Episode 13: The Cultivation Theory



For the year of 2018, FATCAT will be collaborating with the 2001AT50 festival to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Stanley Kubrick's epic film, "2001: A Space Odyssey".  Each episode throughout the year will feature "2001" in discussions of technique, theory, and history.  There is much to talk about with this film, which is why we are taking a whole year to explore, ponder, watch, hear, feel, and dive into the unknown.


So far, much of our FATCAT discussions have been focused around technical achievements, concepts, and aesthetics in film and television.  In this episode, let's take a step back and look at the effects of TV culture through the Cultivation Theory.  

This theory states that the more time people spend living in the world of TV, the more likely they are to believe the social reality portrayed by TV.

Before we go any further, stop and think: Does this theory apply to me?  It's nothing to be ashamed of, because it applies to most people that watch TV somewhat regularly.  Have you ever watched a period drama and felt that you understood the period being depicted even though you haven't lived through it yourself?  Have you ever watched a show about a part of the world you have never lived in, and began to think you know what it's like to live there?  These are all symptoms of the Cultivation Theory.


This theory came to be through a series of large scale research projects, but can be credited to George Gerbner and Larry Gross in 1976.  Let's follow the chain of events, to see how this theory was developed.



On June 10, 1968, President Lyndon B. Johnson authorizes the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence, as a reaction to the uprising of violence in America, and recent assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (April 4, 1968) and Robert F. Kennedy (June 6, 1968).  This commission established task forces on:

  • Assassination
  • Group Violence
  • Individual Acts of Violence
  • Law Enforcement
  • Media and Violence
  • Firearms
  • Violence in American History

This commission was also formed in collaboration to the existing Kerner Commission, which investigated the big city protests of the 1960s.  The Kerner Commission concluded that an effective policy issue would be to do something about the lack of education and opportunity in inner city neighborhoods.  This was finally recognized as the root of much of the inner city violence seen throughout this tumultuous decade.  They found that popular media such as television is used as a vessel of promoting American ideals, such as an economy which prizes material wealth within a tradition of violence.  In this way, film and television were bringing to light the rapidly expanding space between upper, middle, and lower classes.  Therefore the Violence Commission recommended $20B be put towards job training and education in 1968.  

"When in history other great civilizations have fallen, it was less often from external assault than from internal decay" (Violence Commission, 1968).

Through the Media and Violence Task force, this commission then spawns the Cultural Indicators Project.



Congress facilitated the creation of the Surgeon General's Scientific Advisory Committee on TV and Social Behavior, thinking that some of this uprise in violence could be related to the violence being shown on TV through more intense TV programming, as well as the daily reporting on the Vietnam War and Civil Rights protests and mobs.  This committee funded a number of research projects, one of them being the Cultural Indicators Project, led by George Gerbner.  Through this project, Gerbner created the Violence Index, which tracked the use of violence in TV shows season by season.  He found that prime time TV portrays violence as happening more frequently than it does in the real world.


It is during his work in the Cultural Indicators Project that Gerbner and colleague Larry Gross develop the Cultivation Theory.  By using Gerbner's investigations into violence portrayed on TV, and the Violence Index, they realized that not only did the viewing of violence effect people's perception of the world, but that television had the power to alter people's perceptions of reality in general.  This discovery led to more development on the effects of television, whether it be violent or non violent:

  • Mean World Syndrome:  People who watch more violence, think the world is a more violent place.  For example, someone who has never been to New York City, but has watched a lot of Law & Order, might think NYC is too dangerous of a place for them to visit, due to it's portrayal on the show.
  • Mainstreaming: The homogenization of people's diverse perceptions of social reality into one view.  This cultural phenomenon takes place as we all begin to watch the same shows, which leads to us developing a collective view of the world based on television rather than reality.  A continued effect of this phenomena is that television has also been socializing children at a younger age (parents have less and less control over what their children are learning) at the same time as it is halting the development of adults.  Therefore, since the widespread introduction of TV into American homes in the late 1950s, children and adults are closer in development than ever before.  This means that children are becoming more like adults, while adults are becoming more like children.



Besides violence, there were many other factors leading to the influence of television on America's perception of reality between the late 1960s and early 1970s.  Television was also just becoming more real.  

The 1968 Winter Olympics were the first to be broadcasted in color

1968: William Shatner and Nichelle Nichols are first interracial kiss on US TV during an episode of Star Trek

James Brown appears on national TV to calm rioting crowds after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968

Moon landing in 1969

Vietnam War is being shown on TV and is the most vivid and graphic a war has ever been portrayed (1965- 1975)

Civil Rights riots are also being portrayed on TV

Jacques Cousteau airs first live undersea TV broadcast in 1968

December 1969, Tiny Tim gets married on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show

All in the Family airs in 1971, portraying a working class bigot as the lead character which breaks new ground on what could be said on tv, speaking on issues of racism, homosexuality, the Vietnam War, women's liberation, rape, and abortion.

John and Yoko co host the Mike Douglas Show for a week in 1972

Watergate hearings are aired in 1973, and Nixon resigns in 1974, inciting distrust of the president and creating a new relationship between citizen and federal government

An American Family: The Louds airs in 1973 as the first US reality show in the format in which we are familiar with today.  This PBS documentary follows a typical California family as they deal with hardships as divorce, homosexuality, AIDS, and raising a family.

Thinking about the role television plays in our lives now, and how that role has grown since the 1960s and the realization of the Cultivation Theory, what do you think TV will do next?  



  • Harris, R. J., & Sanborn, F. W. (2013). A cognitive psychology of mass communication (Sixth edition.). New York: Routledge.