Crime is one of the most prevalent and most-viewed genres on our TV screens and the best-circulating type of fiction content in Europe. Studying the attitudes of television viewers to crime shows, therefore, promises an insight into European tastes and preferences when it comes to the genre of crime, as well as finding out about attitudes towards media cultures from other countries. This audience study has been a central piece in the work of the Horizon2020 Project DETECt which stands for “Detecting Transcultural Identity in European Crime Narratives”. The consortium of 19 partners in ten European countries began its work on the project in April 2018 and will close the project October 2021. So, it is a good time for sharing some of the results.
The audience study within the DETECt project had two main goals: It aimed to investigate the role of popular crime drama in the everyday lives of European TV audiences and it sought to investigate the European crime audiences’ views and attitudes on those narratives and imaginaries conveyed through crime series, to understand whether such content is able to influence the viewers’ perceptions of “other Europeans” as well as to shape their sense of cultural identity and belonging. Through its multi-country design, the study also showcases regional similarities and differences when it comes to viewers’ choices and opinions about crime series, for example regarding their representation of gender and society, which come out as closely dependent on the specific media culture of the home countries.
The study of crime viewers was carried out by Cathrin Bengesser and Pia Majbritt Jensen from Aarhus University and Marica Spalletta and Paola De Rosa from Link Campus University of Rome. The study was conducted in two phases between autumn 2019 and spring 2020. In the first phase the researchers interviewed 14 crime viewers from Germany, Denmark and Italy about their crime preferences, viewing habits and attitudes towards content from different European countries. In the second phase, the team launched an online survey in nine different languages that was distributed in the UK, Ireland, France, Denmark, Sweden, Germany, Belgium, Italy, Spain, Greece, Romania and Hungary. In total 1.321 valid responses were collected from nine countries (UK, FR, DK, SE, DE, IT, GR, RO, HU). Through the online survey, the consortium was able to test how far the interviewees’ habits and opinions, for example regarding subtitles and dubbing, reflect the attitudes of broader audiences.
The DETECt team found that broadcast still has considerable importance for Europeans’ crime consumption, not least because it facilitates the habitual viewing of audience favourites such as Midsomer Murders, while streaming services let people follow their individual tastes and passions. Among our sample of audiences from nine countries, non-domestic European crime drama was slightly more popular than the domestic series, which were often criticized for their stereotyped representation of gender and society.
The most popular crime content, though, comes from the Anglo-American sphere. While the Northern and Western Europeans seem to have a preference for British crime content, Southern and Eastern European viewers are more oriented towards US content. The Anglo-American crime series serve audiences the fascinating characters and the suspense they crave, however, when it comes to the representation of female characters and the societies crime shows are set in, European content is judged more interesting than the US fare.
Regional differences were most pronounced if one compares the Scandinavian with the Eastern European countries. While the Scandinavians appear most satisfied with their domestic crime series, the audiences in Romania and Hungary reported being underserved by their domestic crime shows. In the light of the global success of Nordic drama and the differences in production capacity, this finding seems hardly surprising. However, the DETECt deliverable 4.1 on Location Marketing and Cultural Tourism has illustrated how the locations and productions from South-Eastern Europe are already on the rise.
While viewers are highly critical of stereotypical ways in which their societies are presented in domestic content, stereotypes actually seem to play a big role in attracting viewers to content from other countries. The picturesque rural England of Midsomer Murders attracts foreign viewers just like the Mafia roaming the streets of Rome in Suburra. 28 percent of the respondents reported being interested in visiting a location they have seen on a crime show, while 8 percent had already done so. At the same time, the interviews with crime viewers showed that having travelled to a specific country before actually watching a series from that country also made people more interested in consuming TV from the area.
To sum up: In the consumption patterns of crime series in Europe we see a lasting effect of the prevalence of Anglo-American content. It offers the interesting characters and suspense and good acting, which crime audiences crave. The exposure to British and US series have set them as a standard for storytelling and character representation. European content, in contrast to this, is seen to be more revealing about society, and learning about history and culture plays a role in choosing European content. However, learning about the lives of people in other places is not a key reason for watching crime.
The consumption of non-domestic content – European or Anglo-American – enables audiences to critically reflect on their own TV culture and plays a role in the negotiations about what constitutes a good and/or stereotypical representation of one’s own society. So, while we may not primarily seek out crime series to learn about the societies or histories of our neighbours, watching foreign crime shows definitely contributes to learning about ourselves and arms us with images and vocabulary to critically engage with the ‘taken-for-grantedness’ of our domestic societies.
About the Project
DETECt – Detecting Transcultural Identity in European Popular Crime Narratives – addresses the formation of European cultural identity as a continuing process of transformation fostered by the mobility of people, products and representations across the continent. Because of the extraordinary mobility of its products, popular culture plays a decisive role in circulating representations that constitute a shared cultural asset for large sectors of the European society. The consortium involves 18 academic and non-academic partners from ten different European countries:
- Italy: University of Bologna and Link Campus University Rome
- Denmark: Aalborg University, Aarhus University, Miso Film, Visit Aarhus, TV 2 Danmark
- France: University of Limoges, University Paris Nanterre, Bibliocité
- Germany: Freie Universität Berlin, Deutsche Film und Fernsehakademie Berlin
- UK: Queens University Belfast
- Sweden: Umeå University
- Greece: University of Ioannina
- Romania: University of Bucharest
- Hungary: University of Debrecen
- Belgium: KU Leuven
About the authors
Cathrin Bengesser is Assistant Professor for Digital Media Industries at Aarhus University. In the DETECt project she was working on the study of European crime TV audiences, the development of DETECt Aarhus App and the European policy briefs based on the project’s findings. She has also carried out the Danish pilot study for the research project “Screen Encounters with Britain” with Prof. Jeannette Steemers and Prof. Andrea Esser at King’s College London. She is PI on an AUFF-funded (2021-23) project that studies the impact of media systemic differences on the transformation from broadcast to VoD markets in Europe. Cathrin has also been an assistant to the CST editorial team since 2018 and is now editing the upcoming “In Translation” series within CST.
Marica Spalletta is Associate Professor in Media Sociology at Link Campus University (LCU) of Rome, Italy, where she is Scientific Manager of Link LAB, the LCU Social Research Centre. Her research focuses on the social effects of mediatization of cultural processes, especially in respect of the development of news media coverage and the formation of public opinion. She is a member of the LCU research unit involved in the DETECt Project, in the field of which she is interested in analyzing the relationship between media consumption of crime fiction and audiences’ perception of European identities.
Pia Majbritt Jensen is Associate Professor in Media Studies at Aarhus University, Denmark, and Co-Director of The Centre for Transnational Media Research. An audience, industry and production scholar, her current research includes the role of European audiovisual crime narratives in the formation of European identities, and the production and reception of audiovisual fiction and cross-media storyworlds for children and adolescents.
Paola De Rosa is PhD Candidate in “New Technologies and Frontiers of Law, Economy and Society” at Link Campus University of Rome where she teaches Crisis Communication. She carries out research activities within Link LAB, the Social Research Centre based at LCU. In the DETECt project she worked on the construction and data analysis of the survey “DETECting European Audiences”.