What Is Entertainment?

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What's Entertainment? Notes Toward a Definition 1

Stephen Bates and Anthony J. Ferri

What’s Entertainment? Notes Toward a Definition

Entertainment has been a part of all cultures, from the Chauvet Cave paintings to the iPad. For Rothman, it is “the storehouse of national values” (xviii). Perhaps nowhere is that observation more apt than in the United States, a nation that Gabler terms a “republic of entertainment” (11). Many Americans seem to feel entitled to high-quality entertainment (Zillmann and Vorderer viii), and more and more entertainment jostles for their attention (Wolf 46). Zillmann goes so far as to predict that entertainment “will define, more than ever before, the civilizations to come” (“Coming of Media Entertainment” 18). The importance of entertainment can be gauged by a study conducted by Brock and Livingston (259). They asked 115 American undergraduates how much money they would require in order to give up television for the rest of their lives. More than half said they would demand over a million dollars, with several naming amounts exceeding a billion dollars. Despite the centrality of entertainment to society, however, academia has treated the subject in a disjointed, scattershot, sometimes condescending fashion, for a variety of reasons. To start with, the earliest communication theorists chose to study the mass media in terms of persuasion rather than entertainment, and most subsequent scholarship has retained that em33.1 Fall 2010


Stephen Bates and Anthony J. Ferri

phasis (Katz and Foulkes 376; Singhal and Rogers 120). Furthermore, many scholars look on entertainment as too trivial for study (Shusterman 291). They believe that entertainment amounts principally “to taking up large amounts of the daily time of individuals, but not representing an important force for human behavior change” (Singhal and Rogers 120). In addition, different disciplines have asserted dominion over different aspects of the topic. Scholars of communications, film, literature, art, popular culture, leisure, history, psychology, sociology, economics, policy, law, neuroscience, and other disciplines all have claimed partial, often overlapping authority. But the importance of the whole has been neglected: no single discipline has undertaken to map the vast landscape of entertainment. Lieb observes that theorists have largely failed to explain “what entertainment is, what kind of functions it inherits, and how much further it may expand” (226). Vorderer deems the academic response to entertainment “astonishing, to the point of being incomprehensible” (“Entertainment Theory” 131). To be sure, some entertainment scholars may see no need for any single, overarching definition. For them, a subjective approach (discussed below) suffices: entertainment is whatever individuals find entertaining. But we believe that development of a more objective definition can help unify and advance the field of entertainment studies. Terminological exactitude, after all, is a basic foundation of scholarship. We follow the example of Browne, who in 1972 published “Popular Culture: Notes Toward a Definition.” He wrote, “Despite the obvious difficulty of arriving at a hard and fast definition of popular culture, it will probably be to our advantage—and a comfort to many who need one—to arrive at some viable though tentative understanding of how popular culture can be defined” (10). So, with due acknowledgment that some may see our undertaking as bootless, this article sketches different approaches to defining entertainment and then proposes a set of criteria. Our hope is to help launch a conversation, one that can fruitfully continue as diverse approaches to the study of entertainment arise and mature. We begin with two observations that, though perhaps commonplace, ought to be kept in mind. First, entertainment often does more than entertain—or, put differently, entertainment functions are often intertwined with...
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