These are the four audience theories that I researched in detail before starting to write the plot for our short film.
The effects model Uses and gratifications The active audience Mode of address The ethnographic model
The effects/hypodermic model
The original model for audience was the effects/hypodermic model which stressed the effects of the mass media on their audiences. This model owes much to the supposed power of the mass media - in particular film - to inject their audiences with ideas and meanings. Such was the thinking behind much of the Nazi propaganda that was evident in Triumph of the Will and similar films. It is worth noting that totalitarian states and dictatorships are similar in their desire to have complete control over the media, usually in the belief that strict regulation of the media will help in controlling entire populations. The effects model has several variants and despite the fact that it is an outdated model it continues to exert influence in present debates about censorship and control in the media.
The Frankfurt School
The Frankfurt School developed concerns about the power which modern mass media had to propagandise on behalf of fascism. The founders of this school of thought were left-wing and clearly under threat in the context of pre-war Nazi Germany. They moved to America and refined their model in an era of expanding media output in post-war America. They articulated criticisms of a capitalist system which controlled media output, creating a stupefying mass culture that eliminated or marginalised opposition or alternatives. A less theoretical variant of the effects model was developed in response to the violent content of certain TV programmes. Some of the moral watchdogs, or the 'moral majority' as they styled themselves, took issue with TV output that was deemed to be explicitly sexual, too violent or in other ways offensive. Their concerns were for those vulnerable members of the population who could be corrupted as a result of such material. Perhaps the best known of these groups in the UK was the National Viewers and Listeners Association (Mary Whitehouse) which argued that TV was a direct cause of deviant behaviour, especially among the young.
The problems with the Effects/Hypodermic theory The problems with the effects model, in whatever form, have to do with its roots in behaviourist psychology. The behaviourist explanation of human behaviour (Skinner and Pavlov) is looking increasingly hard to justify as we have come to develop a fuller understanding of the complexities of human behaviour, which is not predictable nor is it controllable. There are also the difficulties of linking cause and effect in terms of how we engage with media texts. The large number of studies that have been done do not prove the case conclusively either way. These range from the Walters and Bandura experiments to studies that count incidents of violence on TV. Other criticisms of this model centre on the stress that it places on the audience as passive, whereas newer models suggest that the audience is much more active than was initially supposed. This model, it seems, is something of an anachronism but it is constantly revived by politicians and social commentators when moral panics are generated around issues such as 'video nasties' and their influence on children (eg the Bulger case) or computer games allegedly damaging literacy skills or contributing to violent behaviour (eg the Doomcomputer game). Such concerns often try to scapegoat parts of media output as if these were the sole relevant factor in anti-social behaviour. This approach ignores the other factors that work as a mix to influence behaviour i.e. home, school, peers and social interaction. Perhaps the kindest interpretation of this model is to note that the media, especially TV, can influence general perceptions about public events and social trends. (Note some of the terms that have entered the language as a result of media exposure: 'Winter of Discontent', 'double whammy', 'Sinn Fein/IRA').
Uses and gratifications
A more recent model of audience is that of uses and gratifications, which suggests that there is a highly active audience making use of the media for a range of purposes designed to satisfy needs such as entertainment, information and identification. In this model the individual has the power and she selects the media texts that best suit her needs and her attempts to satisfy those needs. The psychological basis for this model is the hierarchy of needs identified by Maslow. Among the chief exponents of this model are McQuail and Katz. a) the need for information about our geographical and social world (news and drama) b) the need for identity, by using characters and personalities to define our sense of self and social behaviour (film and celebrities) c) the need for social interaction through experiencing the relationships and interaction of others (soap lives and sitcom) d) the need for diversion by using the media for purposes of play and entertainment (game shows and quizzes).
The active audience
More recent developments still, suggest that there is a decoding process going on among the active audience who are not simply using the media for gratification purposes. Morley's view of dominant, negotiated and oppositional readings of texts is a semiological approach because it recognises the importance of the analysis of signs, particularly visual signs, that shape so much of modern media output. In this model, at its simplest level, the audience accept or agree with the encoded meanings, they accept and refine parts of the text's meanings or they are aware of the dominant meaning of the text but reject it for cultural, political or ideological reasons.
Mode of address
Still in line with the active audience idea is the concept of mode of address. This refers to the way that a text speaks to us in a style that encourages us to identify with the text because it is 'our' kind of text. For example Friends is intended for a young audience because of the way it uses music and the opening credits to develop a sense of fun, energy and enthusiasm that the perceived audience can identify with. This does not mean that other groups are excluded, merely that the dominant mode of address is targeted at the young. Mode of address can even be applied to entire outputs, as in the case of Channel Four which works hard to form a style of address aimed at an audience which is informed, articulate and in some ways a specialised one. Newspapers, too, often construct their presentation to reflect what they imagine is the identity of their typical readers. Compare The Sun and The Guardian in this context.
The latest research into audience has resulted in an ethnographic model, which means that the researcher enters into the culture of the group and uses questions and interviews to try to understand media engagement from the perspective of the group. What seems to be emerging from this work is a) the focus on the domestic context of reception of media texts b) the element of cultural competence, and finally c) technologies.
The first of these stresses the fact that engagement with the media is often structured by the domestic environment because of the domestication of entertainment and leisure. It appears that the home is not a free space and there are issues about finance for purchase of media goods, control of the remote, the gendered nature of watching TV and the 'flow' of TV that fits alongside or within a set of domestic relationships. So TV viewing may not be the concentrated, analytical business that some theorists suggest.
The second area is best understood in terms of texts that can be identified as belonging to a genre that has gender appeal. For example, soaps are usually seen to have a strong female bias in viewing audience. There is a selection of competencies that are brought to such texts so knowing about cliffhangers, the role of the matriarch or the fluid nature of character relationships simply adds to the pleasures associated with the text. Think about the texts that you enjoy and even though you know how a text will be shaped or how it will end these are not barriers to your enjoyment of that text.
Competencies even include the very expectations that you have for the text. The male preference for news and more factual forms can be seen as a feature of cultural competence because men occupy more public space than domestic space and therefore feel the need to be aware of the public worlds reflected in such texts. The third area identified relates to the way we engage with the hardware in order to enjoy the output of the media. There seems to be a strong gender divide here with computers and complex technology fitting into the category of 'boys’ toys'. If present trends in technology continue then there is a real danger that just as our society is dividing along lines of information-rich and information-poor then there will be a further demarcation along gender lines. This explains why schools and TV programmes need to present positive gender representations and good practice that supports females and technological expertise. You will note that many of the lifestyle programmes that are on TV use females in less traditional roles as a way of redressing the balance.
Overall the shift in the models for audience has gone from mass audience to individual viewer with stress on the active audience rather than the passive model. The level of activity in the implied audience is related to the uses, pleasures, cultural competence, situation and available technology for the particular audience.