Departmental Papers (ASC)

Document Type

Journal Article

Date of this Version

January 1994

Publication Source

Cultural Studies





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While there is much new work in the field of communications that challenges such distinctions, many scholars who study the medium still assume a clear and natural separation between fictional and non-fictional television. Falling into the former category are most prime-time shows, specials, movies and other broadcasts serving, it is assumed, primarily as entertainment. Further, many scholars assume that such shows have little impact on the way people think about the 'real world', in general, and politics, in particular. In the latter category are shows like the news, documentaries and other public-affairs programming. Such shows are assumed to deal with events or conditions in the 'real world'. With few exceptions, for example, political scientists examine only 'nonfiction' television when they search for the effect of the medium on political attitudes and beliefs. In this paper we critically examine the distinction between 'fiction' and non-fiction' television, arguing that it does not hold up under close scrutiny. Indeed, its unexamined persistence tends to blind scholars to the full political implications of television for democratic politics in the United States.

Copyright/Permission Statement

This article was published in Cultural Studies, 2006, © Taylor & Francis, available online at:


NOTE: At the time of publication, the author Michael X. Delli Carpini was affiliated with Columbia University. Currently January 2008, he is a faculty member of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania.



Date Posted: 14 January 2008