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Is television a ‘lean-back’ or a ‘lean-in’ medium?

Last updated on 12.07.2020

Reverse side of the reality show

On the 7th March 2013, British society saw a side of “reality television” that nobody expected. Google Box, a Channel 4 Television show recording people watching television, ranging from couples, to families and friends, these people’s reactions to popular TV shows were and still are a huge entertainment source for British society. The viewers are passive and connected to the intimacy and rawness with the “liveliness” of this type of show, it is almost exceeding reality televisions expectations and captures much as televisions ability by pushing boundaries and producing a show that isn’t so “lean-back”.

Specifically, an episode in the first seasons of the show was showing a young teen named Musharaf who suffered from a Stammer, he took control of his stammer by creating a rapport with his teachers, who then train him to read a poem in front of his whole school year. This episode created a sense of connection amongst audiences, some who related and some who physically showed signs of emotion.

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This links to our first study Encoding and Decoding, Hall Et Al. This model allowed audience research to draw largely on this model, the idea of semiotics is embraced in this model, meaning that the text is encoded with a preferred reading.

Specifically Musharaf’s episode

Arguably, watching specifically Musharaf’s episode within Google-Box, all audiences will naturally connect with this character with empathy for him due to his position of vulnerability, this was proved by all of the audience (Google-Box stars themselves) who all shared similar/ the same reaction, teary emotions and using continuous heartfelt comments towards Musharaf. Encoding means the knowledge of the producers, using tactics to produce reactions and recoding is the knowledge of the audience. Even though Musharaf’s episode proved a reaction that was encoded, audiences individually may have taken a number of readings that they didn’t express out loud. A “dominant hegemonic reading does accept the text ‘full and straight’, according to the ‘preferred reading’ of the encoder.” , and most popular, the “Negotiated reading, which acknowledges the legitimacy of the dominant codes but adopts the reading according to the particular social condition of the reader.”

And lastly, the “Oppositional reading” which is decoding, we are engaged in this when audiences meet these products. Moreover, the most popular way that audiences read texts is the negotiated reading, but this does include the legitimacy of the dominant codes, which draws in the idea of ideology amongst these texts. Should audiences have to accept the ideological message that lies in the text? And that is where the strength of TV shows like Google-box come forward. Of course, there are preferred readings and questions of power in all texts, but Google-box includes a collection of different members of society, some working-class, some middle-class but elderly and some teenage best friends. Perspectives from cultural studies are concerned with the consumption of media texts and the messages they create because these are taken away in order to understand the meanings behind these texts.

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The work of real television

Reality TV has a meaning to society that is now so different to one in the 1970s, this was the first boom of reality television. With the rise of women’s talk shows, a constant need and desire for celebrity culture, reality TV has almost created an Olympics of social media influence. Moreover, this becomes an issue because reality tv is becoming an extending social realm than it is a set of texts.

Ordinary people on television (often working class) are constantly being compared to one another and sculpted into a prototype of one another. In many ways, reality TV is inviting audiences to ‘lean-in’ and evaluate other people that they know nothing about, which is problematic. This explanation of reality TV is suggested by “The particular rhetorical structures whereby texts make generalized meaning through specific representations are of less importance than the overall interactive relationships between audiences and texts that constitute public discourse space’”. ESRC funded research project with four different groups of 10 women was organized in areas of South East London.

Main principles

The reason why projects like this are importantы are because they prove that even though classically, tv is labeled as a lean-back medium, it can be a lead-in, however, this is problematic in many ways, in which this project shows this. “What not to wear” is a BBC program broadcasting 2004-2007 in which women claim to know how to impress society solely by their dress sense. Again, similar to programs such as Love Island etc. It is encouraging audiences to judge one another. For example, Michelina, one of the women on the show is showing off her stomach and the other two females scream in horror at the sight of her body.

Reality TV is conditioning audiences to react to edited shots of female body parts and shading it in a negative light, which leads to how sometimes television being a ‘lean-in’ medium is problematic. Audience measurements for these reactions differed between these four groups of women. The group of women from Clapham provided interesting evidence, the women were more likely to deploy cultural difference and language of shame and behavior. This was proved in their audio/visual marker, “What not to wear: ‘… and not the sexiest thing to wear in the bedroom perfect for feeding the baby but no baby to feed so I don’t know why I’m still wearing that.” In which a Clapham woman replied “But I think, if you know that, why don’t you do it yourself? Instead of getting the telly to do it.”

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The reactions of these women specifically add to the long history of people being encouraged to self-measure themselves and self-evaluate in comparison to other people. The period that this brewed from was in the 19th century, however, due to the rise of reality TV, it has been conditioned into society as a norm and intensified by entertainment. This intimacy creates an opening to entertainment, as seen by this study and Google box, reality TV encourages audiences to react and therefore ‘lean-in.’ and cross the norm of TV and film being ‘lean-back’ and internet being ‘lean-in’.

“Generally the talk show has become something the press, film-makers and academics love to hate. Its play with discursive boundaries and identities, with chaos and contingency, have made it threatening to critics desperate for clear labels and stable structures – in other words for a representational ‘purity’ the talk show will not allow.” However, Helen Woods takes on the problematic topic of the use of semiotics. The encoding and decoding model that couldn’t capture what the TV was capable of, which was being able to tell multiple stories at once, not just one, which is what Wayne Munson states above.

Due to the television entering the intimate spaces of our private homes, it invades talk and discussion and interaction, it is constantly alive and therefore is taking part in our communicative act in society. This is why the rise of Talk Shows (especially women’s) became so popular, because it allowed women to have signs they recognized. This form of television being so immediate made women feel as though they are life, much like Google-Box, this form of television became “lean in”. However, there are scholars who disagree with the concept of a talk-show”,

“It is the form of the talk show that is ideologically problematic. It is the way in which personal voice are called to account individually as therapy, outside of the social context that has produced them, which is at the heart of its structure… We need to shit the ground entirely and consider the cultural specificity of the talk itself.”


This deeper acknowledgment made by Peck leads to broader theories of media and modernity and why we should care about these issues. Due to this ability to feel connected with people via television is problematic and lonely, scholars such as Giddens show this. It is an interesting turn on how when television is “lean-in” as oppose to “lean-back”. A concept supporting this idea by Gidden with his idea of “Time-space distanciation”, this is the idea of how increasingly over time we don’t need to be in the same time and the same place to have social interaction with one another, leading to consequences of modernity. These consequences of a lack of interaction due to connections through television programs like talk shows almost giving excuses to audiences to have reasoning to not socially interact in person.

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Of course, it isn’t something the media hasn’t seen before, however, this internet and media boom in the 90s (the time in which Giddens would be writing) was a concerning concept due to a sudden stretch of social relations being lifted out of a co-present situation and spread across global spaces and time. Television talk-shows such as Loose Women and This morning encourage interaction through watching people discuss social debates with one another through a screen, labelled as “Para-social interaction” .

Parasocial interaction

This loneliness escalated within women’s talk shows most commonly, women that were stay at home mums in the day responded to these talk show debates and discussions as they were conversational, interacting by arguing at the television and adding their own stories . Like mentioned earlier, we have so much para-social interaction through social media which is concerning enough, as recently I discovered an article by the Daily Mail, “UK proposes new social media standards that would ban Facebook and Instagram ‘likes’ for underage users”.

This is proving why we should care about para-social interaction spreading to different platforms like television with more “lean-in” programs. Moreover, this idea of para-social interactions leads to the concept of ‘mediated conversation floor.’ This meaning, talk shows gave a broad variation of stories a place to go, but also creating a landscape of our loneliness due to these substitutions of communication.


As it seems, we are in a media-orientated world that is pushing towards a “lean-in “medium for television. Television is often seen as ‘old media’ due to it breeding passivity, whereas the internet is most recognized for its activity due to new media actions and having to physically search for what you are looking for. However, now distinctions of the two are not so distinct now, and this is due to the ways they are embedded into everyday practices.

With television, you now have the ability to surf broadcasting channels, use Netflix and sky cinema to pick and choose what we want to watch to complete our menus of choice. Overall, this user-flow creates choice in what we can discover on television and how we want to interact is now more liberal, we can, in fact, choose whether we want this to be “lean-in” television or “lean-back” and it is clear that there are many problematic reasonings behind both “lean-back” and “lean-in” interaction, with social alienation and para-social interaction at neck and neck, it is down to audiences to select their program delicacy.


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