In difficult financial situations, entertainment might be used for social comparison -- finding out how you're doing by seeing how you stack up to others. Mary Beth Oliver, a professor at Penn State University and the co-director of its Media Effects Research Lab, questions the good-mood/bad-mood dichotomy. She hypothesized that there is a certain kind of mood in which people aren't exactly happy or sad but a mixture of both, in a sort of bittersweet, "tender" state. She showed subjects of various moods trailers for movies such as "Punchline" (comedy), "Past Midnight" (suspense) and "The Prince of Tides" (sad) and found that people in this tender state were most likely to want to watch the sad movies -- more so than even the people in a sad mood. In subsequent studies, she found that people in this tender mood actually preferred meaningful films, sad or otherwise.
"We're watching these films to contemplate human life. That contemplation includes both joy and sorrow," she says. "In 'Field of Dreams,' when he plays catch with his father, it's happy, but it's sad at the same time."
Whereas all of these studies have involved experiments in a lab, others have used data on our actual entertainment choices -- with surprisingly consistent results. One study published last December looked at the top Billboard song for each year from 1955 to 2003 and compared them with social and economic conditions, as measured by the unemployment rate, change in the consumer price index, divorce rate and other factors. "We found that when times were more difficult, people did prefer the more meaningful songs," says Terry Pettijohn, an assistant professor of psychology at Coastal Carolina University and a co-author of the study. "They also preferred songs that they rated as more comforting, more romantic, slower and longer in duration."
Somber songs like "Bridge Over Troubled Water" (1970) and "Every Breath You Take" (1983) came out during tough years, while peppier songs like "At the Hop" (1958) and "My Sharona" (1979) came out during better ones.
Another study from 2000 looked at Nielsen ratings for the top 20 shows from 1960 to 1990, and compared them with similar economic and social factors. Again, during more troubling times, people favored the more serious shows.
Of course, when we get home from work, sit on the couch and start flipping channels, it's hard to believe that our decision to stop at a rerun of "The Jeffersons" is determined by, say, the level of suicides per capita.
But think of it this way, explains William McIntosh, professor of psychology at Georgia Southern University and co-author of the television study: One year a silly comedy like "Three's Company" might be No. 1, but in the next year it might move down to No. 3, and the more serious, wartime comedy "MASH" could take its place -- perhaps amid more serious events.
"It's not like everyone stops watching some dumb comedy and starts watching '60 Minutes' or 'CSI,' " McIntosh says. "It's a subtle shift in the viewership."
Quality still counts
But Zillmann cautions that these studies show only a correlation -- they do not prove that a recession causes us to desire serious entertainment.
Within Hollywood, where such academic research isn't widely known, many studios seem intent on selling escapism. Nancy Kirkpatrick, president of worldwide marketing for Summit Entertainment, said that her company decided not to sell the serious issues in the hit film "Knowing." "We wanted it to feel like a big action-adventure popcorn movie," she says. "We didn't feel the audience was looking to look at some apocalyptic, serious, introspective, thought-provoking, 'Oh my God what do I do if the world does end?' "
In the end, some studios might do best to ignore the economy altogether. Alan Wurtzel, president of research for NBC Universal, disputes the conventional Hollywood wisdom that people want froth -- but doesn't think audiences want particularly serious content either. "We've gone through many of these recessions," he says, "and we've never found there to be a rule of thumb."
Kevin Goetz, president of the worldwide motion picture group at OTX, a research firm that consults for Hollywood studios, believes that movie attendance is up this year because people simply want to gather collectively and experience strong emotions -- of any kind.
"There's not one type of genre that's doing better right now," Goetz says. "They want to laugh, they want to cry."