Daytime Television Talk Shows and the Cultivation Effect among U.S. and International Students

Article excerpt

Cultivation analysis is one of the more influential research traditions that has examined the long-term effects of television viewing. The typical cultivation study begins by identifying the most recurrent and stable patterns in television content, emphasizing consistent images and portrayals. The next step generally consists of a survey that explores the extent to which television watching contributes to audience members' perceptions of the real world (Morgan & Shanahan, 1997).

One programming genre that seems a likely candidate for cultivation study is the daytime television talk show (such as those hosted by Jerry Springer, Jenny Jones, and Ricki Lake) that specializes in sensational topics. These shows have increased in popularity the last several years, and along with the increased popularity has come increased criticism about the sensationalized and outrageous nature of many of these programs. Donovan (1997) labeled them "carnival sideshows." Rubin and Step (1997) called them "cultural oddities," while White (1993) labeled them "warped and weird." These particular programs typically focus on relationship problems and behaviors that many in the audience find aberrant, bizarre, deviant, or, at best, unconventional. (1) Critics have suggested that these programs may have negative effects on viewers because, as Senator Joseph Lieberman (quoted in Alter, 1995, p. 47) put it, these shows "make the abnormal normal." By focusing on bizarre behaviors and dysfunctional relationships, these programs might prompt audience members to think that such behaviors are typical in the United States and, in turn, prompt more skeptical and negative judgments about human relationships in American society.

These criticisms take on added significance for foreigners living in the U.S. who have relatively little experience in their host society. As Tamborini and Choi (1990) point out, limited understanding of the culture of a host society, difficulties in language proficiency, and lack of direct contact with the lifestyles of the host society could result in social perceptions about the host society that are more easily influenced by stereotyped behavior contained in television programming. Consequently, it is possible that, when compared to U.S. residents (who might also hold stereotypical perceptions), foreigners who are heavy viewers of daytime television talk shows might be more apt to hold distorted perceptions and skeptical attitudes about interpersonal relationships and overestimate the frequency of certain deviant or not widely accepted behaviors in U.S. society.

Theoretic Background

Many studies of cultivation (see Morgan & Shanahan, 1997) have provided evidence of a small but persistent relationship between television viewing and beliefs about the social world that are similar to or plausibly implied by the images in television programs. Nonetheless, it is still unclear how this process occurs. Shrum and O'Guinn (1993) offer one possibility based on the "bin model" of memory (Wyer & Srull, 1989). This model suggests that the human memory resembles a file cabinet. When new information about a topic is acquired, a copy of that information is placed at the front of file. If asked to make a judgment about a particular topic, a person will use that information which is most accessible. Two factors, among others, contribute to the greater accessibility of information: frequency and recency. When a person retrieves information about the topic, the contents of the file are searched from the front to the back. Thus, information that has been frequently repeated and recently acquired has the best chance of being remembered. A person who regularly watches a large amount of television programming that presents a consistent view of a topic might group a large number of television images at the beginning of the file. When asked to make a judgment about social reality, these images may be the most accessible. …