The number of pupils entered for media studies GCSE jumped by a fifth this year. Now the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority wants research into whether secondaries should encourage pupils to drop English literature for the subject, after finding a staggering improvement in exam scores in one school.
Thousands of youngsters are switching from studying novels and poetry in English literature to analysing Hollywood films, assessing racial stereotypes in the music industry and making pop videos in media studies.
The new statistics will fuel criticism of the subject which has been denounced as "Mickey Mouse" by its detractors. Alan Smithers, professor of education at the University of Buckingham, told The TES schools were choosing media studies because it was a soft option.
Yet teachers say it captures the interest of disaffected pupils, especially boys, that it can improve performance in other subjects and that techniques for analysing films or soap operas are the same as those for dissecting poetry.
Gill Clayton, head of English at Great Torrington community school, Devon, where 190 students are taking media studies this year, said: "Boys who do not read have got something from media studies they did not get from literature."
She said her students analysed the lyrics of Eminem in the same way as they do poetry.
Provisional figures from the two most popular exam boards for the subject show entries for 2005 up by 19 per cent, following a rise of 12 per cent the previous year. Last year 40,000 pupils took the subject. Figures from four boards in 2005 show English literature entries also rising, but by only 1per cent.
Martin Phillips, of the Exeter-based Digital Media Education Centre, said 80 schools had expressed an interest in offering media studies to pupils as an alternative to English literature.
Pupils taking GCSEs in English and English literature were "overloaded" with poetry, studying anthologies for both exams, he said.
A QCA report highlighted Churchdown comprehensive, which has taught media studies since 2000. The results were nearly 30 percentage points higher than those in English literature the year after the switch was made.
English results also improved.
Leanna Arkell, head of media studies, said the comprehensive achieved "awesome" results last year. Every pupil got a C or better in media, with 80 per cent doing so in English as well.
Philip Pullman, the award-winning author, said: "Media studies is easily sneered at by those who think it entirely consists of watching EastEnders and Coronation Street. How TV news and information reaches us through the media is of profound importance."