Lecture 7: Semiotics of Television Flow

TV as a Social Text

  • Television can be characterized as a social text, that is, an overarching representation that guides and informs the wider society on issues of current concern
  • TV has an impact on people’s behaviour, just like other media. Television mainly reinforces already established lifestyles and ideologies. It is rarely innovative
  • However, it can be a doubled bind, where it can provide social change (Ex. War images on TV that led to huge riots to stop the Vietnam War)
  • It functions as a social text which guides, entertain and informs our society
  • Television is considered as a cultural agent. It provokes various meanings, serving dominant interests in society
  • Baudrillard argues that a passive sense happens when watching tv, in which we are in a comma state where images are presented to us


  • What about the images that TV produces? Image as defined by Baudrillard is a representation of a product or service in order to enhance its value aesthetically or socially
  • How does television make and circulate meanings that serve the dominant interests of society?
  • Fiske argues that reality is not perceived as being raw material. Through this reality which is encoded, it produces signs. Therefore, sense we have of our culture is through codes
  • Therefore, there are many ways through which reality can be perceived, because there are many codes
  • According to Fiske, television is already encoded by social codes at different levels
  • Level One / Reality: Appearance, dress, colour, make up, speech, behaviour, sound
  • Dress: Villains in movies/TV shows tend to dress less tasteful, whereas the heroes tend to be more attractive. Usually, the hero is a middle-class and white American male, whereas lower-class, non-American and less attractive portrays villainous
  • Level Two / Representation: Camera, lighting, editing, music, sound
  • Camera work: The normal camera distance in television is mid-shot to close-up, which brings the viewer into an intimate, comfortable relationship with the characters on the screen. However, the villain and villainess are also shown in extreme close-up (ECU). This way, the audience enters into the private space, where they are either hostile or unwelcomed (usually with the villain)
  • Conventional Representational Codes: Narrative, conflict, character, dialogue, action, setting, casting
  • Dialogue: Hero / heroine establishes a warm relationship with audience by affecting their emotions (Ex.Joking or use of extensive metaphors). This way, they portray an ideal mortality to follow or what is considered ideal
  • Editing: Heroes are given more time on the screen than villains, and more shots
  • Level Three / Ideology: Individualism, patriarchy, race, materialism, capitalism (Ex. Ideology of the male gaze in movies/TV shows, where a woman’s role is to be an object of the male gaze, and man’s role in participating in action)
  • Sense of a text is produced once reality, representations and ideology merge together
  • We maintain and legitimize dominant ideologies, which is a major ideological practice in capitalist societies (Ex. The ideology of the female in movies / TV shows displaying attractiveness, whereas men display patriarchy through dominance)

Gerbener’s Studies in Television

  • Good guy vs. bad guy
  • Killed to killed ratio
  • Result: Heroes are socially central types who embody the dominant ideology whereas villains are members of deviant or subordinate subcultures who embody the dominant ideology less completely or actually oppose it
  • Gerbener argues that a character that is white, male, middle class (or classless) and is in the prime of life was very likely to be alive at the program. This is mainly the hero
  • Three main psychological effects of television include mythologizing, history fabrication and cognitive compression
  • Mythologizing Effect: TV creates personalities that are portrayed as something mythical
  • History Fabrication Effect: TV fabricates history through representations. Remember, nothing is presented as RAW material. TV uses editing, camera tricks and so forth to fabricate history. Danesi refers to this as the pseudo effect, where history is fabricated because actual history is hidden in these codes presented to us by television
  • Cognitive Compression Effect: TV packages this text in a way that is quickly digested, without the viewer reflecting on the subjects

Effect of Television

  • The result of all this is that viewers have little time to reflect on the subjects, what the they imply, the meanings contained in the messages, leading to, as Baudrillard stated, a passive and cognitively effortless way of reading the TV text. It’s presented, packaged and digested before you even have time to reflect on it

Social Constructions of Racism

  • The Other: Refers to the Middle East, North Africa
  • Eurocentrism: Everything that is European is privileged and central, because it is considered the norm, the natural, the ideal, and the best
  • Orientalism: Refers to the stereotypes of the East portrayed by the West

Social Constructions of Racism and TV

  • They suggest that particular characteristics are shared by many people
  • They suggest that these characteristics are part of the essential nature of the people (it is genetic or biological) rather than social
  • Stereotypes are used derogatively by dominant groups to describe subordinate groups (Ex. The West creating stereotypes of the East)
  • Fiske argues that certain codes work more explicitly than others in TV

These codes ideological work is to naturalize the correlation of low class non-Americans with the less attractive, less moral and therefore more villainous

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