The Micro- and Macrodrama of Politics on Television: Effects of Media Format on Candidate Evaluations

By Bucy, Erik P.; Newhagen, John E. | Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, Spring 1999 | Go to article overview

The Micro- and Macrodrama of Politics on Television: Effects of Media Format on Candidate Evaluations


Bucy, Erik P., Newhagen, John E., Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media


Despite impeachment, Bill Clinton may be regarded as the most telegenic president of the era, owing in part to his uncommon ability to connect with viewers through the camera lens and to his skillful use of different media formats (Bennet, 1997; Purdum, 1998). During the 1992 campaign, candidate Clinton began experimenting with novel political communication settings -- talk shows and televised town meetings -- which allowed him to bypass the evaluative tenor of the national press corps and appeal directly to voters. While talk shows and televidse town meetings are generally regarded as beneficial to candidates, because they enable direct contact with citizens and diminish the interpretive role of journalists (Lemert, 1994; Luntz, 1994), an unanticipated consequence of these popular formats may have to do with the way they contextualize political actors and are processed by viewing audiences.

This study examines whether the social context and production features of different political communication formats affect the ways viewers assess and evaluate a candidate on television. Specifically, does a close-up interview bring an effective communicator such as Bill Clinton psychologically closer to individual viewers than formats which feature a mix of different camera shots and media actors, such as televised town meetings and political spots? For perspective on the effect of close-ups, this paper employs the insights of two theorists, Hungarian film critic Bela Balazs (1952), whose discussion on the use of camera technology and editing techniques in the early part of the century continues to drive film theory today, and Herbert Zettl (1989), whose concept of image graphication, particularly first- and second-order space in television news, stands as a fundamental principle of broadcast production.

The Microdrama

Shortly after the introduction of the motion picture, Balazs theorized that the unique features of motion picture technology, especially the use of close-ups, varied camera angles, and editing techniques, created a new psychological experience in audiences that went beyond live stage dramas. Balazs (1952) suggested that the close-up represented a microdrama in which the viewer engaged in the psychological act of identification with the person depicted on the screen, disconnected from the actor's surroundings on the stage. The close-up "isolated facial expression from its surrounding, penetrating a strange new dimension of the soul ... which could not otherwise be seen with the naked eye or in everyday life" (p. 65). Balazs said that "a single twitch of a facial muscle may express a passion for the expression of which a long sentence would be needed" (p. 72). The power of the human face as a vehicle for the expression of nonverbal communication has been documented in psychology through the repeated viewing and coding of the facial musculature by using film or video (Ekman, 1982).

Subsequent communication research has used the concept of identification with media actors in effects studies (Emery, 1959), persuasion and opinion change (Kelman, 1961), and parasocial interaction (Rosengren & Windahl, 1972). In the persuasion literature, identification has been defined as a socialpsychological process involving the assimilation and internalization of the values and social roles of another person, up to and including having a sense of "oneness" with that person (Kelman, 1961; Theodorson & Theodorson, 1979). Power in the identification process is presumed to stem from the influencing agent's perceived attractiveness (Kelman, 1961). In addition, particular shot types such as close-ups have been found to enhance identification with fictional characters in commercials (Galan, 1986). Identification in the viewing situation involves experiencing, to some degree, the feelings of the media character (Emery, 1959), although the experience may be transitory and exist "only during the fleeting moments of a mass media scene of heightened tension or relief" (Rosengren & Windahl, 1972, p. …

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