Events of national or international importance can have a great impact on audience ratings. For example, 2006 was a year in which the football World Cup took place, and this distorted the ratings for the year, displacing the soap operas and drama series that usually occupy the top-rated positions. This demonstrates that television’s role in broadcasting live events perceived to be of national importance continues to be a key role for the medium, and a very important programme type for those who have battled to competed successfully with each other to buy the rights to show major sporting events. Across the whole of 2006 the five highest-rated programmes on the highest-rated channels were as follows, with viewers given in millions:
England v Ecuador (World Cup football), 25 June, 16.3 million
CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (imported US police drama), 21 February, 4.4 million
CSI New York (imported US police drama), 29 August, 3.8 million
CSI Miami (imported US police drama), 10 October, 3.4 million
House (imported US hospital drama), 21 February, 2.9 million
The Seven Year Old Surgeon (documentary), 20 March, 2.8 million
Qualitative audience research
In 1982 Dorothy Hobson produced an important study of women audiences of television soap opera. Hobson’s work focused on the original incarnation (1964–88) of ITV’s soap opera Crossroads, in which the main characters worked in a motel in the Midlands, and which was screened in the early evenings. Her concern was that the family environment could be regarded from a feminist point of view as a place in which women were subordinate. She wanted to investigate how watching television fitted into the patterns of behaviour in the household, in particular how watching television might provide a space of pleasure and resistance for women at home. For these women, television provides a contact with the outside world, and watching television, Hobson found, was not a spare-time activity but instead an important part of women’s daily routines. She found that women did not watch programmes that had connotations of masculinity, such as:
Instead, they watched:
Television was perceived in gendered terms, with some formats and genres regarded as feminine, and others as masculine. The programmes perceived as feminine were those that had connections with the personal and emotional concerns of everyday family life, or offered an escape in fantasy from the dreary routine of everyday life. Of course, these are precisely the programmes that are conventionally criticised as being trivial, trashy and lightweight. Hobson’s research aimed to give value to these programmes and to the experiences of the women who watched them. In this respect her research is part of a larger tradition of feminist work on television which seeks to redress the balance of power in society that tends to render women’s experience less significant than that of men.
Much of the work carried out in the 1980s on the domestic context of ordinary viewing focused on women viewers, and on programmes attractive to female audiences. The genre of soap opera in particular became a focus of attention because the textual characteristics of the genre were argued to map closely on to traits recognised in society as feminine. The narrative structure of the soap opera is multi-layered and open-ended. It is constructed in short segments, following a range of storylines, and does not come to an end. Whereas it might seem that nothing happens in soap opera, this is the result of attention being directed to the wrong things. Soap opera works primarily through dialogue, both between the characters in the programme and between members of the audience, who are invited to speculate about what will happen and to make judgements about the moral and emotional problems experienced by the characters. Talk and gossip are recognised by sociologists as an important component of women’s lives, as ways of constructing community and shared experience. Soap operas provide both a representation of this community and material that actual women can discuss with each other. Furthermore, since narrative information is conveyed largely through dialogue in soap opera, it is possible to watch soaps with what Tunstall (1983) called secondary involvement, getting on with other tasks and looking occasionally at the screen, while following the action by listening to the television sound. Hobson reported (1982: 112), ‘the woman with whom I had gone to watch the programme [Crossroads] was serving the evening meal, feeding her five and three year old daughters and attempting to watch . . . on a black-and-white television situated on top of the freezer opposite the kitchen table’. Crossroads was constructed in the segmented form that is characteristic of soap opera, and its information was conveyed primarily by dialogue. Despite being scheduled at a time when women were often very busy, it could be watched by the distracted viewer. Commenting on Hobson’s research, Storey (1999: 109) noted:
Television is usually watched in the midst of other everyday activities. As Hobson discovered, domestic routines and responsibilities and the expectations of other family members ensured that most of the women with whom she watched Crossroads were not allowed the luxury of the detailed concentration expected and enjoyed by staff and students watching in darkened rooms on media-studies courses.
The American prime-time soap opera Dallas became the subject of important studies by television theorists in the 1980s. This hour-long drama was set among the families of the oil barons of Texas, and focused on the struggles for power among the executives of the oil companies and the family disputes, romantic affairs and personal problems that preoccupied them. The central characters of Dallas are the members of the Ewing family, and the storyline focuses on the sudden reversals of fortune, emotional crises and the relationships between business deals and personal allegiances that make up the daily life of its characters. While male characters, including J. R. Ewing and his brother Bobby, are significant to the narratives, J. R.’s wife Sue Ellen and other women are also central. The programme gained extraordinary popularity in the United States, Britain and worldwide, and was shown in over ninety countries, including Turkey, Hong Kong, Australia and Morocco. The most significant study of Dallas was by the Dutch media theorist Ien Ang, who published a book on the programme in 1985 (revised in 1989). Ang’s aim was to understand how the predominantly female audience of Dallas fitted the programme into the texture of their daily lives, and to research the kind of pleasure and displeasure that they gained from it. In her native Netherlands Dallas was watched in the early 1980s by half of the population. At the time of her research three-quarters of the audience for Dallas in Holland were women.
Ang placed an advertisement in the Dutch women’s magazine Viva, asking people to write to her giving their reactions to the programme. She received forty-two replies, and her study analysed episodes of the programme but, more significantly, it analysed the discourses in the letters of the women who wrote to her. Since Dallas focuses largely on the emotional relationships between characters, Ang argued that the programme has a ‘tragic’ structure of feeling. She meant that Dallas is structured so that any temporary resolution to the characters’ problems gives rise to further narrative complication and emotional suffering. Ang argued that in order to gain this understanding of Dallas, its viewers must possess a cultural competence that she called a ‘melodramatic imagination’ (1989: 78). This melodramatic imagination was an orientation to everyday life in which ordinary problems could be granted the emotional significance and moral weight that are found in theatre melodrama or tragedy, thus giving enhanced value to events and experiences that could otherwise seem trivial. Ang found these characteristics in the performance style of the actors in Dallas, and showed that the behaviour of characters formed a system of signs that communicated powerful inner feelings through external behaviour. For example, J. R. Ewing’s wife Sue Ellen became an alcoholic, and her extreme behaviour functioned as a sign of her emotional disturbance provoked by the aggressive actions of her husband and his unfaithfulness to her.
The main conclusion of Ang’s analysis was that the programme’s predominantly women viewers decoded and found pleasure in Dallas through a melodramatic imagination because of their ideological position in culture. Different decodings are produced by viewers who occupy different social positions in a particular society, as well as by viewers who live in different nations and cultures. Women in Western societies such as the Netherlands are expected to be emotional, caring and community-forming (as opposed to the masculine characteristics of adventurousness, aggression and individualism). The negotiation of the meanings of television programmes is affected not only by membership of a national culture but also by the social status of the viewer in that culture. Ang found that there was a fit between the conventional meanings of femininity among the audience and the fictional moral and emotional world of Dallas. As well as finding the emotional and communal values of femininity in the programme itself, Ang noted that viewers’ pleasure in the programme also depended on the sharing of its meanings with fellow women viewers. Audience responses to Dallas were determined not only by the text, but also by the social environment in which talk about the programme among women friends, workmates and family members took place. As in Hobson’s analysis of Crossroads, Ang’s semiotic analysis of Dallas showed that it conforms in its structure to the cultural competences that its female audience held. Dallas has few action sequences, and is primarily occupied with dialogue. The characters interacted extensively with each other, and the giving and withholding of information through gossip was significant to the story. Viewers wrote about the realism of Dallas, but Ang (1989: 45) interpreted this as meaning emotional realism: ‘the realism experience of the Dallas fans quoted . . . is situated at the emotional level: what is recognized as real is not knowledge of the world, but a subjective experience of the world’. This emotional realism was conveyed by the performance style in which characters say what they do not mean, and mean what they do not say, so that it is not only dialogue that conveys meaning but also, for example, close-up shots of characters’ reactions to events, which show how to read the meanings of the action.
Ien Ang’s study of Dallas is important in Television Studies for several reasons. It took seriously a very popular programme that had little credibility as ‘quality television’, suggesting that television theorists should direct their attention not only to prestigious programmes but also to popular drama. Her work was written from a feminist point of view, putting on the critical agenda questions of gender and the politics of everyday life that contrasted with the emphasis of earlier critics on economics, social class and occupation. By making extensive use of the words of actual viewers, Ang sought to combine the analysis of a television programme from a textual point of view with evidence about how the decoding of meaning was carried out in ordinary everyday circumstances.
We can compare this research from many years ago with a more recent study of the viewers of Big Brother by Annette Hill (2002). She found that while 30 per cent of the males in her representative sample of 8,000 viewers watched reality TV programmes like Big Brother either regularly or occasionally, 48 per cent of females watched them. So Big Brother had a significant appeal for women, and Hill suggests that viewers were probably drawing on their understanding of the ‘emotional realism’ that Ang discussed in soap operas. Viewers watched it because everyone else was watching it and it enabled them to join social groups and conversations, especially among young people or when older adults wished to connect with younger adults and children. The content that audiences most prized was the moment of revelation of the self: ‘audiences look for the moment of authenticity when real people are “really” themselves in an unreal environment’ (Hill 2002: 324). Many respondents mentioned ‘Nasty’ Nick and Mel in Big Brother series 1 in relation to this, and especially the moment when Nick cried when confronted by the fact that he had been cheating. But different categories of viewers interpreted the signs of performance versus authenticity differently:
Young boys thought no adult would cry on camera unless they were genuinely upset, while some more cynical adults believed that crying to camera was a clear sign of performance. Thus, viewers judge the moment of authenticity in a gamedoc such as BB by referring to their knowledge of the contestants coupled with knowledge of themselves, and how they would react in a similar situation.
(Hill 2002: 335)
The appeal of Big Brother, especially for women, was focused on emotion and the revealing of a ‘true self’, and was judged by viewers in relation to their own experiences, which varied according to their gender and age group. It was twice as likely that 16-year-olds to 34-year-olds would watch it than that older viewers would. Adults were twice as likely to watch if they had children in their households, so adults watched with their children, who were on school holidays at the time. We can see how this emphasis on emotion, talk among viewers about the programme, and integrating Big Brother viewing into family life matches the kinds of results that emerged from feminist work on soap opera. It also shows how more recent television genres, such as reality TV, have borrowed some of the characteristics, attractions and viewer responses that are found in the ‘feminine’ form of television soap opera.