The study of the audience has been very important in the media studies, since the power of the media in relation to the media audience could form how the society would work, what the public opinion would be and what political ideals would dominate. That is why the relationship of the audience and the media has been studies by scholars and academics since a very long time ago, leading to many theories about the subject to be developed and to a certain debate between the conceptualizations of the media audience. This essays aims to give a brief explanation of what the audience is, why it should be studied and then critically compare two conceptualisations of the media audience, the passive and the active one. The comparing will be done by presenting each theory’s main thesis and comparing them by analysing specific studies and approaches that were conducted to support each theory.
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Any group of people who are gathered in the same place and act as observers or spectators of something are considered an audience (Media and Communications course, Lecture 6: Media Audiences/lecture slides). Audience has existed since ancient times, particularly in Ancient Greece where people gathered in town centres to discuss about community problems. What we nowadays refer to as a media audience has been developed through the years as a result of industrialization, technological developments and several changes in people’s everyday lives. When people started to massively move from villages to industrialised cities, a mass society began to develop so it also became important that this new form of audience had to be studied in relation to the media of its time. What influence the media had on the audience, how the audience used the media in their everyday lives and how the media industry could attract more audience for their own profit (Williams,2003, McCullagh,2002)
The main views on the mass society or mass audience research, that first appeared in the 1920s-1930s (McCullagh, 2002) were that the audience was consisted of a large public of consumers of mainstream media texts who were influenced by the rapid changes in society, the unstable family ties due to urbanization and the anonymity of the crowds (McCullagh, 2002), thus they became a vulnerable mass of ‘isolated and defenceless individuals’ (Williams, 2003). This situation positioned the media in a place where it could easily manipulate the unsuspected audience. That is why the media were used by authoritarian governments, like Hitler’s Nazi Party, for propaganda purposes. They would pass on their ideologies, usually political ones, and the audience would believe them without questioning. People were so passive that they would easily believe anything they would hear on the radio or read in a newspaper. Probably the most famous incident that proves this was the public panic that occurred in Los Angeles, when a radio broadcast of a science-fiction book called War of the Worlds was aired in 1938 (McCullagh, 2002). When people heard the broadcast they actually believed that a Martian invasion was happening and some of them tried to escape and save themselves. This incident is a great example of the Hypodermic Needle Theory that existed at the time. This theory parallelises the media as a needle that injects a message straight into the passive audience, which is immediately affected by it (Croteu, Hoynes,1997) and like drug-users lose their control and judgement once they are injected with drugs, so does the audience lose its critical judgement when injected with ideas and beliefs by the media (McCullagh, 2002).
As the years passed by though and even more technological developments were invented, like film and television, researchers started to question the traditional effects research of the mass society. New studies and experiments on how the audience interprets media texts resulted to several researchers to conclude that the audience is not passive and vulnerable but instead is an active and differentiated audience consisted of groups or individuals and not masses. This new theory, the Active Audience theory concentrated on how audience interprets and makes meaning of media texts based on several factors, such as gender, age, social background, education, ideals, beliefs or family position (Williams, 2003, McCullagh, 2002). As McCullagh put it ‘media audiences are consisted of different individuals who turn to the media to gratify their needs’ (2002). Gradually new theories were developed that replaced the Hypodermic Needle theory and made it antiquated. Stuart Hall developed the Encoding/Decoding theory in 1973, with which he questioned the traditional effects theory and concentrated more on how ‘the content of media texts is encoded ideologically by the audience’ (Williams, 2003). He suggested that media producers encoded what appeared to be a ‘preferred meaning’ in media messages and then the audience was supposed to understand and decode it (Williams, 2003), thus making the relationship between media and audience more like a collaboration or an interplay. As it was obvious though a media text could not be decoded the same way by everyone, due to people’s differences in several aspects, so he concluded that there were three kinds of decoding a media message: the dominant, the negotiated and the oppositional (Williams, 2003, McCullagh, 2002, Deveraux, 2003). As Williams puts it ‘this model emphasises the interaction between the audience and texts as well as the social context within which such interaction happens’ (2003).
The development of the new theories, not surprisingly, led to debates between the active audience theorists and the traditional effects theorists. The new theory of Uses and Gratifications was an approach to understand how and why people use the media to satisfy certain needs (McCullagh, 2002). In comparison with the Hypodermic Needle theory, the Uses and Gratifications not only does not ignore people’s free will, personality and cultural background (The New Audience Research in Media Studies, http://www.le.ac.uk/oerresources/media/ms7500/mod1unit6/page_02.htm, 05/01/2015), it considers them to be active with the power to choose what media they consume. The audience ‘use programme content for purposes other than what might be predicted from their content’ (McCullagh, 2002), which leads to media producers or industries to compete with each other over who will offer the best way for the users’ needs to be gratified. In that way the audience is definitely not considered a passive one which completely accepts the media’s intended message, as the Hypodermic Needle theory suggested.
Nevertheless, the debate between the active audience and the traditional effects theorists still goes on, with some of the researchers arguing that the new active audience approaches are ‘too behaviourist and functionalist’ (McQuail, 2010) and that their conclusions lead to an elimination of media power, which was considered essential for ‘shaping the knowledge, understandings and beliefs of the audience’ (Williams, 2003). Also, Kitzinger(1999) wondered whether the audience’s resistance on media messages, as a form of resistance to the status quo, should be praised, since that way people would also easily reject good messages provided by the media, such as safe sex advertisements or campaigns against violence.
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Even though audience is not considered a mass of ‘couch potatoes’ (Williams, 2003) anymore, whether we are aware of it or not, we all have some certain beliefs and ideals that have been somehow shaped by different types of media, such as the idea of the perfect body that is being advertised today by several model agencies or women magazines. But that does not mean that people do not have the intelligence to make decisions for themselves about what to believe (Williams, 2003). Despite the on-going criticism by the traditional effects theorists, the new audience researchers developed new methods of studying the audience, which focused more on the qualitative rather than the quantitative approach (Williams, 2003). These methods, referred to as the ethnographic turn in media studies, concentrated more on how people were involved with the media and the research was done mostly with participant observation techniques. Unlike the traditional effects research that used surveys or questionnaires, researchers spent time with the people they were investigating observing their experiences with the media (Williams, 2003). However, there has been criticism on this approach too. Ruddock (2001), for example noted that ‘ethnography requires participants to make personal feelings public. As a result there is a considerable tendency towards self-censorship’, implying that the conclusions resulting from ethnographic research could not possibly present the real truth from the audiences’ perspective. He also questioned how the research questions could be generated in a way that they would respect the natural world of the audience and be appropriate with the field of study in general (Ruddock, 2001).
Even though there are many theories that support each thesis, the debate between the traditional effects studies and the active audience theory has been intense and is still on-going (McCullagh, 2002, Williams, 2003). If we were to think about which conceptualisation would best represent today’s society and people, I would say that the active theories concerning this study, including the Uses and Gratifications and the Encoding/Decoding model, position the audience in an active place, where not only it is not exploited by the media, it can even have power over it. Media producers take people’s preferences into consideration so they can produce what would satisfy their audience more (Williams, 2003, McCullagh, 2002, Deveraux, 2003, McQuail, 2010). And since there are arguments that suppose that media takes over people’s lives thus making them ‘couch potatoes’ in another sense of the term (Williams, 2003) the rebuttal would be that nowadays the audience knows what it wants in a way that the different types of media work as e ‘menu’ for them to choose from, in order to satisfy their needs to escape their daily routines, educate themselves or even interact socially (Williams, 2003, McCullagh, 2002). Always based on their individual needs and preferences, which is closer to our modern and liberal society.
To sum things up, it is now obvious that the study of the audience has been a big chapter in the book of media studies, with many scholars and academics finding themselves engaging with this study. That explains all the experiments, studies and research that have been conducted on the subject, since it concentrates on two different types of audience, which in relation to the media could easily shape the way our society would work. Whether the media would dominate over the audience or the other way around. Since the debate of the subject is still on-going and the opinions diverge, the answer of which model would be the best cannot be absolute. Maybe a combination of the two could function well in the future, but until then the active audience theory seems to be the one closest to our society’s standards nowadays.
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