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PONTIFICAL GREGORIAN UNIVERSITY


FACULTY OF SOCIAL SCIENCES

ESAME SCRITTO
THE USES AND GRATIFICATION THEORY IN RELATION TO
TELEVISION

Submitted to the Faculty of Social Sciences in partial fulfillment of the


requirements for the Degree of Licentiate in Social Sciences with
specialization in Social Communication.

STUDENT

BERNICE AGYEKWENA
154166

PROFESSOR
AUGUSTINE SAVARIMUTHU

ROME,
FEBRUARY, 2006
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THE USES AND GRATIFICATION THEORY IN RELATION TO TELEVISION

Introduction

For one to examine the ‘Uses and Gratification Theory with regards to

Television’, it is necessary to critically evaluate the theory as well as what is meant by

television in order to lay a solid foundation on how the theory relates to television. This

will enable the writer to assess how far the theory helps to study television audiences

with regards to the television viewing experience.

What is the Uses and Gratification theory?

This theory was first propounded in the 1940’s, was revived in 1974 by Blumler

and Katz and 1985 by Rosengren, Palmgreen, & Werner. It springs from a functionalist

paradigm of the social sciences since it presents media use in relation to the satisfaction

of psychological and social needs of the individual similar to ‘Maslow’s Hierarchy of

needs’.

The Uses and Gratification Theory (U&G) is one of several audience theories that

attempt to explain the role of the mass media from the point of view of the audience. It is

a major breakthrough in mass communication studies because it was the first theory to

envisage the audience not as passive and easily manipulated but active users of mass

mediated messages. Hence, it moved from the classical approach of the functionalist

theories of Harold Laswell1, Paul Lazersfeld2, Everrett Rogers and Shoemaker3, whose

main focus was on what the media does to the audience, to what the audience does with

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Lasswells model, “who said what, through what channel, to whom and with what effects” does not
consider the role of the audience in the communication process.
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Lazersfeld’s two-step model of communication recognizes the role of interpersonal communication in the
spread of media messages but does not consider what the audience does with the messages.
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Rogers and Shoemaker preach a multiple step model of communication but still do not consider how the
audience use the messages.
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the media. Thus, this theory preaches functionalism from the point of view of the

audience rather than the communicator.

It also differs from other audience theories like the Cultivation theory4 and the

Social Modeling theory5 (Bandura, 1976: 204). Whilst these two behavioral theories view

the audience as a product or materialization of television stories, U&G views the

audience as actively interacting with the contents of television in goal directed activities.

Furthermore, in contrast to the encoding- decoding model or reception theory of

Stuart Hall and the ‘Birmingham School6 of Thought’ who view audiences as continually

resisting media messages in order to escape class domination, U&G views media

messages as responding to the needs of the audience by providing information that

nurtures them in several ways.

“The U&G theory argues for the pre-existence of needs and intentions that direct

media attendance toward gratifications and uses respectively” (Anderson, 1996: 212).

The use of media is thus highly selective and motivated by the social and psychological

needs of the individual. Empirical studies on U&G over the years has revealed a regular

pattern of responses from the audience with regards to how they use the media to meet

certain needs. These needs have been classified into informational needs, the need for

identity, the need for social integration and interaction and entertainment (McQuail,

1987: 73). The fulfillment of these needs can be obtained from the contents of a medium,

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The cultivation theory propounded by George Gerbner teaches that the repeated exposure of heavy
television viewers to its messages teaches them common roles, common values and a common worldview.
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The social modeling theory propounded by Albert Bandura says people, especially children, tend to model
their behavior by observing others through the media or the environment. The theory views television as a
source of behavior modeling.
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Reception theory teaches that the audience have three reading positions vis a vis media messages, the
dominant reading, the negotiated and oppositional reading. The audience try to resist the dominant ideology
in television and other media messages.
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from a particular genre within the medium, from the social setting within which the

medium is used and from general exposure to the medium.

Informational needs: People use the media to inform themselves about their

society and the world. Such information may also serve as a source of advice and

knowledge on practical issues, and also satisfy their curiosity and interest.

Personal identity: The audience find reinforcement for personal values from the

media by seeking role models whose behavior they identify with and sometimes copy and

so gain an insight into themselves (Berry, Michell-Kernan, 1982: 27,28).

Integration and social interaction: Stories depicted by the media helps the

audience to gain insight into the circumstances of others, offers them a feeling of

participation and a sense of belonging. The media provides the agenda for conversation

and assists in the undertaking of social roles (Morley, 1986: 20,21; Lull, 1990: 37,42).

Entertainment: The media provides diversion from problems and unpleasant

circumstances. It serves as a relaxant and sexual stimulant, provides cultural and aesthetic

pleasure, emotional release and affords the audience something to do.

Criticisms of the theory

The U&G theory has been criticized as being individualistic. It ignores the social

setting under which people watch television and does not consider the fact that not all

media use is related to the pursuit of gratification or choice since it can sometimes be

forced on people.

The retrospective use of self-reports to verify the theory is limiting since viewers

may not know why they watched some programs and thus may not offer the right reasons
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The theory does not examine the meanings that people attach to media content. It

is politically conservative since it assumes that people will always find gratifications

from any use of media.

What is television?

Television is a mass medium that is a bearer and provoker of meanings and

pleasures. It serves as a cultural agent in modern society. “Television as culture is a

crucial part of the social dynamics by which the social structure maintains itself in a

constant process of production and reproduction, meanings, popular pleasures, and their

circulation are therefore part and parcel of this social structure”. (Fiske, 1987: 1).

Like all other mass media, the functions of television are to maintain surveillance,

to inform, to educate and to entertain. However, because television combines the visual

with the aural, it possesses certain attributes that print and radio do not share which gives

it certain strengths over these two media. These include:

 The ability of television to give live coverage of events and the use of close ups

to capture the emotions of people being screened that whips up the power of

pathos in the audience to give them a feeling of participation.

 Consequently, television allows its viewers to bond with media figures

(Downing, Mohammadi, Sreberny-Mohammadi, 1990:42) due to the power of

ethos and pathos emitted by these figures.

 One does not need special training to watch television but the ability to

understand its messages increases with more exposure. “Children must be taught

to read but they learn television literacy on their own by watching television”

(Greenfield, 1984:17).
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 Television overcomes barriers of illiteracy and has the power to reach wide

audiences instantaneously.

These special attributes of television play a major role in the gratifications that

people derive from the television viewing experience since it can serve several

needs. Consequently, television has emerged as the most widely used mass medium

in the modern world. For instance:

 Over 3.5 billion hours are spent daily by people worldwide in watching

television (Kubey, Csikszentmihalyi, 1990:1).

 Television viewing has emerged as the most time consuming domestic

activity and takes up 40 percent of leisure time (Kubey,

Csikszentmihalyi, 1990:71).

 Television is in use 7 hours a day in American homes where people aged

above two years watch 4 hours of television a day on the average

(Bryant, Zillmann, 1986:19).

 At least 75 percent of Americans rely on television for information and

40 percent of American homes have no books of any kind (Costanzo,

1994:108).

 Britons spend an average of 3 hours a day watching television, only 17

minutes reading newspapers, 11 minutes reading books and go on the

internet for just 7 minutes (http://news.bbc.co.uk, 1, 2005)

The Genres of Television

From the above overwhelming statistics on the prevalence of television use, one is

left wondering how television manages to capture and meet the needs of a heterogeneous
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worldwide audience. This can be explained by the differentiation of television texts into

genres that are tailored to meet the needs of a particular audience and bear characteristics

different from other television programs.

Some of televisions popular genres include the news genre, the sports genre, soap

operas, quiz programs, music videos and cartoons.

Since television genres have been designed with special audiences in mind with the

view of meeting the needs of such audiences, it will necessary to examine the U&G

derived from the medium in relation to each genre.

The News Genre

The news genre monitors the world for whatever is threatening or unexpected and

confirms what is expected. Hence, it plays a major role in keeping surveillance over

society.

Uses and Gratifications from Television News

 Television news helps to maintain psychological balance in individuals and

society. Whilst food and water are essential to survival, they are inadequate for

maintaining psychological order because people need certain types of information

for reality maintenance and assurance. These need to be carried out regularly for

the mental and psychological well being of individuals’ and society.

 People plan their lives and initiate personal goals using the assurance given by the

messages of television news that there is order in the world, which is

indispensable for people to take initiatives.


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 By keeping people informed, television news dispels the uncertainty that arises

out of not being sure of ones environment and prevents disorder or disabling

anxiety from entering into the human consciousness.

 Television news brings politicians closer to their electorate and dispels the awe

once associated with rulers and politicians. It serves to demystify politicians by

bringing their human frailties such as stammering, sweating and stumbling to the

scrutiny of the ordinary citizen. This enables the electorate to identify with the

humanness of their leaders (Downing, Mohammadi, Sreberny-Mohammadi,

1995:48,49).

 People are able to participate and share in important national and international

events through messages from television news, which allows the rapid spread of

information.

 Individuals derive entertainment from television news. “Many people also find

out that television news entertains while it informs and assures. Like situation

comedies and detective ‘shoot-‘em-ups’, the newscast temporary releases some

members of the audience from the pressing cares of daily existence” (Fowles,

1992: 183).

Uses and Gratifications from Televised Sports.

The sports genre attracts a wide audience on television. A billion people watch the

world cup and the Olympic Games on television world wide while more than a 100

countries purchase television rights to these games. In the United States alone, the three

major television networks broadcast sports programs on an average of 1,200 hours to five
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billion viewers every year. The following are some of the gratifications that people derive

from televised sports:

• Televised sports allows ordinary people to view important sporting events like the

Olympic games, world cup and other sports tournaments which they can never

attend because of financial difficulties, time pressure or ill health. People thus get

the chance to view these games whilst paying nothing for them apart from

television license fees and electricity bills.

• People watching sporting events on television from the comfort of their living

rooms do sometimes get a clearer picture of the event and hence get more

involved in the game than some unfortunate spectators whose positioning in the

stadium may not give them a clear view of events. They tend to have a higher

feeling of participation because television cameras normally focus on action

around the ball.

• Sports enthusiasts get the chance to scrutinize games on television because of

replays of key moments in the sporting events and slow motion techniques. This

further enhances the feeling of participation.

• People watching sporting events from the comfort of their homes are shielded

from the violence that normally characterizes some of these events7. They

therefore watch these events in a feeling of safety. The history of sports is replete

with violence. In Ghana, over a 100 people died in the Accra sports stadium in

2000 when police tried to control spectators with tear gas. In 1985, 39 people

were killed and 437 were injured during the world cup finals between Liverpool

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Television by bringing sports tournaments to the doorsteps of spectators may actually be playing a key
role in the reduction of sports related violence by reducing the potential number of people at such events.
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and Juventus while 95 people died at the Heysel stadium in Hillsborough (Real,

1996: 52).

• The adult male also benefits from the element of fantasy inherent in all sporting

programs which center around various forms of assaults. “The idea of conflict is

central. Legitimate violence is present in varying degrees in athletic contests”

(Newcomb, 1974: 192). “Hence, in sports, balls and other surrogates rather than

people are hit” (Fowles, 1992:148).

• Sports viewers identify with sports heroes just like any other genre.

• People get relieved from stress when they watch sporting programs. Sports

programs therefore serve as an antithesis for a day of hard work. In 1978, a report

in the Time magazine said violent assaults doubled in Dallas after the end of the

football season (Fowles, 1992: 151).

Uses and Gratifications from Soap Operas.

Soap operas command a large audience, mostly women worldwide. In the United

States alone, they make up 43 percent of daytime broadcast and are the dominant form of

entertainment for women who comprise two-thirds of the audience. The following are

some the uses and gratifications that people derive from soap operas:

• Women derive psychological benefits from soap operas because their dramatic

time mimic reality by depicting events such as the maturing of characters, the

establishment and loss of relationships, the loss and gain of health among

several others. This contrasts with situation comedies and action adventure

films where relationships are stagnant and time stands still.


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• People tend to relate to, identify and bond with soap opera characters as if they

existed in real life because most soap operas are screened daily and women

come into contact with the characters more often than their friends and

relatives. Thus, they people and extend the social life of viewers.

• Soap operas through their plots and subplots provide women with something to

talk about and food for thought.

• Soap operas have played a key role in the social integration of women by

spawning soap opera clubs where women can meet other women with the same

interests as themselves.

• Women derive some information and education from soap operas. For instance,

when Pap smear was repeatedly mentioned on ‘Guiding Light’, a soap opera,

for several months, it increased the awareness of women that it is a test for

cervical cancer.

• Psychotherapists use soap operas as a point of entry into the minds of patients

who do not want to discuss horrible experiences8.

• Women use soap operas as an outlet for feminine anger because they strip the

male head of the family of the stereotypical authoritative and powerful image

associated with action thrillers (Geraghty, 1991:74).

• Women thus use soaps to “test the waters to see how far they can go in

challenging social norms” (Brown, 1994:12).

Uses and Gratifications from Quiz programs

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Ann Kilguss, a psychiatrist, has found this strategy to be helpful. “From the program, one works back to
the individual and her concerns (Fowles, 1992: 172).
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The uses and gratifications that viewers derive from quiz programs

normally revolve around self-rating appeal, basis of social interaction, excitement appeal

and educational appeal.

Self-rating appeal

o Viewers like to compare themselves with the experts.

o They dream about being on the program themselves.

o They experience a feeling of victory when the team that they favor wins. They

therefore identify and share in their victory.

o People are reminded about their time in school.

o They get entertained and laugh at the mistakes of the contestants.

Basis for social interaction

o Viewers normally look forward to discussing the program with others.

o Viewers normally compete amongst themselves to answer questions.

o It normally brings family members together by providing them with the same

interest.

o Family members normally work together to get the answers.

Excitement appeal

o Viewers share in the excitement of a close finish.

o Viewers momentarily forget their worries when they get involved in quiz

programs which releases them of stress.

o Viewers feel good about themselves when they get the right answers.
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Educational appeal

o Viewers are able to grade themselves academically by using how well they

perform on quiz programs

o Viewers derive knowledge that leads to their academic improvement.

o Viewers reflect on some of the questions afterwards. Hence, it provides food for

thought or serves as a stimulant to viewers to search for knowledge.

Uses and Gratifications from Music Television

Research studies conducted by Brown et al. on 12-15 year olds in 1986 revealed

that 80 percent of the study group watched music videos while another study by

Christenson in 1992 showed that 75 percent of 9 to 12 year olds viewed music on

television (Christenson & Roberts, 1998:39). What then are the uses and gratifications to

be derived from music videos?

 Cognitive needs: Viewers of MTV use the lyrics to keep abreast with political

and economic issues and are informed about other cultures. Viewers use the

information derived from them to reflect on social issues and their personal

relationships because most musical themes are on love (Christenson & Roberts,

1998: 43).

 Diversion: Viewers use music to relax, to escape from boredom and as an

antidote to tension.

 Social Utility: Viewers use music as a social lubricant to relate to families,

friends and students by talking about musical themes.

 Identification: Young viewers normally identify with musical stars and build

youth cultures around them. These youth cultures then extend the social life of the
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youth because individuals subscribing to the same youth culture normally identify

with each other.

 Social modeling: Most viewers after electing to belong to a musical sub-culture

be it rap, funk, punk or heavy metal, depend on music videos to learn the trade

mark for the culture in terms of hairstyles, clothing, other accessories and the

general image of the subculture.

 Relationships: Viewers also form para-social relationships with artists as a

compensation for loneliness or seclusion. In extreme cases, they may visualize

about being romantically and sexually involved with artists (ibid).

 Withdrawal: Viewers of MTV can also use it to insulate themselves from their

immediate environment and build emotional walls around themselves.

Uses and Gratifications from Cartoon Programs

Cartoons programs are the vehicles normally used by television programmers to

target children. The response to these programs by children has been overwhelming so it

is necessary to examine the gratifications that children derive from them.

 Children derive psychological benefits from cartoon programs because the

fantasy contained within them gratifies certain inherent needs peculiar to

childhood. This is because; it is during childhood that the energy and

impulsiveness which form the basis of the child’s personality are

socialized to conform to the ideals of society9.

 Children use the aggression they see on cartoons to cope with their

feelings of powerlessness.

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“The greatest developmental lessons of childhood are learning how to control retaliatory impulses and
directing them into proper channels” (Fowles, 1979:186).
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 Children use cartoon violence to work out their frustrations safely on the

screen through which they experience the illusion of power that eludes

them in real life (Lopiparo, 1977: 346). Cartoons therefore have a cathartic

effect on children10.

 Because cartoons do not depict the consequences of violence, children use

them as a way of escape from the real world where the consequences of

violence are felt.

 Children appreciate cartoon programs better than others because cartoons

have special attributes that allow them to reduce the amount of

information communicated to the bare essentials. This is important

because young minds lack the skill to sort out relevant information from a

scene and discard what is irrelevant.

 Children are able to immerse themselves in the fantasy world of carton

characters with ease and without a sense of guilt because they are tuned to

the pre-logical thinking of children.

Other Uses and Gratifications from Television

Other key areas where television gratifies the needs of viewers are in the field of

reports on the weather and stock market. People use reports on the weather to decide on

how to dress when leaving the house and to plan activities for the day; whether to remain

indoors or go to the beach. People invest or sell off bonds on the stock market based on

television reports on how the market is doing.

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Research shows that aggressive contents on television lessen and control the expression of aggression in
aggressive boys from low socio-economic backgrounds.
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People have also come to rely on television not only for relaxation but as a means

of structuring a large proportion of their experiences such as loneliness, emotional

difficulties, low utilization of time, low incomes, lack of education and negative

experiences.

Lonely people such as the divorced, widowed, retired, unemployed or ill

constitute the heaviest television users. They use television as a source of companionship

and derive Para social experiences from television figures because their faces and voices

become familiar with time and create the illusion of being real in their lives.

Depressed people use television as an escape from painful emotional turmoil.

While engaging in daily activities masks emotional problems, they rush to the foe when

the victims are unoccupied in the evenings so television is used to numb these emotions.

The availability of time and energy saving devices for domestic use means people

now have more leisure time than before which is invested in watching television.

People in low income groups who cannot afford to attend the theatre, go on

holiday tours, buy books or VCR’s or participate in sporting events that require capital

investments rely heavily on television because it offers the cheapest forms of

entertainment.

People with low education who cannot derive pleasure from novels and activities

that require a bit of training rely on television for entertainment.

Conclusion

The fact that people respond to different genres on television and that television

programmers can target specific groups of people with particular genres by tailoring them
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to suit them through anticipating their needs means that there is an underlying uses and

gratification approach inherent in the use of television.

This is borne out by the reluctance of people to let go of the set once they have

acquired it. Of 120 families who were offered 500 dollars by the Detroit Press give up

television viewing for a month, only five families gave in after much coaxing. Similar

experiments in England and Germany gave the same results.

Those families that gave up the set reported feeling bored, nervous and depressed.

They experienced a rise in domestic violence, smoking and the use of tranquilizers.

Therefore, the Uses and Gratification Theory, which identifies needs that correlate

with ‘Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs’11 has been proved right as far as the television

experience is concerned. Individuals do derive social and psychological benefits from

viewing television and it is these needs that determine their preferences in television

genres.

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Maslow’s seven- tier hierarchy of needs start with physiological needs, safety needs, belongingness, love
and self-esteem needs, cognitive needs, aesthetic needs and self actualization.
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