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May 30, 2008
Audience Studies in Media
This article briefly examines some of the main ways in which media studies has researched audiences rather than institutions or the texts themselves. In this sense media has many dimensions which might require different research methods in order to generate maeningful knowledge. The areas of research covered are the construction of the pessimistic notion of 'mass audiences', the construction of audiences as market by market researchers, reception theory and ethnographic research approaches.
Audiences as "Mass"
The media has usually been associated automatically with the process of mass communication. As Ien Ang has pointed out the concet of "mass" audience was particularly powerful in the first half of the 20th century. This is unsurprising as the new media technologies of the time, film, radio and then TV became extraordinarily popular very quickly. This was so much so that the boom in radio shares in the United States helped create the stock market 'bubble' which lead to the Great Crash of 1929. Many readers will be familiar with another media lead stock market buble the so-called "dot.com" bubble which lead to a severe "correction" in the stock market although a full scale crash was avoided.
The underlying logic of these bubbles was based upon perceptions of audience and mass markets which shows how the two terms overlap. Sociologists of the time such as Blumler in 1950 saw the rapid growth in media audiences as part of what became dubbed as "mass society". Audiences were conceived of as "masses" who absorbed "mass culture". There was an underlying implication that it was very much "passive" uncritical absorbtion of the content which was produced.
Blumler who was a powerful influence in creating the model of audiences at the time described the concept of "mass" in the following way:
- Firstly: Its membership may come from all walks of life. This could include people from different classes and cultural and economic backgrounds.
- Secondly: The mass is anonymous, being composed of "anonymous" individuals
- Thirdly: There was little or no interaction or exchange between the mebers of these "masses". Unlike the crowd in the street they do not mill
- Fourthly:The mass has no real organisation and is unable to act with the unity of a crowd.
Although this was meant to be a purely descriptive evaluation of media audiences as Ang points out:
...it is surrounded by many additional, evaluative meanings that are usually very negative (Ang questioning the Media first Edition p 157)
The negativity behind this model saw older concepts of civil society which helped people understand and contribute to the social world embedded in community and institutions like the church being weakened. Audiences were seen as passive, individualised or atomised taken out of thier social surroundings and therefore easily manipulated. Many people media theorists included thought that this situation left audiences totally exposed to the ideas transmitted by the mass media. This was particularly the case with popular forms of media such as films, TV and radio. this lead to what has been dubbed as the 'Hypodermic Needle' theory. This is a medical metaphor which relates to the power of doctors over helpless patients and assumes complete power over the individual, which soon leads us into another medical metaphor of "brain-washing".
Audiences as "Market"
The argument put forward by Ang seems increasingly outdated as globalisation and the accompanying commercialisation and consumer orientation deepen alongside the effects of digitisation and the Web. Ang points out that perceiving audiences as markets comes from this commercial context and is very much an American tradition compared with the Public Service Broadcasting ethos that has been prevalent in Britian and much of Europe until comparatively recently. Of course Ang also points out that audiences are seen as potential consumers for the goods and services advertised. One need go no further than lifestyle magazines such as GQ to see just how much that magazine is an almost total vehicle for advertising and integrally generating an ethos of consumption. The content and appraoch of these magazines is very much influneced by organisations such as ACORN. Companies like these exercise a lot of power in creating markets for goods and services by constructing an increasingly sophisticated range of categories, to fit in with more diverse lifestyle and identities.
See How ACORN assesses the area you live in:
upmystreet. You will neeed to type in your postcode.
Ang bases her criticisms upon the fact that the research methods used were quanitative ones just focusing on TV sets that were turned on and tuned in. This entirely ignored the subjective and qualitative elements of audience experiences. Cetainly we do not view ourselves as a 'market', we are however constructed as a part of a market. With the increasing fragmentation of audiences into a wide range of media forms and even user genersated content models of exactly what constitutes an audience are necessarily having to change. Nevertheless in an "On Demand" era of media (What you want when you want it where you want it) and the necessity to either produce a profit or provide clear value for money from PSB shows how sophisticaed the relationship between audience / market and the providers of media content / user generated content vehicles (MySpace etc) is.
Contemporary Online Media Targeting Audience
The BBC Online News Service is a good example of how contemporary media institutions are adapting to the changing parameters of media because of digitisation and the expontential growth of the internet. The BBC has always aimed to have a global audience because it developed as an institution in the waning days of the British Empire which until the post war era still controlled more land mass than any other country. The use of the World Service partially funded by the Foreign Office was the main arm for this global extension. In the era of globalisation the importance of media is still fundamental. The following is an extract of how the BBC can use its size and depth of experience to address different audiences by place / location whilst providing a much more sophisticated service to all users. The service is backed by the BBCs renowned aims and objectives of trying to report in a fair manner. As such for those detractors of pub;lic service broadcasting and the TV Licence fee need to think about the service being rendered by the BBC in providing better quality news well outside of the countries national borders. The BBC explains their policy below:
The BBC News website is published in two versions - one for the UK and the other for international audiences. First time users to the site will be automatically directed to the version based on their geographical location. In this way BBC News can offer a more relevant selection of headlines. (BBC News Website)
Uses & Gratifications Theory
Uses and Gratifications theory takes quite a different pespective when it comes to creating a model of what audiences are about. rather than people being engaged passively in a mindless pastime uses and gratifications theory considers that people's use of the media is very selective and needs prior motivation. The theory became named in this way because it is expected that using the media in a chosen way will offer some gratifications. These will satisfy social and psychological needs of the individuals concerned.
Research Methods of Uses and Gratifications Theory
The research tends to be very empirically based. Usually audience members are asked to fill in questionnaires about why they watch / listen to / use particular programs or media forms. Ang (ibid p 1590 reports upon Dennis McQuail who was a researcher using these methods over several years. McQuail came to the conclusion that there were four main categories into which people's reasons for consuming certain media formats fell:
Information: Finding out about aspects of the world and society. Driven by curiosity, learning and interest
Personal Identity: Finding reinforcement for personal values, finding out about models of behaviour, identifying with others important in the lives of the individual concerned, reflexivity or gaining knowledge and insight into the self
Integration and Social Interaction: Useful for a basis of conversation, helping to perform social roles, developing insights into the position of other people, developing a sense of belonging
Entertainment: Distraction from problems of everyday life, general relaxation, cultural and aesthetic pleasure, passing the time, emotional release, sexual arousal.
Common Criticisms of Uses and Gratifications Theory
One problem is the individualistic approach taken. The possibility that people are consuming media within specific social contexts is sidelined. Some people may have to endure aspects of media because it is forced upon them. Visiting a house with the TV on may mean that the conversation is circumscribed because some people like TV on all the time.
Reception Analysis /Interpretive Communites / Subcultures
Reception analysis researchs how audiences interpret media products which they define as "texts". This can be applied from any media product from the Financial Times to Grand Theft Auto. The key point here is that audiences are understood to be producers of meaning not merely consumers
Ang (p160-1) notes that researchers interest:
...is directed not to the individual ways in which people make sense of such a text, but to social meanings, that is, meanings that are culturally shared.
The term interpretive communities has developed to describe how groups of people make common interpretations of particular texts. An interpretive community does not have to be located in any specific place but the symbolical connection around a cultural text is a form of social space.
In general what reception researchers aim to uncover is how people in their own social and historical contexts make sense of all kinds of media texts in ways that are meaningful, suitable, and accessible to them. (Ang ibid p 161)
Media in Everyday Life
In recent years there has been a growth in the analysis and researching the practices of everyday life or the quotidian. The French theorist Henri Lefebvre was one of the first people to do this. After him another important theorist was Michel de Certau. Obviously the relationship and interactions between people and how they use and relate to media in their everyday lives is very important to this area of study. The media theorist Roger Silverstone has commented upon how media contributes to people's sense of being or social ontology by contributing to aspects of the everyday which make life familiar and predictable. Media can play an important part in this as part of a symbolic system underpinning everyday life:
Ontological security is sustained through the familiar and the predictable...The symbols of daily life: the everyday sights and sounds of natural language and familiar culture; the publicly broadcast media texts on billboards, in newspapers on television...
Ang notes the conclusions of researcher Herman Bausinger in 1984 who had spent a long time observing German families in their homes. He came to some key conclusions which need to be kept in mind when examining the role of the media in the everyday:
- Many media forms are used by people throughout the day and this 'media ensemble' neds to be taken into account
- People rarely fully concentrate on the media they are relating to at any given momnent
- The media are an integral part of the everyday rhythms and routines of life
- Media use is not an isolated process but a social one with individuals often interacting with others whilst absorbing a media text
This type of approach to media is in many ways the most promising one of the ideas elaborated at least from the perspective of understand the interaction of people with media in the construction of their social and cultural worlds. This type of research method is described as ethnographic in which the fine-grained detail of everyday life can be observed and interpreted. Naturally this is a very different emphasis from those seeking to create target audience for the sale of media products. There has been useful work done by researchers like Ann Gray into issues of gender and media use in the home in her work Video Playtime
Ang, Ien. 'The Nature of the Audience'. In Downing et al. 1994. Questioning the Media. London: Sage
Silverstone Roger. 1994. Television and Everyday Life. London: Routledge