The Advantages and Limitations of a Focus on Audience in Media Studies

Philip J Hanes

Texts need audiences in order to realise their potential for meaning. So a text does not have a single meaning but rather a range of possibilities which are defined by both the text and by its audiences. The meaning is not in the text, but in the reading. (Hart 1991, 60)

Andrew Hart is among many writers, theorists and researchers who identify and value the existence of the audience in relation to the media. At the most basic level, audiences are vital in communication. It is for the audience that the media are constructing and conveying information, and, if it were not for the audiences, the media would not exist. The exact relationship between the media and their audiences has been the subject of debate since the media were first seriously studied and emphasises the importance of the audience and of their relationship with the media.

The Frankfurt school, set up in 1923, were concerned about the possible effects of mass media. They proposed the "Effects" model, which considered society to be composed of isolated individuals who were susceptible to media messages. The Frankfurt school envisioned the media as a hypodermic syringe, and the contents of the media were injected into the thoughts of the audience, who accepted the attitudes, opinions and beliefs expressed by the medium without question. This model was a response to the German fascists use of film and radio for propaganda uses, and later applied to American capitalist society. The followers of the hypodermic model of Effects adopted a variant of Marxism, emphasising the dangers of the power of capitalism, which owned and controlled new forms of media. Researchers in the fifties also supported the Effects model when exploring the potential of the new medium of television. Researchers were particularly concerned over increases in the representation of violent acts on television, which correlated with increases in violent acts in society. In the nineties, there was considerable concern over what were called "video nasties". The tabloid papers created a moral panic over whether particular violet films could influence child behaviour – and whether Childs Play 3 influenced the child killers of Jamie Bulger.

However, theorists since have thought that media could not have such direct effects on the audiences they serve, and consider the media as a comparatively weak influence in moulding individual beliefs, opinions and attitudes. Other factors present in society, such as personal contact and religion, are more likely to influence people. The Effects model is considered to be an inadequate representation of the communication between media and the public, as it does not take into account the audience as individuals with their own beliefs, opinions, ideals and attitudes:

Audiences are not blank sheets of paper on which media messages can be written; members of an audience will have prior attitudes and beliefs which will determine how effective media messages are. (Abercrombie 1996, 140)

Supporters of the Effects model assume the audience is passive in the receiving and interpretation of media texts. Great emphasis is placed on the text itself and its power to directly influence the audience. Meanings in the text are readily available and easy to find. The impossibility to measure media effects is as a result of not being able to isolate the media from all the other potential influences at work in society. This leads to the Effects model generally being disregarded when considering the audiences response to the media.

A new approach to the dynamics of audience/text relationship was suggested in the Uses and Gratification model. In this model, theorists were not asking how the media effects audiences, but how were the audiences using the media. They suggested that audiences had specific needs and actively turned to the media to consume various texts to a satisfaction of these needs. The audience in Uses and Gratifications were seen as active, as opposed to passive audience in the Effects model. Uses and Gratifications acknowledged that the audience had a choice of texts from which to chose from and satisfy their needs. Blumler and Katz (1974) suggested that there were four main needs of television audiences that are satisfied by television. These included – Diversion (a form of escaping from the pressures of every day), Personal Relationships (where the viewer gains companionship, either with the television characters, or through conversations with others about television), Personal Identity (where the viewer is able to compare their life with the lives of characters and situations on television, to explore, re-affirm or question their personal identity) and Surveillance (where the media are looked upon for a supply of information about what is happening in the world).

While acknowledging that the audience are active and chose what to watch, the Uses and Gratifications model as a model for understanding audiences also has its limitations. The model still implies that messages are packages of information that all the audience will read as the same. It does not consider how the messages are interpreted or any other factors affecting the audience’s interpretation.

Another criticism is that of the tendency to concentrate solely on why audiences consume the media rather than extending the investigation to discover what meanings and interpretations are produced and in what circumstances, i.e. how the media are received. (O’Sullivan, Dutton & Rayner 1994, 131)

The Uses and Gratification model assumes that the audience’s wish for satisfaction results in a media output to fulfil their desire, rather than acknowledging that audiences have to enjoy whatever is produced by the media.

Both the Effects and the Uses and Gratifications model ignore to some extent the audience and their social backgrounds, how they form their interpretations of the media messages and their specific relationship with the media text. In the 70s, the academic journal Screen suggested that audiences were positioned by the media text. Theorists started to take an approach influenced by semiotics and structuralism, to discover what meanings were made from texts and how this meaning was achieved. Great emphasis was placed on the text, particularly film. Screen thought that the position of the viewer of Hollywood film was determined for them through the use of camera shots. For example, the shot/reverse shot commonly used during dialogue enabled the viewer to position themselves as one of the characters. Another example is a close up of somebody who then looks offscreen. The next shot of the object that the character is looking at is shown, again placing the viewer in the position of the character. Writers, such as Laura Mulvey considered the "gaze" in Hollywood film to be a masculine gaze, where the camera shots adopt the male gaze and constructing the female as the object of that gaze.

Screen theory suggested that all media texts have a "mode of address" – a term used by semioticians which proposes that media texts address its intended audience in a particular way, establishing a relationship between the producer of the text and the media’s audience. The mode of address is dependant on the particular medium. For instance, cinema rarely addresses the audience directly. Films are usually shot to suggest the film is reality. In comedy characters occasionally look into the camera. Recently there has be a trend in which films have become self-reflexive, drawing on and manipulating the conventions of the audience’s expectations of the medium. The "Scream" films are a good example of this. Television differs from cinema, as the audience are not expected to pay the attention which cinema demands, so television has to work to attain and maintain the audience’s attention. The medium employs a wide range of techniques to address its intended audience. Youth programmes constantly have unusual camera angles and short shots to capture and keep children’s attention. Quiz shows often address the audience ("who are playing along at home."). It is assumed that television viewing is done in family groups in a domestic setting. The scheduling highlights this view of the television audience; as the television output is regulated so that there is minimal "adult" material, such as strong language, sex scenes and violence, before the 9o’clock watershed. Whenever sport is on television and the national team is participating, such as the World Cup, the usual objective and neutral commentary changes to a more patriarchal and emotive mode of address. Newspapers clearly have a particular mode of address, reflected in the headlines and phrasing of the article. Broadsheet papers like The Times and The Guardian have a more impersonal and formal mode of address when compared with the tabloids The Sun and The Mirror, which are more emotional and often xenophobic.

The limitations of focusing on audience in media studies can clearly be seen in the mode of address made by the media. Different audiences use different media; both the audience that is assumed to be using the media and the particular type of media that is being consumed determines the mode of address.

The mode of address will be vital in constructing audiences’ thoughts about an issue raised in media. However, previous models of audience reception do not take into account what actual audiences are going to do to the media texts. Screen theory, Uses and Gratifications and Effects models suggest that meaning is embedded within the text, which audiences can access easily and accept without questioning these meanings. Just because producers of media texts have a certain opinion and meaning does not mean that this meaning is obvious in the text, that, in turn, does not mean that the audience will read these meanings or agree with them.

The Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at Birmingham during the 70s again used a semiotic approach to understanding an audience response to media texts. David Morley studied audiences of an early evening news programme and argued in his paper The Nationwide work that audiences actively decode meanings from a media text. The Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, working under Stuart Hall, expanded on Morley’s hypothesis and suggested that meanings were encoded by the producer into the media text and the audiences decodes the meaning from the text. This theory acknowledges that there is a preferred meaning in the text – the meaning made by the producer. This meaning is encoded by the codes and conventions of the particular medium to hide the texts own ideological construction. The audience then read, listen or watch the media text and interpret the message. The audience’s interpretation is dependant on a number of frameworks outside the text. These include socio/economic frameworks such as class, gender, age education and ethnicity. They include the individual’s past experiences and also include previous knowledge and experience of the medium.

This current theory on audience reception in media studies takes into account the individual members of the audience. It realises there is a preferred meaning in the text, but also places emphasis on the audience in the process of constructing a meaning. Hall’s encoding/decoding model draws upon two extreme ends of a spectrum, what Abercrombie (1996) refers to as the dominant text view and the dominant audience view. Researchers who give the text priority support the dominant text view, wherein the text is monolithic, there is a well marked preferred meaning and is difficult for other meanings to be read. The audience is seen as passive and heavily influenced by the text. Hall and his colleagues took the dominant audience view, which acknowledges the presence of a strong preferred meaning, but also saw texts as polysemic – they have a number of possible meanings, and that is up to the audience to analyse and interpret the text.

The advantage of the Encoding/decoding model is that it realises that the meaning made by the audience is affected by various other factors – including socio/economic frameworks and past experiences, but also involving the context in which the media message is consumed. Meanings constructed by the individual watching televisual news at home with two distracting siblings will be different to meanings constructed while concentrating on the television alone. These meanings will be different to those formed when the individual is reading news articles in the newspaper in a quiet room.

The Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies also proposed a model for the types of audience decoding. The audience member assumes the dominant hegemonic position when they recognise and agree with the full-preferred meaning offered by the media text. The oppositional hegemonic position is established when the audience member understands the preferred meaning, but disagrees with it due to their own set of attitudes and beliefs. The negotiated hegemonic position is established when the audience member opposes or has to adapt the preferred meaning. The forth type of audience response is referred to as aberrant decoding. This is where the audience member reads the text in an unpredicted way, producing a deviant meaning. There are still a number of limitations to this model of audience reception, as David Morley (1989) notes:

The extent to which the model tries to conceive of language merely as a conveyor belt for preconstituted meanings or messages; the way in which it tends to confuse textual meaning with the conscious intentions of broadcasters; and the tendency to blur together under the heading of "decoding" what are probably best thought of as separate prosesses along the axes of comprehension/incomprehension, as opposed to agreement/disagreement with the prepositional content of messages. Furthermore, the concept of the preferred meaning, which is of course central to the encoding/decoding model has a number of criticisms. (Seiter 1989, 18.)

The preferred meaning is a difficult concept to understand, and is simpler to identify in factual texts, such as newspaper reports, television news and documentaries. In fiction-based texts there are more likely to be different readings of he preferred texts. Additionally, it is unclear whether the preferred meanings are embedded in the text, or whether it is something agreed on by the majority of the texts audience. By considering the audience in the interpretation of the media text, it is clear to see that the process of media communication is not a simple concept. Meaning is considered to be what the audience make of the text, taking away most of the power of the producer and the text.

Abercrombie (1996) emphasises the importance of the producer, text and audience and reiterates Hall’s opinion that all three, and the relationship between them, are vital in the process of media communication. By reviewing the past theories on the way audiences receive and interpret media messages, we can see that there are various ways in which the audience can be viewed. The emphasis on audience in the encoding/decoding model is advantageous for a number of reasons. As Andrew Hart states "…the meaning is not in the text, but in the reading". This illustrates the possibilities of the media. Emphasising audiences in this way insists that the media are not as manipulative as they were thought to be. By understanding how the audience construct meaning and make sense of texts, producers can change their texts so that audiences will read whatever meanings the producers want. Ultimately, it is the audience that controls the output of the media, and thus the content of popular culture:

The audience, regardless of the medium, has not been historically passive or inconsequential in shaping its participation in, or the content of, popular media. (Rokeach & Cantor 1986, 200.)

The producers of media texts often work with an image of the audience and what it wants. Therefore, a focus on audience is advantageous, as the media must work to satisfy the audience.

Assuming that meaning is only constructed by the reading of the text by the audience highlights the polysemic nature of texts and ambiguity of meaning. One sequence of pictures on the television will mean a number of meanings, depending on the individual in the audience. The phrasing of a newspaper could connote any number of meanings considering the experiences and background of the reader. The focus on audience in media studies illuminates the richness and potentials available in the media.

As the audience construct meaning from a media text using frameworks already present in culture, it is

…only by understanding the meanings constructed by the audiences that we can understand how that (cultural) form functions within the larger culture. (Cruz & Lewis 1994, 20.)

By understanding how audiences read meanings in the text, we are also able to gain a closer understanding of the culture to which that audience belongs.

The main limitation of a focus in audience has been highlighted by the various ways in which past theorists have thought audiences receive media messages. There are many different ways to conceptualise the audience and the way in which they work with media, but there appears to be no "right" way. This is complicated by the very nature of actual audiences. There are many different audiences for many different media. Newspaper readers and radio listeners are two types of audience, but some newspaper readers will also be part of the radio audience. People who watch one type of programme on television will also watch another type of programme, and will be part of another audience. There is a tendency to think of audiences as masses, but a Williams (1998) observed, there are no such things as "the masses", only ways of imagining people as masses. Audiences are "unstructured groups...with…no social organisation…merely an aggregate of demographic characteristics." (Rokeach & Cantor: 1986) Different media will attract audiences which will consist of a mix of people who formed audiences of other media.

There are no effective ways to measure audiences, or to measure all the individual’s responses to the media. The existing ways of measuring audiences seem inadequate. For example the equipment that monitors a sample television audience notes which channels are being watched. This method is ineffective as it does not take into consideration how audiences are watching the television, for example, if they are carrying out other activities while watching they will pay less attention compared to when they tune in especially to watch a programme dealing with issues close to their hearts.

The realisation that audience is not adequately explained by researching either the people of the audience or the texts they like, but that audience is distinctively inflected by the nature and cultural significance of the interaction between audience activities and textual character (understood in the widest possible sense) causes a reconsideration of the very nature of audience. (Nightingale 1996)

The existing methods of studying audience do not measure how and why the audiences differ in their viewing. For instance the audience watching one episode of a serial will not necessarily watch the following episode or, indeed, any of the other episodes. Additionally, the existing methods do not consider what meanings the actual audience is constructing. Questionnaires are limited by the questions that they ask and audiences will be trying to answer what they think the researcher is trying to find. There is no exact or easy way to study or compile accurate details of the particular aspects of the audience. Hart notes the difficulty in judging and representing audiences when he asks:

How can we study audiences without relying at one extreme on personal anecdotes or, at the other, on masses of indigestible figures? (Hart 1991, 30)

It is impossible to set up controlled or laboratory experiments with the media and their audience, as if you change the way in which the media is usually received you will undoubtedly change the interpretations made by the audience of the media text. The key issue about media is that exists as a comment and as a part of our culture and cannot be examined easily due to this.

The methods used for audience research (including ethnography, survey, experiment, text analysis or social commentary) result in class groups or "life style" groups – in which all the members of the audience of one media text are categorised together. This type of classification seems inadequate as the categories can be broad and there seems no benefit in categorising people in this way. The main limitation of a focus on audience in media studies is that the research and techniques used to research the audience are not effective.

A focus on audience is important in media studies. There have been many different theories on how audiences respond to and interact with the media. This shows clearly the complexities of focusing on the audience and the ways in which audiences can be visualised. By giving a focus on audience researchers are able to see the complex process of the construction of meaning made by the audience as a response to media text. No audience member will interpret the media message in the same way. This alerts uses of the various media to the ambiguity of meaning and the richness inherent in the medium, aspects that producers need to be aware of in the construction of their texts. The limitations of a focus on audience derive from the impossibility of investigating and measuring audiences and their responses. Existing methods of audience research are inappropriate, as they do not consider how the medium is being used and what the various responses are of audiences to the specific texts.


April 2000