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Television and “High” and “Low” Culture

Updated on April 8, 2015

Create a post defining “high” and “low” culture in mass media (using television programming as a basis). Illustrate an example of each using a television program. Argue whether these labels are still meaningful or whether the media convergence era we live in requires a need to adjust what is considered “high” and “low” culture.

Mass media revolution defines high cultures as “societies wherein both the producers and the consumers (the audience) of media content the actual words, images, and stories heavily depend on a shared understanding of the context within which that media content is presented” (Sterin, 2012, p. 462). In reference to television programming high culture is seen as television programs that have a lasting artistic or literary value; these programs are typically aimed at intellectual elites (Browne, 2013, p. 32). Television programs that are considered high culture would be serious news programs, documentaries, specialist art films, theater shows, and jazz performances (Browne, 2013, p. 33). Twin Peaks and The Sopranos would both be considered high culture television programs because they can both have elements similar to art films; both shows have elements of psychological realism, narrative complexity, and ambiguous plotlines.

Low cultures are defined by Mass media revolution as “societies in which the media that are produced and consumed are generally straightforward” (Sterin, 2012, p. 463). In reference to television programming low culture refers to television shows that are widely watched by the masses that do not involve abstract ideas or contemporary social problems. Low culture television programs include reality shows, comedies, cartoons, and generally Prime Time TV. The Simpsons is an example of a low culture television show because it does not involve abstract ideas or contemporary social problems, is widely watched by the masses, involves crude humor, and it lacks any lasting artistic or literary value.

Culture is defined as “the integrated and dynamic social system of behaviors, characteristics, customs, language, artifacts, and symbols that distinguish one social group from another” (Sterin, 2012, p. 461). In mass media, specifically television programming, culture is currently split between high culture and low culture. While these labels may have been effective in the past, the media convergence era we currently live in has blurred the lines. High culture was traditionally seen as mass media content that was sophisticated and intended primarily for the upper and middle class. Low culture was usually a derogatory term to used to describe the media that the masses view; it was traditionally seen as cheap, crude, sleazy, and is considered lowbrow. In our current media convergence era there is a need to adjust what is considered “high” and “low” culture. The two terms are no longer enough to cover all of the media available and many of the programs classified as low culture do not correctly fit the definition of high culture or low culture. For example the television show Doctor Who includes a blend of high culture and low culture elements. Hilary Dannenberg (2007) writes that, “Doctor Who was a hybrid right from its inception - not least because it was aimed at, and immediately fascinated, both adult and child audiences.” The show includes many of the high culture elements found in documentaries from when the Doctor travels through the Stone Age, Ancient Greece, Marco Polo’s time in China, and the Crusades. The show also involves many low culture aspects like its elements of comedy, its fictional plot line, and the fact that it is widely watched by the masses. Television shows similar to Doctor Who illustrate the need a term for an ethos between high and low culture.

The documentary called Anita O'Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer would be considered an example of high culture because it is a documentary aimed at intellectual elites, its main theme is jazz which is considered high culture, and it has a lasting artistic value.


Browne, K. (2013). Culture and Identity. In Sociology for AS AQA (4th ed., pp. 31-39). Cambridge: Polity.

Dannenberg, H. (2007). Where Histories and Cultures Meet: Doctor Who and British Culture. High Culture And/versus Popular Culture, 2-3. Retrieved March 29, 2015, from

Sterin, J. (2012). Mass media revolution (2nd ed.). Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Television has had a profound influence on society. Television serves as a vehicle to portray social values and opens up avenues to discuss social issues. Broadcast television has progressed in both the number of channels and programming available to consumers, yet ownership continues to become more and more consolidated under a few major
corporations. Television programming has also experienced a seismic shift into reality-based programming, and this has led to a seemingly endless variety of shows about “real” people. Television networks are also increasingly using social media to promote shows and encourage conversation about them, which further enhances media convergence and prompts audiences to be more active than passive.
Some of the important concepts and terms introduced by Sterin (2014) include the following:
Episodic Television Drama: A dramatic television series consisting of 13 hours spread over 13 weeks.
Ensemble Cast: A cast that includes many lead characters.
Nielsen Ratings: A measurement system that identifies television audience size and composition and provides programmers with daily and hourly snapshots of the viewing audience.
Sweeps Week: In television, the annual seven-day ratings periods held during the first weeks of November, March, May, and July.
Sketch Comedies: Short comedy scenes or vignettes.
Situation Comedies: Sitcoms, comedies that feature regularly recurring characters in a familiar environment.
Dramas: Television programming that generally holds the prime time slots; includes everything from mysteries and action/adventures to political and crime thrillers.
Soap Operas: Serial fiction television programs, so named for the household detergent manufacturers that sponsored them, originally started in radio.

Serial Fiction: A type of television program that cleverly unifies story elements, day after day, for thousands of episodes, into plots that continuously unfold and are never fully resolved.
Reality Television: Low-budget television productions built around real people in unusual situations.
High Culture: A set of cultural products, mainly in the arts, held in the highest esteem by a culture (Wikipedia, 2014).
Low Culture: A derogatory term for some forms of popular culture that have mass appeal
(Wikipedia, 2014).


Wikipedia. (2014). High culture. Retrieved from

Wikipedia. (2014). Low culture. Retrieved from Sterin, J.

C. (2014). Mass media revolution (2nd ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson.


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