Getting the Message Differently – The Audience of the Soap Opera and the News

Abstract

Virtually all aspects of our lives are saturated by the media, which includes the news and soap operas. This essay focuses not only on the messages of these texts, but on the complex and nuanced ways the audience gets the message of these texts. Although the audience of news and the audience of soap operas get the message in the same general way through culture, the news audience and soap audience each get the message differently in more specific ways through schemata and connotative realism, respectively. It is useful to compare the way audiences retell, interact with, and perceive different texts because it adds insight and richness to the literature regarding the dynamism between readers as audiences and texts as cultural artifacts.

Do audiences ‘get the message’ in the same way for news and soap operas?

I want to give the audience a hint of a scene. No more than that. Give them too much and they won’t contribute anything themselves. Give them just a suggestion and you get them working with you…it becomes a social act.

– Orson Welles

While gratificationists only study the audience, the students of texts look solely at the scene, as it were, and ascribe all effects on texts. These extremes are being discarded for a growing interest in the dynamism between readers and texts (Liebes and Katz, 1993). This convergence entails an active viewer who is involved in the process of his/her understanding of a text. ‘Getting the message’ is thus a negotiation between the text and the reader and how the reader retells the story reveals how this process works (Liebes and Katz, 1993, p. 68).

In order to explore the way the audience gets the message, it is useful to compare the way audiences retell, interact with, and perceive different texts. Does the audience of news, for example, negotiate meaning with the text differently than does the audience of the soap opera? How are the two audiences similar in the way they understand the texts? Does the soap opera audience utilize certain tools in conceptualizing soaps that news audiences do not use? How do they retell the story differently? These two genres attract these sorts of questions because they not only implicate the significant amount of people that consume them, but much has been attributed to their escapism, truths (or non-truths), and ultimately, their alleged influence and agency (or lack thereof). Therefore, it is useful to ask: Do audiences ‘get the message’ in the same way for news and soap operas? Exploring such a question through a research paper is an attempt to reinforce or contradict popular and anecdotal attributions to the power of the news and soap operas while adding nuance and insight to each genre’s relationship with its audience.

Although the audience of news and the audience of soap operas get the message in the same general way through culture—which is broadly defined as an individual’s constructs of meaning (Carveth, 1992)—the news audience and soap audience each get the message differently in more specific ways through schemata and connotative realism, respectively. In order to make this argument, the first part of the essay uses Hall’s frameworks and empirical evidence from (1) Griffith, (2) Morley, and (3) Gillespie to prove that culture is broadly used to get the message by both soap opera and news audiences. The second part of the essay uses key theorists such as (1) Neuman, (2) Ostertag, and (3) Philo to argue that the news audience gets the message more specifically through schemata. Thirdly, this essay shows that the soap opera audience gets the message specifically through the soap opera’s connotative realism using “Coronation Streetand empirical evidence from Miller’s audience study.

Culture: Getting the message in the same way for news and soap opera audiences

The dog in the film can bark but it cannot bite.

- Hall, 1980, p. 130

The news and soap opera audiences are similar in that they both get the message by utilizing culture (Harrington and Bielby, 1995). Media’s constructs of meaning are offered to audiences, who, in turn, incorporate these constructs with their own (Gamson and Modigliani, 1989 in McQuail, 2005). Meanings are thus constructed by the audience vis-à-vis a negotiation between the media’s ‘framed images of reality’ and the audience’s own vision of reality (McQuail, 2005, p. 461; Carveth, 1992). Their vision of reality is shaped largely by ideology, values, psychology, traditions, assumptions, experience, social etiquette, socio-economic status, and discursive practice (Hall, 1980; Allen, 1985; Griffiths, 1995; Corner, 1996), all of which are attributed broadly to culture (Liebes and Katz, 1993). Culture is thus defined broadly as an individual’s constructs of meaning (Carveth, 1992).

For example, the way the respondents in Griffiths’s study of “Pobol Y Cwm”—a Welsh language soap opera—get the message is by measuring the show’s realism with their cultural and social institutions. All respondents, who are Welsh students, believe “Pobol Y Cwm” to be both realistic and positive in its representation of Welsh people; therefore, the adjective ‘natural’ is commonly used to describe the show: ‘They lead a more natural life, the Welsh’; ‘It’s all natural’; ‘It would lose its naturalness-there’s nothing false about it’ (Griffiths, 1995, p. 92). With the acceptance of the soap opera as natural and therefore boding well with Welsh culture, it is not surprising then that the most-discussed episode is the ‘invasion’ of Rob Unsworth, an English character, ‘arrogant in his ways’, who moves his family into Wales (Griffiths, 1995, p. 93). This narrative reinforces Welsh cultural apprehensions: respondents use their experiences of English families moving into Welsh communities with the inevitable harmful effect on local churches and the Welsh language (Griffiths, 1995). Furthermore, the students’ Welsh nationalism and education suggest an anti-imperialist reading (Griffiths, 1995). One respondent says,

[Rob] just come in from England so he thinks that the English are better than the Welsh. He just thinks he can rule our country…Really, the English are being very selfish and cheeky coming into Wales because they’re coming into Wales to try and turn it into England. The Irish don’t do it, the Scots don’t do it and the Spanish don’t do it—why the English? (Griffiths, 1995, p. 93)

The respondents’ readings of “Pobol Y Cwm” is clearly what Hall calls ‘negotiated’ (1980, p. 137); when there is a mixture of adaptive and oppositional elements that is when the respondents easily accept the naturalness of the soap opera compared to their culture but also frame it against an anti-imperialist reading suggested by their Welsh acculturation. Thus, the utilization of culture by the audience to get the message is obvious when using Hall’s framework because the negotiated reading is partly the result of the audience’s culture.

Another example of the audience using culture to get the message can be found in the dominant and oppositional readings of Morley’s “Nationwide” audience and of Gillespie’s “The Mahabharata” audience. The former study consists of culturally/socioeconomically diverse group interviews watching the news and the latter study consists of an ethnographic study of a Hindu family watching a religious soap opera. Both audiences use their respective cultural frameworks to get the message. For example, the union groups experience an oppositional reading, or a contrary reading (Hall, 1980), when they watch “Nationwide” (Morley, 1992, p. 112). These groups see “Nationwide’s” presentation of management/union news as completely biased on the management’s side while groups in management actually interpret it the other way around (Morley, 1992). This array (and often, a contradiction) of interpretations is due to the difference between cultures that may limit and guide certain audience perceptions of the message.

On the other hand, it is the cultural specificity of the Dhani family’s viewing of “The Mahabharata” that shows how culture is used to shape how the general audience gets the message. In this case, the family’s viewing of the religious Hindi soap opera tends to sustain their traditional Hindu norms and values (Gillespie, 1995) so much that members of the Dhani family fully accept the ‘connotated meaning’ of the program and read the text through a dominant-hegemonic reading (Hall, 1980, p. 136). Accordingly, their specific decodings of the show’s message are in line with the dominant codes, or intended meaning, of the show (Morley, 1992, p. 115). They believe the message of the show to an extent that their viewing becomes devotional and ritualistic (Gillespie, 1995). For example, watching “The Mahabharata” becomes incorporated into religious observances: incense is lit, the audience (or devotees) cannot stand up and leave in the middle of the show, and only holy food can be eaten whilst watching (Gillespie, 1995). If Krishna appears on the show, Mrs. Dhani tells her children to make a salutation akin to worship at a temple (Gillespie, 1995). According to the mother, ‘it is as if Krishna were speaking directly to the viewer via the actor and television’ and such type of engrossed watching is believed to bring one closer to the gods (Gillespie, 1995, p. 363). Evidently, the family’s a priori acceptance of this soap opera as religious authority is a product of their world-view as Hindus. Therefore, these examples show that both audiences of the news and the soap opera use culture in a similar fashion in order to interpret the message.

Schemata: Getting the message is different for the news audience

To put it paradoxically, the event must become a ‘story’ before it can become a communicative event.

- Hall, 1980, p. 129

Although audiences use their culture to get the message in both news and soap operas, the news audience, unlike the soap opera audience, tends to get the message using something related to but more specific than culture. They use their conceptual schema, which is a frame with which the audience interprets a text (Kim, 2004; Eco, 1984; Kilborn, 1992). A schema is an amalgamation of social learning and cultural conditioning acquired since childhood onwards (Graber, 1988). This allows the audience to understand implication and inference, to draw in predictions, and to attribute causality, which is a process that facilitates the incorporation of new knowledge with pre-existing knowledge (Graber, 1988; Kilborn, 1992). News viewing is a way of feeling part of a reality outside what is personally experienced (Jensen, 1986; Carveth, 1992) but it is also presented in ‘isolated snippets’ that lack depth (Graber, 1988, p. 250). Thus, the news audience, specifically, needs to use schemata to make something meaningful out of this news (Graber, 1988). After all, people are not just ‘empty vessels’, poised to be filled with whatever the news says (Philo, 1993, p. 261). Instead, the news audience accepts, rejects, and negotiates with the incoming messages. Not surprisingly then, Neuman, Ostertag, and Philo have all found that people’s retelling of the news went far and beyond the reported news facts. Each discovers different frameworks of schemata that their respondents use to evaluate, convey, and interpret news information. In short, they find that the audience of news uses schemata to get the message.

Neuman argues that the news audience conceptualizes the news by using schemata such as what he terms as the morality frame. He finds that all interviewees discuss the news in terms of God, religious tenets, or values (Neuman, 1992). Hence, news stories about AIDS produce audience statements such as ‘homosexuality is against the law of man. It’s against the law of God’, and ‘it can be snuffed out if everybody lived by the Ten Commandments’ (Neuman, 1992, p. 73). The news stories they watch about AIDS do not mention God nor attach any moral judgment to homosexuality yet judgmental comments such as these are common in Newman’s audience (Newman, 1992) precisely because of the morality frame they use to perceive the news they watch. Similarly, Ostertag identifies three ‘lay theories’ that his audience uses as ‘blueprints’, which construct a meaningful social reality from the complicated information (or lack thereof) of the news (2010, p. 604). One of the lay theories Ostertag discovers is what he calls the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) sponsors’ perceived ideological interests. When his audience deems PBS ‘liberal’, it is based on the topics covered (Ostertag, 2010, p. 605). For example, although PBS coverage of climate change is seen as honest, thorough, and fair, climate change is viewed as a liberal topic in and of itself (Ostertag, 2010). This lay theory, therefore, provides a foundation on which the audience justifies their interpretations of the news’ political bias.

Correspondingly, Philo finds that the most profound factor in the way the audience gets the message is experience. His audience bases their retellings on the news story of the Miners’ strike of 1984-5 and how they perceive the ‘violence’ (or lack thereof) portrayed by the media, on experience with policemen or miners (Philo, 1993, p. 264). For instance, a female respondent’s retelling says, ‘serious disruption and fear was caused by the police today at the coal mines, as a result of them using arms and threatening behavior towards the pickets and the coal miners’ (Philo, 1993, p. 267). In order to come up with this retelling, she uses more than the reported facts that the news presents: she uses her experiences as (1) a critical viewer used to watching cases reported, to believe that the media tends to sensationalize; (2) a policeman’s daughter, to sympathize with the police but also know they can break the rules; and (3) a solicitor, to know what the police’s responsibilities actually are (Philo, 1993). Because of the audience’s schemata, whether they are manifested in Ostertag’s lay theories, Neuman’s frames, or Philo’s experiences, the audience includes in their understandings of the news items and concepts that went far and beyond the mere facts reported by the news. Thus, their audiences show that schemata shapes the way the news audience gets the message.

‘Realism’: Getting the message is different for the soap opera audience

A performance is true because it has a special relation to our feelings and our fantasies. It is familiar, and as its familiarity adds to its credibility, it seems genuine.

- Spence, 2005, p. 157 

Where the news audience uses their schemata, the soap opera audience uses the connotative realism—which is the deeper, implied meaning—of the soap opera to get the message. The backbone of the soap opera genre is personal relationships. That is they provide the dramatic moments that constitute the narrative, for example through quarrels, marriage, alliances, birth, dilemmas, death, or divorce (Geraghty, 1991). Because it is likely that viewers experience at least some of these things, the soap opera becomes didactic and relatable enough for the audience to form opinions and draw moral conclusions from it (Spence, 1995). This is not to say that the audience believes the fantastical world of the soap opera though; it is to say that the audience believes in its connotative realism (Ang, 1982). This means that the soap opera audience reads beyond the denotative level of the soap opera’s fantasy to its connotative, more meaningful and suggestive level. As one letter about “Dallas” to Ang reads:

The nice thing about the serial is that it has a semblance of humanity; it is not so unreal that you can’t relate to it anymore. There are recognizable things, recognizable people, recognizable relations and situations in it (Ang, 1982, p. 42).

In other words, the reality of “Dallas” is ‘emotional reality’ and the audience finds pleasure in this type of realism (Ang and Stratton, 1995, p. 128). The soap opera audience gets the message from this connotative realm.

An example of these connotative messages can be found in the way “Coronation Street” is read. For instance, the audience is invited to handle the courtship/marriage scenario countless times on the show. With the characters Ken and Deirde Barlow, the audience is compelled to ask: ‘what happens to a marriage if the husband is the local liberal conscience of the community and the wife lively, sociable and previously married to a ne’er-do-well?’ and with Alf and Audrey Roberts, the audience is obliged to ask ‘what if a stolid middle-aged grocer marries a flighty blonde with a dubious past?’ (Geraghty, 1991, p. 42). Questions such as these constantly arise in “Coronation Street” as well as any other soap opera—with different characters, scenarios, and possibilities. This allows the connotative meaning of the soap opera message to be received by a viewer who takes these ‘what if’ questions to heart (Geraghty, 1991) because although soap operas are fiction, they are connotatively about the world and therefore are believed by audiences to be true enough to warrant comparison to their own lives (Spence, 2005; Spence, 1995). Realistically, most of the audience has some form of the Barlows’ and Roberts’ trials and tribulations in their own relationships. Thus, through the soap opera’s connotative meanings, the audience gets the message by believing in the reality of the soap opera’s scenarios.

Miller’s study of Trinidadians watching “The Young and the Restless” is another example of the audience getting the message through the connotative meaning of a soap opera. One respondent totally ignores the frills of fashion, the exotic settings and the luxury that surrounds the characters in “The Young and the Restless” and focuses instead on the didactic nature of it: ‘people look at [the soap opera] because it is everyday experience for some people. I think they pattern their lives on it’ (Miller, 1995, p. 217). Another respondent similarly remarks on the way AIDS is dealt with on the show by saying that, ‘I find that was good, it’s educational especially to housewives’ (Miller, 1995, p. 218). Furthermore, a respondent notes that the soap opera ‘teaches you how husbands could lie and cheat and how a wife could expect certain things and never get it, the women always get the short end of the stick. You always go back to the first person you loved’ (Miller, 1995, p. 217). These comments, along with the absence of any mention of the superficial and outrageous aspects of the soap opera, show that Miller’s respondents get the message of “The Young and the Restless” through its connotative reality. The realism that Miller’s audience identifies has nothing to do with their environmental context as Trinidad looks nothing like the depictions in “The Young and the Restless”. The soap opera’s realism is thus based on universal lessons and truths that transcend the spatial context of the audience (Miller, 1995).

Conclusion: It becomes a social act

I read on, I skip, I look up, I dip again.

- Ang, 1982, p. 43

This essay shows that although the audience of news and the audience of soap operas get the message in the same general way through culture, the news audience and soap opera audience each get the message differently in more specific ways through schemata and connotative realism, respectively. To claim that the audience member habitually uses existing knowledge as a negotiating framework to get the message, as this essay has done, is to make the assumption that pre-existing knowledge is unmediated (Livingstone, 1996). However, virtually all aspects of our lives are saturated by the media, which includes the news and soap operas (Livingstone, 1996). This essay focuses on the messages of these texts. Does their pervasiveness translate into more than just viewer interpretations though—into something that can be called viewer action? Soap operas garner millions of avid followers and fans have been shown to use many tools to get the message. But how does this manifest itself in terms of what the audience actually does? Are viewers moved to donate to AIDS awareness when their favorite soap opera character dies of it? In the case of the news, does it create more than just discussion and interpretation of messages? Does the global news increase the audience’s concern and thus motivation to aid the ‘distant sufferer’ (Chouliaraki, 2008)? These questions spring from but are beyond the scope of this essay. One thing is for sure though: if this action can manifest itself, it would definitely be with the help of the mass media. Getting the message is one thing; acting upon it is a profound difference. And all it might take for the news and soap operas to compel us to do so is a ‘suggestion’ or ‘hint of a scene’. 

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