Essential Question 9: Who makes money from this message?

The best way to make money from film and television is to attract a large audience.  The larger the size of the audience in television, the more money you can make by selling the audience to advertisers.  The larger the audience for a film, the more money is generated in ticket sales.


While we are all different individuals, there are a few things we have in common: the need to monitor our environment to search for visual change, especially changes that relate to sex and aggression.  Keeping a keen eye out to monitor sex and aggression is one of those skills that has been biologically useful to the maintenance of humans as social creatures -- we've been doing it for as long as humans have been humans, about 35,000 years.

The driving force behind most commercial programming is ratings, and programs that feature, sex, violence, children, animals and UFOs (the staples of sensationalism) will attract viewers -- guaranteed.  Discovery Channel has found that large animals -- especially sharks and others that can eat you -- generate the highest ratings.

Using Promotion to Understand Media Economics

One way to explore this complex issue is to study the use of programming promotions, a form of advertising extremely common on television.  Promotions or "promos" are commercials for a show.  Research shows that most children under 12 don't see these as advertising, and it's important to help kids pick out promos and label them as advertising. When teachers ask students to count the number of promotions and the times of day they can be found, what do they discover? Promos are most frequent in the afternoon when children are watching TV after school!

The information in promos can be misleading, since the purpose of the promo is to get the viewer's attention, not to inform them.  This promo may exaggerate or misrepresent the more complex issues of the longer program simply because its goal is to make a visually compelling message.  More people will see the promo than will ever see the actual program.  People can get misinformation from a promo if they aren't vigilant about the fact that a promo is not designed to be headline news.  It's designed to capture your attention and sell the product.

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?