Do We Like TV Shows Because They Are Good or Are They Good Because We Like Them?

When we like a TV show, why do we like it? What is it about a TV show or any media content that makes it good?

Perhaps you don’t care. “It’s enough that I like it,” you say. “I don’t need to know more than that.”

That may be fine for you. But media content creators and executive producers (the money people) desperately want to know what makes us like TV shows. They want to know what makes media content good, so they can make more content like that.

It’s also an interesting philosophical question. It’s about aesthetics, or the study of the beautiful. Essentially, it’s a question about value and what is valuable or good and why.

Theories in this ballpark have been put forth by academics in mass communication, sociology, psychology, etc. And popular culture critics take stabs at it too.

Today let me discuss just one such theory. The so-called “disposition theory,” attributable to Dolf Zillmann among others, says that the appeal of a TV show depends on the viewer’s emotional attitude (or “disposition”) to the characters as well as what happens to or befalls the characters or what the characters actively choose to do.

In other words: Do we like the characters? What actions do they undertake? And if those actions are morally good or morally bad, are they rewarded or punished?

That’s very general. It gets more specific.

A TV show in which a main character is likeable will appeal to viewers if the character acts morally and is rewarded within the plot. If the character acts immorally and is rewarded in the plot, viewers will find the show less appealing.

There are other permutations, according to a paper by Tamborini et al, “Predicting Media Appeal from Instinctive Moral Values” in the journal Mass Communication and Society from 2013. If a character who acts morally is not rewarded but rather suffers unjust punishment, then the show will be less appealing to viewers. And, finally, if an immoral character is justly punished, viewers find the show more appealing.

In short, viewers want good people to be rewarded and bad people to be punished in the fictional, narrative media content they consume. And they don’t like it flipped where the good are punished and the bad rewarded.

A theory should make predictions. And the disposition theory of media appeal does make predictions which can then be tested to see if they came out true.

The paper, “Predicting Media Appeal from Instinctive Moral Values” provides data from surveys, but I will discuss it another day. Today I want to get philosophical.

It may all be fine and good to see what people self-report as liking and disliking among a variety of types of media content on offer. But I want to ask some philosophical questions, or at least questions that a good student in a critical thinking class should appreciate as going unasked in Tamborini et al.’s paper in the disposition theory school of thought.

First, let’s notice that the whole exercise is non-normative. It is descriptive, sure, but not prescriptive. I mean, the data is a description of what types of media content viewers do indeed profess to like in that specific experimental ecology. But what it doesn’t do is make a proposal about what we should like in a TV show. There’s no claim that a TV show must have such and such properties to qualify as good or beautiful or moving or valuable. Philosophers might wonder what a bunch of data on people’s preferences has to do with what is actually good or valuable in fact. After all, those people represented in the data could be wrong or have bad taste or not know what they are talking about.

There are a number of ways to object to what I am saying. One, you could say that the project of disposition theory was never meant to be normative. It aims only at description. I’ll admit that’s probably true. But notice it leaves my position intact because we are agreeing, disposition theory is non-normative.

Then it will come down to what is “interesting.” You may want to possess a descriptive theory of media content appeal, while I may want to possess a normative or prescriptive theory of media content appeal. That is, a theory of what makes good TV shows, even if the majority doesn’t like them.

This last thought that something might be good even if only a minority think so, brings us back to a second way to object to what I am saying. That is, you might challenge the whole distinction between descriptive and prescriptive. What is good is just what everybody (or a majority) says is good, you might say; whereas I’ve been saying that what is good is whatever meets a certain criteria, the criteria of goodness or the good.

That is, I’m interested in what makes something good. For the moment, I’m not going to be satisfied that what makes something good is simply people agree in liking it and calling it good. I want to know what it is intrinsically about the thing that makes it good, or, if you prefer, that makes people like it.

After all, I think we would all agree, it’s “people say something is good because it is good.” It’s not “something is good because people say that it is.” (For those of you who are interested in this tongue-twisting brain teaser, it’s generally called “The Euthyphro Question” after a Socratic dialogue by Plato. If you want to learn more, look up what I’ve written on the Euthyphro question and ask yourself, “Is the good thing good because the gods love it or do the gods love it because it’s good?”)

Anyway, I think Tamborini et al. need to think about how they would answer the Euthyphro question. Only one answer leaves their work as interesting and it’s not my answer.

A second critical thinking or philosophical point I want to make is this: The deep and wide appeal of “anti-heroes” on TV and media content generally is a counterexample to the disposition theory. After all, anti-heroes are those characters who are not “likeable” and/or don’t always do the morally right thing, and yet we root for them. Disposition theory would predict that if a TV show featured a character who was an anti-hero then that character would be doing immoral things and viewers would only find the show appealing if that character was punished in the end.

But that is just simply not what happens. Viewers absolutely love TV shows in which an anti-hero does immoral things, and the appeal does not turn on rewards or punishments the character gets. So, to explain the appeal of media content with anti-heroes, such as The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, and arguably Seinfeld, Louie, and Girls, you’d need a different theory than disposition theory.

We need to separate a few things that disposition theory collapses all together. We need to separate a character being likeable from a character being moral. Tamborini et al.’s paper equates them. But it’s conceptually possible to “like” or have an emotional investment in a character who acts immorally. And there is almost certainly empirical data to be discovered that people do in fact “like” immoral characters, such as Don Draper of Mad Men and Walter White of Breaking Bad. Equating them will be confusing (and bad science) if it’s the liking of the characters and not their moral or immoral behaviors that causes us to find shows appealing or not.

(Also, it’s probably possible to not like a character while still having some kind of investment and in any case still come out appreciating the show.)

There’s more to say about Tamborini et al.’s paper such as the discussion about there being distinct moral judgment groups who would therefore like different media content according to the paper’s theory. Different people find different things immoral or moral, so they’re going to like or be well disposed to different characters and the media content’s appeal is going to depend on whether those whom you happen to like are rewarded or not.

And there might be other topics I could discuss.

But my present concern is with the psychology of the appeal of TV shows that feature anti-heroes. So some future posts are going to be about that as a problem for disposition theory and as an interesting matter in and of itself.

You need to get your theory of human nature and/or human psychology right in order for your explanations of why something appeals to us to be any good. “Blah blah blah appeals to us because we are such and so,” isn’t any good if we aren’t actually such and so psychologically speaking.