Essential Question 8: What techniques are used to involve or engage the viewer in the message?

One of the most important challenges faced by a producer of a news or documentary program is how to get the viewer involved in the program.  Michael Curtin has called this "packaging reality," the process of giving non-fictional messages a dramatic shape.

Getting viewers' attention and keeping their attention is one of the classic concerns of all media makers.  A lot of elements can keep people's attention, but movement, action, sexuality, violence, children, humor and the unexpected have been recognized as highly effective in a commercial context when viewers have a lot of programming choices.

Most documentaries make use of a narrative (story) structure.  Stories are such powerful ways to organize ideas.  By focusing on heroes, victims and villains, producers can increase the likelihood that viewers will be engaged with the topic.  However, the use of typical story elements can also distort and constrict the complexity of an issue.  

When is a commercial not a commercial?

Target Age:  Secondary and up

Materials Needed:  VCR and monitor, videotape of examples

Video Materials:  This video segment contains a promotional spot from the documentary series, A Baby's World.

Focus Questions:  What techniques are used to attract the attention of the audience? Who makes money from this program?

Goals and Objectives:

  1. Students will gain knowledge about the differences between a commercial and a promotion and gain an understanding that the purpose of television is to sell large audiences to advertisers. 

  2. Students will understand that promotions may be misleading since their purpose is designed to attract large audiences. 

  3. Students will practice selecting concepts that have audience appeal and organizing images and sounds. 

  4. Students will see how messages can be constructed to attract large audiences.

Activity 1
Introducer the concept of promotion, a short commercial for a television program designed to attract large audiences.  Play the segment.  Discuss why stations use promos.  Ask students to compare and contrast a promotion with a commercial for a product and a commercial for a theatrically released film.  Create a list of similarities and differences on the blackboard.

Activity 2
To begin a discussion of children and television, discover when promotions are most commonly found.  Assign each student a specific time period between the hours of 3PM and 9PM (e.g., Michelle watches from 5:00-6:00; Jason watches from 7:00-8:00), and have them count the promos that air during that hour on one station only.  Next day, have students graph the results of their work on the board.  To make the graph, make columns across for each station watched and columns down for each hour from 3:00-9:00.  For each box, write in the number of promos counted by the students.  Which stations showed the most promos? Why might that be? At what times are viewers most likely to see promos? What kinds of viewers are most likely to see promos?

Activity 3
Have students view a national newscast, and watch for a promo of an evening newsmagazine, such as 20/20, Primetime Live, or Dateline NBC.  In class, discuss the students chosen promos and invite students to predict what the story would be like based on the information contained in the promo.  Then discuss the segment from the newsmagazine.  Answer the following questions as a group:

  • What information from the segment was missing or misrepresented in the promo?

  • What strategies did producers use in selecting specific ideas, images and sounds in creating the promo? 

  • How accurately could students predict the content of the segment from watching the promo? What factors contribute to an accurate or inaccurate prediction?