Television as Popular Culture Essay

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‘Television’ describes a physical device, a cultural system, and a labor process that brings the two together and embeds them in the daily experience of half the world’s population. ‘Popular’ signifies of, by, and for the people, offering transcendence through pleasure ommunication). ‘Culture’ signifies everyday customs and tastes. In the humanities, popular television texts are evaluated by criteria of quality and politics, understood through criticism and history. The social sciences focus on television viewers ethnographically, experimentally, and statistically. ‘Popular culture’ relates to markets. Neo-classical economics assumes that expressions of the desire and capacity to pay for services animate entertainment and hence determine what is ‘popular.’

People had long fantasized about transmitting images and sounds. TV has its own patron saint, Clare of Assisi, a teen runaway from the thirteenth century who was canonized in 1958 for imagining a midnight mass broadcast on her wall. In 1935, Rudolf Arnheim predicted that television would bring global peace, but also warned that “television is a new, hard test of our wisdom.” The emergent medium’s easy access to knowledge would either enrich or impoverish its viewers, manufacturing an informed public, vibrant and active – or an indolent audience, domesticated and passive (Arnheim 1969, 160–163).

Ever since the Industrial Revolution, anxieties have existed about urbanized populations vulnerable to manipulation by images and demagogues through the popular. This is spectacularly the case with television. The notion of the suddenly enfranchised being bamboozled by the unscrupulously fluent has recurred throughout the modern period. It leads to an emphasis on the number and conduct of television audiences: where they came from, how many there were, and what they did after being there. These audiences are conceived as empirically knowable, via research instruments derived from sociology, demography, psychology, communications, and marketing. Such concerns are coupled with a concentration on content. Texts are also conceived as empirically knowable, via research instruments derived from communications, sociology, psychology, and literary criticism.

TV has given rise to three key topics in research: (1) ownership and control, (2) texts, and (3) audiences, with the question of the audience, and the knowledge that it has or that it lacks, as the governing discourse. Approaches to ownership and control vary between neo-liberal endorsements of limited regulation by the state, in the interests of guaranteeing market entry for new competitors, and Marxist critiques of the bourgeois media’s control of the agenda for discussing society. Approaches to textuality either unearth the meaning of individual programs and link them to broader social formations and problems or establish patterns across significant numbers of similar texts. Approaches to audiences vary between social-psychological attempts to validate correlations between watching TV and social conduct, and culturalist critiques of imported television threatening national culture.

There are several models of the impact of television on popular culture. Most reception studies assume that audience members risk abjuring either interpersonal responsibility (in the US) or national culture (in the rest of the world). The domestic effects model (DEM), dominant in the US and increasingly exported around the world, is typically applied without consideration of place and is psychological. Entering young minds hypodermically, TV can both enable and imperil learning and drive viewers to violence.

The other key formation is a global effects model (GEM), primarily utilized in non-US discourse. Whereas the DEM focuses on individual human subjects, via observation and experimentation, the GEM looks to customs and patriotism. Instead of measuring audience responses to TV electronically or behaviorally, the GEM interrogates the geopolitical origin of televisual texts and the themes and styles they embody.

A third tendency endorses the audience as active rather than passive: consumers who use TV like an appliance, choosing what they want from its programming, and interpreters who use it to bring pleasure and sense to their lives. The television audience supposedly makes its own meanings, outwitting institutions of the state, academia, and capital that seek to measure and control it.


  1. Arnheim, R. (1969). Film as art. London: Faber and Faber.
  2. Miller, T. (2010). Television: The basics. London: Routledge.

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