Volume 7, Issue 1

(May 2010)

Issue Contents

Past Issues

Wiring the Audience

Julian McDougall,
Newman University College, UK



This essay explores the conditions of possibility for ‘remixing’ Morley’s Nationwide Study (1980) in the context of the debate around Media Studies 2.0 (Merrin, 2008) through a study of The Wire’s reception amongst groups of viewers situated in various domains of English education. In so doing it makes two further and bolder interventions. Firstly, Morley’s emphasis on the preferred reading as ‘encoded’ in production is shifted to view the distribution of such a set of ‘messages’ as constructed in ‘discerning decoding’ as secondary encoding by online fan-critics. And the aspect of the Media 2.0 thesis that deals with the use (Gauntlett, 2007) of visual and ‘creative’ research methods for working with media audiences - and the attendant ‘othering’ of more orthodox ways of collecting data - is ‘remixed’ also by the use of a multi-modal range of methods, so that the article engages with the difference made by the researcher to the social practice of representing reception. 


The meanings given to The Wire provide an example of ‘convergence culture’ (Jenkins, 2006) due to these ideas circulating as a hybrid between the ‘post broadcast mediasphere’, and the programme’s traditional narrative form – a very long, slowly developing and complex multi-series story. This research investigates how five groups of people attribute meaning to The Wire in relation to a range of social practices.  In a deliberate ‘remixing’ of both Morley’s focus group approach and Gauntlett’s preference for metaphorical modelling, a different research method is used to yield data from each participant group – interviews, blogging, video making, visual mapping and biography. The outcomes of this ‘multimodal’ work inform a strategy for ‘doing culture’ so as to connect audience research to the contemporary ‘remix culture’.


Keywords: Audience, Media Studies 2.0, Preferred Reading, Discourse, Research Methods, The Wire


The main point here is that you can’t do The Wire justice. Everyone who loves it is awestruck. You just end up gushing or saying ludicrous things like “it’s your civic duty to watch it” as Charlie Brooker did at the end, “or else watch celebrity goose-wrestling on ITV6.” (Heather, at http://www.whydontyou.org.uk/blog/2007/07/16/charlie-brooker-tries-to-get-you-to-watch-the-wire/ - accessed 11.3.2009)

Arguably, audience research has always revolved around issues of power. Either we want to know what the media do to people, what people do to media, or perhaps, what people do to themselves and others with media.  (Ruddock, 2007: 25)


Writing in The Daily Telegraph (28.8.9), Andrew Pettie uses the drama’s status as Barack Obama’s ‘favourite show’ as a prompt for an exploration of the significance of The Wire for politicians in the UK “seeking to understand our broken inner cities”. The notion that The Wire makes a strong claim to reality has been a consistent feature of its reception across academic, critical and popular domains. Here Pettie offers a synopsis:


Over five series and sixty episodes it focuses on different facets of Baltimore’s decline; its drug-ravaged housing projects; its down-at-heel docks; its underfunded public schools, corrupt political administration and hopelessly overstretched local media. In a sense The Wire’s primary subject is everything that is wrong with America, yet it has evidently struck a chord with its president.  (2009: 89)


Obama’s preference may be less surprising than Pettie seems to think, since the ‘broken’ nation is his to repair and he is perceived (by some) as the solution rather than the cause, of course. But Pettie’s view of the ‘primary subject’ is seemingly a shared view, with the majority of comments on The Wire, from critics and fans alike, (as this article will demonstrate) repeating different versions of this idea that this TV show has somehow managed to reveal what we know to be an ‘inconvenient truth’. This ‘preferred reading’ of the show as authentic realist drama with close proximity to various documentaries is invited by the ‘hyperdiegetic’ reminders in media reception that the writers worked as police and crime journalist respectively and the subsequent re-promotion of their documentary books about Baltimore that the drama takes as a context. Season 4, the focus of this research, explores the place of the inner city school in ‘the game’, largely through the eyes of an ‘ex-police’ (sic) starting out as a teacher and trying to educate the ‘corner boys’ he was previously apprehending. As is evident from some of the data that follows, there are some problematic aspects to The Wire’s reception amongst white audiences in particular (intertextual references are made to other acts of ‘cultural tourism’ in association with rap music and videogames) and there is a debate around the extent to which the show reinforces ethnic stereotypes, similar to those levelled at ‘gangsta rap’. It is not the intention of this research, however, to explore power dynamics beyond an analysis of how different groups relate to the discourse of authenticity that is claimed for the show. Equally, and importantly, there is similarly no intention to identity or adopt any one theoretical definition of ‘realism’, despite the reliance on the audience’s trust in this in the repeated assertions about biography and ‘time spent’ by producers and distributors. Rather this project looks at the ways in which such ideas about a TV show’s representation of social reality are circulated in public discourse in the act of ‘viral decoding’, including the interventions of the research itself.



What is needed is the development of a ‘cultural map’ of the audience so that we can begin to see which classes, sections of classes and subgroups share which cultural codes and meaning systems. (1974:12)  


Morley, seeking to tease out more fully the model of encoding and decoding set in train by Hall (1980) and part of the same ‘canon’ emerging from the work of the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, maintained the distinctions between encoding, encoded and decoding but wanted to see fully how this set of practices would ‘play out’ through the example of the Nationwide programme and its reception by groups of people in socio-economic groupings, defined largely by occupation.


Our concern in the Nationwide research project was to connect the theoretical question of the maintenance of hegemony with the empirical question of how a particular programme acts to ‘prefer’ one set of meanings or definitions of events.  (Morley, 1992:91)


As this extract shows, prior to the audience research, Morley (with Charlotte Brunsden) conducted a semiotic and ideological analysis of the way that the idea of the nation was encoded in Nationwide and effectively had already decided on the messages of the programme, from the vantage point of the academic expert. The responses of audience groups, in the act of decoding, were then viewed in terms of their proximity to, or distance from, this reading.


In the end, the act of decoding was privileged and in so doing two problems arose. Firstly, the ‘preferred reading’ is taken as encoded and semiotically ‘fixed’ as ideological, so that the researcher’s task it to measure the degree to which this reading is accepted, negotiated or opposed (rather than to seek evidence of how it is constructed in between and across these three domains). Secondly, there is no space for Morley to explore the way that the analysis of the reading is itself ‘preferred’ and thus a dubious claim to objectivity is made:


The concept of the preferred reading makes clear the central point that encoding / decoding programmatically established, namely that there was no necessary correspondence between the two moments of encoding and decoding. There was no guarantee that the ideological message encoded in the television programme would be ‘bought’ by all those who viewed it. (Scannell, 2007: 213)


So for Morley, audience research is needed to focus on the interplay of two elements – the internal discursive hierarchy of the text (in which a ‘preferred reading’ reveals itself) and the likelihood of this reading being accepted or challenged (or ‘negotiated’) in relation to the socio-cultural locations and ‘back stories’ of audience groups or - put more simply - in the context of everyday life. Importantly, the ‘preferred reading’ is realised through semiotic analysis of the encoding of the programme, in the case of Nationwide.


Morley offered some important retrospective challenges to his own work, explaining its purpose in relation to the more complex questions it was unable to pose in its rather instrumentalist mechanics. For this study, his own problematising of the preferred reading is most central:


Is the preferred reading a property of the text per se? Or is it something that can be generated from the text (by a skilled reading) via certain specifiable procedures? Or is the preferred reading that reading which the analyst is predicting that most members of the audience will produce from the text? In short, is the preferred reading a property of the text, the analyst or the audience? (Morley, 1992: 122)


Laughey (2007) also suggests that Morley’s (1981) later critique of his own study draws attention to the ways in which the ‘work’ of reading television is proximal to demographics and domestic situations and is thus akin to a form of cultural capital (Bourdieu, 1986). In the case of the original Nationwide study, set in the broader context of the CCCS ‘project’, we can, though, view encoding / decoding as an essentialist model. But the findings that follow will show that the effect of the preferred reading lingers. The shift made here is to look more closely at the partial construction of the preferred reading (as Morley concedes to be necessary) in a hierarchy of decoding, whereby a preferred reading about the authenticity of The Wire circulates (largely online) and informs (by way of a secondary encoding) the reception of the drama by audiences.     


Morley selected Nationwide on the basis of what he identified as its hegemonic practices – to transmit a range of ideas about Britain as a nation as neutral. I select The Wire for a similar reason but my starting point is a focus on a particular kind of decoding as a form of secondary encoding – the way that ideas about its relationship to social reality and the capitalist system have been circulated in a cyclical dialogue between fan, critic and producer in an extra-diegetic discourse. Disseminated firstly without scheduled broadcast, ‘virally’ passed on and discussed, celebrated and remixed by fans online, The Wire offers a reading experience that demands sustained attention and an adherence to ideas about conventional realism and ideology – what it ‘says’ about the real world we inhabit - and, crucially, becomes the subject of so much of what Hills (2002: 184) calls ‘discursive mantra’. The key shift here is the nature of the claim to realism made on behalf of The Wire by its audience, itself framed partly by a desire for alignment with, as one participant has it, ‘discerning critics’ (such as Charlie Brooker, a fan-critic with his own fans) who distribute a discourse about realism online.


Making, Playing, Participating

David Gauntlett has made three useful contributions for our purposes here. Whilst this paper will generally avoid the idea of ‘Media Studies 2.0 debate’, such a provocation does provide a challenge to the orthodoxy around what is meant by ‘the media’, which generates a context for analysing The Wire and its reception. Thus it is useful to spend a little time on the arguments.


The first intervention I will consider is the shift away from textual analysis. In itself this is hardly new, but the notion that web 2.0 media exchange is a determinant in this exodus from the text is at least a temporal reclaiming of this argument:


‘Media Studies 2.0’ is interested in the every- day participatory and creative possibilities of media, as compared to the focus of traditional media studies on professional media consumed by audiences who had to take what they were given. ….’Media Studies 2.0’ also emphasises a sociological focus on the media as it is in the world, and as people experience it – and therefore is (happily, but less crucially) associated with a welcome end to the armchair ramblings of ‘textual analysis.  (Gauntlett, 2009: 3)


These statements frame this study of The Wire’s audience by setting up the discussion as framed by a complex hybridity. On the one hand I am concerned with a media product that, despite its relatively new modes of distribution is arranged through very orthodox storytelling conventions, not to mention the channelling of authoritative praise for the series through traditional structures – reviews, discussion on TV shows and academic responses. And yet at the same time the focus here is entirely in keeping with ‘Media Studies 2.0’ precisely because  my consideration of The Wire ‘as it is in the world’ and the subsequent ‘remix’ of Morley turns on the shift to the notion of the ‘preferred reading’ as being viral and experiential.


Secondly, Gauntlett’s suggestions (2007:126) for research methods aimed at making sense of everyday creativity and visual representations of identities partly inform the methods used here.  The turn is the deliberate ‘mash up’ of methods so that no parodic othering can take place, intended or not.  And thirdly he has explicitly linked the collaborative, democratising impulse of ‘web 2.0’ to a broader shift in culture from what he calls a ‘sit back and be told society’ to a ‘making and doing society’ in which the potential for citizens to face pressing environmental challenges and collaborate in providing solutions is increased incrementally with every participatory act of creativity, as “through the act of making you connect with the world” (2008). Again, whilst studies of fandom identified audiences as creative and participatory a long time ago, the argument here seems to be that these layers of interpretation, homage and negotiation of meaning are now more visible. What is happening here, I suggest,  is a kind of ‘after the media’ reimagining of the culture which is, in fact, not temporal, similar to Lyotard’s version of postmodernity (1992) as being less ‘after the modern’ and more concerned with a refutation of grand narratives.


Media audience research, then, must come to terms with two confrontations. At a more mundane (but tangible) level, ‘Media 2.0’ transgresses orthodox ways of dealing with audiences to the extent that an increasing number of people understand themselves as broadcasters and this is taken to make a considerable difference to their reception of media. At the same time, the shift to ‘making and sharing’ makes the role of the media in the formation of identity less significant and, for the academic, this makes the practice of generating empirical evidence of the ‘tapestry’ of influences on identity more complicated.


People in everyday life do generate reflexive narratives to describe their identity, and are well able to  create a representation of their own unified story. I would suggest that this will almost inevitably have been affected by the stories and values which we encounter so regularly in popular media, although on this particular point further research which turns the spotlight back onto people’s relationships with media narratives will be needed. (Gauntlett, 2007: 195)


And so it is that we begin to turn the spotlight onto such relationships. In so doing I hope to connect Gauntlett to Morley but offer a shift to / from both and thus to provide a new perspective on how the ‘game’ of audience research might be played at this interesting point in its history.


Morley interrogated ‘the degree of complementarity between the codes of the programme and the interpretive codes of various sociocultural groups... [and] the extent to which decodings take place within the limits of the preferred (or dominant) manner in which the message has been initially encoded’ (1983: 106). This research adheres to Morley’s use of employment / study contexts to configure reception contexts but shifts the notion of the preferred reading away from an understanding of it being internal to the text and then measurable against reception to a conception of the ‘preferred reading’ as being ‘hypertextual’ – an encompassing set of discourses that frame the reception of the programme as distributed by the utterances of critic-fans and by ‘viral’ dissemination through which any stable ‘origin’ for the preferred reading is deferred.


Morley worked with bank managers and apprentices (who accepted the dominant reading), University students and trade unionists (who were seen as ‘negotiating readers’) and black FE students and shop stewards (who opposed Nationwide’s ideology).  Here, we consider the ways in which groups of people differently situated by education give meaning to The Wire in relation to their personal and professional contexts. Rather than directly reproducing Morley’s semiotic analysis and ‘plotting’ responses against three ways of reading, this project asks what difference the situation of the participant and the research method employed make to the way audiences ‘map’ The Wire to their own lives and whether we can employ the same categorisations of ‘reading’. To be clear at this point, I am working here with two aspects of the ‘Media Studies 2.0’ thesis but giving more emphasis to the argument that new modes of research methods will better elicit ‘time-taken’ narratives from audiences, and less attention to the ‘prosumer’ zeitgeist. However, the latter is contextually present here because I am seeking to ‘test’ the assumption (inferred at least in Gauntlett’s work) that ‘Media 2.0’ defies the identification of a preferred reading for any one cultural product.     



Just as Morley selected focus groups according to categories framed by a hunch about how decodings would be likely to contrast, so my recruitment of the participant groups should be considered as highly formative. The participant groups are arranged as follows:


Three Creative and Media teachers studying whilst ‘in service’ online for a Masters level qualification joined a facebook group discussion thread followed by a summative open brief to provide a ‘visual map’ of The Wire in relation to their personal and professional lives and identities. This group were recruited through their engagement in the qualification and the nature of this engagement as being almost entirely through online distance learning made this research method secure.  My hunch is that this group as reflective practitioners spending time and money to enhance their professional status as teachers in a very specific community will separate themselves from the other groups, just as Morley assumed distinction (Bourdieu,1996) between trade union officials and bank managers.  


Facebook discussion postings about ‘using’ The Wire


Hand drawn map


Video Map


My Mind’ visual map.


How these participants constructed their visual material was not my concern – a key premise of this method is to increase the freedom for the respondent to select their own register and context for self-representation. But doubtless their use of web 2.0 tools became a factor in framing their responses in relation to my interest in ‘remix’ and ‘mash up’ as research-representing devices.  


Three Education undergraduates with teaching as a career goal joined a moodle forum (a closed blog, accessed through the University’s virtual learning environment through a login system) followed by a summative group discussion, transcribed and analysed from audio. Again, an assumption was made about a ‘comfort zone’, as I was aware that such forum discussions are used on these Students’ courses, especially to allow them to communicate with one another whilst on placement in school. In addition I wanted to gauge the relationship between the respective journeys taken by these Students and the already-professional Creative and Media teachers and the contrast, if any, between their online postings and more formal group discussion in the University.



Moodle forum discussion about ‘the problem’

Three Youth Workers joined another moodle forum followed by a summative open brief to make short videos, with season 4 of The Wire as the prompt. My choice of video documentary was clearly influenced by a set of assumptions about the need for the data to be grounded in the communities in which they are working and, as I shall discuss later, there are some clear moments in the film where the desire to perform a certain representation of ‘the streets’ is played out.


Morley’s work makes no reference to the performative nature of the representation of reception. There was an element of risk here – I knew nothing about the participants’ ability to make short videos, say, or their leisure time. Equipment was provided and this acted as an obligating context for their responses.


Figure 6

Documentary film produced by Youth Worker.


Two Drama Lecturers took part in a paired interview followed by individual interviews, all filmed and transcribed / analysed from moving images. I was seeking here to contrast the other methods with a far more traditional (and in Gauntlett’s work discredited or at least strongly challenged) set of idioms for generating data.


Figure 7

Orthodox filmed research interview with Drama Lecturers.


Finally, three self-identified Critic / ‘Fans’ on YouTube were treated as participants on the basis of their public sharing of online material in response to The Wire. For this group, the data collection method was the accessing of video material uploaded to the public domain.  Clearly I was selecting, choosing these examples from a broad range and did so on the basis of yet more assumptions about contrasts (no different to Morley, again, in this respect). Brooker’s very articulate and irreverent celebrity-critic discourse, with its constant disclaimers (“it pains me to say this, but …”) contrasted (in my mind) with what might be labelled ‘classic’ examples of prosumer remixing – alternative endings and title sequences set in viewer’s own-city equivalent locations. 


Clearly one important implication of finding data in the online public sphere is that it is impossible to identify, with any authority, demographic criteria. That said, another key shift from Morley is that the intention here was to ignore gender, class, ethnicity and age in favour of professional identity as the key ‘trait’ to relate to the (differently configured) concept of the preferred reading.  


Figure 8




With the exception of the ‘online Critic-Fans’, each participant was provided with a copy of season 4 as an incentive along with a synopsis of the preceding seasons. At the formative stage, questions were asked about any perception of the show relating to real life experience, which characters they were identifying with (or at least, particularly interested in – the question asked for ‘identification’) what they considered ‘the problem’ to be that the drama is addressing (and whether they think there any solutions) and, for the teachers, to what different ‘uses’ they might put The Wire (as a resource in their professional practice).


The Student and Teacher groups were, at the formative stage, asked to complete and then comment on an academic task on The Wire from a textbook (Connell, 2009). The transformation from ‘viewed for pleasure’ TV show to ‘object of formal study’ was in question here.  At the halfway point every participant was asked, either verbally or online in written form, to ‘map’ the programme to their personal and professional lives and to consider the status of Baltimore in comparison to their own cities or towns. At the end, the different research groups were allocated contrasting ‘methods’ for producing responses which would form the research material, as listed above. Throughout, the intention was to yield responses that would allow for the same kind of scrutiny of a ‘preferred reading’ or otherwise, in keeping with the outcomes of Nationwide, but with a shift to a sense of this reading as distributed rather then encoded. The online Fans are analysed differently, as their data is ‘out there’ and is self-determined, but again the interest is in how their shared textual readings relate to dominant discourses about The Wire’s (perceived) relationship to social reality.     


The rationale for this ‘mixed economy’ of methods is informed by Gauntlett (2007) and returns us to the aspiration to ‘remix’ Morley. What difference would it make if the different groups were asked to do different things? What conclusions can we draw about the validity of the reflections provided – indeed, to what extent is the medium the message?      


Gauntlett’s suggestion is that ‘creative and visual research methods give people the opportunity to communicate different kinds of information’. Whilst his examples (2009) set out more explicitly to work with metaphor as a tool for identity negotiation, this project is less ambitious in so much as the visual methods used were still fixed on a less abstract ‘brief’. That said, the request for participants to visually ‘map’ a TV show to their lives and identities, or simply to ‘make a film’ with The Wire as a prompt, was provided without any further guidance or exemplifying material.  Thus a continuum is established, from far more traditional means (interviews) to these less predictable (and in some ways risky) methods, which Gauntlett considers more likely to yield reflection:


The argument is not that language-based approaches are necessarily redundant or inferior – they clearly have many positive uses. However, creative and visual methods offer a powerful alternative. Many people are inexperienced in transferring their thoughts about personal or social matters into the kind of talk you would share with a researcher. If participants are invited to spend time in the reflective process or making something, however, they have the opportunity to consider what is particularly important to them before they are asked to generate speech. (Gauntlett, 2007: 182-3)  


In analysing what comes back, then, our task is to think through the content of the responses in relation both to the situated practice of each group (in keeping with Morley’s call for the ‘cultural map’) and also to the prescribed data collection medium as a determining intervention in ‘the game’ – would those afforded time for ‘making and doing’ offer more reflective material than those in the traditional and more pressurised interview environment - and how would we know? And does the production of seemingly more reflective material (if we accept Gauntlett’s interest in ‘giving time’ for this) necessarily make any difference to how a circulating preferred reading is accepted, negotiated or opposed? Might it just be further internalised, in this case coded intertextually?


What follows is firstly a summary, with illustrations, of each group’s responses, secondly a review of what difference each method made to the data and thirdly, an analysis of the discourses at work across the groups and how these can be related to the situated practices of those involved (the ‘cultural map’) and to the concept of a ‘preferred reading’. The findings may appear rather ‘neat and tidy’ in terms of how they are so clearly demarcated by educational context, but the groups were starkly consistent in their version of the preferred reading, as I present it. However this is very likely to be at least partly a result of how I frame  their representation of response, as will be discussed more fully.        


Online Critic-Fans   

The self-determining online Critic-Fans are the starting point as they most explicitly reinforce the notion of the programme as ‘real’. Three examples demonstrate this in contrasting ways.


Charlie Brooker’s youtube (2009) assertions that The Wire is ‘the best TV show ever made’ rely on the following discursive precepts – the ‘othering’ of television drama in general as being less rich, deep or skilfully crafted (an elitist, cultural / textual value discourse); that it is important to locate the programme in the context of its creators who are qualified to deliver ‘authenticity; (an ‘auteur’ discourse) and that the show provides a higher level of realism than most television – in this ‘Tapping the Wire’ video, he travels to Baltimore to ask residents of the areas depicted how real the show is, with the required responses – ‘99.9% real’, and further verification of the central ‘game’ motif. 


Jay-Z on The Wire, posted by LivingForce (2009) offers a different version of the ‘reality’ discourse. By editing extracts from the programme with this choice of music, the originator connects the fictional events (in this case specifically the exploits of the Barksdale Crew) with lyrics seeking to represent the reality of gang life from a first person narration. The contrast with Brooker’s celebration is that this remix serves to appropriate the drama with the conventions of hip hop whereas the register of Brooker’s material is far more middle class and literary.


The Wire (Alternative Version), from Zissou24 (2009) offers the title sequence to the show with the images of Baltimore replaced with amateur ‘sweded’ imitations from the streets of Phoenix, Arizona. Clearly this intervention resonates with the discourse of not only realism but what we might call ‘applicable relevance’. In other words this ‘prosumer’ has chosen to demonstrate their affinity with the preferred reading (that the show is depicting what really happens in ‘the game’) by physically inserting visual equivalences from their own locale.     


These three examples are extracted as representative of different elements of ‘online Fan-Critic’ reception – the celebrity critic who is ‘aligned with’ by viewers, the act of homage and intertextual appropriation and the perhaps more extended homage in the production of alternative filmed material. These youtube exchanges are not the sole discursive realm for this preferred reading of authenticity, of course. They interweave with DVD commentaries and traditional media responses, most notably in the case of Brooker himself as an agent of convergence, appearing on broadcast television, writing books, printing reviews in The Guardian alongside his web 2.0 spoofs, reviews and tributes. But in taking these examples from the public domain in terms of the discourse they share (but articulate differently), we can apply a form of critical discourse analysis to the data acquired from this project to explore the attribution of meaning to The Wire from our different participant groups in relation to two determining language games – the discourse of ‘realism’ posited above and the notion of cultural mapping (from Morley) – the importance of the way each group is configured by social practices. What follows is an interpretation of the responses from the other groups in relation to the hypothesis that the online data can be read as a ‘viral’ preferred reading – the discourse of ‘the game’ as an existing systemworld frame in social reality, outside of The Wire. Crucially, this discourse will be treated as representative of a preferred reading but originating in the distribution of a decoding.


Each of the groups with whom a two-way research process was undertaken were asked similar questions but in different modes. The central themes were a) a mapping of the programme to respondents’ own professional identities and lives; b) an interpretation of the reasons for the programme’s positive critical treatment in relation to (a); c) a question about the ‘uses’ of The Wire in pedagogy; d) a discussion of the reality of inner city life in their own cities in relation to the drama; e) a discussion starting from the imposed premise that The Wire presents a ‘problem that may or may not have solution and f) a direct question about what ‘message’ The Wire might present. In addition, in the secondary stage each group was given a more or less constrained creative task with the show as a prompt.       

Creative and Media Teachers

The Creative and Media teachers, accessed through their engagement with an online postgraduate programme, offered a range of responses to the question of how The Wire ‘connects’ to their professional identities:    


I find it easy to immerse myself in the diegesis of The Wire - my disbelief is well and truly suspended! Nevertheless, it’s ‘crime drama’ - the bulk of the screen time is given to cops and criminals - and therefore it sits with Law & Order, CSI, Homicide in my taxonomy. But I also want to claim that it’s ‘so much more’ - so I’ll buy into the idea that it’s ‘Dickensian’ in its focus and its mode because that confers upon it a degree of respectability. I’ll also argue that it has a high degree of realism - I’ll trust the information about Burn and Simon channelling their respective experiences in Baltimore into the drama and accept the idea that this gives us a realistic insight into worlds where other TV dramas fear to tread.


Here another teacher contrasts their media pleasure with their ‘real life’:


The ‘hood’ fires off connections. I was something of b-boy wannabe as a teen in the 80s, so the whole blackstreet culture reminds me of that dalliance: Public Enemy, NWA, Beat Street etc. The truth is that, although it’s engaging as a drama, it’s all too far removed from where I am in my life: growing veg, watching my daughter grow up etc. The liberal in me reels at the injustice and the squalor that they appear to live in but in some respects representations like this being to lose their impact.


The high levels of critical reflection, intertextuality and self-awareness here, playful as they are, are a marker of ‘distinction’ (Bourdieu, 1979) in so much as they differ from the ways that the other participant groups will locate the viewing activity. The Drama teachers will focus on the ‘craft’ of the construction but avoid references from popular culture, preferring to relate the programme to Greek Drama, however neatly distinct these responses might seem. The Youth Workers will focus on its ‘reality’ and the Education Students on its complexity and its distance from their local experiences. The Media teachers were asked to consider the show as a teaching resource, firstly in general and secondly in response to a specific published exercise, from Connell (2009):   


The exercise could be used to engender close viewing of a text and create an analytical framework for understanding character function in stories - perhaps to develop understanding of structural analysis/narratology. The diagrammatic representation exercise lends itself to collaborative work and, therefore, would stimulate discussion and engagement. Could also be used to illustrate cause and effect in story and representations of ‘heroes’ and ‘villains’. The emphasis on enigmas could be used as an entry point into Barthesian codes - esp. hermeneutic. Could also be used in a comparative exercise with the 19th century novel - let’s see if there really is a ‘Dickensian aspect’! Or how about The Wire vs. Middlemarch? All exercises encourage a critical distance from the text - a focus on construction rather than allowing suspension of disbelief to be indulged.


Whilst the first response clearly separates ‘pleasure value’ from ‘use value’, the second also maintains this distinction whilst demonstrating a high level of analysis, as we would expect from a Media educator, which distances the response from the other participant groups. Here The Wire is a text and its construction is at stake in the work with Students – as opposed to what it ‘says’.  

Later, the Teachers reflect on their ability to separate their response as a viewer to their response as a professional educator, as these three blog posts illustrate:


I’m trying to think how well these ‘categories of self’ work for me - it’s not a straightforward division. I guess ‘as an educator’ I respond to the pedagogical challenges faced by the teachers and Mr Prez in particular - it certainly makes me think of doing teaching practice in Oxfordshire nearly 20 years ago and being faced with a class of uncontrollable (by me!) 12 yr olds - ‘like monkeys on acid’ as I later described them to my friends. And like that experience it evokes a conflicted reaction - desire for control and order against a sense of how institutions, structures and social and economic conditions bring about this situation of conflict (emotional fascism vs. intellectual liberalism?!)


I think I can separate the two, but not at the same time. I slip or move from escapism to acknowledgement and recognition depending on whether a situation triggers something similar that happened to me. Due to the USness and hardcore nature of the school, and the fact that it is surrounded by the police elements of the story, escapism wins out mostly though.

The representation of all of these kids bring out the bleeding-heart-liberal in me - it just seems like a tragedy that, inevitably, they’re going to end up as slingers, soldiers or fiends. It feels as if they’ve already experienced too much crap - junkie parents, dead bodies, police brutality and drug dealing. We see them being inducted in to the ways of the world - school working like the police - using the threat of his foster mother to get Randy to ‘snitch’ on the ‘tagger’. Why might this be? Not sure - memories of that sense of powerlessness and unfairness from childhood maybe?


Again, our ‘cultural map’ here must bear witness to the degree of ‘meta-awareness’ and articulation. These professionals engage with The Wire firmly within the idioms of the preferred reading but are equally sensitive to the way the programme situates them – self-parody and analysis is here, contrasting escapism with reflection and the ‘bleeding heart liberal’ disclaimer serve to reinforce the theme of complexity – the drama is complex, its focus – ‘the game’ is complex and seemingly irreducible – and our interactions with the drama are equally hard to ‘pin down’.   


These facebook postings were followed by visual ‘maps’, situating The Wire in relation to the Teachers’ lifeworlds. The responses shared two things. Firstly, a preference for intertextuality – Public Enemy, Spike Lee, Homicide, notions of alignment with ‘discerning critics’ such as Brooker, an entire ‘Mind Museum’ where media preferences are represented as exhibits in a museum, divided by decades, with three levels of engagement (The Wire features in the ‘high level’ section). And secondly, a desire to be creative in the process (resonating with Gauntlett’s preference for affording time and space). The respondents’ ease with the presentation of their selves, in relation to this TV show, was strikingly more evident than the other groups, and we might tentatively suggest that this is a product of both their professional identities (immersed in questions of popular culture, society and identity in the systemworld) and the research tool. As there is no attempt here at equivalence or objectivity – each group is given a different tool to work with – speculative conclusions are dangerous. However, the Youth Workers’ use of an open brief and a more creative instrument led to a more ‘fixed’ and external negotiation of the preferred reading – The Wire and the streets as part of their lives, but without recourse to any further inward-looking.     

Youth Workers
At the formative stage, the Youth Workers responded to similar questions – of identity, subject matter and ‘applicable relevance’:

I was particularly intrigued by the focus on politics, which seemed to drag in parts but it soon became clear that just as in real life, politics has a major influence in the way in which our communities and neighbourhoods are run.

While watching the programme, I quickly identified with the school kids who lived in a poor area of the inner-city where crime is at the highest in the country.  The kids were streetwise but very young and grew up amongst peers and relatives, some of whom were already involved in crime.  As in real life, it’s obvious that the children will take different paths in life, but the defining factors and circumstances for each individual child are totally different.  One common goal they all seem to share is the aspiration to “be normal”, not struggle or be poor.

This respondent directly relates the drama to their sense of their own area:

I believe that a lot of what we see in The Wire goes on in Birmingham and the UK.  We may not be as advanced in areas of crime, violence and poverty but we do share many of the same issues in our communities.  I strongly believe that communities such as Baltimore and Birmingham are becoming more and more alike.

The moral of The Wire for me is this, communities with a large diverse range of cultures and so on, need more powers amoungst themselves to make positive changes in their own communities.  For example, more non-white teachers, police, politicians, business directors etc.  This would then allow ethnic minorities to feel empowered and part of society, rather than feel as though crime is the only accepting and rewarding path for them.  Hegemony plays a big role here. I also feel that this has a lot to do with social control and modern day slavery but that is another topic........ 

These responses also align themselves with the ‘preferred reading’ I have established as decoded in the extra-diegetic discourses discussed above. Like the Media Teachers, the Youth Workers are articulate in the ease with which they relate the fictional drama to their encountering of ‘social problems’ in the real world. How they differ is in the lack of intertextual references – for these respondents the connection to the ‘game’ is more direct, and less mediated by other fiction, other texts.

The summative outcome for the Youth Workers was an open brief to produce a film, with The Wire merely as a prompt, no more. What came back was a series of documentary interviews, where the producers had chosen to use the research questions provided in the formative blog as the interview questions for the film. The context for the film – the Youth Work environment and the ethnicity of the participants – act as distinctive markers in our cultural map. The content of the films is entirely in keeping with the preferred reading, at least as far as the authenticity of the depiction of ‘the streets’ is concerned, a focus for all three of these extracts from the film:

The fact that it’s real. The fact that certain aspects in the series you know you can reflect on certain things that go on in your life, or the people around you or your community. And you can work with that, and you know of that and you’ve been through that and you’ve ate that and you’ve drank that, you know what I’m saying, so it’s like that.


It reflects real life. The things that they are showing, these are things that are already going on in real life. You know that saying, life imitates art - art doesn’t imitate life.


I’m not a fan of the whole police thing, you get me, I like the streets and the towers in Baltimore, those kinds of people and what’s going on there. If the show was all about that, like The Sopranos, Sopranos didn’t have no cops, well it did but not running through the show. I wanted to see the streets.


This acceptance of the ‘truth’ of the programme is taken to another level in these responses to the question of application to the respondents’ own city:


It gives you an open, realistic view as to what’s really going down. I relate more or less to the streets, you know. And when I say the streets I mean people within that doing what they are doing, not just to be bad but more or less surviving.


It’s to do with how the police are doing their work and how they get their work authorised. And you can see that they have it complicated to get certain things in line to get anything they want. And soon, when it comes down on them it’s gonna come down on us and its like a chain. So shit rolls down on them and then we are gonna feel it when the police don’t give a fuck about rights and they can’t do what they wanna do, frustrated that a man’s got off and they can’t do anything about it and we are gonna feel that frustration.


Drama Lecturers
These respondents took part in two stages of orthodox interviews – filmed and the formative stage, audio recorded at the summative stage and transcribed in both cases. Their ‘mapping’ is interesting in comparison to the Media Teachers, firstly in relation to ‘quality’:

The characters, I think, above all. The characters are sympathetically drawn and it doesn’t feel artificial at all. And the way the storylines are woven, they manage to pull you in, so you are waiting to go back into that classroom or waiting to go back to that street corner to see what’s going on. It’s addictively written.


A number of the writers on The Wire are among my favourite (detective) novel writers… So that’s another level at which I feel a connection with it.


Thinking about ancient Greek drama in particular, The Wire reminds me of the ‘big’ themes of Greek tragedy (betrayal, ambition, despair); the struggles of the characters against the invisible ‘forces’ that manipulate them remind me of stories and characters in Greek literature/history.

Here, they discuss the perceived agenda of the show.

There’s a crusade going on behind the script in some ways about this is what we know and why don’t the police know. I think it shows certain ways in which we could cope or help but one of the things it shows is the complexity of it and it takes people who know or are experienced, so there are all kinds of little answers.


Its saying you have to get those people and give them the time to try something. But the point I am at they (teachers) are being told they have to go back to the curriculum and that’s going to screw it up.  


And here the ways in which they were ‘drawn in’:


I don’t feel myself to be in the game in any analogous way to The Wire, but if you widen it out I guess we are all in the game. We all watch each other and try to work out what the rules are.


It’s not part of any pattern. It’s the depth of it really and just the sheer care, and intelligence and interest of it all. In a way it’s quite boring in parts - there’s lots and lots of shots of people around tables discussing fairly arcane points of either the investigation or aspects of corruption but the fact that it’s all linking up and I guess this must be becoming a cliché already but the Dickensian – so many threads.


There is a middle class, vicarious element to it but that wouldn’t have been enough to get me so deeply into it. The whole political-sociological aspect to it as it spread its tentacles out from being just a cop show made it interesting because it clearly had an agenda – an educative agenda or a political agenda – it wanted the audience to be thinking about how the system is working. If I had been watching ten or fifteen years ago, when you asked me the question in the first interview about the problem, capitalism would have been the first thing in my mind and it made me realise how much that discourse, in public at least, has been marginalised and ridiculed, and yet it hasn’t gone away.


Here, a respondent discusses the Charlie Brooker ‘Tapping the Wire’ intervention:


I was very struck by the distance between the analysis of the show as a drama and discussion of the reality it represents. Everyone applauds The Wire (rightly) for its storytelling and the extent to which it’s life-like, but in some ways The Wire is more like a documentary, presenting an analysis of the social/economic/political problems of a city—and nobody really seemed to mention this! The commentators didn’t seem to make this connection at all. They didn’t seem to feel any response (anger?) about the reality behind the situations it portrays…


We might draw some comparisons here with the Media Teachers – for example, the references to Dickens - and thus mark as distinct the educators from the Youth Workers, Students and Fan-Critics. But there are important contrasts also. Whereas the Media Teachers, as discussed, foreground intertextual references to popular culture – other television, film, hip hop music, they only turn to ‘The Dickensian aspect’ in response to the formal academic task, where construction, form and craft (in storytelling) take prominence and the drama becomes an ‘object’ – hitherto the subjective domain (the reflective ‘mapping’) had been the first level of response. For the Drama Academics, craft and form are immediately considered. The intertextual references made are at the auteur level (knowledge of the writers’ other work in novel form). Where the two groups meet is in relation to the political agenda and the articulation of a (self-effacing, for the Drama Lecturer) left wing, liberal world view. The Youth Workers and Students didn’t move beyond the discussion of reality to consider (beyond inference) the show as ‘strategic’. However, there were two examples of participants taking issue with the script or content (and thus the ‘reality’), and these positions are interesting in how they, again, relate to the situated nature of the discussions. For a Drama Lecturer, there was one notable occasion where the nature of the realism became contrived – a scene in which a ‘pirate’ character who steals from drug dealers is given a lecture by a policeman about the way things used to be in the neighbourhood, which was described as being ‘unlikely’ to have been received so well by the young man. For a Youth Worker, the amount of time spent on police activity was skewed too far away from the focus on ‘the streets’. The difference here is in keeping with the broader discourses of realism in operation for these audience groups. For the Drama Lecturer, the issue is authenticity – the sense of a believable construction being undermined in the scriptwriting, a lapse in the craft. For the Youth Worker an allegiance to one set of narratives as being more interesting than another is evident, which relates to the wish to identify with one side in a perceived conflict. This is set up in an intertextual comparison with The Sopranos, where the police feature, but are given far less prominence to the extended criminal family. So again, our ‘preferred reading’ – the claim to reality, and its source in the extra-diegetic Fan-Critic decoding – is upheld through this attention to the moments where it is undermined, but the sub-readings of how this realism is built are consistently different.

Education Students
These participants are undergraduates with a clearly marked out career trajectory – into teaching. Our interest here is in the ways they connect (or not) The Wire to their future professional aspirations and to their previous experience of schools. Whilst social class and academic background were never asked about, and are not for analysis, this was the only group to specifically comment on their experiences in this way: 

I struggled through secondary school to get the grades, cos it was a really bad school.


The school had my parents in and told them I would never go to Uni.


Firstly, their blog postings (responding to the same questions but in a different format) are concerned with the nature of The Wire as complex and interweaving:


There are so many characters going on and so many stories. It’s like loads of different stories going on but they are actually all connected. Like the police are trying to solve all these murders and work out where all these bodies are. And you’ve got everything going on with the mayor and the streets – trying to get their corner, and in the school you’ve got this new teacher trying to get the classroom under control.
It’s connected by all being in Baltimore. All the people are trying to understand what’s going on, everyone’s trying something. All the youth are trying to carry on and earn a living but the police and everyone are trying to sort it out but then people are corrupt.


And here they turn their attention to the place of education in the drama:


The children are being brought up into that system, if it just showed the school you wouldn’t see that. One kid – his Mum’s trying to get him to go on the streets, his Dad’s in prison, one kid is bringing up his brother but he is going out with Chris on the murders.


These kids aren’t kids though, are they, because of all these other responsibilities. Money, keeping the family house going. These teachers might not fully understand what’s going on, they are getting educated themselves, they are using different styles. There is so much influence out of school.


And here more explicitly in relation to their future lives, which they chose often to relate back to their own school days:


It puts it into perspective. You go into teaching and you might just think its about teaching but then you’ve got to realise that things happen behind closed doors to children and they are gonna bring it into the classroom. You have to think about the social side of it. I did mentoring at school and we got trained about this, how to approach things like drugs and parents being in jail and I can see things in the programme that we got told about, but not had experience of.


When I was watching it it reminded me of that and why I don’t want to teach in secondary school. I couldn’t cope with that. In primary school you can influence people in a positive way, so that they react differently when they are older.

I’ve never been in a situation like this, but I can see it from an education view, as peer presure is there in education to be distracted by other routes not linked to education, I feel this is like teenage pregnancy? At my school most girls had kids from 15+ and I was in the minority for not having a child, as it seemed the norm in my school and 6th form to have had at least 1 child by 18, and this was a way of life as to have a child and bring this is and have money coming in off support and get a flat etc. I think this links to how the children in The WIre have to break away from peers and become an individual and go on to education and professions.

If Baltimore is at the core of the problems, then the next generation – if they try to do something now, to stop it. But its sticking to the curriculum, he’s trying to use things they will be interested in. Playing a game but they are actually learning.


The teachers have just lost hope. They’ve obviously gave up so the kids are gonna think well there’s no point.


For these future teachers, a discourse of hope is far more audible. Perhaps due to their stage in the career journey (and the lack of experience of ‘the game’ and its rule) they consistently offer the hope of redemption – primary teachers ‘making a difference’, moving away from the curriculum to engage students, the role of mentoring in education. Whilst these participants adhere to the preferred reading (that The Wire reflects social reality), they see an alternative in social practice and view themselves as agents in change.

Nationwide Remixed?

Whilst Morley’s formative cultural mapping revealed a set of different readings from different social groups, the data in question here offers different versions of a preferred reading. The five groups, almost without any exception, adopt immediately the dominant discourse – that ‘the game’ depicted in the show is really being played in social reality -  and that the producers of The Wire are offering a window to this world, and that the show has things to teach us. From Charlie Brooker to our Youth Workers, this motif is recurrent. Indeed the only dissension comes from a Drama Lecturer’s concern that the online video participants are too interested in the programme and lack anger at the ‘reality’ it deals with. But each group gives us a different context for this – the Media Teachers provide an intertextual ‘metalanguage’ coded as a semiotic chain of meaning (or a ‘taxonomy’ in their words), with their own identities woven in. They assume that the proximal relations of The Wire, Do the Right Thing and Public Enemy – and the meanings attributed to such by white professionals (as several choose to identify themselves – an important detail since ethnicity is not a ‘marker’ for this study) will be understood. The Drama Lecturers are similar in their readiness to discuss The Wire as a text, but seem to be more comfortable with a discourse of ‘cultural value’, and are more distant from the form – television, and whilst their acquisition of cultural capital is very close to their Media counterparts, their ‘mapping’ of the text to their lifeworlds comes less naturally. The Youth Workers appear to have the most at stake, contrasting greatly with both the Media Teachers (for whom the reality depicted is mediated through other media references) and the Drama Teachers who confess to having little direct experience of such aspects of social reality. For the Youth Workers the preferred reading is articulated through lived experience either in the present or projected into the future (it’s gonna come down on us’). And subsequently there is less interest in the text, the craft or its objectives. For the Education Students a great deal is also at stake – their life experience and proximity to the social reality represented is closer to the Youth Workers, but the optimism for change marks their responses as different to all of the other groups (including the online Critic-Fans).



Whether the form of the response required or the professional situation of the participant group was more formative in these distinctions in how the preferred reading is fuelled in each case could not be extracted from the design of this enquiry and clearly, by way of a Morley-esque postscript, it can be safely observed that a further stage in the project might productively have been to discern this.  The reasons for the nuances and markers in the data from each group are not only a product of location in educational social practice. Is it not the case that the Media Teachers offer higher levels of reflection and more instinctively connect the text to the complex role of media in their identities because of what Gauntlett calls ‘giving time’ – freedom from the formal interview, an unstated expectation of a ‘creative’ response? Isn’t the collective discourse of hope mobilised by the future teachers largely the result of their being interviewed as a group and having already been educated in the context of ‘Every Child Matters’, adopting a ‘course identity’ that requires signing up to an obligation to ‘make a difference’? Had they been given the chance to produce visual outcomes over a longer time, alone, might they have told a different story? And to what extent are the Youth Workers, filming one another, performing? Notice very tangible shifts in register from their blog postings to their documentary video discussions. How valid is their documentary evidence, in research terms, in comparison to their written material on the forum, then? And can we treat the data acquired with the researcher present (the Drama and Education interviews) as equivalent to the ‘open brief’ material? Are the blog outcomes an ‘in between’ – the researcher is ‘there’ but in space rather than time?


The intention of this highly experimental multi-modal project has not been to speculate and generalise and yet, doubtless, this leaves many questions unanswered. But rather than undermining the outcomes of this research, these more visible inflections by method simply serve to reveal what is always already at stake in research – the context of living in culture is always subjective. Indeed, by adopting a range of different methods and contexts for the acquisition of data, the researcher is able to make more sense of what comes back. Perhaps a problem with Gauntlett’s ‘othering’ of language-based research data is that his work only offers the alternative and as such there is a danger of constructing a ‘parodic’ representation of audience research. In this paper another strategy has been attempted – a ‘mash up’ of methods with the deliberate intention of exploring (and exploiting) the difference this additional set of determinants (in addition to the cultural map) makes to the outcomes. The conclusions we can draw at this point seem to be that it is perfectly possible to adhere to the principles (if not the conceptual premise) of Morley’s seminal study even in this post-broadcast mediasphere. Despite the fact that The Wire has not been consumed in the same way as Nationwide was – as a collective experience in time – we have been able to situate the data in relation to a differently configured sense of a ‘preferred reading’ and produce a tentative cultural map of the connections between the different versions of such a reading and social practices engaging the audience.


The limitations of these findings are clear and have been made so in the ‘confessional’ nature of the write up. This project has been another ‘small story’, in Barker’s words (2007b). But it is hoped that further research will more extensively explore the idea of using ‘multimodal methods’ to play the game, extend the analysis of the relationship between the context of reception and the research mode and, further, that this early and partly formed example of ‘mash-up ethnography’ might be further developed and passed on to students so we can more consistently move away from the text and the ‘armchair’ to explore in new ways how people in culture attribute meaning to media.   



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Biographical Note

Dr Julian McDougall is Reader in Media and Education, Newman University College

Contact Julian: j.mcdougall@newman.ac.uk




Last updated 23 May 2010

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