Cultivation Theory: Creating Perceptions of Life from Reality Television
University of Colorado at Boulder
The information and ideas that people receive on a daily basis are the foundation for their own personal outlook on life. Today, these formations of reality are not all too unique or personal though, because so much of our information is obtained from television shows with heavily mainstreamed ideas and stereotyped characters. George Gerbner’s “Cultivation Theory” has to do with the idea that television has the power to shape our perceptions of reality and the world around us by affecting our attitudes and certain ways of thinking. Gerbner, a well-known communication theorist, and co-authors brought together information and supporting evidence from his Cultural Indicators research to write an article in the Journal of Communication, titled “The ‘Mainstreaming’ of America: Violence Profile No. 11." Through message system analysis, the annual monitoring of specific daytime and prime-time dramatic television programming, and cultivation analysis, the analysis of viewer perceptions in correlation with themes present in the television world, he was able to further elaborate onto the concepts of “mainstreaming” and “resonance.” To get a clearer grasp of how television affects different people, Gerbner broke viewers down in to three categories: light, moderate, and heavy viewers.
Through various experiments he discovered that, despite their race or socioeconomic class, people who viewed more television, had more mainstreamed and homogenous views and perceptions that converged with those represented on television shows. One example of this is that heavy viewers from all income categories believed that "fear of crime is a very serious personal problem,” while the opinions of light viewers varied depending on their incomes. He attributes this to the fact that light viewers not only do not accept all the nuanced messages from television, but also receive information and create ideas through different outlets. On the other hand, Gerbner discovered that these heavy viewers did receive most of their information from television, so generally within these groups, “differences deriving from other factors and social forces may be diminished or even absent” (Gerbner 1980).
He then explained resonance, another important aspect to his cultivation theory, as the pertinent ideas and themes on television that hold relevance for viewers. These themes “resonate” with them and reinforce ideas that the viewer already holds, in a way giving them a “double dose” of the message and further strengthen their perceptions. If they can relate an experience in their lives with one that they see on television the cultivation of this message would be stronger and they would come to believe that this experience is a very real and common one. These different aspects all join together to form Gerbner’s Cultivation Theory and explain the many important ways that television shapes, influences, and reinforces viewer’s perceptions of social reality.
Application of Theory
Today, reality television is one of the highest grossing, fastest growing, and most popular genre of shows on the air and with hundreds of different types, it is almost impossible to turn on the television and not come across some kind of reality television. Although we have made huge accomplishments in the areas of civil rights and racism, many hurtful and damaging stereotypes still prevail and are reinforced to us through television shows in our daily lives.
This is especially true in the realm of reality television where people are specifically cast to fulfill certain stereotypical roles—the player, the sexy party girl, the girl next door, the gay/lesbian, the good black guy, the angry black guy, the smart Asian. It is easy to apply Gerbner’s Cultivation Theory to this idea because it analyzes the way the television both creates new and reinforces old perceptions of social reality. The reflection of stereotypes in reality television directly corresponds with Gerbner’s idea of the “double dose” because “in the process of struggle and negotiation over the meanings of race, we make sense of it in ways that reinforce or correspond to our own social and cultural reality” (Bell-Jordan 2008). Because of this, our conception of what it is like to be black, white, Asian, Mexican, is constantly being re-emphasized, homogenized, and mainstreamed. For these certain racial groups this leads to both a lack of equal opportunity, a narrow sense of identity, and restrictive feelings about what they may able to accomplish.
In these shows, it is important that the people who are cast fulfill their stereotypical roles or else they come across as inauthentic or invalid. They seek an authentic identity yet, it is obvious that “expectations of ‘authenticity’ are raced and gendered,” (Squires 2008) for example, creating a tension for a black participant on a primarily white reality television show. A good example of this comes from MTV’s The Real World: Denver when “the ‘angry Black man’ and the ‘reasonable Black man’ are pitted against each other” (Bell-Jordan 2008) in an argument over authenticity of blackness. This is particularly difficult to negotiate for participants when the most popular idea of “blackness” comes from the depictions of blacks on the popular VH1 show Flavor of Love. The women on this show truly reinforce every different negative stereotype of black womanhood, so when we combine this with other prejudices of past stereotypes we have obtained, the conception that this is a realistic and holistic depiction of what it is like to be black inevitably arises. On many seasons of The Real World, we also see several instances of scripted displays of “racial conflict,” thrusting together rural whites and suburban blacks in “entertaining” displays of ignorant behavior. Gerbner’s Cultivation Theory leads us to believe that as a viewer engages in more and more of these reality television shows, our notions about people of different races will be less unique and widespread and these negative, unfair notions will be cemented in our minds as genuine fact.
Now it is clear that entertainment and ratings are the main priorities for show creators, but the entertainment they create goes beyond satire and reasserts harmful ideas that unfairly categorize people on the basis of ethnicity alone. So, while so many Americans naively believe that we are a nation who has overcome segregation, prejudice, and racism, we still tune in to watch television shows that are full of the same damaging stereotypes that hold back entire groups of people from the equal opportunity to create their own unique and personal identities. No matter the race, everyone has their own exclusive identities and the reinforcement of racial stereotyping clumps entire groups of people into restrictive categories despite their very different histories and life experiences. Doing this limits their options and causes people to hold pre-formed notions about these groups without ever even knowing them.
One of the main problems with the ideologies reflected through reality television has to do with the title, “reality television” itself. The term “reality television” purports to viewers that what they are about to see is a completely genuine and unbiased exposure of real life. So, it is subtly asserted that these participants, their actions, and the situations they get into arise naturally and are a reflection of themselves and, in turn, become a reflection of their race. But in fact, many reality television shows have scenarios, messages, and interactions that are entirely intentional and planned out. Instead of being honest depictions of real life, “by definition, they mediate, even when, or perhaps especially when, it is real life that is purportedly being revealed” (Bell-Jordan 2008). So as Gerbner’s study shows us that the more people watch television the more it shapes and controls their perception of social life, we struggle with the truly unreal depictions in “reality” television and the way that they presents racial stereotypes as authentic symbolisms of an entire race as a whole.
Gerbner’s Cultivation Theory is immensely useful in the study of the impact that the ideologies representation through television have on public opinion and perceptions. It is a truly helpful tool for understanding our public formations of so many various, universally held ideologies and links them to a realistic and relevant source. By applying this theory we able to see through the countless, subtle messages which lead to a common alignment of our outlooks and views, and in this case, represent race in a way lacks that’s depth and diversity.
However, his theory fails to recognize the several other important media outlets where many people receive vast amounts of their information from, and only recognizes dramatic daytime and prime-time television shows. These other outlets include the news, newspapers advertisements, commercials, magazines, radio, music, movies, documentaries, and several other sources. While many of these outlets do also reinforce negative racial stereotypes—like advertisements, commercials, and movies—many other sources provide millions of people with far more objective, accurate information on a daily basis. Gerbner’s study focuses on the amount of time people watch television but does not take into account the many heavy viewers who are constantly tuned into CNN or The Discovery Channel, taking generous amounts of current, factual information that is usually without any racial or stereotypical backing or motivation. The things we learn form television shows and sitcoms are often only a small piece of our perceptions of social reality and there are several other important tools that provide major contributions.
On top of this, we are truly living in a country that continues to become more and more diverse and integrated. More people are lucky enough to have the opportunity to interact with people from all different races, religions, and classes. Because of this many people have become more open-minded and are gaining well-rounded, insightful ideas about race and our social world making it easy to watch these television shows and dismiss many of the false representations we know to be inaccurate and restrictive. So although, Gerbner’s Cultivation Theory provides us with a wonderful means of analyzing the social constructions of reality, a broader outlook on other contributing factors would make it more accurate and relevant.
Bell-Jordan, K.E. (2008). Black, white, and a survivor of The Real World: Constructions of race on reality TV. Critical Studies in Media Communication, 25, 353–372.
Gerbner, G., Gross, L., Morgan, M., & Signorielli, N. (1980). The mainstreaming of America: Violence profile no. 11. Journal of Communication, 10-25.
Squires, C. (2008). Tryin' to make it real—but real compared to what? Critical Studies in Media Communication, 25, 434–440.