Rough Guide to Media Theory


Whenever you produce any kind of written work for media studies, you must demonstrate that you understand the key concepts of media theory. If you know these key concepts off by heart, and are able to apply some theories to help explain them, you’re probably more than halfway to getting a decent grade.

 This handy ‘rough’ guide is intended to be kept as a reminder. It DOESN’T replace all the in depth analysis that you’ve had from your tutor, but it can be useful to help you check that you’ve ‘touched base’ with key concepts and theories.


 The Key Concept of Genre relates to the codes and conventions shared by texts and the generic features they share. A text is classified in a genre through the identification of key elements which occur in that text and in others of the same genre. These elements may be referred to as paradigms, (basically, ways of doing something) and range from costume to music to plot points to font (depending on the medium). Audiences recognise these paradigms, and bring a set of expectations to their reading of the text accordingly: for example, the criminal will be brought to justice at the end of the police thriller. These paradigms may be grouped into those relating to iconography (ie the main signs and symbols that you see/hear), structure (the way a text is put together and the shape it takes) and theme (the issues and ideas it deals with).

 Genre Theories

 Burton’s Six Elements  associated with Graeme Burton

Burton suggests that each text in a given genre shares particular key elements to make up the generic formula, these include:
Stock Characters
Plots and Stock Situations
Background and Décor


‘The protagonist, Neo, is very typical of the action film generic formula…‘The genre of the film, a romantic comedy, is established in the opening sequence through representation of setting, the Parisian landscape….’

 Unique Selling Point

The Unique Selling Point is a marketing principle which sells a text to audiences on an aspect the text offers which isn’t offered by any other text based on the same generic formula.


The unique selling point of the runaway bride is that it stars Julia Roberts and Richard Gere, who co-star in this film for the first time since the hugely successful Pretty Woman. This would attract fans of the latter film who think that the star’s roles in the later film is a ‘stamp of quality.’

Pleasure of Recognition

Audiences enjoy the familiarity of ‘generic texts’, no effort has to be spent ‘getting to know’ characters or situations. Recognition of the generic code also allows audience to predict events, which leads to the pleasure of prediction, and being correct….


It’s easy for audiences to recognise the protagonists in Se7en from the thriller films they have seen previously; Mills is the young over-zealous detective and Somerset the older, world weary version – then audience can predict their behaviour accordingly.

 Repetition and Novelty   associated with – Graeme Burton

Generic texts repeat many elements of a formula, to offer audiences the pleasure of recognition, but also have novel elements of surprise, to offer audiences something new. Repetition is also appealing to producers, who have to put less work into their texts.


“it’s not all Ha Ha Ha, He He He “ is in practically every respect a typical women’s TV dramatic comedy, based on the lives of a group of thirty something friends coming to terms with what adulthood is about. In many ways it is very similar to Cold Feet, and uses the same generic formula. However, this show also has an element of novelty, something that makes it different, it’s about the lives of Asian women.”

Postmodernism   associated with..Jean-Francois Lyotard, Jean Baudrillard

The ‘post modernist’ era began about the 1960s, Modernist era 1900s – 1960s (Modernism – a deliberate departure from tradition using innovative forms of expression, and interests in new technologies and new visions) Characterised by rejecting theories of belief systems that helped people order their lives as ‘subjective’ and each as viable as the next.

Lyotard argues that values are maintained in modern societies through the means of “grand narratives” which are stories a culture tells itself about its practices and beliefs. A “grand narrative” in American culture might be the story that democracy is the most enlightened (rational) form of government, and that democracy can and will lead to universal human happiness. In Marxism, for instance, the “grand narrative” is the idea that capitalism will collapse in on itself and a utopian socialist world will evolve. Postmodernism then is the critique of grand narratives, the awareness that such narratives serve to mask the contradictions and instabilities that are inherent in any social organization or practice. A “grand narrative explains that “disorder” REALLY IS chaotic and bad, and that “order” REALLY IS rational and good. Postmodernism, in rejecting grand narratives, favours “mini-narratives,” stories that explain small practices, local events, rather than large-scale universal or global concepts. In a post modern world, in terms of belief and style, ‘anything goes’. Signs of post-modernism include irony, (irony – The use of words to express something different from and often opposite to their literal meaning),  mixing of genres, eclecticism, (eclecticism – The practice of selecting or borrowing from earlier styles and combining the borrowed elements). Intertextual references and playfulness.

“Pulp Fiction is a pertinent example of Post Modernist film. It’s fragmented, non-linear structure, over exaggerated characters and anti-realist codes of representation challenge everything we previously understood to be ‘good film-making.’


In order for communication to take place there must be at least two parties: the sender of the communication and the receiver of the communication. The audience is the receiver of the text, as it interprets the message conveyed. Whether you are constructing a text or analysing one, you will need to consider the destination of that text, ie its target audience and how that audience (or any other) will respond to that text.

Audience Theories

Two Step Flow  associated with Katz & Lazersfeld
The Two Step Flow theory theorises about how the mass media reaches and affects people.In the first step, the media influences ‘opinion leaders’ – individuals whose opinions affect other people, and in the second step, the opinion formers share their views with others. The Two step theory is especially relevant to political campaigning, where opinion formers are used to give credence to a political party’s point of view, and also in advertising – where it is increasingly common to use ‘celebrities’ to endorse products.

“……it is also interesting that in this list of titles owned by Murdoch is the Times Educational Supplement, a publication aimed at teachers. Teachers are significant opinion formers, in terms of Blulmer and Katz flow theory of media effects…..”

Uses and Gratifications associated with Blulmer and Katz
A sociological theory which pays attention to how audiences actively make meanings from the media they consume and ‘use’ the media, rather than how the media affects audiences. Functions include personal relationships, (using the media for emotional and other interaction, eg substituting soap operas for family life)  identification, (finding yourself reflected in texts, learning behaviour and values from texts) entertainment, escapism, (escaping from everyday problems and routine) Social surveillance (Information which could be useful for living eg weather reports, financial news, holiday bargains)  

“Soaps offer their target audience much more than simple entertainment. For example the Uses and Gratifications Theory on media effects includes such functions as social relationships, as audiences build bonds with familiar characters. The regularity and familiarity of soaps may therefore actually offer audiences a feeling of belonging sometimes only gained by spending time with close friends.”

Effects Theories
A Set of differing approaches on the relationships between texts and audiences, including: 

– Hypodermic Syringe. Media representations have direct effects on the attitudes/beliefs/behaviours of passive audiences.
Catharsis – violent and and sexual content in media texts serves the function of releasing ‘pent up’ tension aggression/desire in audiences.

“Whereas it was thought that a film such as Natural Born Killers may directly influence audiences to behave like protagonists Mickey and Mallory in acts of copy cat  behaviour, such a ‘hypodermic syringe’ approach to media effects is now generally refuted.”

Dumbing Down associated with John Humphreys
The tendency of programme developers, due to commercial requirements, to appeal to the widest possible audience, by offering familiar, easy, ‘accessible’ texts, which fail to challenge audiences intellectually or represent experiences outside the audiences own. ‘Dumbed down’ texts are stories with which audiences can relate, to do with sex, money, suffering, jealousy, conflict, which elicit an emotional response.

Although the BBC is funded by the license fee, rather than advertising, it must still justify this fee by attracting a significant audience share. Some have argued that this has led to ‘dumbing down’ programme content, making BBC versions of commercial shows. An example of this would be ‘Fame Academy’ the BBC version of Pop Stars.

Cultural Capital Theory Associated with: Pierre Bourdieu, Also called Reception Theory associated with Stuart Hall. The term describes as well as having differing amounts of economic capital, different classes also have different accumulations of cultural education and experiences. Audiences bring their cultural capital to their individual readings of any given text.

Extending the concept of an active audience still further, in the 1980s and 1990s a lot of work was done on the way individuals received and interpreted a text, and how their individual circumstances (gender, class, age, ethnicity) affected their reading. This work was based on Stuart Hall’s encoding/decoding model of the relationship between text and audience – the text is encoded by the producer, and decoded by the reader, and there may be major differences between two different readings of the same code. However, by using recognised codes and conventions, and by drawing upon audience expectations relating to aspects such as genre and use of stars, the producers can position the audience and thus create a certain amount of agreement on what the code means. This is known as a preferred reading.

Fully participating with some of the narratives offered by ‘Have I Got News For You’ require a certain amount of cultural capital on the part of the audience. Foe example, to understand the joke made about President Bush in the episode 2nd July 2004 the audience should be familiar with contemporary trends in politics and Bush’s campaign for the American Presidential elections. Furthermore, greater meaning would be made if the audience were familiar with Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11.

Media Language

Media Language is concerned with understanding the processes involved in the construction of media texts and how the techniques used in the construction affect the way texts are read.

You should be able to discuss the technical codes of any particular media form (like the size and font of the masthead on the front page of a newspaper, or the use of spooky music in a particular scene of a horror film) and how they are used to create meaning. But explaining these will be easier if you have a basic knowledge of Semiotic Theory, because this will help you to explain how communication occurs.

This theory states that every text, whether it’s a film, a book, a picture, or just an individual word, is made up of individual  signs.  These signs have both a literal or denotative meaning – the signifier, and a connotative, or signified meaning.  The ‘signifier’ is the form the sign takes, the ‘signified’ is the concept it represents. Knowing about semiotic theory is especially useful if you are studying advertising. Advertisers make it their aim to give products additional meanings which help to sell the product, over and above their literal meaning.


“The campaign for BISTO sets out to convince the purchaser that it has far greater powers other than as a simple gravy. By clever use of words and pictures, the advertisers turn a brown liquid that you pour over your dinner (the denotative meaning) into a major force for good across the land! (The connotative, or signified meaning) 


By definition, all media texts are re-presentations of reality. This means that they are intentionally composed, lit, written, framed, cropped, captioned, branded, targeted and censored by their producers, and that they are entirely artificial versions of the reality we perceive around us. Everything you see, hear or read in the media has been constructed. When studying the media it is vital to remember this – every media form, from a home video to a glossy magazine, is a representation of someone’s concept of existence, codified into a series of signs and symbols which can be read by an audience. However, it is important to note that without the media, our perception of reality would be very limited, and that we, as an audience, need these artificial texts to mediate our view of the world, in other words we need the media to make sense of reality. Therefore representation is a fluid, two-way process: producers position a text somewhere in relation to reality and audiences assess a text on its relationship to reality.

Theories of Representation

The study of representation is about decoding the different layers of truth/fiction/whatever. In order to fully appreciate the part representation plays in a media text you must consider
Who produced it?
What is being represented?  How is it represented? Using what codes? Within what genre? How is the representation made to seem ‘true’, ‘commonsense’ or ‘natural’?
What is foregrounded and what is backgrounded? Are there any notable absences?
Whose representation is it? Whose interests does it reflect? How do you know?
At whom is this representation targeted? How do you know?
What does the representation mean to you? What does the representation mean to others? How do you account for the differences?
How do people make sense of it? According to what codes?
With what alternative representations could it be compared? How does it differ?

Reflectionist vs constructionist – Associated with Stuart Hall
There are three different approaches to understanding how representation works:

Reflective – The media simply reflects meanings which already exist in the ‘real’ world.
Intentional – The media simply reflects what the producer wants to say
Constructionist – Media is constructed in the active relationship between producer, text and audience.

“This ‘intentional’ approach to the meaning of representation is typical of the Hypodermic Syringe Theory, but it is generally accepted that audiences have greater media literacy than ever before making active meanings of the texts they consume..”

Constructions of Realism
Explores the relationship between the text, and aspects of the real world it represents. ‘Realism’ in contrast to ‘Reality’ is often highly constructed. Types of realism include social realism, documentary realism, and emotional realism. Often contrasted with spectacular or melodramatic representations.

The documentary and social realism of ‘Sweet Sixteen’ is convincing, carefully constructed by Loach’s approach to film-making. He uses non professional actors, and encourages them to improvise much of the script. Furthermore it is shot in natural light on grainy film stock.

Gramsci and Hegemony associated with Antonio Gramsci
Gramsci suggested that power is achieved by dominant groups by persuading subordinate groups that social structures and dominant ideological values are in their interests, and convincing them to consent to their socio-economic position.

According to Gramsci, hegemony is political power that flows from intellectual and moral leadership, authority, or consensus as distinguished from armed force. A ruling class forms and maintains its hegemony in civil society by creating cultural and political consensus through unions, political parties, schools, media, the church,  voluntary associations etc.

Although the stereotypical target audience for Eastenders is female, the representation of gender roles in the show play the hegemonic function of reinforcing dominant patriarchal values.

Binary Oppositionsassociated with de Saussure and Levi-Strauss
Structuralist (structuralism – societies and sociological or cultural practices can be analysed, along the lines of a language, as signifying systems) approach which suggests we may understand a representation in it’s contrast (opposition) to other representations in the same text.

The audience gain greater understanding of the character Mills and Somerset in Se7en by their binary opposition to each other. Whilst Mills is young, white, at the beginning of his career, messy and married, Somerset is old, black, at the end of his career, organised and single. The audience therefore know the characters not only by what they are, but also by what they are not.

Moral Panics  Associated with – Stanley Cohen
Cohen identified the role of the media in generating (sometimes unfounded) public anxiety about issues such as law and order and public health.

“…the dominant representation of homosexuality was affected negatively in the 1980s when a moral panic was created by the media linking homosexuality with AIDS, pacifying the concerns of the heterosexual mass audience.”


Narrative is concerned with the form or structure of the text itself, the way it tells the story, how it is shaped. You will have come across the word ‘narrator’ before, and understand it to mean storyteller. Similarly, Narrative refers to the story that is told or written.  In the context of mass media the story is the media text and a whole team of people have been involved in creating and shaping it for the audience. Narrative is therefore a process of organising and structuring.

What’s the difference between Story & Narrative?
“Story is the irreducible substance of a story (A meets B, something happens, order returns),
is the way the story is related (Once upon a time there was a princess…)”

Narrative Theory

Field and 3 Act Structure associated with Syd Field
Syd Field in the ‘Screenwriters Workshop’ identified how conventional narrative feature length films share conventional characteristics in their construction/the way the story is told, and that successful scripts can be written by adhering to this theory. The narrative is split into three sections: Set up, confrontation, resolution, and has two significant plot points between the acts.

“The film is structured in terms of Syd Fields ‘3 Act Structure’. In the set up, we get to know the characters of Somerset and Mills, and the nature of their relationship. At plot point 1 the ‘problematic’ (Problematic – something that needs solving) is established and the confrontation stage of Field’s theory features Mills and Somerset trying to catch the antagonist”

Propp and Character types associated with Vladimir Propp
Russian formalist theory (formalist – breaking things down into small units and analysing them) Propp analysed hundreds of folk tales and argued that there are 31 basic character functions. These functions include actions such as ‘delivery’ (villain gets information about the victim) ‘Trickery’ (villain tries to deceive the victim) and ‘struggle’ (hero and villain fight) Through this he demonstrated the relationship between characters and the structure of the narrative. Fairytales are useful to analyse because they contain stock characters and structural ingredients. After studying 115 fairytales, Propp was able to identify seven main character ‘roles’, as he called them:

1 the villain
2 the donor (or provider)
3 the helper
4 the princess (or sought-for person) and her father
5 the dispatcher
6 the hero
7 the false hero

These roles represent the building blocks of narratives, it is their actions, in what Propp calls ‘functions’, that construct the narrative Propp states that several roles may well be filled by the same character and that some may also be filled by more than one character

The most often-used example of this is the Star Wars trilogy (Turner, 1993; Berger, 1992);
this is because Star Wars makes an interesting point of comparison between the tradition of the fairytale structure and the classic Hollywood moving image product

Todorov and Narrative Structure associated with Tzvetan Todorov Russian Formalist theory (again)
Todorov described the way in which the conventional narrative’s flow is divided into 3 sections – (an early antecedent of Field’s 3 act structure) A state of equilibrium is disrupted (by the problematic) to ceate a sense of ‘disequilibrium) before achieving a sense of ‘new equilibrium’ when the problem is resolved.

“…although the problem has been resolved by the end of ‘21 grams’, the world will never be the same again. This is what Todorov termed a ‘new equilibrium’, normal life has been restored. But it is quite different to the life the characters lived before the accident happened and disequilibrium was caused.

Story & Plot associated with Tzvetan Todorov (Another Russian Formalist Theory) 
The story (fabula) is all the events shown and implied by the film in chronological order. The plot (syuzhet) is just the events actually shown, in the order they are shown.

“…the story and plot of Pulp Fiction are quite different, and part of the pleasure for the audience is ‘figuring out’ the story from the plot. The story ends with the road movie stock situation of Butch and Fabienne  riding off into the sunset on a chopper. Conversely. The end of the plot finishes minutes after the opening of the plot, with Vince and Jules leaving the Hawthorne Grill.

Narrative Codes associated with Roland Barthes
Barthes suggested that narrative works with different codes which activate the reader to make sense of it.

Enigma Code – little puzzles to be solved
Action codes – looks, significant words, close ups which suggest an event such as ‘jealousy’, ‘falling in love’ accident waiting to happen etc
Symbolic code – an object, event or action which refers to something outside itself – like the flower which represents ET’s life.

“….one narrative code which keeps the audience hooked in Pulp Fiction is the enigma, ‘What is in the briefcase?’ This enigma is not answered in the film and audiences have actively participated in making meaning, resolving the enigma with theories and hypotheses circulated on the internet.”

Other Theories

The production/distribution of many texts is subject to the regulation of an authoritative body, which may include censorship and certification. In terms of film, the BBFC classify texts before distribution in terms of age, based on the content of the film. Ofcom deals with many aspects of regulation of TV, advertising, and print media.

“…….the tango advert of the mid 90s which featured a man slapping the sides of another man’s head with the slogan ‘You’ve been Tangoed’ was banned by the advertising standards authority following complaints that the advertisement was causing copycat acts of violence.”

Marxist approaches, associated with Marx, Althusser, Adorno
Marx suggested that those who own the means of production have control in Capitalist societies. Marxist media theorists study how those who have the means to produce mass mediated texts use them to reinforce their own values.

“….women’s magazines therefore reinforce stereotypical gender roles. Women are now actively encouraged to have careers, but also to marry and raise families. Rather than liberating their audiences, Marxist critics might suggest that the white middle class, middle age owners of production companies are reinforcing patriarchal values and therefore their own powerful position.

Feminist Theory
Focuses on the role given to women and the way they are portrayed in the mass media. Often argue that women are represented as sex objects (victims of the male gaze – see Laura Mulvey), as housewives, or as weak, impressionable and mindless. Feminists critics argue that such representations play a dangerous function in the process of socialisation, encouraging audiences to consent to patriarchal dominant ideology.

“….the preferred reading for Charlie’s Angels is that it is liberating for it’s target audience to identify with these strong independent female protagonists, a significant aspect of the 70s TV series that has been replicated in the 2000 films. However the women remain under the control of, and completely obey the orders of, the anonymous male, Charlie.

Star Status
A star is an actor or actress (though increasingly directors are becoming ‘stars’ in their own right – link to postmodernism) who is well known enough, through marketing, interviews, TV interviews, celebrity reports etc, for their image to contribute to the roles they play. It may also act to attract audiences.

“….Angelina Jolie has quite an enigmatic reputation. She is strong and independent, does a lot of work for charity and is a single parent to her adopted Cambodian son. Jolie brings this star status to her role as Lara Croft, a character who would have quite a different meaning if played by an overly feminine, married, or dependent actress…”

The organisation of activities, businesses or institutions on a global rather than a national scale. Linked to debates about ‘world culture’, and ‘cultural imperialism’ as a result of the availability of contemporary technology and transport systems.

“…….Friends is now broadcast in many different countries, and therefore these western values are reaching non-western audiences, promoting consumerism, safe promiscuity, equal gender roles, and little emphasis on family relationships. This may have a serious effect on the growth of a global culture…..”


2 Responses to Rough Guide to Media Theory

  1. Luis says:

    This is brilliant. Very informative. But where did you find the reference to Burton’s Six Elements and the idea of the generic formula? I can’t seem to find and citation for it?

  2. Christ the king st.marys sidcup says:

    very useful, thanks

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