Table of contents
2. What is an audience?
3. Origin of the term ‘audience’
4. Media Conception of the Audience
5. Conceptions of Audience
6. The Mass Audience: Its Origin
6. 1 Mass Audience as a Commodity
6.2 Criticisms of the Mass Audience Concept
6.3 The Power of the Mass Audience
6.4 The Mass Audience in the New Media Environment
7. Research on Audience
7. 1 Researching for the Audience
7. 2 Commercial Audience Research
8. Audience Measurement
9. The Audience as Market
Media and Its Audience: Beneficiary or Victim?
Prof. Francis Arackal Thummy, PhD
Contemporary media scene is one of convergence mainly technological and corporate. Audience studies have always faced certain fluidity due to the dynamic nature of audience itself. This is more pronounced in the age of media convergence. All the same the paper will make an attempt to understand the phenomenon of audience – meaning, origin, and nature. Conceptions of audience are multiple. Contemporary audience phenomenon is characterized by massification. Massification has led to commodification conveniencing media houses and advertising firms to measure it, which in turn helps to rate various programmes, especially on broadcast media. Of course, the power of the mass audience cannot be underestimated especially with the emergence of New Media, through social networking sites. Surely, audience fragmentation and polarization is an unavoidable fact arising from the contemporary mushrooming of media outlets. This poses numerous difficulties in the area of audience research – researching for audience and for commercial interests. The commercial research and audience measurement turns audience in to a market.
Key Words: Media, Audience, Media convergence, Audience measurement, Journalists
Why consider media and its audience? With the advent of mass communication and today with the convergence media people all over the world spend so much of their time daily in the consumption of the mass media. Today the media are actually constitutive of everyday life. The media and everyday life have become so closely interwoven that they are almost inseparable and people don’t even realize the amount of time they spend with it. It is a claim that the very constitution and regulation of the mundane is in the hands of the media.1
As Silverstone (1994) writes: An important part of our every day life consists of rituals and symbols of which we may be largely unaware. In this symbolic and ritualistic construction of everyday life media plays a crucial role, of which we may be unaware.2 The media, in all their forms, have worked their way into daily life on an unprecedented scale. Besides being regulative or constitutive of everyday life, the media also provide images, models of performance, or frameworks of action and thought which become routine resources of everyday life.3
Further, Webster and Phalen’s (1997) views confirm why we must deal with media and its audience: “The audience is essential to our understanding of the media. It is the public in whose name programmes are made and laws are passed. It is the commodity that supports commercial broadcasting. It is the arena in which the effects of mass communications are played out. It is the place where the meanings and pleasures of media use are ultimately realized. The audience, in short, is the foundation of the media’s economic and cultural power. Without it, the entire enterprise has very little purpose.”4 This is a very comprehensive idea of Media audience.
Ours is a descriptive study which will first of all attempt to answer the question: ‘What is audience?’ Next, we will probe in to the origin of the word ‘audience’ and the gradually evolved uses of it and will go on to describe the various conceptions of audience. We will also look at media’s conception of audience. Measurement of audience is another important point we would like to consider and then pose the question: ‘Is audience research important?’ It is also important to discuss the power of the audiences and the future of the audience concept.
2. What is an audience?
Webster and Phalen say, “Most often the audience is conceptualized as a large, loosely connected mass on the receiving end of the media. This vision of the audience seems so obvious, so natural, that no others may even come to mind. But audiences are not natural things. They are ‘man-made’”.5 Hoijer (1999) seems to agree: The concept of audience is not some collective entity, implying that a single person is not an audience. “Both broadcasting institutions and academic research usually have some abstract collective in mind when studying and theorizing audiences.”6 From the tenor of the above discussion it would be right to say, as Mc Quail (1997) too suggests, that it is very difficult to define the term ‘audience’. Mc Quail writes:
“An audience can be defined in different and overlapping ways: by place (as in the case of local media); by people (as when a medium is characterized by an appeal to a certain age group, gender, political belief, or income category); by the particular type of medium or channel involved (technology and organization combined); by the conten t of its messages (genres, subject matter, styles); by time (as when one speaks of the “daytime” or the “part-time” audience, or an audience that is fleeting and short term compared to one that endures)”.7
3. Origin of the term ‘audience’
According to Oxford English Dictionary (1989) the word audience first appeared in the 14 century. Its original usage implied a hearing, as in “giving an audience”. (For example, the Pope gives audience every Wednesday in Rome.) Eventually, that definition expanded to include an “assembly of listeners”. Not until the mid-19 century, however, did the word take on a more modern meaning by denoting the readers of a particular author or publication. With the advent of electronic media in the early 20 century, the word came to be used for its large number of receivers (mass audience).
Before the 1980s when the category of ‘the audience’ had not registered as a culturally significant one, it was simply accepted that ‘audience’ meant anyone using any of the broadcast media, in whatever circumstances.8
Mc Quail (1983) discussed the differences between the audience as “aggregates”, as “mass”, as “public or social group”, and as “market”. (We will be looking at in detail some of these conceptions of audience later on). For each of these categories ‘receiving’ constituted ‘audiencehood’. Nightingale claims that Mc Quail’s analysis articulated the more European thematic of constituency theories of the audience, of people as citizens, as having civic responsibilities and as describing fair and honest reporting and representation from the press. His perspective drew attention to the unduly neglected matter of citizenship, to its rights and responsibilities, to the political dimension of audience activities.9
Similar to Mc Quail’s (1997) idea that “reality to which the term [audience] refers is also diverse and constantly changing,”10 Nightingale says that “audience is a shifty concept”.11 Her first attempt to address the shifty character of the audience (Nightingale, 1984) led her to propose that the audience could only be understood as a complex set of relations linked in a structured system of mass communication.
4. Media Conception of the Audience
While Aristotle admonishes that communicators must know their audience, many professional mass communicators don’t seem to have a very clear or complete image of their audiences. Studies done by Burgoon, Burgoon, & Atkin, 1982; Gans, 1979; Schlesinger, 1978 point to this.
Hagen (1997) claims we can know media perceptions of the audience from the way the media approach audiences in their texts and programmes. What images of audiences are held by media producers and journalists? In other words, to what degree various audience feedbacks and images are incorporated (or not) into the production process. The institutional demand (newsroom) seems to be to keep the audience; to have them ‘stay tuned’, rather than trying to keep them informed.12
Gan’s (1979) observational study of US news magazines and network television journalists is illustrative of this:
“I … paid close attention to how the journalists conceived of and related to their audience. I was surprised to find, however, that they had little knowledge about their actual audience and rejected feedback from it. Although they had a vague image of the audience, they paid little attention to it; instead, they filmed and wrote for their superiors and for themselves, assuming … that what interested them would interest the audience.”13
Not only is the image vague, but, as Gans suggests, it is not all certain that a clear image would matter much. Journalists report that their perceptions of audience have a minor impact on their work relative to other sources of influence. According to Flegel and Chaffee (1971), who found that, among eight sources of perceived influence, journalists ranked readers’ interests fourth behind such aspects of story content as unusualness, proximity, and importance. Journalists also ranked readers’ opinions seventh behind their own opinions and their editors’ opinions.14
On the other hand, Pool and Schulman (1959) argued that journalists’ “fantasies” about their audience did influence news writing, based on an experiment demonstrating that student journalists who held views discrepant from those of their perceived audience tended to write less accurate stories. But even with these results, Pool and Schulman were compelled to acknowledge the importance of routine organizational practice for the production of news: “The author’s fantasies are clearly not the only things that affect what he writes. An experienced professional newsman will have acquired great facility in turning out a standard product for each of the many kinds of routine story of which so much of the news consists.”15 In much the same vein, Espinosa (1982) argued, based on an ethnographic study of a Television Script Conference, that audience interests and needs were actively considered by conference participants in the form of generalizations about audience preferences invoked in the course of discussions about the script. While these generalizations did implicitly reflect the perceived expectations of the audience, they explicitly concerned the structure and content of the script.
“This result reminds us that writers, whether newspaper reporters or television scriptwriters, along with most other creators of symbolic materials, learn and practice their craft not by internalizing an audience image but by acquiring and maintaining a ‘product image’.” Ettema and Whitney conclude: “Thus ‘audience images’ reappear, if we look for them, not in individual daily work routines but in organizational strategies and interactions within the overall arrangements of the institution.”16
Thus while journalists often claim to provide the audience what they need or want, their standards are often those of their professional peers. “While independence from economic and political interests is important for journalists’ autonomy, the lack of regard for the interests of the audience is more problematic”.17 Hagen goes on to say:
“One way to secure heterogeneous audience images sufficient to match the heterogeneity of modern audiences is the collective production team so common in audio-visual productions. Such teams will know (often tacitly) from experience how to engage and entertain an audience, how to take into account their knowledge and expectations, and how to avoid being too provocatory.”18
5. Conceptions of Audience
Nightingale (1996) speaks about the ‘Active Audience’. She says instead of the traditional sender-message-receiver model the ‘uses and gratifications’ (Katz, Blumer and Gurevitch 1974) insisted that social utility is a necessary pre-condition for mass communication. “From this logical condition, another term was deduced – ‘the activity of the audience’.”19 What led to this model was the utilitarian idea that audience exist only because broadcast information is useful. Audiences, therefore, are active users of media messages by definition.20
Webster and Phalen21 identify three audience concepts:
1) The Concept of “Audience as Victim”: It reflects the hypothesis that audiences, particularly those thought to have special needs such as children and minorities, may be significantly affected by broadcast content over which they have little control. This concept has justified regulatory attempts to protect audiences from less desirable programming and to promote more desirable alternatives.
2) The Concept of “Audience as Consumer”: It assumes that audiences have well-informed content preferences to which broadcasters must respond. This concept has sustained the deregulations of the industry.
3) The Concept of “Audience as Coin of Exchange”: It recognizes the economic value of audiences for broadcasters and has required regulators to deal with such issues as the “diversion” of broadcast audiences by cable channels and distribution of revenues through the Copyright Royalty Tribunal.
Abercrombie and Longhurst (1998) discuss three types of audience experiences – the simple audience, the mass audience and the diffused audience. They say that in contemporary societies all three types are present and argue that mass and diffused audiences develop out of simple audiences, created by forces of modernization.22
“Critical to what it means to be a member of an audience is the idea of performance. Audiences are groups of people before whom a performance of one kind or another takes place. Performance, in turn, is a kind of activity in which the person performing accentuates his or her behaviour under the scrutiny of others.”23
1 Nicholas Abercrombie and Brian Longhurst. 1998 Audiences: A Sociological Theory of Performance and Imagination. Thousand Oaks: Sage, P. 69.
2 Robert Silverstone. 1994 Television and Everyday Life. London: Routledge, Pp. 18-23.
3 Abercrombie and Longhurst, P. 104.
4 James G. Webster and Patricia Phalen. 1997 The Mass Audience: Rediscovering the Dominant Model..Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc., Publishers, P. 1
5 Webster and Phalen, P. 1
6 Brigitta Hoijer. 1999 “To be an Audience” in Alasuutari, Pertti (Ed.) The Mass Media Audience. London: Sage, Pp. 179-194.
7 Denis Mc Quail. 1997 Audience Analysis. London: Sage, P. 2.
8 Virginia Nightingale. 1996 Studying Audiences: The Shock of the Real. London: Routledge, P. 10.
9 Denis Mc Quail. 1993 Mass Communication Theory (Third Edition). London: Sage. As referred to by Nightingale 1996, P. 10.
10 Mc Quail 1997, P. 2.
11 Nightingale 1996, P. 148.
12 Inguun Hagen. 1999 “Slaves of the Ratings Tyranny?” in Alasuutari, p. 130.
13 H. J. Gans. 1979 Deciding What’s News. New York: Pantheon, P. 230.
14 As referred to by James S. Ettema & D. Charles Whitney. 1994 Audiencemaking: How the Media Creates the Audience. London: Sage, P. 7.
15 I. Pool and Schulman, I. 1959 “Newsmen’s Fantasies, Audiences and Newswriting”, Public Opinion Quarterly, 23: 145-158.
16 Ettema and Whitney, P. 8.
17 Hagen, P. 132.
18 Ibid., P. 132.
19 E. Katz; Blumer, J and Gurevitch, M. (1974) “Utilization of Mass Communication by the Individual”, in J Blumer and E. Katz. (Eds.) The Uses of Mass Communications: Current Perspectives on Gratifications Research. Beverly Hills and London: Sage, P. 21.
20 Nightingale 1996, P. 8.
21 Webster and Phalen, Pp. 126, 128-130.
22 Abercrombie and Longhurst, P. 39.
23 Ibid., P. 40.