Advice giving on Television

Scene from Soul City
Scene from Soul City, South Africa

Advice giving on television can mirror the format of talk radio with people having their problems dealt with via an agony aunt or uncle. Programmes may be part of a wider series tackling a particular issue (e.g. parenting problems) or themed on a news event, celebrity crisis or particular day or campaign (e.g. cancer or diabetes awareness).

They have the advantage of viewers often being able to see the person who has a problem and where people with problems are in the studio with agony aunts or uncles allow for a face-to-face dialogue. Although they favour those who are comfortable being seen or perhaps heard on air, who are able to articulately express a problem on TV where they may be feeling additionally nervous about being on screen. It can mean people with specific life experiences or stories to tell can share those for others to relate to or learn from. And, with careful selection, can allow for a diverse range of people to be shown talking about an issue.


Agony Aunt Denise Robertson does a live TV phone-in
Agony Aunt Denise Robertson listens to a caller with a problem

Formats for TV advice giving may include:

– Viewers call in to a television programme or segment in a wider show and have their problems discussed by a resident agony aunt/uncle and/or expert (e.g. medic, therapist etc)
– People’s problems are sent in via text, email, Facebook or Twitter and are read out and discussed by the agony aunt and/or presenters
– Guests (who may or may not be famous) appear within a stand-alone programme or segment sharing a problem and either receiving advice from a resident agony aunt or assisting them in answering other audience members who call in with a related issue
– Fly-on-the-wall programming where an ‘expert’ interacts with people with problems in their own home and/or in other settings
– People with problems may bring them to a presenter to discuss in front of a live studio audience. These may follow relatively traditional self-help focused approaches favoured by Oprah Winfrey or Dr Phil (McGraw) or more confrontational formats where people settle disputes, have paternity tests or lie detectors on programmes like the Jerry Springer Show, Maury or Jeremy Kyle.
– Soap operas that either incorporate problems into a wider plot line or are specifically designed to raise awareness of a particular issue;

Ethical issues around television advice giving relate particularly to confidentiality and anonymity. Unlike radio and print media where people’s identities can be relatively easily hidden for those appearing on television their anonymity may be more difficult to maintain. This can also impact on who is willing to appear on television to seek advice, and who would prefer to watch and learn from a programme or seek advice off-air from an agony aunt or uncle.

Or, using the established soap opera format, TV advice giving can focus on health or social care issues can be incorporated into a programme (such as depression, drug use, domestic violence etc). The best known example of this is South Africa’s Soul City broadcasting for over 20 years and primarily focused on HIV but covering a range of social issues too on health and wellbeing, accompanied by in-built evaluation of impact of programme messages on attitudes and behaviour.

Soul City Promotional from allaboutcom on Vimeo.

As the section on cartooning and photo stories shows, young people are often reached on television using short films and television series tackling the worries children may have. Again South Africa’s Soul Buddyz, aimed at younger audiences uses TV, radio and magazines to tackle issues on literacy, disability, health and rights.

Soul Buddyz still

Critics of charity, NGO, government and third sector advice programming for TV and radio have argued that wider public health messages, embedded as ‘edutainment’ are not always transparent to audiences. And that often the focus on the activity (the programme) is seen as action taken and judged as successful based on that alone, rather than wider evaluations looking at cost, impact, behaviour or attitude change and sustainability.


Jerry Springer Show
Programmes like Jerry Springer can encourage confrontations among guests

The ‘tabloid talk’ and chat show formats have been praised for highlighting taboo topics (e.g. eating disorders, self harm or cot death). But have also been questioned over promoting outdated, judgemental or unhelpful problem solving strategies, liberal or neo-conservative values, and untested treatments or therapies. The more confrontational formats raising issues around the safety of guests during and after the programme, plus respect, dignity and the longer term impact of having ones problems played out on air. Which in extreme cases have led to violence, and murder.

Little evidence exists on the effectiveness of these mediated approaches to problem solving where audiences are encouraged to inflame an already tense situation and where presenters and guests are coached to act in ways that make for more dramatic television. Certainly the use of lie detectors has been found not to work in identifying either lying behaviours or resolving relationships disputes. Follow up care, if offered, is not evaluated to see how effective it is and some argue it is not effective at all.


Lie detectors and other techniques used in tabloid talk shows aren’t proven to work

Critics argue this format allows those who are already disadvantaged economically, socially or educationally to have their problems used to mock, belittle and judge them by a wider audience adopting a superior moral standpoint. Which in turn can play into policies and practices that further exclude and demonise.

Counter criticisms offered by programme presenters and makers claim that with limited services available to the most vulnerable where else would you go for help if therapy or other services are out of reach to you?


Further Reading
Allen RC. 1994. To be continued: soap operas around the world. Routledge.
Ang I. 2007. Television Fictions around the World: Melodrama and Irony in Global Perspective. Critical Studies in Television. 2 (2) pp.18-30.
Bala MM, Strzeszynski L, Topor-Madry R and Cahill K. 2015. Mass media interventions for smoking cessation in adults. Cochrane Review.
Brinn MP, Carson KV, Esterman AJ, Chang AB and Smith BJ. 2010. Mass media interventions for preventing smoking in young people. Cochrane Review.
Brinson SL and Emmett Winn J. 1997. Talk shows’ representations of interpersonal conflicts. Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media. 41 (1) pp.25-39.
Clement S, Lassman F, Barley E, Evans-Lacko S, Williams P, Yamaguchi S, Slade M, Rüsch N and Thornicroft G. 2013. Mass media interventions for reducing mental health-related stigma. Cochrane Review.
Couldry N, Madianou M and Pinchevski A. 2013. Ethics of Media.
Epstein D and Steinberg DL. 1996. All Het Up! Rescuing Heterosexuality on the Oprah Winfrey Show. Feminist Review. 54 pp.88-115.
Epstein D and Steinberg DL. 1998. American Dreamin’ Discoursing liberally on the Oprah Winfrey Show. Women’s Studies International Forum. 21 (1) pp.77-94.
Ferri M, Allara E, Bo A, Gasparrini A and Faggiano F. 2013. Media campaigns for the prevention of illicit drug use in young people. Cochrane Review.
Fine MG. 1981. Soap opera conversations: the talk that binds. Journal of Communication. 31 (3) pp.97-107.
Grabe ME. 2002. Maintaining the moral order: a functional analysis of the Jerry Springer Show. Critical Studies in Media Communication. 19 (3) pp. 311-328.
Grilli R, Ramsay C and Minozzi S. 2002. Mass media interventions: effects on health services utilization. Cochrane Review.
Haag LL. 1993. Oprah Winfrey: The construction of intimacy in the talk show setting. Journal of Popular Culture. 26 (4) pp.115-122.
Hegerty S. 2012 How Soap Operas changed the world
Hobson D. 2002. Soap Operas. Polity Press
Howe A, Owen Smith V and Richardson J. 2002. The impact of a television soap opera on the NHS Cervical Screening Programme in the North West of England. Journal of Public Health Medicine. 24 (4) pp.299-304.
Illouz E. 2003. Oprah Winfrey and the Glamour of misery: an essay on popular culture. Columbia University Press.
MG Kennedy, O’Leary A, Beck V, Pollard K and Simpson P. 2004. Increase in calls to the CDC National STD and AIDS Hotline Following AIDS-Related Episodes in a Soap Opera. Journal of Communication. June. pp.286-301.
Lunt P and Stenner P. 2005. The Jerry Springer Show as an emotional public sphere. Media, Culture and Society. 27 (1) pp.59-81.
MacDonald R, Shildrick T and Furlong A. 2014. ‘Benefits Street’ and the Myth of Workless Communities. Sociological Research Online.
Okley J. 2014. Recycled (mis)representations: Gypsies, Travellers or Roma treated as objects, rarely subjects. People, Place and Policy. 8 (1) pp.65-85.
Singhal A and Rogers EM. 1987. Television soap operas for development in India. Conference presentation.
Skeggs B and Wood H. 2012. Reacting to Reality Television. Performance, Audience and Value. Routledge.
Vidanapathirana J, Abramson MJ, Forbes A and Fairley C. 2005. Mass media interventions for promoting HIV testing. Cochrane Review.
Wood H and Skeggs B. 2011. Reality Television and Class. Palgrave Macmillan.

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Outside of the area of television advice giving, those interested in this area might want to look for research and discussions about the effectiveness and impact of mass media campaigns, media ethics, ethical journalism, cultural and media studies and broadcast media and TV effects.