Abstract This paper draws on two reception studies. One focuses on an American medical drama which respondents perceived as entertainment but also as a reliable source of information from which they collected medical and social data by using emotional and ludic strategies. The second compares parallel illness narratives in a soap opera and a documentary. Soap operas were described by informants as good pedagogic tools because they attracted large audiences and promoted identification and repetition which enhance learning. On the other hand, they criticised the documentary for being incomplete and artificial. The conclusion argues that viewers are media-literate, astute and insightful. They produce sophisticated, subtle interpretations which cannot be predicted by content analyses of programmes alone. More reception research is therefore needed, particularly since television is increasingly omnipresent and provides a considerable portion of the public's medical knowledge.