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Ideology and the Mass Media Essay

How useful is the concept of ideology for media analysis? Discuss in relation to soap operas?

Ideology as a sociological term has been interpreted in many different ways. But the following is an approximate definition of the term: Any system of beliefs, values and habits that are based on a particular political or religious school of thought. Media in general and Television in particular has always been used to propagate ideologies. Although the word “ideology” has come to carry negative connotations, the propagated ideas need not necessarily detrimental to the well-being of the audience. A very good example of this positive use of ideology is the British government run propaganda machinery during the First World War. As the strength of the British army grew weak in confronting an imposing German hostility, the military administration had to resort to Conscription as a means of restoring its strength. But a glimpse at the history of media in the backdrop of public administration and consumerism will show that the positive application of ideological propaganda is an exception than the rule.

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Almost every known media type is susceptible to ideological undercurrents, whether as a result of design or accident. The Television as a medium of communication and entertainment allows sophisticated application of ideological persuasion. It has to be remembered that television is a product of the twentieth century. The centuries prior to its invention were not devoid of prevalent ideologies or their imposition on the masses. However, the imposition of the desired set of beliefs and habits were achieved through brute force. These centuries saw colonialism at its peak; and where imperialism exists violence follows. But the twentieth century is different in that empires were giving way to independent republics, especially after the Second World War. Soap Operas, which form the bulk of cultural programming, are truly representative of the rest of the electronic media. A careful study of soap operas helps us understand media in general and media’s role as vehicles of ideological propaganda in particular (History Today, 10).

The soap operas serve as vehicles of ideology in two different ways. The more obvious way is through advertisements and sponsorship. Advertisements are essentially messages to the target audience as to what is good for them, what is it they should aspire for, what it that will gain them respect, etc., is. Of course, the process is not based on force but manipulation and exploitation. In a study conducted by Cynthia Frisby for the Journal of Advertising Research, the relationship between male psychology and consumption patterns were studied in the context of soap operas. The results show that every advertisement is an exercise in exploiting the male psychology. This fact in and of itself might not be anything new, but there is one aspect of advertisements that don’t find a place in public discourse. Psychology being a social science, is inherently imperfect. And the basic theories are not universally applicable to everyone. In that case, there is “no one way of life” that is deemed psychologically healthy. But advertisements try to inculcate into the viewer ideas and beliefs about “the ideal life”. In other words, an objective belief system (ideology) is stated as the means of achieving a highly subjective experience (Frisby, 57).

It is possible that soaps help maintain the existing social order by catering to the fantasies of the viewers. In other words, the soap operas might instruct women to the kind of power they are allowed to have. Such perspectives are seen in other target audience as well. Women’s dislike of the talk-show genre seems to imply that when faced with a bleak reality the viewers are put off and lose enthusiasm for the subject (Frisby, 57).

While the general population of any country seems to take a centrist stand in their political beliefs, this is not always reflected in the media portrayals. The most prominent case is the right wing dominance of giant media houses in the United States. As a result their conservative political ideology gets portrayed in the programs they produce. While the United States is a prime example, many other markets fall under this category. For example, let us take the soap opera East Enders (a British production), which is a very popular soap opera viewed across all sections of society. The serial deals with such topics as fidelity, paternity and inter-personal relationships (New Scientist, 37). An assessment of the frequency with which inappropriate inter-personal conduct is depicted in the production is lower than the corresponding real figures. While 0.35 percent of the male population commits rape in a year, the corresponding figure for East Enders is 0.30. Similarly, while 9 percent of surveyed women admitted being unfaithful to their partners, the incidence of such behavior in East Enders is only two percent. Men visiting a prostitute constitute 4.3 percent of the British population, but a miniscule 0.18 percent is the figure derived from the soap opera footage. (Burrell, 148)

So, how does ideology related to the above statistical pattern? The conservative owners of leading media houses want to “preach” their viewers what is good conduct and what is not. The way they do it is by “showing” what acceptable conduct is. While the moral merits of their beliefs are irrelevant to the essay, their role as the moral custodians of society is highly objectionable. The worrying aspect of this subtle coercion of values into the citizenry is that the viewers are not even aware of it, which makes them vulnerable to ideological indoctrination.

The portrayal of crime and violence is also subject to ideological manipulation. For example,

“Television crime dramas are part of the media presentation of crime and criminals, and they represent an element in the construction of reality about crime by the viewing public. A review of the portrayal of homicide in TV crime dramas is not completely consistent with the official data. An adequate explanation of cause, beyond the plot motive, is lacking in the dramatic portrayal of homicide. Viewing audiences are left with plot motives to explain homicides, and plot motives often legitimize crime fighting proposals and placement of responsibility consistent with an individually oriented explanatory ideology.” (Fabianic, 196)

It is common knowledge that most people watch soap operas to connect emotionally with the characters and in the process having a cathartic experience. In fact, soap opera producers and advertisers alike have exploited this aspect of human psychology for commercial gains. From the way in which visual and aural information is presented to the audience, a desired consumerist response could be elicited. The soap opera producers and sponsors tap into the “processing of a fear-appeal message following emotional programming” (Potter, 72). In other words, the viewers are sold concepts favorable to a consumerist ideology at such moments in the soap opera’s sequence that would have made the viewer soft and vulnerable. Explains the mechanism of ideological persuasion (in this case a consumerist one) in soap operas,

“…the two motivational systems–appetitive/approach and aversive/avoid–were activated by a light comedy and a “tearjerker” movie, respectively. Overly arousing material is not necessary to have an impact on the processing of subsequent persuasive messages. This lends itself to several practical implications. For example, media buyers for social-marketing campaigns are advised to place fear appeals that generate high-tension energy through aversive activation–in programming where even slightly negative content may be expected. Such programs might include sad or emotion-laden movies, daytime dramas, daytime talk shows (e.g., Montel, Maury Povich), and some news programs.” (Potter, 72)

In light of such manipulative elements behind soap operas, it is not surprising those viewers for such programming had decreased steadily. In spite of the fact that most viewers of soap operas are women who are loyal to their program of choice, the decline seems inevitable. With a wider range of choices offered them by the Internet, people seeking entertainment programming finally have a say on “what they really want to see” as opposed to “what is imposed upon them”. This also explains the non-mainstream genre of digital content, which includes web-casts, program downloads, video on demand, etc. In other words, the equation has changed in favor of the consumer of entertainment content.

National Broadcasting Corporation is in the process of developing a path-breaking soap opera – Generations. This soap opera deals with such sensitive topics as inter-racial interaction. The program also portrays a realistic picture of the chronically and terminally ill members of their society and tries to give the viewer a peek into the psychology of the physically ailing. So, in essence, the soap is not based on light subjects like romance or comedy, but on a more meaningful and relevant subject. In the words of John Winther, the chief executive producer of the series All My Children, “Black people have a life and interact with whites. They have the same American dream as anyone else-a home and a family and a picket fence. Generations has to go in new directions. It has a broad appeal. We’re going after a new audience” (Marcus, 350)

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