Measuring audience response

by Leonard Henry

from Jump Cut, no. 26, December 1981, pp. 68-69
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1981, 2005

Last year in Rotterdam, Holland, a conference was held to discuss the effectiveness of various forms of media in political education. The conference was sponsored by the "Media and Society" section of the Dutch Sociological Association and was meant to be a confrontation between media producers and people who evaluate the effectiveness of media products, be it television programs for large audiences or film and video productions to be used to start discussions in small groups.

One of the major conclusions of the conference was that the research methods for evaluating the effect of mass media needed to be different from the research methods for evaluating the effect of discussion media.

A major subject for discussion was the research done in Germany to evaluate the effect which the television film THE HOLOCAUST had in different countries in Europe, particularly in West Germany.

Dr. Tilman Ernst, senior research associate at The Federal Institute for Political Education in Germany, reported on their research into the impact of this film on the political consciousness of the German people. Ernst concluded that the broadcast of the film did more, in terms of raising public discussion, than the joint efforts of politicians, teachers, preachers, professional political educators, etc., during the thirty-five preceding years. Within two weeks after the broadcast, his Institute had over 110,000 requests for specific documentation. They mailed out 250,000 discussion guides on request; 70,000 went to teachers. Forty percent of all teachers whose field is related to the issue (history, social studies, etc.) discussed the issue of the persecution of the Jews in their classes.

People became more aware of the detrimental aspects of national socialism, which had always been played down by various segments of the population. More and more voices were heard saying that Nazi terror had been over-exaggerated. A neo-Nazi movement was, and still is, growing in West Germany. According to Ernst's research, the film provided a counterbalance against the popularization of neo-Nazism. Among many people with racist attitudes the film has raised doubts. THE HOLOCAUST forces the viewer to take a standpoint. Among the anti-Semites and among the so-called "neutral" viewers the film raised awareness that there is a problem. Public opinion concerning the issue of war crimes shifted immediately after the broadcast of THE HOLOCAUST against acquittal (from 51% for acquittal before the broadcast to 35% after the broadcast).

Ernst attributed the rather spectacular effort of THE HOLOCAUST in Germany to the dramatization formula of the television film, in which the social problem is personified in interhuman relationships. The relationship between the two families Dorf and Weiss represents the dilemma that many Germans found themselves in during the war, a dilemma that still exists when people are forced to take a stand on the German past. But does the identification through dramatization produce consciousness was the question raised in relation to the experiences with THE HOLOCAUST. According to Ernst, THE HOLOCAUST reached a great number of people who would never have been reached by any other method of political education. As a result of THE HOLOCAUST people started to look for other sources of information as well. According to the research the film was for many people a first step in becoming concerned about the German past.

Some scholars at the conference raised another objection. The danger in the use of an identification formula is that social problems become reduced to personal problems, tied to the personalities of the heroes and the heroines on the screen. Dr. Ernst replied that we should not only ask what happens to the viewer while he or she is watching the film, but how television programs can function as a trigger for public discussions which should be followed up by other campaigns of political education. Although identifying with fictional characters may be a problem, political educators feel that getting that discussion started is more important than exposing people to a nonfiction film they will walk away from before it is even finished.

People who use films in political education increasingly regard follow-up materials and/or discussion guides a prerequisite. West Germany and Austria are ahead in this respect because their institutes for political education have specialized research staffs to pre-test films for political education and design "useful materials for useful films." An example of such research was presented by Dr. Walter Goehring of the Austrian Institute for Political Education in Mattesburg. Dr. Goehring showed the film AUGUST! AUGUST! AUGUST!, which is a remake of the theatrical play by Pavel Kohut about the Prague spring of 1968. The theatrical characters allegorically express the problem of power and repression. The film version of this play handles the "identification through dramatization formula" in a didactic and controlled manner. The film clearly shows a theatre. There is no "escape" into a second reality as is the case in standard Hollywood productions. The formula of AUGUST! AUGUST! AUGUST! was inspired by Brecht's theory of alienation in the theatre.

According to Dr. Goehring's research this film form effectively leads to discussions on such a general issue as "power and repression," particularly as it relates to young people. The power constructs, shown on the stage, are recognized by and are often translated into the situations in which the children themselves are confronted with power and repression in their school or in their own family. At first sight it sounds awkward to put a stage production on film, but after looking at AUGUST! AUGUST! AUGUST! and learning about Dr. Goehring's experiences it begins to make sense.

After hearing about the research on theatrical productions, it proved very interesting to learn about experiences with documentaries in political education. Dr. András Szefkü, who is associated with the Institute for Mass Coununications in Budapest, reported on his study on the evaluation of the feature length documentary GYURY CSEPLÖ, about the social situation of gypsy youth in Hungary. The aim of the research was to investigate to what extent this documentary succeeded in starting discussions of the prejudices concerning gypsies among Hungarian audiences.

The film, which depicts the experiences of three gypsy boys who leave their village and go to the big city, was shown to sixty audiences across the country. Most of the audiences were all Hungarian, but some of them were mixed Hungarian and gypsy. The research team recorded all discussions following the showings of the film and analyzed then to see whether the film helped the audiences discuss and perhaps overcome their prejudices.

The research gives a very interesting insight into the attitudes that prevail in Hungary regarding the assimilation or integration of gypsies into Hungarian society. Most Hungarians and gypsies follow the doctrine of the government that gypsies are to behave like Hungarians, i.e., integrate fully into Hungarian society. Only young intellectual gypsies defend the position that gypsies should obtain equal rights and equal treatment but at the same time should be entitled to maintain their own culture. The analysis of the discussions reveals that for most Hungarians, the gypsy culture is associated with such qualities as laziness and stupidity. In forty of the sixty discussions someone in the audience told the standard story about the gypsy family who moved into a modern home and used the parquet floor to burn in the stove.

The film, however, provides counterevidence against such prejudices. The major thrust of the film is the proposition that the social backwardness of gypsies finds its roots in the attitudes of the Hungarians toward the gypsies. Whenever gypsies were in the audience, they felt supported by the film. For almost all of them it was the first time that they discussed "the gypsy problem" with Hungarians. Szekfü concluded that the film was effective in sensitizing the Hungarians and breaking down the generally prevailing opinion that the problems gypsies have in Hungarian society can be attributed to their ethnic differences.

An even more specific piece of research concerning the effect of the documentary form on group discussions in political education was presented by a research team of the Sociological Institute of the University of Utrecht. Here the research people had themselves made a film with various versions. One version shows the problem of a specific population group (in this case the Maoris of New Zealand) exclusively from the point of view of the underdog while in a second version the film also presents the point of view of the dominant culture. The Maoris, who rally to retain the rights to their land which they lost as a result of the colonization of New Zealand, argue that their land was confiscated through devious tricks. The European immigrants maintain that they obtained the land in a legal way through sales and treaties signed by the Maori leadership. The film which gives the one-sided presentation (i.e., which shows only the Maori point of view) tended to generate a stronger emotional involvement. There was more polarization in the discussion because each time this version of the film was shown, one or more students protested against the "one-sidedness" of the film. They would then try to invent the arguments that the whites of New Zealand would have to nullify the arguments of the Maoris. This in turn tended to infuriate the students who defended the point of view of the Maoris, thus escalating the polarization. The second version of the film, where the point of view of the Maoris is juxtaposed to the point of view of New Zealand whites (represented by statements by the Minister of Maori Affairs and some street interviews with ordinary citizens) tended to generate less heated discussion while at the same time there was somewhat more support for the stand of the Maoris and virtually no support for the position of the whites.

There was general agreement that Hollywood-type films like THE HOLOCAUST, though not specifically made for political education, can be effective in triggering public discussions about social issues that concern millions of people. However, it was also agreed that very specific research is required to determine the usefulness of such films and to prepare tailored brochures and discussion guides to ensure a proper use by those who use the films for purposes of political education.

Filmed stage productions like AUGUST! AUGUST! AUGUST! can generate discussions about general issues among specific limited audiences. Documentaries are more appropriate for audiences which have already some interest in the areas that are to be discussed.

We can effectively evaluate mass media by qualitative survey techniques (as in the case of THE HOLOCAUST). To evaluate media made especially for political education in small groups, we need qualitative research methods to analyze the discussions after the showing and in-depth interviews with spectators preferably before and after the film screening and discussion. These in-depth qualitative research techniques are still in an early stage of development. Some experience can be borrowed from the researchers who do standardized pre-testing of advertising commercials. However, the substance under study in the case of advertising is of a qualitatively different order, as compared to the substance under study in the case of the evaluation of a process of political education.

It is therefore of considerable importance that research in this field be stimulated and discussed, not only by research people among themselves but also by filmmakers and people who use films in political education.