The Motivational Pull of Television Dramas

Paula Adachi, photo credit Frank Angelini

Paula Adachi, photo credit Frank Angelini

Paul Adachi, PhD
University of Rochester

Binge watching hit drama TV series seems to be a common practice these days.  Americans spend over 30 hours a week watching TV and dramas are among the most popular genres (Nielsen, 2012, 2017).  Although media psychologists have long been interested in why people watch TV, my colleagues and I (Adachi, Ryan, Frye, McClurg, & Rigby, 2017) focus on a different question:  What is it about a drama series that pulls viewers in and keeps them engaged?   Specifically, we seek to elucidate critical themes, features, and experiences of TV shows that keep viewers coming back to watch the next episode. Importantly we apply a prominent theory of human motivation—Ryan and Deci’s (2017) Self-Determination Theory (SDT) to examine the motivational pull of TV dramas.

A main tenet of SDT is that experiences of the psychological needs of autonomy (personal agency), relatedness (social connectedness), and competence (sense of efficacy) enhance motivation. SDT has been applied to understand the satisfaction of psychological needs during video game play that boost engagement with games (e.g., Ryan, Rigby, & Przybylski, 2006).  In the passive context of TV viewing, the onus is on the show to provide viewers with themes and features that would fulfill such psychological needs as feeling a sense of connection to the characters so as to enhance viewers’ motivation to continue to watch the show.  The goal of our recent work (Adachi et al., 2017), therefore, was to create a descriptive process model to examine need-related experiences, themes, and features which predict sustained engagement with TV dramas.

In this initial work (Adachi et al. 2017), we investigated six need-related experiences, themes, and features of drama shows, each of which will be briefly highlighted in turn. We examined relatedness (a sense of connection) with characters in the show and viewing competence, or feeling effective at following and understanding the storyline of a show.  We also examined eudaimonic themes, the degree to which shows convey meaningful, touching, and thought-provoking storylines.  Interestingly, although TV shows have been previously thought to be mainly hedonically satisfying, recent evidence suggests that entertainment media also contain rich eudaimonic themes that enhance enjoyment (Bailey & Ivory, 2016; Oliver & Raney, 2011; Vorderer, 2011).  The degree to which shows contained elements of surprise, that is, had storylines that were perceived as novel, were also assessed. Finally, we investigated the extent to which viewers identified with the protagonist, experiencing and interpreting the story events “from the inside,” as if they were experiencing the story vicariously through the protagonist (Cohen, 2001, p. 245). This vicarious experience differs from relatedness with characters as judgments of attachment to characters require the viewer to be self-aware and to experience the story from the outside as a spectator.

We employed a new assessment tool developed from SDT, the Assessment of Media Engagement and Satisfaction Questionnaire (AMES) to measure 5 variables of interest. Additionally, Cohen’s (2001) scale was used to measure identification with the protagonist.

To examine the motivational pull of TV dramas, we conducted three studies (Adachi et al., 2017). Study 1 was a lab-based design in which participants were randomly assigned to watch 1 of 2 preselected drama shows. The results of a path model showed that our AMES variables predicted sustained engagement with the two shows, explaining a large amount of variance. We replicated this result in Study 2 even after controlling for the attention requirements of the shows. In Study 3, we tested the ecological validity of our results with a variety of drama shows that a sample of self-selected TV viewers watched in their free time. The results were consistent with Studies 1 and 2 even after controlling for the different shows that were watched.

Overall, the results suggest that our (Adachi et al., 2017) AMES assessment tool may have the potential to address a range of questions about people’s motivation to watch TV shows.  First, studies 1 and 2 address the motivational pull of pilot episodes, which are tasked with generating initial interest in a show and getting viewers to tune in to episode 2.  Specifically, the findings help to identify some of the key experiences, themes, and features (AMES variables) of pilot episodes that pull viewers in and encourage them to watch the second episode. In addition, Study 3 informs us about the need-related experiences, themes, and features that predict continued engagement with shows that viewers are currently watching in their free time and have already captured their initial interest.

Given the popularity of TV dramas, we focused our initial work on this genre, but research is needed to examine how our AMES model applies to other TV genres. To that end, we are currently investigating how our model predicts sustained engagement with TV comedies. In addition to TV shows, our model may also have predictive value for films, as our AMES variables may be helpful in understanding sustained engagement with a single film (e.g., need-related themes and features that occur early in a film may facilitate viewing the film in its entirety), as well as with film franchises that contain multiple sequels that are released sequentially (e.g., need-related themes and features in the first film may predict choosing to view the sequel). Of course, our initial work is not meant to present an exhaustive list of predictors of TV engagement; instead, it may serve as a starting point for understanding the motivational pull of TV shows from the lens of SDT.


Adachi, P. J. C., Ryan, R. M., Frye, J., McClurg, D., & Rigby, C. S. (2017, September 11). “I can’t wait for the next episode!” Investigating the motivational pull of television dramas through the lens of Self-Determination Theory. Motivation Science. Advance online publication.

Bailey, E. J., & Ivory, J. D. (2016). The moods meaningful media create: Effects of hedonic and eudaimonic television clips on viewers’ affective states and subsequent program selection. Psychology of Popular Media Culture. Advance online publication.

Cohen, J. (2001). Defining identification: A theoretical look at the identification of audiences with media characters. Mass Communication & Society, 4, 245–264.

Oliver, M. B., & Raney, A. A. (2011). Entertainment as pleasurable and meaningful: Identifying hedonic and eudaimonic motivations for entertainment consumption. Journal of Communication, 61, 984–1004.

Ryan, R. M., Rigby, C. S., & Przybylski, A. (2006). The motivational pull of video games: A self-determination theory approach. Motivation and Emotion, 30, 344–360.

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2017). Self-Determination Theory: Basic psychological needs in motivation, development, and wellness. New York, NY: Plenum Press.

Vorderer, P. (2011). What’s next? Remarks on the current vitalization of entertainment theory. Journal of Media Psychology, Methods, and Applications, 23, 60–63.

(Editor’s Note: Paul Adachi received the 2017 Distinguished Scientific Contributions to Media Psychology and Technology Award.)

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