MM3 final LW 12-02 full thing 17/12/03 11:52 am Page 52 MM howtomake senseof... The word ‘audience’ is probably one of the most audience theories frequently-used terms in Media and Film Studies, and it will probably be coming out of your ears by the time you finish your course. But what does this term actually mean? Why is it such a key concept, and what are the ideas and theories behind it? Galit Ferguson explains. How can we navigate our way through the crowd of Why are audiences important? Why study audience theories that surround us during AS and A2 audiences in the first place? Media Studies courses? Firstly we could ask, what is a media text without an An audience is something we tend to analyse at a audience? Is its meaning in the text itself, or is it in the distance, make generalisations about, talk about in the relationship between the text and its audience? Asking abstract – and don’t usually think of ourselves as a part of. ourselves these questions helps us to avoid making However, it is also, of course, something we are a part of, generalisations. Media texts are all constructed with an whether we like it or not, and, once we start analysing the audience in mind – they are made for us, the audience. concept, we see that ‘it’ is in fact not an ‘it’ but a collection They also sometimes (particularly in the case of of different things, depending on where you’re standing, propaganda) try to construct an audience. And of course and why you’re looking. In this article we’ll look at some of they’re made by people who are part of the audience too. the ways in which audiences are studied by media The idea of audience is a way of trying to think about a theorists, and how audiences are talked about in the group of individuals in one go. You may have heard the media. We won’t be considering the ways media term mass media before: what or who is the ‘mass’? Well, institutions and industries actually research their it’s us, believe it or not – how does that feel? audiences as markets for their products – that’s a whole other ball-game, and needs an article all to itself, which So what is an audience? There are many different views we’ll be running in a later issue of MediaMagazine. and definitions: A A target market or a variety of different YOU! particular type of There groups to which you belong consumer which a media Members of is no such thing – gender / ethnic/ class/age/ producer wants to society who might at as ‘an audience’ sexuality etc. reach/sell to some point use the media A group others make What is an audience? A group of people generalisations about who consume a … some different views particular film, TV show, album, ad, etc. A set of individual readers of a text who Something you DO Couch potatoes Individuals, who actively make their own rather than something who passively consume use the media to satisfy meanings you ARE… the media without their own needs challenge
MM3 final LW 12-02 full thing 17/12/03 11:52 am Page 53 MM The difference between audience research American television (and the values in its programmes) and audience theory was thought of here in much the same way as the We often use the terms audience research and audience Martian invasion was over there ... The Cold War of theory – but actually research and theory are very 1950s America meant that American fears of different things: Communism were rife, and so were public fears of hidden media messages, precisely because it was Audience theory describes different ways of thinking assumed that the media had a direct effect upon the about the audience. thinking and the behaviour of audiences. Audience research tries to produce evidence about the But effects theories are not only the domain of relationships between media and audiences. conservative figures such as the late Mary Whitehouse Audience research is always linked closely to a certain (formerly Head of the National Viewers and Listeners audience theory. For example: Association, now called Media Watch), and they are not only concerned with the effects of sex and violence in ■ If you’re researching whether watching Natural Born Killers encourages teen violence, you’re probably working with the assumption that the media – the media on the ‘morals’ of society … Theories of Cultural Effects in this case a violent film – strongly influences teenage In fact, some theorists think that the media cause audiences. Such approaches are known as effects cultural effects. There are two main theories about how theories. the media are thought to do this. Each view comes from a different political perspective: the first example below ■ If you’re interested in how teenage girls read J-17 or CosmoGirl!, and what they get out of them, your research will fit more closely with the uses and is right-wing, and the second is traditionally left-wing. However, despite their political differences, they are, in gratifications approach. fact, rather similar to each other in terms of their pessimism. The idea is that audience research doesn’t necessarily produce facts about the audience: instead it is usually Example 1: The amount of popular culture (for example, informed by strong assumptions about the audience programmes such as Big Brother, Top of the Pops, which it then sets out to prove. Even if the link is not as Trisha, House Doctor, Radio 1 – but not programmes like clear as this, we can see that when a research question BBC1’s Ten O’Clock News) available to the masses has a is formulated, there are always some assumptions negative effect on people’s psychology and mental informing it. Here’s an example: capabilities. This is the idea behind the notion of dumbing down. ■ If I want to do an investigation into what kinds of discussions families have after watching EastEnders, I may think this is a totally open-ended Example 2: The mass media (television, radio, film, press) are controlled by people who are in power in research question, but in fact I’m assuming that different society, and therefore tend to provide representations family members will read the show differently and take which uphold the status quo. For example, a news different things from it. I am making use of a uses and programme might prioritise stories about the Royals over gratifications approach to the audience, whether I know stories about non-famous people living in Essex. The it or not. implication of this is that the first bunch of people must be more important than the second bunch. This is a The grid on page 54 shows some different types of powerful idea within society (a dominant ideology), and audience theory, and how each theory draws on the news programme is helping to uphold it. This means particular kinds of assumptions. that this news programme is also helping to keep powerful people in power, and helping to make sure that Effects theories those who have less power continue to have less power Effects research and theories became common in 1950s in society. America. This may have had something to do with the astonishing audience response to a radio play broadcast These examples are open to debate – it is worth figuring in America in 1938. Orson Welles adapted the H.G. out what your own personal view is about these Wells’ story, War of the Worlds, and it was broadcast as approaches if you are studying audience theory. They do a set of mock news bulletins about a Martian invasion of show that effects theories aren’t always about violence planet Earth. These radio broadcasts resulted in or sexuality, but about power, too. widespread panic, and even reported sightings of Research into the supposed effects of the media on various Martian invaders! The earliest and longest- audiences is not always easy though. Justin Lewis (a lasting effects approach is the hypodermic model, and Media Studies academic) has written: in the case of War of the Worlds, there seemed to be proof to uphold this theory … If you want to measure the effect of hitting people on the head with a hammer, it is not going to be difficult to come up with a Then, in 1950s Britain, there was a worry that the workable definition for doing so… Watching television may country would become swamped by American culture –
MM3 final LW 12-02 full thing 17/12/03 11:52 am Page 54 MM Theory What does the theory Strengths of this approach? Weaknesses of this approach? suggest? Effects 1 – The Just like the syringe used to This approach draws attention to The ‘injected’ audience is seen as hypodermic model inject a drug into a body, the power that media producers passive and powerless. This model the media ‘injects’ have, and to the importance of is mostly used when the effects of messages directly into the the forms of media to which media on women or children are minds of the audiences have access. the subject of research. The way viewers/listeners/readers; people use media remains and they can be as unaccounted for. addictive as heroin ... Effects 2 – Cultivation As audiences watch more This approach draws attention to This approach can encourage views theory and more film and the fact that audiences gain a lot such as: ‘Crimewatch feeds television, they gradually of their knowledge about the perceptions that Britain’s crime develop certain views about world from the media. It also rate is growing’ while not actually the world, some of which recognises the important role the measuring this idea against the are ‘false’. media have in our lives. actual views of audience members. In other words, it’s hard to prove accurately. Effects 3 – If we are exposed to too This theory draws attention to the How can this theory be proved? It Desensitisation much violence, or too much volume of violence and is difficult to separate the effects of blatant sexuality, we will representations of sex in the the media from the effects of become less sensitive to media. It raises questions about housing, class position, mood, real life violence and sexual the amounts of these education, wealth/poverty, gender, behaviours. representations we should be sexuality, cultural background, witnessing. ethnicity, and so on. Effects 4 – Copycat This approach suggests that The power of this approach is Firstly: different people see (or modelling) theory people will imitate what that it feeds off (and mirrors) the different levels of ‘risk’ in different they see in the media – e.g. types of concerns that parents media! So one person’s threat is if young people watch have about their kids’ media use. another person’s light evening Natural Born Killers, they It might encourage parents to entertainment ... Secondly: while will go out on a killing stop their children from playing short term effects might be spree. This is not so much a violent computer games, for measurable, it is hard to measure ‘theory’ as an assumption example. long term effects of this kind. This perpetuated by the Press! is often the basis for moral panics – e.g. rap music leads to gun violence. Uses and Instead of researching what The audience is seen as active, Too much optimism about the gratifications the media do to the and reasonably intelligent. Life ‘power’ and ‘choices’ of an active audience, this approach experience in general is regarded audience can distract us from the studies what the audience as more influential than power certain texts have, or the does with the media. This experience of media. The influence that media institutions approach also takes pleasures that the media offer and ownership may have on texts account of people’s audiences are not regarded as and understandings. personalities and personal negative! needs. Reception analysis Audiences are seen as This approach values highly the Similar problems to the uses and and ethnography active producers of specific, personal and gratifications approach in that meaning, rather than as contextualised responses of more emphasis is given to the merely consumers of media individuals and groups. People’s responses and readings of the meanings. They make life experiences are important audience rather than to the sense of media texts influences which enable them to institutional aspects of the media. according to their social make active choices as members Some researchers can get position (in terms of their of media audiences. sidetracked into analysing identity) – and their gender, audience lifestyles, and thus race, class etc. media reception is sometimes neglected in favour of a more holistic sociological approach.
MM3 final LW 12-02 full thing 17/12/03 11:52 am Page 55 MM sometimes feel like being hit on the head, but is effects are If we were to apply this theory to, say, Top of the Pops, much more difficult to measure. we might find the following: So far, the models we’ve referred to range from the idea of the audience as passively influenced by all-powerful media, to the concept of audiences as active, strong and ■ Dominant reading ‘Top of the Pops is a great show, which gives us best songs and talents in the music world. If stars appear on Top of selective readers. the Pops, it means they have made it!’ More recently, new audience research has included Negotiated reading reception studies/ethnographic research (for example ‘Top of the Pops is too ‘young’ for me, but I watch it in case a Annette Hill’s Shocking Entertainment and David couple of the bands I like come on. It’s all about sales figures, Morley’s The Nationwide Audience). These approaches but I love the hosts and the excitement of seeing my favourite concentrate in more depth on the individual audience bands.’ members’ use of, reactions to, understandings of, and feelings about media texts, as well as the influence of Oppositional reading their social class on their understandings of texts. ‘Top of the Pops is a money-mongering programme, which is In her recent study, Shocking Entertainment, Annette Hill really an advert for the so-called ‘music’ which is selling the asked ‘Why do adult moviegoers choose to watch violent most singles. Singles are mainly bought by very young movies? If these movies are brutalising, why do people teenagers who can’t afford the whole album. This means that consider them entertaining?’ the music on the show is horrible, shallow teeny-pop, and also young kids are led to believe that Number One means the Looking at films like Reservoir Dogs and Natural Born song is the best song, when really it’s just the best selling Killers, with their sometimes humorous representations one.’ of violence, Hill came up with a few key points, based on audience responses to these ‘new brutality’ style films. Instead of seeing the audience either as a bunch of Her conclusions are about what viewers feel, which passive couch potatoes, or a clutch of psychologically characters they relate to, individual boundaries beyond sensitive, active media users, both Hill’s and Morley’s which violence isn’t acceptable, self censorship of approaches to audience research recognises the viewers’ own viewing, and so on. The questions are massive variation in the audience, and suggests that open, and are similar to a ‘uses and gratifications’ maybe that there is no such thing as an audience but approach in terms of their interest in what the audience many audiences, made up of different sets of people in does with violent films. The difference is that some of different contexts at different times, who can respond to the conclusions refer to judgements and beliefs held by media in a variety of different ways. specific audiences. The audience’s readings of the texts But ... there’s a problem with this new audience research (violent films, in this case) are paramount. too! The idea that a text’s readers are of utmost In a very significant study of audience responses to a importance can sometimes distract us from popular ITN news magazine programme in the early acknowledging the importance of the institutions and 1980s, The Nationwide Audience, David Morley suggests producers behind the text itself … We have to be careful that there are three main different kinds of ‘reading’ not to become so optimistic about audience audience members can produce: empowerment and people’s own readings of texts, that we forget who owns BSkyB, the Daily Mail, Microsoft and ■ Dominant (or ‘hegemonic’) reading so on, and what their interests might be. So when we are considering where we stand on the The reader shares the programme’s ‘code’ (its meaning, subject of ‘the audience’, we should think about where system of values, attitudes, beliefs and assumptions) and we stand in the audience too … MM fully accepts the programme’s ‘preferred reading’ (a reading which may not have been the result of any conscious intention Galit Ferguson is a teacher of Media Studies at City and on the part of the programme makers). Islington Sixth Form Centre and The Latymer School. Negotiated reading Follow it up The reader partly shares the programme’s code and broadly accepts the preferred reading, but modifies it in a way which Find out more about audience theory by visiting reflects their position and interests. MoreMediaMag. Oppositional (‘counter-hegemonic’) reading The reader does not share the programme’s code and rejects the preferred reading, bringing to bear an alternative frame of interpretation.