Studies have shown that people do learn a lot from TV series, and that TV series, in turn, are often based on public perceptions of reality. This cycle of social knowledge that travels between audiences, television series, and anyone who is depicted in series has been dubbed the “feedback loop” by media scholars. This term is based on the idea that the relationship between media and society is dialectical: shows feed into society and vice versa. Interestingly, studies show that not only lay people are involved in the feedback loop – professionals whose jobs are depicted on shows are part of it as well.
This cycle of social knowledge that travels between audiences, television series, and anyone who is depicted in series has been dubbed the “feedback loop.”
Let’s take law shows, for example. In the USA, everyone has to do jury duty. So jurors are laypeople, some of whom may have watched law shows. NPR conducted an investigation into this, and they found that prosecutors have complained that shows like CSI make their job harder, since jurors demand unrealistic and non-existent testing procedures to convict suspects. Prosecutors fear that when they don't show the kind of technology that TV shows have depicted, juries might let criminals get away with murder. But shows also affect what investigators do - some investigators run extra tests that are useless just to show the jurors that they used various technologies to obtain lots of high-tech evidence. This has been called “the CSI effect.” It’s taken so seriously that some US states now allow lawyers to strike potential jurors based on their TV habits. Yet online we can find recommendations for law students to watch law shows, for example here. Alongside this, projects like this one have emerged that battle the CSI effect by training law practitioners to be wary of it. Below is a video from this project for judges.
Video: Part of the CSI Effect Theory online training for officers of the court at NFSTC
Other studies on the feedback loop have focused on cop shows. Recently I carried out a study of how people discuss police shows in Russia on forums dedicated to Russia’s most popular cop show (called Glukhar, a show from the 2000s). I also examined the content of a forum where real policemen talk about the show.
I found that the forum threads dedicated to the fictional show contain many accounts of real-world issues related to the police. When viewers referred to real-world police-related issues they talked about their personal experience, stories heard from others, stories from news media, their expectations from and their normative positions towards the police, and, finally, what they saw as common knowledge, what “everybody knows”. They also refer to the fictional show as to a source of factual information. Many users of these discussion forums state that the show explains life, gives them criteria by which to measure real life events and people, and proposes a justification of corruption and crime. The same was true for the forum used by police department employees! So my research confirmed that this popular police show actually frames not only what ordinary viewers think and expect from the police, but also what police chiefs expect from their employees (you can read my paper for more on this).
Research confirmed that this popular police show actually frames not only what ordinary viewers think and expect from the police, but also what police chiefs expect from their employees
But is it “bad” for society that people learn about the world through shows? This is a hard one to answer. I would say that showrunners should take the evidence above seriously and perhaps should keep it in mind while producing seemingly “realistic” shows about doctors, lawyers, the police, politicians. While it would be worrisome to think that doctors actually draw from what they saw on the show “ER” in their treatment of patients, there is no evidence to suggest that any have done this. But it is possible that viewers who are not trained medical professionals can apply what they heard on the TV screen to their judgments about their own health. And it is certainly the case that viewers tend to draw conclusions about professions depicted in shows and apply those to real-life professionals. But people gain knowledge from a variety of sources in all areas of life, so it would be hard to single out TV shows and to say “this knowledge is bad for society.” And while we are seeing a real golden age of shows about various professions today, there is also a lot more information available today to viewers who want to find out if the shows depict “reality.” For example, here’s a surgeon who offers his take on medical shows. Then again, there is also a lot of misleading information on the internet. So perhaps the question about the influence of TV shows is actually a question about the influence of any kind of knowledge – it can lead to good or bad things. And we can’t really control or predict that.
'Do people learn?' is itself a complicated question. But assuming that learning is possible, we can indeed find ways in which some people, do learn from TV shows some things about society. The initial reason for this is that TV shows, as part of popular culture, is a social artifact. Since culture is a social product, it is a fertile site for sociological investigation. While other people, non-scientists and so on, might also learn something valuable about society--like all those cliches about today's consumerist, material, sexual societies--I would still prefer to focus on the academic study of TV shows in order to elucidate how and why are they studied, and to answer as for how bad this is for society.
Culture, broadly conceived, has found itself playing a greater and greater role in the study of society, over the years. Some would even say that this is caused by the greater importance we, today more than ever, find in culture. In sociology, it has been and still is being studied from various angles: Thinkers of the Frankfurt school, like Adorno, Marcuse, and Benjamin, have focused on Culture as the site of economic struggle. They shifted our scholarly attention towards the arts and artistic production as means to highlight the inherent tensions of society. So instead of focusing on a direct economic struggle, they all emphasized how the very cultural struggle, what we call today the struggle of/for ways of life apropos of the immigrant crisis, takes part in the economic struggle itself. According to them, this takes place via industrial mass reproduction, the popularization of aesthetics, and so on.
More recently, Pierre Bourdieu criticised Culture for its reproductive role in the preservation of inequality in society. He took culture to be a legitimizing and naturalizing mechanism for the effacing of socio-economic differences (something like, 'it is unfortunate that poor people suffer, but at least we all share the same culture'). The utter failure of this ideological assumption is clearly discernable today, again apropos of the immigrant crisis. While talking about cultural differences, we ignore and suppress the economic differences that have caused the presumed cultural difference to begin with. Opposite of him, we find Jefferey Alexader's analysis of Culture, not yet TV shows specifically. His take is not so determined when it comes to culture. For him, it's a social process of meaning production, as Culture is a pattern of signs and not a ready-made text. This way, by interpreting the patterns, sings as well as their contexts, society's culture can be deciphered.
However, these approaches, albeit their differences, don't tell us much about TV shows in particular. Their analysis is focused more on the process than on the product. So for example, one could hypothesize that the focus on repetitive themes like police (Law and Order), law (L.A. Law, Boston Legal, Ally McBeal), hospitals (Dr. House, E.R.), and family (Everybody Loves Raymond)--is ultimately linked to the ways in which a society, the Western Anglo-Saxon in this case, is channeling its emotional and psychical investments. In short, on the screen, we get a glimpse to our social modes of representation, to how we think of certain issues we find important to us, and their relevance to our life. Surely, as times changes, issues change. What's more, the 'we' used just now doesn't refer to the actual whole of society (if it even exists), but. rather, to the smaller group of people who are in charge of production--the production of our social self-image. This is why media-people have acquired such a strong position over recent decades.
While the process can tell us a lot about the 'who' produces and 'how' this Media (of TV shows and Movies) is produced in our society, it falls short in addressing the 'what' and 'why' these products appear as they are. Without focusing on the product too, it is impossible to understand the full picture. In a series of interventions, Stanley Cavell has paved way for a deeper investigation of the mediatic products in our global society. In his Pursuits of Happiness: The Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage (1981) and Contesting Tears: The Hollywood Melodrama of the Unknown Woman (1992) Cavell explained in detail how notions such as feminism, liberty, and interdependence are thought, shot, portrayed and enacted in-and-through Hollywood classics. Another example for such an analysis of the content and form of mediatic production is found in the extensive word of Slovene philosopher Slavoj Zizek. He has made a career by bringing in Kung-Fo Panda and 'The Wire' into his analysis of philosophy and psychoanalysis, culture and its discontent.
In many of his intellectual interventions, that is books, lectures, and articles, Zizek is heavily engaged in films and TV series. According to him, in our societies, these are the prime loci for psycho-social inquiry. His main idea here is that not only can we see what a society wants to portray on the screen, creating some (moving-) image of/for itself, but that we can see what society's trying to hide, namely, its unconscious. By analyzing the form of cultural content, Zizek is able to poke that socio-logical articulation of meaning in a society, and more accurately, the (forever blurred) border between sense and nonsense. For example, regarding The Wire, Zizek claimed that "the show may even be "more tragic" than Greek tragedy, he says, since the fate of its characters is dictated not by supernatural figures, but by the institutions that actually shape our lives... The show thus hints at the possibility of breaking out of the contemporary political and economic system".
In his analysis of that documentary, Zizek asks:
Did they reach the limits of the killers’ “pride”? They barely touched it when they proposed to Anwar that he should play the victim of his tortures in a re-enactment; when a wire is placed around his neck, he interrupts the performance and says, “Forgive me for everything I’ve done.” But this does not lead to a deeper crisis of conscience – his heroic pride immediately takes over again. The protective screen that prevented a deeper moral crisis was the cinematic screen: as in their real killings and torture, the men experienced their role play as a re-enactment of cinematic models: they experienced reality itself as a fiction. During their massacres, the men, all admirers of Hollywood (they started their careers as controllers of the black market in cinema tickets), imitated Hollywood gangsters, cowboys and even a musical dancer.
And his findings point toward the deeper level of social meaning production since they go beyond what we tell ourselves about ourselves, through the televised screen:
Here the “big other” enters: what kind of society publicly celebrates a monstrous orgy of torture and killing decades after it took place, not by justifying it as an extraordinary, necessary crime for the public good but as an ordinary, acceptable pleasurable activity? The trap to be avoided here is the easy one of putting the blame on either Hollywood or on the “ethical primitiveness” of Indonesia. The starting point should rather be the dislocating effects of capitalist globalisation which, by undermining the “symbolic efficacy” of traditional ethical structures, creates such a moral vacuum.
Another more updated example can be found in Zizek's analysis of Blade Runner 2049. For a full analysis of Zizek's use of psychoanalytic concepts to look at society's meaning, it is useful to watch his own movies on movies: first The Pervert's Guide to Cinema (2006), and the more recent The Pervert's Guide to Ideology (2012).So is it good or bad for society, that people are learning from media like films and TV shows about society? Ultimately, it depends on what it is that people learn. If we learn more of the same, and (never) simply enjoy watching television -- then it's bad. If, however, we use this medium to go beyond itself, and the representation it shows us as neutral and natural, then we might even learn something new about reality, our society and its ways of presentation, what it wants to conceal under the screen of re-presentation, and so on. This allows for a deeper gaze on society's meaningful structures, and perhaps a chance to change them, for the better. For instance, this is how Zizek analyzes the popular use of 'canned laughter' on TV, as a:
"primitive" mechanism works also in our highly developed societies: when, in the evening, I come home, too exhausted to engage in a meaningful activity, I just press the TV button and watch Cheers, Friends, or another series; even if I do not laugh, but simply stare at the screen, tired after a hard days work, I nonetheless feel relieved after the show - it is as if the TV-screen was literally laughing at my place, instead of meÉ Before one gets used to "canned laughter," there is nonetheless usually a brief period of uneasiness: the first reaction to it is one of a shock, since it is difficult to accept that the machine out there can "laugh for me," there is something inherently obscene in this phenomenon. However, with time, one grows accustomed to it and the phenomenon is experienced as "natural.") This is what is so unsettling about the "canned laughter": my most intimate feelings can be radically externalized, I can literally "laugh and cry through another."