relationship between crime show viewing and expressing attitudes not supportive of civil liberties. Interestingly, these findings were particularly strong for those students who came from middle-class families and whose parents were more likely to be nonconformist.
Hawkins and Pingree (1981) asked schoolchildren in Australia to keep viewing diaries and found that cultivation effects were genre specific and that different genres of programs offered subtle differences about social reality. Some of their analysis focused on the Mean World Index (television answer in italics) which asks if (a) people would be helpful or just looking out for themselves, (b) people would be fair or try to take advantage, and (c) people can be trusted or you have to be careful in dealing with people. They found that scores on the Mean World Index were related to the children’s viewing of crime-adventure programs but not viewing cartoons. Scores on more general violence measures, however, were related to viewing both crime-adventure programs and cartoons. On the other hand, scores on the Mean World Index and violence measures were not related to viewing situation comedies or dramas. Although news viewing was also not related to these measures, Hawkins and Pingree noted that the cultural environment of Perth, Australia, was considerably different from those of many U.S. cities in terms of real world violence. In general, scores on the Mean World Index were related to overall viewing measures, whereas scores on the violence measures were more specifically tied to viewing different program genres.
A study of 4,840 Jewish high school students in Israel (Cohen & Weimann, 2000) found differences in cultivation that were genre specific and illustrated cultural differences. Israeli high school students who were heavy viewers of news programs were more likely to have more trust but less likely to express the fear of being victimized or of being exploited. Watching soap operas, on the other hand, was related to expressing less trust in others, whereas watching comedies was related to having more trust in others. They also found that overall viewing was important and related to the youngsters’ views about their safety. Those students who watched the most television expressed a greater sense that they might be exploited and a greater sense of an awareness of police presence in their day-to-day environment.
Holbert, Shah, and Kwak (2004), using a national probability sample, found that viewing television news and policy reality programs was related to measures of fear of crime but that viewing crime dramas was not. This analysis also found that viewing of programs that are not fictional (such as police reality programs) tended to be more strongly related to conceptions of social reality than the viewing of fictional crime dramas. They interpreted this difference as due to the increased perceived realism of the police reality programs.
There is also considerable evidence showing relationships between exposure to violent media and respondents’ aggressive attitudes or cognitions, including aggressive political opinions. For example, there is a positive relationship between supporting the death penalty and viewing crime dramas (Holbert et al., 2004). Similarly, a study using data from the 1976 election study found that crime drama viewing by men was related to a willingness to use force to uphold the law and maintain order in society (Reith, 1999). Eyal, Metzger, Lingsweiger, Mahood, and Yao (2006), in a study of undergraduates, found that watching violent television programs (such as Cops, The Sopranos) was related to having more aggressive political opinions such as supporting capital punishment, vigilan-tism, and supporting the use of force by the police. Interestingly, this study found that playing violent video games was not related to holding aggressive political opinions. Along the same lines, using data from experiments and results from the 1995 National Election Survey pilot study, Holbrook and Hill (2005) found that frequent watching of crime dramas such as Without a Trace, NYPD Blue, and Third Watch was related to expressing the view that crime is one of the most important issues facing the nation. Moreover, respondents’ overall judgments about the president were related to the president’s actual performance in addressing crime in society.
An interesting study that surveyed first-semester college students and their parents found that parent viewing of crime dramas was related to having greater perceptions about the prevalence of crime as well as talking about and warning their children, particularly their daughters, about crime while their children were in high school (Busselle, 2003). This analysis, however, found no relationship between viewing and perceptions about crime for the college students, which was most likely due to the students’ decreased viewing of crime programs (or any television viewing) while away at school.
There is also some evidence that viewing specific genres is related to perceptions of the federal government. Pfau, Moy, and Szabo (2001) found that viewing reality programs, such as Cops, was related to positive perceptions of the law enforcement branch of government. At the same time, this study found that those who viewed dramas dealing with law enforcement and the law (e.g., Law & Order) did not have more favorable conceptions about the federal government, particularly law enforcement agencies, while the viewing of science fiction programs (such as X-Files) resulted in less confidence in the federal government. There was no relationship between conceptions about the federal government and the viewing of news-magazinetype programs.
Other Evidence of Cultivation
There is also considerable evidence as to the viability of the cultivation phenomenon that goes beyond assumptions about violence, crime, and interpersonal mistrust. As television programs have consistently underrepre-sented women and women’s roles, analyses in the traditional cultivation model 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 and that youngsters who watch more television tend to say that boys and girls should do chores that are gender stereotyped, such as boys mowing the lawn and girls cleaning the house (Morgan, 1987; Signorielli & Lears, 1992a).
There is also evidence that viewing specific genres of programming is related to conceptions about issues relating to sex role stereotypes. For example, specific media use is related to male undergraduates expressing support for traditional masculine ideology. Ward, Merrywether, and Caruthers (2006), using a sample of 656 male undergraduates in a Midwest university, found that those young men who frequently read male-oriented magazines and consistently watched the top 35 prime-time comedies and dramas indicated cognitive involvement with television programs, watched music videos, and expressed support for traditional masculine ideals, including the conception of women as sex objects and as the “sexual gatekeepers” (p. 712). These young men also thought that men were more sexually driven than women and perceived dating as a “battle of the sexes” (p. 712). At the same time, the young men who had more traditional views of masculinity, both in general and in terms of their future life partner, expressed more negative views toward childbirth and less support for breast-feeding in public.
Tiggemann (2005) explored media use and conceptions about body weight in a sample of 1,452 high school students in South Australia. Although overall television viewing was not related to body image variables, those high school girls who often read fashion magazines expressed agreement with several measures of body image including striving for thinness, acceptance of bulimia as an option to reach their ideal body weight, and wanting to be more muscular. At the same time, there was a relationship between spending more time watching soap operas (because these stories were perceived as being more realistic than other genres) and the desire to be thin as well as the internalization of societal or cultural ideals of beauty for men and women. Among the boys, watching both soap operas and music videos was related to expressing a desire to be more muscular. Overall, the high school students in this study who indicated that they often used television programs, such as soap operas, to learn about the world were more likely to have negative self-images, particularly of their bodies, and to exhibit disordered eating behaviors.
Another subject that has been isolated for genre-specific cultivation analysis is talk shows, particularly how watching these programs may influence teenagers’ conceptions about life. Davis and Mares (1998) found that teens who watched more talk shows overestimated the number of teens who ran away from home, the number of teenaged girls who became pregnant, and the numbers of both boys and girls between 15 and 19 who have had sex. Similarly, Rossler and Brosius (2001), using a sample of teens in Germany, examined German talk shows in an experimental paradigm exposing some teens to a week of talk shows. They found that those teens who watched five consecutive episodes of talk shows overestimated the percentages of gay males and lesbians in Germany. They also found evidence that those teens who watched talk shows each day during 1 week had less restrictive opinions about lesbian or gay male relationships and displayed less restrictive altitudes about these issues.
Although relationships between television viewing and conceptions about marriage have been found in a traditional cultivation paradigm (Signorielli, 1991), genre-specific viewing is also related to conceptions about marital expectations. Segrin and Nabi (2002), studying a sample of college students, found that both idealized views (Marriage is forever, I will be married for life to the same person) and expressing intentions to marry soon were related to viewing programs that focus on romance, close personal relationships, and marriage (soap operas, romantic comedies, wedding-related programs). Overall viewing, however, was not related to these concepts in this sample. These authors also speculate that the respondents’ exposure to romance-filled programs as children (such as Disney movies) may have contributed to expectations about marriage as young adults.
There is also some evidence that exposure to specific types of content is related to respondents’ conceptions about sex. In a study of 3,261 seventh and eighth graders, Pardun, L’Engle, and Brown (2005) found that those youngsters who had greater exposure to sexual content said that they were more likely to be active sexually or to express intentions of future sexual activity. Specifically, those who said they watched movies with sexual themes also said that they were sexually active and that they intended to be sexually active in the future.
Finally, there is evidence that viewing specific genres is related to other conceptions about social reality. From a traditional cultivation perspective, studies have shown that those who watch more television typically underestimate the numbers of older people in the United States and are more likely to say that the elderly are infirm and to give more stereotypical responses about how people age (Gerbner, Gross, Signorielli, & Morgan, 1980). Cultivation analyses have also been conducted in areas related to people’s health and nutrition. Two studies of middle-school-age children found that those who watch more television tend to say that the types of foods often advertised to children (sweetened cereals, fast food, candy, and soda) are more nutritious than they actually are (Signorielli & Lears, 1992b).
There is also some evidence that viewing different genres of programming is related to respondents having different perceptions about whites and blacks. Busselle and Crandall (2002), using a sample of undergraduates, found that having larger estimates of the amount of education blacks typically had as well as having perceptions that there are smaller differences between the educational levels of blacks and whites was related to viewing situation comedies. On the other hand, viewing television drama was related to the sense that whites are better educated than blacks and that there are greater differences in the amount of education whites and blacks have. Moreover, viewing of this genre was related to the respondents’ belief that blacks’ lack of socioeconomic success was due to discrimination. News viewing among these undergraduates was not related to estimates of education but was related to notions of modern racism. More news viewing and perceptions about the lack of socioeconomic success of blacks was positively related to saying that blacks lacked motivation and positively related to saying that blacks did not have fewer job opportunities.
Media use is also related to expressing biased conceptions about welfare in the United States. Data from a probability sample of respondents in the Midwest indicated that watching entertaining programs was related to conceptions that minorities made up most of those on welfare, whereas respondents who watched CNN news underestimated the age of those on welfare and overestimated the amount of money spent by the government on welfare. At the same time, those respondents who watched news programs about welfare and poverty (e.g., as seen on PBS’s The Newshour With Jim Lehrer) were more correct in their conceptions of the types of people on welfare and underestimated how long people stayed on welfare and the amount of money spent on welfare. Similarly, reading newspaper stories about welfare was related to having more correct views about the age of those on welfare and how long the typical welfare recipient remained on welfare. At the same time, respondents’ general support for welfare programs was eroded by viewing national and cable news as well as entertainment programs but supported by watching PBS news programs (Sotirovic, 2001).
Finally, Perse (1990) examined cultivation in relation to local news, including viewers’ levels of involvement with such programming. She found that greater personal risk was related to respondents having an entertainment orientation to viewing the local news as well as respondents paying attention to crime news. Perse concluded that, overall, media may be more influential in relation to areas or topics with which people do not have direct personal experience.
We thus find that there are many instances in which exposure to very specific media, particularly specific genres of television programs, is related to having views about the world and social reality. One of the questions, however, that must be addressed is whether or not people, on a day-to-day basis, only watch one or two specific genres of programs. Moreover, even if people state that they have a preference for watching a specific genre, their overall media use typically encompasses viewing many different types of television programs as well as using other media such as magazines and newspapers. Most important, the full understanding of genre in relation to cultivation depends on the content to which people are exposed, yet many of the previously described studies did not begin with a genre-related content analysis. Consequently, without specific data to the contrary, it stands to reason that although someone may profess to have a television diet consisting primarily of crime programs, such as the Law & Order or CSI series, the images to which he or she is exposed may go far beyond just crime and violence. While the Law & Order and CSI programs are based primarily on the investigation of crime, they also focus on interpersonal and family relationships as well as other thematic elements showing how the world works. Consequently, heavy viewers of these programs will not only learn about crime and violence, they will also learn important life’s lessons about how people interact with each other.
While the notion that media genre is a critical component in assessing the phenomenon of cultivation is interesting, it violates one of the basic tenets or assumptions of the cultivation hypothesis. As Shanahan and Morgan (1999) note, “What counts most is the total pattern of programming to which communities are exposed over long periods of time” (p. 31). Moreover, there is the possible problem that viewers and researchers may not define genres in the same way (Newhagen & Lewinstein, 1992). In addition, there is also the possibility that genre-specific studies may uncover more trivial than general effects (Shanahan & Morgan, 1999). Consequently, it can be argued that the body of studies that focus primarily on media genres is not made up of true studies of cultivation. Rather, these studies may be better described as dealing with more specific than general media effects that would best fit within a general learning theory paradigm rather than the cultivation paradigm.
At the same time, although genre may not be that important for cultivation theory, it may be important to assess ongoing changes in the media environment to determine whether or not the new media environment is a critical component in the process of cultivation.
In many respects, the media environment has changed considerably in the past 25 years. The way we now receive media has evolved from the environment of the 1950s and 1960s, with strictly broadcast television (with community antenna TV in some of the more remote and rural areas of the country), theatrical films, or print media (newspapers, magazines, books), to the broad-based electronic media environment of the beginning of the 21st century. In the case of television, until the 1980s, ABC, CBS, and NBC commanded the lion’s share of the television audience. There were only a few independent stations in each market, and films were seen in theaters or on television several years after the end of their theatrical run, whereas books, magazines, and newspapers were physical entities that were purchased in bookstores, supermarkets, or drug stores or at newsstands. Today, however, cable or satellite systems provide homes with hundreds of channels, and many homes now are staged to receive programs and movies on demand. Although many movies are still released in theaters, more and more films have a truncated theatrical run, and so they can quickly enter the more lucrative after-market of videodisks and cable movie packages. In addition, some films are produced solely for the cable/videodisk market. Finally, although we still can purchase physical copies of newspapers, magazines, and books, more and more consumers consume these media electronically, and online sources, such as http://Amazon.com, sell both electronic versions of books and the technology needed to “read” them.
Aside from cable, the technology of the VCR and now DVD players has become accessible to practically everyone. Movies are no longer “special” media, seen in either the theater or years later on television. The availability of videodisks allows consumers to build home libraries of movies and television programs, rent disks from video stores, or use services such as Netflix that deliver movies to your door via the U.S. mail and most recently through electronic sources. We have also changed the way we define what constitutes mass media, moving from broadcast, film, and print to include the World Wide Web and some computer technology. The question then becomes if these changes in venues affect the phenomenon we call cultivation.
Although the way we now receive our “stories” has changed, the way these stories or messages are produced and their content have not changed and, if anything, have become even more homogeneous. Media today are dominated by transnational, global conglomerates whose goal is to maintain a large share of the audience and increase profits. Indeed, as there are more and more channels and more and more outlets, there are fewer and fewer companies responsible for creating the content to fill these venues. The number of transnational companies continues to become smaller and smaller, with Disney, Time Warner, Bertelsmann, General Electric, http://Vi.com, and News Corp. among the largest and most influential.
Certainly, today’s expanded channel media environment provides very content-specific programs dealing with any number of life-related issues (weddings, divorces, courts, food, pets) as well as the traditional fictional “stories.” At the same time, the structure of the industry, with its small number of transnational and large media companies, produces messages about the world, its inhabitants, and how they work that are more similar than dissimilar. Consequently, the smaller number of production venues may result in a more homogeneous than heterogeneous media environment. Cultivation has always been concerned with the broad underlying elements of content and how audiences interact with these messages. Indeed, as Shanahan and Morgan (1999) note, “the content of messages is more germane than the technology with which they are delivered” (p. 201).
In light of this, the research in this area does not invalidate cultivation as an important and reasonable way to explain impacts of media on viewers. Beginning with studies on the impact of the VCR on viewing and cultivation, Morgan, Shanahan, and Harris (1990) found that rather than detracting from cultivation, the VCR actually served to amplify cultivation findings, noting that there are more similarities than differences between new technologies and television. Similarly, Dobrow (1990) found that those who typically watch more television (heavy viewers) used the VCR to extend their viewing habits, whereas those who watch less television (light viewers) became even more selective in what they chose to watch. Likewise, Perse, Ferguson, and McLeod (1994) found that those who spent more time watching videotaped movies expressed greater interpersonal mistrust than those who did not watch as many movies.
Cable is yet another venue that some predicted would have an impact on cultivation. Again, given the industry constraints and practices, cable typically delivers more of the same type of messages because many cable channels depend on syndicated network programs to fill most of their programming needs. At the same time, cable also professes to provide “new” and seemingly more diverse programming for viewers. Cable has fewer constraints, and some recent studies of content have found that programs produced only for the cable market often contain more violence and sex than do traditional network offerings (Shanahan & Morgan, 1999). Overall, however, the change cable has brought to viewing practices is mostly on the surface. As Shanahan and Morgan note, “People are still using their free time to view televised entertainment,” and there has not really been “a reduction in our overall exposure to typical mainstream entertainment programs” (p. 208). In short, cable is an outlet that provides an intensified version of traditional network fare.
Cable may thus have some impact on cultivation findings but typically in the directions and ways we would expect from traditional heavy viewing of network programming because cable still provides mass-produced programs made by a small number of concentrated media organizations (Shanahan & Morgan, 1999). Morgan and Rothschild (1983), for example, found that in homes with cable, traditional sex-role perceptions were stronger compared with homes without cable. Perse and colleagues (1994) found that respondents who had cable subscriptions expressed stronger feelings of interpersonal mistrust, particularly if the respondents tended to use cable to watch typical network broadcast-type programs. At the same time, respondents who viewed more specialized cable offerings (A&E, C-Span, Discovery Channel) did not express greater fear or interpersonal mistrust.
The big question that now faces the study of media effects is whether today’s increased interactive media environment will change how media influence those who use them. As computer technology continues to decrease in price, it has become more affordable for the average person, and children’s education has become more tied to having access to computers and online technology such as the Internet. As of 2003, computers were found in just over 60% of U.S. homes, with almost 55% of homes having access to the Internet (Statistical Abstracts of the United States,http://www.census.gov/compendia/statab/tables/08s1099.pdf). A focus of continued research in the cultivation tradition thus must begin to assess the more general content of the Web and specifically to determine if those who spend time with computers using it as a primary entertainment venue come to view the world in much the way it is seen in the messages they receive on their computers. But it is critical for new studies to ascertain if the messages found in these computer venues present the same values and elements that we have consistently found in television programs. Nevertheless, given the close ties of Web sites with media-related industries, it seems reasonable to posit that those whose “entertainment” is now tied to computer technology will receive more traditional than nontraditional messages about the world and its people. As such, it also seems reasonable to posit that the evidence of cultivation will remain largely the same.
Evidence of Cultivation
As many studies in media effects, cultivation analyses, whether designed from the prototype of the more “traditional” or “classic” position or from a more genre- or media-specific prototype, typically generate small effects. As even those who watch very little television may watch 7 to 10 hours a week and certainly interact with those who watch more television, the cards are really stacked against finding evidence of cultivation. Consequently, 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 1 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, and research has found two processes that reflect differences in how cultivation may work. Direct experience may be important for some viewers; 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. Althoughresonance might be an important explanatory concept for genre-related studies, most of these studies do not discuss this possible variation in cultivation-related findings.
Television and similar media venues provide a shared daily ritual of highly compelling and informative content for diversified viewers. Media images seen on television or in other venues typically eliminate boundaries of age, class, and region. Consequently, the mainstream 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 or media exposure 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 or media users. For example, for some topics, the beliefs of those who designate themselves as liberal or conservative are often very different when there is little television viewing. But when heavy television viewers who call themselves liberal or conservative are asked about these same topics, the 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 that 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. Most studies discussing mainstreaming focus on overall viewing levels rather than look at viewing of specific genres of programs, however. Few of the studies focusing on media genre using cultivation as a theoretical framework look at their findings in relation to these important variations in cultivation.
Our knowledge of cultivation and the cultivation process is by no means complete. Although the studies described in the forgoing certainly show that the phenomenon of cultivation is found in genre-specific viewing environments, the overall concern is whether viewers consistently maintain these very narrow viewing habits. Given television’s importance in society and people’s dependence on “entertainment,” it is probably unlikely that viewers turn off the television set when they cannot find their favorite type of program. Rather, it is more likely that they continue to watch the next best thing that catches their attention. Or they may turn to another entertainment venue where they will be exposed to the same general types of media messages. All in all, the evidence certainly points to the finding that viewing, whether generalized or specific, is related to viewers’ conceptions of social reality.
Cable exacerbates the influence of television, and we still do not know much about how new technologies such as the World Wide Web and computers may affect cultivation. Certainly, if people use computers as another vehicle to gain access to their usual viewing diets, then the computer will operate more as a television set than as a computing machine. Similarly, people may use the Web to spend more time with their favorite types of programs; to find more information about the actors and actresses who play the roles in these programs; or to serve as a vehicle to download movies, newspapers, or other print material. The actual technology (a computer) may not matter if it is being used as a television set or in the way other media have typically been used. What matters most is the system of messages to which people are exposed, and we need more studies assessing the nature of the messages to determine if there are similarities or if there are meaningful differences among media venues. Consequently, if we make the reasonable assumption of homogeneous messages in today’s media environment, because those messages are produced and distributed by a small number of very concentrated and interdependent media industries and continue to imitate successful formats and genres. Today’s greater competition for media audiences should thus continue to enhance rather than fragment television’s contribution to people’s conceptions of social reality, namely cultivation.