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What Is the Cultivation Theory?

By D. Grey
Updated May 23, 2024
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Cultivation theory is a concept which considers the social ramifications of the effects of consistent television watching over the long term. The word cultivation represents the idea that regular exposure to television will over time distort the viewer's conception of reality. The ideas behind the cultivation theory were initially developed by communications professor George Gerbner during his time at the University of Pennsylvania beginning in the 1960s. Gerbner was also responsible for the related concept of the mean world syndrome in which he postulates that exposure to mass media depictions of violence and other negative content cause viewers to believe that reality is more unforgiving or dangerous than it actually is. He also offered ideas on how viewers of television could recognize these negative effects for themselves and how to avoid them.

George Gerbner was born in 1919 in Budapest, Hungary where he lived until 1939 before moving to the United States. Once he arrived, he studied at the University of California in Berkley and attained a bachelor's degree in journalism. After serving in the military during World War II, Gerbner furthered his education, eventually becoming the dean of the Annenberg School for Communication located at the University of Pennsylvania. Serving at this post from 1964 to 1989, Gerbner mostly worked in the field of media research, including the cultivation theory.

Having an interest in European folklore from an early age, Gerbner openly enjoyed skilled storytelling. He concluded that television had developed into the primary source of entertainment, and subsequently, he became interested in its effects on society. During the later years of his development of cultivation theory, Gerbner became particularly interested in the effects of television on children and young people who, he asserted, were more easily persuaded. He claimed that instead of hearing stories from parents and community members, children were being entertained by for-profit companies who had a vested interest in selling products.

In order to combat the negative effects of television watching, he offered three principles on how to become what he called "media literate." The first principle is that the view should dissect television presentations, identifying the filming techniques that sway the viewer's opinion on the subject matter — such as villains wearing black hats in westerns. Second, Gerbner suggested that viewers of television become aware that television companies are businesses that profit from their audiences and employ tactics that increase their success in doing so. The final principle is that viewers should examine what outlooks or moral values the television program is displaying and to question how it impacts their world view.

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Discussion Comments
By Krunchyman — On Oct 29, 2014

Though this article is a very interesting read, what caught my attention the most was the last paragraph, especially where it's stated that television companies are business, and they need to employ tactics in order to make a profit.

I think that's something we tend to forget, especially when it comes to the genre of reality TV. Most of the time, we don't know what goes on behind the scenes, and I've even heard that some dramatic scenes are only added to keep the viewers interested.

It's definitely things like this that we need to take into consideration. The funny thing is that prior to taking my media classes last year, I wasn't even aware of some of the tactics that are employed on TV. That made this article even more fascinating to read.

By RoyalSpyder — On Oct 29, 2014

@Euroxati - While you do make a very good point about people basing their perceptions of the world by what they see on the news, because most racist people are adults, I feel like more than often, it's up to them to decide how they want to view the world.

Based on my experience, I feel that children are most vulnerable at having a warped view of reality, especially if they watch things that they're not supposed to. This is why parents always have to be careful to monitor their children, as exposing them to inappropriate things could lead to some uncomfortable questions.

Using an example, I know of some sitcoms that are quite suitable for children, because even if they don't understand the jokes, the adult humor is very subtle. However, there are some other sitcoms (such as the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air), which have very raunchy humor, and flat out use the word "sex" time and time again. Things like this are always good to consider when questioning what you want your children to watch or avoid.

By Euroxati — On Oct 28, 2014

To me, the cultivation theory isn't just interesting due to the fact that many people really do watch TV on a regular basis, but even more so, it's mostly due to the fact that it's something I learned about a few years ago in one of my college classes, especially in reference to how watching too much TV can heavily distort someone's view of reality.

Overall, the best example that I can think of is when it comes to racism. If someone is black or Hispanic, it's probably something that they tend to experience a lot more than whites.

While this isn't always the case, sometimes I feel that the reason why this racism occurs is due to what's shown in the media when people are being arrested.

Have you ever noticed that when people are being arrested on the news, more than often, it's a black or Hispanic man? If someone who's always watching the Chicago news notices this to be a recurrence, they might take this view as a reality, and conform it to real life. Therefore, they'll have a warped view of reality, based on what they've seen.

Don't forget that more than often, the news likes to paint a different picture than what is really shows. Even though this is only one example, it's certainly something interesting to think about.

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