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TV Can Turn Public’s Dial

Research suggests entertainment programming on television can and does influence viewers' opinions on public policy issues.
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With its “If it bleeds, it leads” mentality, local television news has often been accused of feeding its viewers a skewed portrait of a dangerous, frightening world. But a different form of programming has been linked even more closely to fear of lawlessness.

When it comes to arousing anxiety, grim-faced anchors have nothing on Dennis Franz.

“Studies have found very clearly that watching NYPD Blue is a much better predictor than news consumption of whether you judge crime to be an important issue,” said R. Lance Holbert, an associate professor in the School of Communications at Ohio State University. “Reality-based programs like Cops also seem to stand out. The more you watch those programs, the more likely you are to be in favor of the death penalty, or the right to own a handgun.”

Such research suggests entertainment programming aimed at adults can and does influence public opinion, on subjects ranging from women’s rights to environmental protection. “These effects are fairly robust, and oftentimes larger than what we find relative to news,” Holbert said. “The news generally shows both sides of a given issue, whereas the same norms don’t apply to the dramas that cover these issues, such as Law and Order.”

The medium’s persuasive power has alarmed, among others, the American Academy of Pediatrics, which has demanded ABC cancel the premiere of the new dramatic series Eli Stone.

In the first episode, scheduled to air Jan. 31, a crusading lawyer sues a pharmaceutical company on behalf of the parents of an autistic child.

The attorney argues that the child’s condition was caused by a preservative that contaminated a vaccine the child received in his first year of life. The link between autism and such a preservative has been debated for years, but most scientists who have studied it are now convinced that it does not exist. A study in the September 2007 issue of The New England Journal of Medicine found no link between exposure to the vaccine and later developmental problems.

Renee Jenkins, president of the pediatricians’ organization, warned that the program “could lead to a dramatic decline in immunization rates,” adding that if that happens, ABC “will bear the responsibility for the needless suffering.” The network, presumably pleased with all the publicity, replied, “The storyline plays on topical issues for dramatic effect, but its purpose is to entertain.”

ABC also said it will run a disclaimer at the beginning of the show reiterating that the story is fictional and will direct viewers to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for more information.

Holbert feels the network, and the show’s creators, have a point. “Their imperative is to make you laugh or cry,” he said. “They do what they need to do in order to do that.”

In terms of influencing public opinion, he doubts the show will have much of an impact. If the storyline was ongoing, with the message being reinforced on a weekly basis, the influence could be significant. But a single episode “washes away pretty quickly,” he said.

Donna Rouner, a journalism professor at Colorado State University who has studied the persuasiveness of television programs, does not entirely agree. She reported that when audience members are provided with new information, and it is presented in a way that generates fear, “It can be very persuasive” — especially when the topic involves children.

Rouner agreed that the cumulative effect of a message conveyed over many weeks is no doubt more powerful than one conveyed in a single episode. But she added that one episode can change people’s beliefs and behaviors, citing a study of the sitcom Friends.

In a 2001 episode of that popular program, the Jennifer Aniston character got pregnant in spite of the fact her boyfriend used a condom. According to a Rand Corporation report, the message that condoms are not 100 percent effective registered strongly with teenagers, although those who discussed it with an adult were twice as likely to fully understand its implications.

Perhaps counterintuitively, the lack of preachiness in the comedy likely helped deliver a message. “Offering detailed arguments on television generally doesn’t work very well,” Holbert said.

So will parents swallow the provocative premise of Eli Stone, as the pediatricians fear? According to Holbert’s research, the credulity level of individual audience members depends upon their prior knowledge of the subject at hand, and their willingness to engage with a program intellectually, rather than just letting it wash over them.

“If your motivation and knowledge are both high, you’re much more likely to critically evaluate whether these arguments (presented within the program) are solid or not,” he said. “If you know there is no scientifically proven connection between vaccines and autism, you’ll discount what you hear and it will not be influential. But if you don’t, you may connect with a given character. You may say, ‘I really like that one lawyer. What he’s saying has some merit.’”

What’s more, for viewers who already have a negative view of drug companies, the show will serve “as a bit of reinforcement,” Holbert said. “Persuasion isn’t just about attitude change; it can be about reinforcing or strengthening attitudes. If you feel you are paying too much for your medicine, or for some other reason you just don’t like pharmaceutical companies, that show is going to resonate with you all the more.”

Holbert’s studies of The West Wing, Aaron Sorkin’s drama of life inside the White House, suggests some viewers transfer their feelings about fictional characters to corresponding figures in the real world. In effect, that critically acclaimed series “served as a public-relations message for the executive branch,” he said.

“We measured people’s perceptions of George W. Bush or Bill Clinton prior to watching a specific episode of The West Wing,” Holbert said. “After they watched it, they rated what they thought of Bush and Clinton. Their perceptions of both improved. They transferred the characteristics of the fictional President Bartlett to Bush or Clinton, and they thought a little bit better of them as a result.”

The West Wing is one of several series that, over the past five years, have included the president of the United States as a character. That program concluded with the election of the first Latino president (played by Jimmy Smits). A black actor, Dennis Haysbert, served as president for several seasons of 24. And Geena Davis played the first female president in the single-season series Commander in Chief.

Did these series ease the way for Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, by making the notion of a minority or female president easier to accept?

“Seeing people of different races in the role of president could directly or indirectly make the idea seem more plausible in the real world,” Holbert said. “On the other side, the fact the creators of that show made a choice to put someone other than a white male in that role suggests that they believed the audience was open to the idea.”

Rouner agreed, arguing that the fact these characters have been on television “suggests the culture is ready” for a minority or female head of state. Nevertheless, she added, actually seeing female and black actors in the role has probably reinforced that readiness.

“People have mental imagery in their heads about what a president ought to look like,” she said. “Before that show, there wasn’t an image of Geena Davis in there.”