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Mass media effects research - reception analysis

Im not going to deal here with the conventions of the soap genre. If youre looking for information on that, check out Daniel Chandlers site.

In the meantime these eight generic characteristics of soap operas might be worth bearing in mind

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serial form which resists narrative closure

multiple characters and plots

use of time which parallels actual time and implies that the action continues to take place whether we watch it or not

abrupt segmentation between parts

emphasis on dialogue, problem solving and intimate conversation

male characters who are sensitive men

female characters who are often professional and otherwise powerful in the world outside the home

the home, or some other place which functions as the home, as the setting for the show.

Brown M E (187)


To get a feel for fans attitudes towards soaps, as well as some knowledge of any soaps you may be unfamiliar with, you may like to check out some of the soaps sites on-line


Ang on Dallas

Although this page is headed Ang on Dallas, it actually consists of overviews of

Livingstone Why People Watch Soap Operas (188)

Katzs and Liebess studies of Dallas (184)

Yanishs study of Seinfeld (15)

Ien Ang Watching Dallas (185)

Livingstone Why People Watch Soap Operas

Before considering Ien Angs renowned study of Dallas afficionados, Id like to take a look first of all at a more general British study by Sonia M Livingstone (188), which provides us with a useful overview of the possible lines of approach to the study of peoples soap viewing. Also, Livingstones study focuses on British soaps, which is of particular interest because, as she points out, British soaps differ quite fundamentally from the American glam soaps to which the most attention has been paid, both in their style and content, as well as, it would seem, in the nature of the viewers engagement with them.

British soaps have developed within a public service broadcasting ethos and there remains in them something of the Reithian determination to inform, educate and entertain, though not necessarily with entertainment so firmly in last place as in Reiths scheme of things. Livingstone quotes a variety of producers and writers of British soaps stating their mission to enlighten the public by carefully researched social comment which has had positive results to the community (Crossroads), by encouraging a lot of people [to] ask why (Eastenders), by injecting a cross-section of political opinion (Coronation Street) and by giving us the real, kind of working class view of society (Brookside).

Uses and Gratifications

In her overview of the possible approaches to a study of soap viewing, Livingstone considers the uses and gratifications approach and mentions that US studies of soap viewing have shown broadly similar motivations to those listed by McQuail (see the pop-up), except that surveillance is not particularly salient for soap opera and, curiously, value reinforcement and emotional release are not often mentioned either. Though, Livingstone doesnt mention it, this seems to me to point to one of the shortcomings of uses and gratifications research which has typically depended on the audience members own account of the media experience and therefore also on an assumption that a need which is gratified by media use can and will be explicitly formulated. If you were asked why you watch the TV news, youd be most likely to answer that you do so to find out whats going on in the world (surveillance in McQuails terms). I suspect that its only with a little prodding that you might concede you watch the news for entertainment (you simply enjoy seeing the TV lights reflecting off William Hagues head, you enjoy seeing some pompous civil servant being grilled by a select committee) or even for escape from your everyday problems (seeing Kosovan refugees takes you out of yourself and helps you to reflect that maybe things could be worse). But, of course, if the researcher prompts you, then are the results she gets your self-report or hers? We have an awareness of the avowed purposes of various media artefacts and so tend to tell ourselves that we use them for those purposes. So we read a psychology text book if we really want to learn what makes people tick and a novel for entertainment. Do we really? I think I probably read Proust in part because hes a better psychologist than Freud (and Freud for a laugh). Would you spontaneously say that you watch a soap to find out whats going on in the world? Probably not, I suspect, because it sounds daft, but TV is, after all, part of whats going on in the world -after all, even the peoples Prime Minister comments on Deirdres imprisonment. Certainly the participants in Browns study stated that knowledge (of the soap) was an important motivation for viewing it.

Degree of involvement

Livingstone also considers studies of the viewers degree of involvement in the soaps. Liebes and Katz (see below) distinguished between those viewers who were thoroughly absorbed in Dallas and those who stood at a critical distance from it. Livingstone suggests that this depends on how seriously viewers take soap opera and how they rate its claims to present a realistic portrayal of life. I think thats a useful distinction as long as we dont see these two orientations towards the soap as mutually exclusive, but rather as a continuum from those who see the soap as real life through to those who see it as a media construction. I have only ever seen one episode of Dallas (what an admission from somebody who runs a website on the media!) and was so fascinated by the constant use of over-the-shoulder reaction shots that I hadnt a clue what was going on in the plot. So I guess I was at the far end of the critical distance spectrum in that case. But I can think of movies I know which I find highly absorbing and realistic (though I dont think realism is necessarily a prerequisite for my absorption but I still know which shots the mic is visible in. I find Orson Welless Touch of Evil absorbing and realistic, but am nevertheless aware of the opening crane shot as a technical tour de force (and as for Robert Altmans The Player ...!). You probably have various friends who have a similar approach to soaps - they are keen fans, know the characters intimately, quite possibly draw inferences from the soaps about their own lives, but can tell you of every continuity error and every bit of wobbly scenery.

Socio-cognitive research

Under this heading, Livingstone refers to those studies which have examined the carry-over effect from TV to everyday perception. For example, do viewers tend to apply television-relevant dimensions for character perception to everyday person perception? Livingstone suggests that TV soaps undermine their claims to realism by the fact that the conventions demand that a lot happens fast, that the solutions are highly conventional, the characters too interconnected and so on. The extent of the carry-over effect, she suggests, depends on viewers awareness of those conventions and, by extension, on their assessment of the realism of the soap.

Cultivation process

Here Livingstone considers Gerbners cultivation differential, which suggests that heavy television viewing is likely to lead viewers to endorse beliefs and attitudes more closely related to the TV world than to the real world. The evidence, according to Livingstone, suggests that active viewers are less likely to be susceptible to this effect. In other words, the cultivation effect may in part be related, as Gerbner proposes, to the amount of TV watched, but it is also related to the viewers orientation towards the TV material. The more deliberate and selective their interpretation, the less likely they are to be susceptible to the cultivation process, though viewers may be affected by a programme in terms of accepting its direction, agenda, or its less overt messages, says Livingstone, and this is especially likely for programmes with multiple messages or perspectives, such as soap opera ...., for which it is difficult to identify the messages required by cultivation analysis. Thats a criticism which is justifiably levelled at content analysis of just about any mildly complicated media product. To test the cultivation hypothesis, you clearly need to examine the content of a very wide variety of TV products over a considerable period and arrive at some sort of view on average levels of violence or whatever it is youre trying to investigate. Once youve done that for each of the five terrestrial channels and the satellite channels available in the UK, you need to know what the individual viewers watch etc.... An enormous undertaking, but it doesnt seem to me to be impossible in principle. If you to start with, say, BARBs viewing figures, maybe even their viewing panel which is about as representative as you can get,a nd are prepared to accept that what you come up with will be broad generalizations at best, then I dont see why such research shouldnt be undertaken. Livingstones point, I suppose, is that it will reveal only the effects of a wide range of viewing and not of soaps specifically.

Livingstones method and results

Livingstones fifty-two respondents were all obtained by advertising in the national magazine SOAPS. They were aged between 1 and 6 (mean = 1.61), 7 females and 15 males drawn from a range of occupations (mainly white-collar workers). The selection of respondents may surprise you as the stereotype still persists that soaps are mainly viewed by isolated working-class housewives. That may once have been the case, but over recent years, the proportion of male viewers, as well as the proportion of teenage viewers has increased significantly, with the isolated housewives declining in number as more women are drawn into the workforce. I think its important to note that they were not just, as Livingstone says, regular viewers of soap operas, but clearly soap fans. The concentration of much research on fans (or knowledgeable readers as they are sometimes referred to) has come in for some criticism recently (you might lake to take a quick look at Hermess comments) because the results of such studies have often been taken to allow us to draw conclusions about the average reader/viewer, which may well be quite unjustified.

Livingstones respondents were presented with a sheet of A4 headed Why is soap opera so popular? and otherwise blank. Respondents explanations for viewing were then coded, which gave 41 explanatory units in total. These were then sorted into eight superordinate categories. As an example, the superordinate category escapism included escape to a world of glamour and escape from own problems and worries.

You can probably think of a number of criticisms of this method of content analysis applied to respondents answers. Livingstone herself mentions a number of them. For example, when the texts were divided into units a number of causal relationships in the explanations had to be broken. Some respondents gave descriptions rather than explanations - should descriptions be counted as explanations? Finally, Livingstone also mentions the criticisms inherent in the current qualitative versus quantitative debate.

Livingstones results are quite fascinating. I imagine Id get clobbered for copyright infringement if I reproduced them here, so I recommend you go to the original article. The following table presents a broad outline of her results

Explanation Proportion of respondents Comments

Escapism .% A need primarily served by American soaps; includes escaping by having something else to think about, which consists mainly of a view of a richer and more glamorous world, as well as drama, intrigue, excitement etc., which are missing from viewers own lives

Realism 88.5% Mainly served by British soap opera, generally highly involving, a form of parasocial interaction like having a chat with the neighbours; viewers were appreciative of the focus on contemporary social problems and issues which are relevant to their own lives; thus British soaps are seen as a central contributor to televison as a cultural forum

Relationship with characters 61.5% Again mainly related to the experience of British soaps. Some viewers felt they could see some characters as like people they knew, others found the soap characters much more involving, seeming like real people to them. Browns study suggests that viewers enjoy sharing experiences with the soap characters, a process which helps them to determine their own identity (one of the motivations listed by McQuail in his summary of uses and gratifications). Richard Kilborn in Television Soaps (1) suggests that the intimacy of the relationship which is developed may enable viewers to experience a form of catharsis.

Critical response 51.% A wide range of comments were made indicating a critical distance from the soaps. Some commented that they like to laugh at the irreality of American soaps, some viewers commented on the difficulty of making a soap realistic when it also has to be entertaining. Although there was a difference in emphasis there was no apparent difference of degree in the critical distance from American or British soaps.

Problem-solving 4.% As viewers can become so involved with characters, this can allow for learning experiences, with the emphasis on problem-solving. In a general sense, the viewer may feel that s/he has learnt about other kinds of people and thereby enriched his/her experience or the experience could be more focused, for example learning about how or how not to deal with a specific problem. If the problem presented is one which the viewer has experienced, they can enter into a community of similar individuals to themselves; if the problem is one they have not experienced, it helps to put their own problems into perspective. Either way, the experience seems to make viewers feel better.

R�le in viewers life 40.4% Respondents recognized their time commitment to soaps, the place they occupied in their daily routine and the pleasure of having something to keep up with on a regular basis, which provided a regular topic of conversation.

Entertainment 4.6% This was considered together with escapism by Livingstone

Quite how realistic British soaps are is, as far as I know, an open question - I havent seen any research which compares them with real communities. Raymond Williams was certainly none too impressed by Coronation Streets claim to realism, describing it as a distanced and simplified evocation and prolongation of a disappearing culture (10 61). Williams wrote that description in 175. I grew up during the fifties in a working-class terraced street in a Midlands town, a street my family moved out of in the early sixties to a Brookside cul-de-sac, as the working-class areas of town were gradually abandoned to immigrants and the old. Thirty-odd years on, the Coronation Street residents are still there, still predominantly white. On this point, see below Ang on empiricist realism

The acceptance of the realism of British soaps is interesting especially as the respondents seem to approve of soap operas treatment of the issues raised in them. As it is the professed intention of the makers of the soaps of raising current issues and airing them in a responsible manner, there is a suggestion here that the soap opera viewers are accepting the preferred readings, which raises disturbing questions about televisions r�le in the social construction of reality. However, Livingstones results show a wider range of responses than normally appears to be revealed by uses and gratifications studies and also show rather more involved and cognitive responses from British viewers than have been revealed in American studies, as well as a high degree of critical distance from the programmes, all of which suggests that viewers do not uncritically use the programmes content to gratify their needs.

Livingstones investigation gives us some pretty useful information in our attempt to pin down the soap opera viewer. However, you should bear in mind that the portrait it gives us is of the fan, the knowledgeable reader so its a bit difficult to know whether we can legitimately generalize from these results to other, non-knowledgeable, soap users. The research, as Livingstone herself points out, also doesnt tell us a lot about what viewers do with the meanings they get from the soaps. There is certainly evidence of a critical stance, but also some evidence that viewers are not negotiating their own meanings for the British soaps, even though they are clearly capable of reflecting on and articulating their responses. This would appear to lend support to a view of those soaps as transmitting the dominant ideology successfully by the use of the social realism which has become the established model for British soaps (and much British cinema). Such a view would see British soaps as succeeding in presenting people in soaps as just like us with the same problems as ours, thereby also succeeding in presenting the values and stereotypes intrinsic to the soaps as just common sense. That is certainly one reading of Livingstones research, from which de Certeaus and Fiskes semiotic guerrilla tactics seem depressingly absent.

One factor which is not investigated by Livingstone is the use of soaps in establishing a routine. People may have TV on in the background so that they know when its time for their children to be packed off to bed, viewers will re-organize their daily routines if the soap is rescheduled.

Katz and Liebes

OK, Ill come clean and admit that Ive never read the originals of Katz and Liebess works, so what follows is only going to be a very brief summary of notes Ive made on them from other sources. Their work seems to be considered so important to contemporary research that youll find them referred to in virtually any report on soaps. If you would like to take a look at some more extensive and better informed comment than what follows, then you could do worse than looking at Daniel Chandlers excellent site (where, I seem to recall, youll need to take the link to Radio && TV)

Using cross-cultural focus groups with whom they watched and then discussed an episode of Dallas, which the respondents were requested to retell, Katz and Liebes were able to identify very considerable differences in the ways that the different groups approached and interpreted Dallas. Their research demonstrated that viewers were a good deal more critical and creative than many media commentators had assumed. Katz and Liebes studied critical distance from Dallas by attending to the critical statements made by respondents about the cinematic and artistic value of the program on the one hand and referential statements which referred to characters as if they were real or potentially real. Western and Russian audiences seemed to make greater use of the distancing mechanisms. Katz and Liebes suggested that those groups which were most removed from Western culture were the most likely to become involved with the drama because they had not learnt to use the set of rhetorical tools with which Westerners are familiar. Note, though, that the tendency to respond to the drama as if it were real does not imply uncritical acceptance of the perceived message.

Of particular importance was the fact that the various groups discussed the programme amongst themselves (an activity which 40% of Livingstones respondents identified as an important function of soap viewing). The polysemy of the original text and the tertiary text of the local oral culture allow the development and elaboration of meanings which serve the viewers purposes (as Brown has shown in the use of daytime soaps in womens talk), regardless of the producers preferred readings. Whether we wish to celebrate these differing interpretations as examples of semiotic guerrilla resistance or not, they do make quite clear that the gloomy assumptions of cultural theorists from the Frankfurt School to Baudrillard are not obviously and immediately justified. What they do clearly show is that the meanings of a TV programme are not fixed and cannot simply be read off the text; at the same time, they do show that the process of meaning generation is not totally open-ended and one can trace similar patterns of meaning amongst viewers who are within the same social group (which may perhaps be construed as an interpretive community).

Despite the claims of some cultural theorists that soap operas realism leaves no space for the viewer to avoid the dominant readings, it seems to me that the soap opera form itself may well encourage a variety of readings as well as discussion of those readings since it is structured quite differently from the classic realist text. Being designed so that the viewer can drop in and out of them at any point (pop out to make a cuppa, pop in while the spuds are boiling), soaps have a variety of narrative threads; they have no clearly defined hero or heroine; characters decisions and actions are presented to us from a multiplicity of viewpoints (elaborated on in the local pub, shop or market place); and, of course, no resolution of the drama is ever reached. There is a kind of reflexivity in soap operas which invites critical distance. I say kind of because Im not at all sure that its the right term here (no doubt someone will correct me). Certainly, its not the case that the constructedness of soap operas is deliberately foregrounded by their producers, but the conventions are so familiar to viewers, not necessarily regular ones, that we all immediately recognize the elements which are satirized in Soap or Acorn Antiques. Students generally have no difficulty at all in enumerating the conventions of soap opera (including the often less than persuasive acting, the sometimes stilted dialogue and the wobbly scenery) whereas they often find it more difficult to state the conventions of genres with which they are equally, if not more, familiar, such as yoof tv or news broadcasts. Adorno criticized the products of the culture industries for their standardization which stifles individuality. I suspect that where soaps are concerned it is the very obviousness of that standardization which allows us to step back from them, examine them critically, elaborate on them and even laugh at them and ourselves (I sometimes wonder whether Adorno ever laughed).

ethnic group

referential topics Israeli Arabs recent Jewish immigrants to Israel from Russia first- and second-generation Jewish immigrants from Morocco Israeli kibbutz members, mostly second-generation matched second-generation Americans in Los Angeles

motivations for actions

Blamed individuals individuals responsible for their own actions

The most important topic for this group

Blamed society social roles determine behaviour

Blamed society society in which individuals have to fend for themselves

The most important topic for this group

Freudian psychological explanations (thereby not ‘blaming’ the characters)

The most important topic for this group

Freudian psychological explanations

(thereby not ‘blaming’ the characters)

kinship/relations and norms

The most important topic for this group, characters normally being referred to by their family positions (father, daughter etc.) than by their names

The most important topic for this group

moral dilemmas, mainly to do with the price of success

The rich are unhappy.

Americans are immoral, but have no choice - the programme teaches that immorality pays; moral evaluation often in terms of ‘moral degeneracy’

The rich are unhappy; moral evaluation often in terms of ‘rotten capitalism’

The rich are unhappy.

Americans are immoral, but have no choice - the programme teaches that immorality pays; moral evaluation often in terms of ‘moral degeneracy’

The rich are unhappy

The rich are unhappy

business relations

Only this group made frequent references to business relations

Critical distance

‘referential’ interpretation, i.e. relating to real life, as if characters were real1

Argued against its moral values.

Personalized the programme, relating it to their we-groups or to themselves.

More statements about the content than the form.

‘analytical’ interpretation, i.e. questioning its representation of real life; concern about ideological manipulation.

Generalized the characters to abstract categories, such as ‘businessmen’, ‘women’, ‘Americans’.

More statements about the content than the form.

‘referential’ interpretation, i.e. relating to real life, as if characters were real1

Argued against its moral values.

Personalized the programme, relating it to their we-groups or to themselves.

More statements about the content than the form.

Mixed ‘referential’ and ‘analytical interpretation; less involvement;

Personalized the programme, relating it to their we-groups or to themselves, but more playfully than the Arabs;


More ‘ludic’ (playful) statements than other groups (e.g. imagining what characters might be like)

Mixed ‘referential’ and ‘analytical interpretation; less involvement;

Personalized the programme, relating it to their we-groups or to themselves, but more playfully than the Arabs;


More ‘ludic’ (playful) statements than other groups (e.g. imagining what characters might be like).

More statements about the form than the content.

Re-telling the story

Linear, focusing on action-oriented sub-plot ‘defining the hero’s goals and adventures in trying to achieve them’

Closed; determining force referential

thematic and involved the application of a deductive political organizing principle and a suppression of detail these viewers were concerned with the ideological motives of the producers (which they tended to stereotype as capitalist propaganda), whom they saw as manipulated by big business.

Closed, but determining force seen as ideological and involved the application of a deductive political organizing principle and a suppression of detail these viewers were concerned with the ideological motives of the producers (which they tended to stereotype as capitalist propaganda), whom they saw as manipulated by big business.

Closed, but determining force seen as ideological

Linear, focusing on action-oriented sub-plot ‘defining the hero’s goals and adventures in trying to achieve them’

Closed; determining force referential

segmented, often focusing on selected evocative characters or relationships in relation to the psychological interests of the viewers.

Open-ended, often focusing on selected evocative characters or relationships in relation to the psychological interests of the viewers.


segmented, often focusing on selected evocative characters or relationships in relation to the psychological interests of the viewers.

Open-ended, often focusing on selected evocative characters or relationships in relation to the psychological interests of the viewers.


Liebes suggests that these groups pre-occupation with power relationships in the family may reflect their position in Israeli society, the one a politically suspect minority and the other an ethnic minority with experience of status deprivation

1 Katz and Liebes suggest Arabs and Moroccans are culturally the most distant from Dallas

Katz and Liebes suggest that these more ‘modern’ groups are familiar with the conventions of the soap genre, therefore able to take it less seriously

Liebes sees such linear retellings as being a consequence of the perceived reality of the characters. Such retellings tended to make the characters appear more stereotypical than the producers intended and presumably also supported a dominant reading in which the reality of the story is unquestioned and its message is presumably unchallenged.

Yanishs Seinfeld study

The Katz and Liebes study also raised a number of questions about the often presumed cultural homogeneity of a national audience as well as the assumptions which underlie the thesis of cultural imperialism. In this connexion a study by Lori Yanish (15) is very interesting. Yanish studies the reception of the US-made sitcom, Seinfeld, by audiences in Canada and in the Netherlands, both nations in which considerable concern has been expressed about the possible swamping of national culture by US media. Like Katz and Liebes, Yanish used focus groups. In the case of her (? the first name is Lori - make up your own mind) audiences, the participants were demographically quite homogeneous, aged between twenty-five and forty-five and having a level of education beyond high school. The goal of the study was to discover whether negotiation strategies (i.e. negotiation of meanings, see the comment on preferred / negotiated / oppositional readings) are in fact used, and, if so, how they are unique to each national culture. Yanish was not dealing with knowledgeable readers (fans), but a possible criticism of the study is that Seinfeld was quite popular in Canada and hardly known in the Netherlands, with the result that a certain imbalance is introduced as the Dutch respondents were reporting on first impressions and the Canadians on several viewings. Another possible flaw which Yanish notes is that she is herself Canadian.

The episodes shown were chosen so that their interpretation would not be dependent on intimate knowledge of US culture. (In her introduction, Yanish mentions a study of Danish viewers watching Dallas When discussing one episode in which the Boston Tea Party is mentioned, they searched their memories for a previous episode in which the characters might have had tea in Boston.)

Yanishs research convincingly establishes that a variety of different interpretive strategies are deployed by viewers and, furthermore, that these differ quite markedly between the two national groups. They show also that the issue of cultural imperialism is not as straightforward as some commentators assume it to be. The results are presented below. I am conscious of having done some violence to Yanishs detailed study by summarizing them in this way. The original may be found at the University of Calgary, Alberta

Interpretive Repertoires Canadian Dutch

Contextualization prime-time slot late-night slot

familar fare; TV trailers for it; well established media discourse about it; shows demographics known and known to be similar to their own; expectations that Seinfeld would be sophisticated and entertaining first season only; relatively unknown

in native tongue sub-titled

broadcast by privatized RTL5 - perceived as being for less intellectual viewers

quality production, cleverly written and creatively edited, admiration for inclusion of several sub-plots; participants commented on attention required simple construction at best; thought to be mildly entertaining by some participants and irredeemably bad by others; commented on lack of attention required

experience with stand-up comedy stand-up comedy is new and not widely used

therefore different cues for humour recognized

General Expressive Strategies i.e. used to frame participants discussion of their use of television I do not usually watch television commonly used as opener; sets up critical distance - but the critical distance is articulated differently

talking about the artificial plot lines of situation comedies; often these comments are a play with the nature of situation comedy and not a criticism of Seinfeld (cf Liebes comments on ludic nature of American audiences engagement with Dallas) dislike of Seinfeld expressed through discussion of canned laughter; this is used to support genuine distaste

Organizational Strategies i.e. categorizations of value of television programmes drew upon an established hierarchy of television genres and an image of the kinds of audiences that various kinds of programmes attracted; almost all participants placed themselves in the audience of quality programming, but understanding of quality differed

Seinfeld placed on a scale of sophisticated versus mass or low culture American television and labelled as sophisticated scale that contrasted all British programs as sophisticated with all American programs as low culture, and Seinfeld was therefore deemed low culture expectation that it would be a poorly made, low culture product

constructed categories of audiences who would likely watch the different categorization s of programs within their framework

more Canadian participants were comfortable in expressing membership in the Seinfeld audience, since it was perceived to be a relatively distinguished group - young, intelligent, urban professional fewer Dutch participants admitted to being a part of the Seinfeld audience; audience seens as having low level of education, and an associated lower income and a somewhat less cultured taste

Expressions of Domestic Context compared the level of funding that their domestic broadcasting systems receive to the levels of financing in Hollywood and criticized the quality of the programs made in their own countries

focused discussion of their public broadcasting system on the issue of the representation of their national culture; considered television to be an arena in which negotiating a national identity is possible; considred that television and national identity have some relevant relationship did not relate the issue of domestic public broadcasting to the representation of their cultural icons

saw television as involved with other issues

Ien Ang

Angs study (185) is of forty-two letters she received from Dallas viewers in response to an ad. she put in a magazine. Her respondents were not necessarily fans, indeed some claimed to think Dallas was rubbish, but watched it anyway. Its interesting that quite a few of Yanishs respondents prefaced their comments by asserting that they didnt watch television much, but in many cases betrayed during the discussions considerable familiarity with the conventions of the sitcom genre. It would be interesting in itself to discover just how many avid television viewers claim not to watch TV much.

Personally, I tend not to watch any kind of serial because it would irritate me to have to watch again at a certain time, though I was once a keen Doctor Who fan. I tend to enjoy programmes like Police, Camera, Action and Youve Been Framed. For non-British readers, I should explain that the first of these is a half-hour programme featuring clips from police squad car videos and the second features a series of clips from home video tapes, mostly of people tripping over their dog, falling into the swimming pool and so on. I am quite prepared to admit that these are rubbish, tabloid television, so I ask myself why I watch them rather than getting on with something useful, edifying or whatever. One reason is certainly that they fit my schedule. By the time they come on in the evening, I need a rest, so its quite pleasant to be able to flop down on the couch and watch something completely brainless, the ritualistic of TV. (The distinction between instrumental and ritualistic use is discussed elsewhere. Incidentally, this flopping in front of the TV induces a pretty peculiar state in that it can be

a metabolic state unique to TV watching. Temperature, pulse rate and muscle tension go down so much that a truly focused TV watcher is soon in the extraordinary position of burning about 1 per cent fewer calories than if he or she were doing nothing at all.

Bodanis (17)

I think another reason is that I enjoy my amazement at the incredibly stupid behaviour people can display. I dont feel a sense of superiority in that, indeed I often recognize myself in those behaviours. Rather, its just the sheer amazement I enjoy. For the same reason, I think, I used to enjoy watching Tomorrows World, a lightweight half-hour programme showcasing the wonders of modern technology. Its this kind of rather vaguely defined pleasure in the viewing experience which Ang sets out to investigate.

Dallas and pleasure

Ang starts her study by stating her intention to attempt to discover what it is that makes Dallas-watching a pleasurable experience. She makes clear at the outset that the dour Marxist theorists approach to the enjoyment of mass media with its gloom and angst over the proletariat being duped by the culture industries is an approach which she views as one-sided. On the other hand the pleasure which audiences take in watching TV products is not something entirely natural and automatic; the producers must work from the basis of a certain confidence that their own definition of what is pleasurable will coincide with the viewers definition. From the viewers point of view,

What matters is the possibility of identifying with [the object of pleasure] in some way or other, to integrate it into everyday life. In other words, popular pleasure is first and foremost a pleasure of recognition. But what do Dallas-lovers recognize in Dallas?

(185 0)

That is the question she sets out to answer.


Part of the pleasure derived from viewing Dallas is simply due to its function as entertainment - the right to flop out in your own living room and be entertained. Part of the pleasure derives from Dallass special place within the flow of television (for comments on flow see the section on Hermes). Part of the pleasure derives from the pressures on commercial TV to take account of the audiences preferences. This does not mean that the audience has to consume what it is given in a passive way. Once it has been given Dallas, it starts playing with it.

Dallas as text

Dallas is a text which the viewers have to read in order to derive meanings from it. The possible readings they may derive are constrained by the use of certain conventions which audience members are already familiar with, for example a music track, titles, the presentation of characters one after another, all of which distinguish it from, say, a documentary.


It is a necessary precondition for the involvement of viewers that they should be able to see the characters as real people. Ang notes that those of her respondents who like Dallas write about the characters just as we would comment on a real person, i.e. in terms of character traits etc. Nearly all respondents, whether they are positively or negatively oriented towards Dallas comment on the genuineness of the characters and judge them accordingly, though in all cases it is quite clear that they are well aware they dealing with fictional characters. this criterion of genuineness seems to be the necessary prerequisite for involvement in Dallas.

Empiricist conception of realism

The world these genuine-seeming characters inhabit must also be realistic. Some viewers comment that Dallas is unrealistic, others find it realistic. In a simplistic sense of course it is unrealistic - would these people who are constantly feuding really continue to live in the same house? are there really that many plane crashes, accidents, weird diseases etc? So do we say that those viewers who perceive it as realistic are suffering from false consciousness? Ang criticizes what she refers to as this empiricist conception of realism, firstly because it simply overlooks the fact that any text is a selection from, a processing of, the real world

[T]here can never be any question of an unproblematic mirror relation between text and social reality at most it can be said that a text constructs its own version of the real


Realistic illusion

Secondly, it will not do simply to dismiss as dupesthose viewers who do find it realistic. Ang explains this by use of the notion of realistic illusion. The presentation suppresses its constructedness. She refers here to Colin McCabes explanation of such a classic realistic text giving pleasure by enabling us to deny the textuality and the fictional nature of a film and forget it, just enjoying its transparent narrativity. However, Angs research suggests that this in itself is insufficient. Viewers are not only concerned with the transparency of the narrative. What is told in the narrative must also play a part in the production of pleasure.

Emotional realism - the tragic structure of feeling

It seems quite clear that many of Angs respondents do not perceive Dallas as realistic on the simple denotative level. However, if the programme is read at the connotative level, the people, relations and situations can be seen as entirely recognizable, while at the denotative level they continue to be seen as unrealistic. (If you are uncertain about these terms, see the section on meaning under denotation and connotation, as well as the section on semiotics.) Thus Ang concludes that the two notions of realism discussed above are inadequate to an understanding of her respondents pleasure in viewing Dallas

For however much the two approaches are opposed to one another - for the [empiricist conception of realism] realism is a token for a good text, and for [classical realism] for a bad text - in both a cognitive-rationalistic idea dominates both are based on the assumption that a realistic text offers knowledge of the objective social reality. According to the empiricist-realists a text is realistic (and therefore good) if it supplies adequate knowledge of reality, while in the second conception a classic-realist text is bad because it only creates an illusion of knowledge. But the realism experience of the Dallas fans quoted bears no relation to this cognitive level - it is situated at the emotional level what is recognized as real is not knowledge of the world, but a subjective experience of the world a structure of feeling.


This structure of feeling is what Ang refers to as the tragic structure of feeling, tragic in that happiness is perceived as precarious, always endangered. Emotions occupy a central place in such a structure of feeling.

Fiske draws attention to the playfulness of this viewing attitude which sees the characters as simultaneously real and unreal Ang, Hobson and Tulloch and Moran all found evidence of fans belief in the reality of the represented characters, but also found that the women knew what they were doing when they made this confusion. It was a playful, controlled self-delusion that increased their pleasure, and put them in a position of greater power within the process of representation. It also enhanced TVs intersection with their oral culture.

Play of this sort is a form of empowerment because it devolves the final stage of the process of representation to the subordinate. This power may not in itself be oppositional or radical, but it is, at the very least, the power to be different.

Fiske (187b)

The melodramatic imagination

The subtitle of Angs Watching Dallas is soap opera and the melodramatic imagination. This relates to Tania Modleskis comparison of soaps with nineteenth century melodrama, rather than with the nineteenth century realist novel, melodramas main concern being with stirring up emotions. Ang is careful to avoid the standard condemnations of melodrama on the basis of bourgeois literary values which are inappropriately applied to popular genres. Some of the characteristics of soaps which Ive mentioned above are also characteristics of melodrama, except that, as Modleski point out, soaps never have a resolution, an ending. Ang draws on Modleskis emphasis on the prevalence of the so-called hermeneutic code in soaps. The term is drawn from Barthes analysis (170) of a story by Balzac

Let us call hermeneutic code all of those units whose function is to articulate, in various ways, a question, the answer to it and the various accidents which may either prepare the question or delay the answer to it; or to formulate a puzzle and bring about its solution.


Hence the paradoxical nature of the textual dynamic, which is, in Barthess words, a static dynamic (75). The soap opera viewer is thus in an unusual position when compared with viewers of other narratives which promise eventual resolution of the plot

in soap opera it is precisely the tragic knowledge of the holding off of an end satisfactory to all the characters which is the basis for narrative pleasure

Ang (185) 75

The soap world is entirely ambiguous in that the personal is all-prevailing and yet at the same time no individual is free to construct his or her own life history. This is especially clear to the viewer because, whilst the characters live their own lives without necessarily being in touch with any of the other characters, the viewer is aware of everything thats going on. The melodramatic soap is not high-flown Greek tragedy, but rather a means of expressing the ordinary pain of living in the modern welfare-state, ... the vague sense of loss, which is not ordinarily recognized as tragedy at all and therefore so rarely expressed.

The ideology of mass culture

Dallas haters

Ang makes some interesting comments on the ideology of mass culture, by which she means the widespread view that mass culture is lowbrow entertainment and therefore bad, a view which she says has become an official aversion to American television series. Despite the fact that cultural studies theorists often criticize the argument of crude economic determinism which supposedly forces these series to address the lowest common denominator in audience tastes, the core of the theory still tend sto be accepted. A number of respondents are clear Dallas haters, who rely on this representation of mass culture to be vehemently critical in the views they express. If such viewers are angrily critical of the commercialism, the stereotyping, the sensationalism of Dallas, then one might wonder why they watch it. Ang suggests it gives them a sense of security in that the categories they use to condemn it enable to legitimize their dislike, the ideology of mass culture fulfilling a comforting and reassuring role

it makes a search for more detailed and personal explanations superfluous, because it provides a finished explanatory model that convinces, sounds logical and radiates legitimacy


The ironical viewing attitude

It is not the case, though, that acceptance of the ideology of mass culture necessarily leads to hating the programme. Several respondents indicated that they accepted the ideology whilst at the same time greatly enjoying watching. They resolved the apparent paradox by adopting the ironical viewing attitude. It is also the case that melodrama is always particularly vulnerable to an ironic stance, the melodrama only working if the viewer identifies with the excessive world of the soap.

Loving Dallas

Dallas fans themselves are also not unaware of the ideology of mass culture, but they react to the pressures of the ideology neither by hating Dallas nor by adopting an ironical viewing attitude. They react by defending themselves from the ideology using a range of strategies, though ultimately their problem is that they do not have a countervailing ideology with which to defend themselves by presenting a negative image of those who hate or mock Dallas. At best they can only try to defend themselves against the negative image which is presented to them of themselves they can easily be reduced to silence because they can literally find no words to defend themselves.

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