06th Jan 2011

Eastenders cot death row

Debate has raged for several days now, on 5 Live and other media forums, about the cot death / baby swop story-line aired on the BBC’s flagship soap, Eastenders, over the Christmas period. Typical traits of the direct-media-effects model have surfaced – 1. some people treat some forms of dramatic TV as mirrors of reality, 2. some people think characters in soaps are real people, and will shout abuse at the actors who play those characters if they encounter them in real-world situations, 3. some people will justify evils acts, like swopping a dead baby for a healthy one, with reference to what they’ve seen on TV, and 4. thousands of innocent babies and parents are now threatened by sinister minds cultivated on Mean-World principles portrayed by irresponsible Eastenders programme-makers.

Those of you who’ve read chapter 2 of my Key Themes in Media Theory know where I stand on behaviourist theories of media effects. To put it simply, theories of effects are theoretically unconvincing, and a century of effects research hasn’t proven much either. But – and there’s always a qualification to this debate – some of the time, media do have some effects, on some people, for certain periods of time (though short-term effects are easier to measure than long-term ones).

Of the four points mentioned above, all are blown out of proportion by fearmongering crusaders disgusted at the depravity of this particular TV case. For me, no baby-theft epidemic is on the horizon. But – but – but, I disagree with those who defend the Eastenders story-line on the basis that it’s a ratings winner. Why does a BBC soap need to be a ratings winner when we, the licence-payers, are funding it? Now Coronation Street is a different matter – it needs to be a ratings winner so ITV can maximise advertising and sponsorship revenue from the programme. The BBC should not rely on melodrama for the sake of a ratings war – indeed, it should not pander to ratings at all. Cot-death-baby-swops should base their justification purely on artistic and public-service grounds – not on petty economic considerations.

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