Research on exposure to television builds a large and heterogeneous field with one common denominator. Studies of television viewing try to provide evidence on the question: What do people do with television? Exposure to television has developed as a major research field since we cannot understand television as a medium of public communication without considering those who actually watch it. In particular, the television industry has an existential interest in finding out how many people watch its programs; it is exactly this kind of audience data that it can sell to the advertising industry. But even beyond this economic interest, information on exposure to television is a necessary condition for any statement on the role of television in people’s everyday lives and on potential social and individual consequences of television.
Major Dimensions Of The Topic
The field of research on exposure to television can be structured according to several levels of analysis. The main differentiation refers to the level of aggregation: at one end of the spectrum, the dominant line of research on exposure to television aims to describe and explain the viewing behavior of “aggregate audiences.” If we see television as a mass medium, we can conceptualize exposure as behavior of aggregate audiences. We cannot regard these audiences as a countable group, as for example the audience as present in a theatre or cinema. Instead, we have to construct television audiences by certain operational definitions and methodological procedures. All over the world, the television and advertising industries have developed similar mechanisms to construct the “mass audience” as the dominant model of research on exposure to television (Ang 1991; Webster & Phalen 1997).
At the other end of the spectrum, some lines of research, mainly in the academic area, examine exposure to television as individual behavior or individual social action. This kind of research is more interested in the psychological processes linked to the selection, interpretation, and appropriation of televised content, in interindividual differences between different viewers and viewer groups, and in intraindividual differences between different situations and social constellations.
Another differentiation of the field reflects the fact that the theoretical and empirical core, i.e., contacts between television and viewers, is examined from different perspectives that complement each other. Besides the plain audience research, which is satisfied with counting the numbers having contact with a specific channel or program, most studies link the contact to other theoretical concepts that might be called: (1) selection, (2) reception, and (3) consequences. The most important perspective here is research on the selection of television as a medium and of specific channels or programs. Selection processes mainly refer to the pre-communicative phase of television viewing.
Studies try to understand why people have selected the channel or program they watch, or why certain programs reach bigger audiences than others. In these studies, exposure to television is treated as the dependent variable, which is influenced by individual, situational, and program-related factors.
The second perspective focuses on the processes during the communicative phase of television viewing. Once a certain program has been selected and viewers watch it, the question is how they perceive, process, and interpret the program. The focus is on the attention and involvement of the viewers, and on their parasocial interactions with the personae portrayed on television (Klimmt et al. 2006). In these studies, exposure to television is categorized according to different kinds or qualities of contact – emphasizing the fact that two contacts with the same program can be very different from each other.
Finally, the third perspective examines the consequences for viewers of the programs watched and thus the consequences of exposure to television in the post-communicative phase; the question is how people integrate the televised messages into their knowledge and belief systems, how they deal with them in follow-up communication. Within this perspective, two lines of research can be identified: on the one hand, research on media effects treats exposure to television as an independent variable, influencing cognitive, affective, and behavioral processes and structures on the viewers’ side. On the other hand, research on media appropriation focuses on how viewers actively integrate the television experience into their everyday lives.
Within the major dimensions of the topic as outlined so far, two areas can be regarded as the most important: the measurement of pure audience behavior, and the determinants of exposure to television. We shall treat these in more detail in the next two sections.
Research On Television Audience Behavior
In dealing with mass audiences, the media industry’s research on exposure to television mainly focuses on structural factors, besides the basic question of the size of the audiences reached by certain channels or programs; this research examines how exposure to television is related to time and to channels.
The first indicator for describing audiences is their size. The most common indicator is the reach, which is defined as the percentage of the population that had at least one contact with the particular television offer. This measure can be assessed for different levels of the medium, e.g., for television as a whole, for single channels, or for certain programs, and for different periods, e.g., per day, per week, per 14 days, etc. In most developed countries the percentage of people reached by television on an average day has been stable on a high level (between 75 and 85 percent of the population; IP 2006).
As a rule, the information about the size of the audience is complemented by additional information on how long people have watched. The “viewing time” indicator reflects the average duration of use for the whole population; it is usually expressed as minutes per day or hours per week. Whereas this indicator is based on the whole population, another indicator, “time spent viewing,” is the average duration of use of those viewers only who have actually used the medium or the specific channel in the period concerned. According to data from people-meter systems, the amount of television viewing has been increasing in many countries over recent years (Table 1). Thus, according to these criteria, television is still expanding its role in people’s everyday lives.
Table 1 Average individual television viewing time in selected countries (in minutes per day, Monday– Sunday)
Another time-related aspect of television exposure is the distribution of viewing sessions over the day. For all countries, the highest viewing figures are observed in the evening, which is clearly television “prime time.” However, as for the rest of the day, there are important intercultural differences concerning the medium’s reach. Countries in southern Europe show high viewing figures at lunchtime, which reflects the cultural habit of having extensive “siestas”; Japanese television morning shows reach fairly high figures at breakfast time, whereas in many other countries, the morning is clearly devoted to listening to radio.
Due to heavy competition between television channels in many countries, particular attention is paid to channel-related indicators of television exposure. As a general indicator, the “share” of a channel or program expresses the percentage of viewing time devoted to this channel or program compared to the total viewing time in the period concerned. In recent years, as a consequence of the increasing number of channels available, the average share of channels has been decreasing substantially. We can interpret this process as audience fragmentation or segmentation (Webster 2005, 367). However, as studies from many countries show, people who have access to multichannel systems do not use the whole spectrum of channels. Instead, viewers develop their personal “channel repertoire,” i.e., the selection of channels they regularly watch. The size of these channel repertoires generally does not exceed 10 to 15 channels. For multichannel systems with more than 150 channels, this means that many channels do not have an opportunity to reach a wider audience.
Besides these limited channel repertoires, research has identified some other patterns of television exposure, which have become extremely important for program planners. This kind of research is called audience duplication research, because it is empirically based on the percentage of viewers of a certain program who also watch a certain other program at another time (see Goodhardt et al. 1987; Cooper 1996). The concept of “channel loyalty” refers to the empirical observation that viewers tend to select programs on a particular channel. More specifically, the “inheritance effect” means that viewers of a program are likely to watch the next program on the same channel. “Repeat viewing” is defined as the degree to which viewers are likely to watch two different episodes of the same program. Since these effects are to some extent confounded, it is difficult to identify their exact prognostic value. However, program planners consider these effects.
Another relevant aspect of channel-related behavior is the frequency and pattern of changing channels. Since the remote control became part of the usual technical equipment, many studies have dealt with the question of why people change channels. Several types of changing channels have been identified, such as avoiding advertising (“zapping”), watching two or more programs at the same time (“parallel viewing”), looking around for interesting programs on offer (“grazing,” see Eastman & Newton 1995). There has been particular interest in changing channels as a means of finding out what to watch. In an early study on watching television under the conditions of cable systems, Heeter proposed a choice process model (Heeter 1988), which distinguishes different phases of orientation, such as orienting search and re-evaluation.
Research On Individual Viewing Behavior
A General Model Of Program Choice
As a complement to the classical audience research of the media industry, academic research on exposure to television is interested in individual processes, in explaining why viewers select the programs they watch, how these programs are perceived and the consequences they have. As a general model in this area, the theory of television program choice proposed by Webster & Wakshlag (1983) has become very influential. According to this model, exposure to television – in this case defined as the choice of a specific program – is determined by the following factors:
Availability: Television exposure depends on whether people have time to watch television, and whether they are at home or at any other place where they have a television set at their disposal. This factor represents the necessary condition for any kind of exposure to television.
Needs and preferences for program types and specific programs: The main theoretical line included in the model refers to research on the uses and gratifications approach. It is assumed that certain social and communicative needs shape people’s expectations toward television programs. Based on their individual needs, people develop preferences for program types that fulfill expectations or satisfy gratifications sought. Through preferences for specific programs, the model assumes that program type and program preference strongly influence the individual choice behavior.
Group: As an intervening factor, the model considers potential influences of other people being present during television use, who might have different interests and preferences and thus might alter or moderate the decision on what to watch.
Structure of the television offer: The choice of a certain program is influenced by the structure of the television channels and, quite importantly, by the extent to which the viewers know about the available channels and programs. In integrating these factors, the model emphasizes that exposure to television is jointly shaped by individual, social, and structural variables. In the next section, we shall describe some of these variables in more detail.
Determinants Of Exposure To Television
In order to explain individual exposure to television and interindividual differences between (groups of ) viewers, several determinants have been investigated. One area of research provides strong empirical evidence on stable differences between social groups. A general finding is that elderly people watch substantially more television than younger people; the reason for this is a higher degree of availability and the fact that they have less alternative options for spending their time and television is a cheap and accessible activity. Beyond that, there is a tendency that people with less formal education watch more television than better educated people. Men and women do not show substantial differences regarding viewing time, but men tend to switch channels more often than women do and they devote much more of their viewing time to sports programs, whereas women have stronger preferences for serial fiction programs.
Another explanation for stable interindividual differences in exposure to television refers to traits. In particular, the trend toward sensation seeking has been investigated as one factor that might explain differences in the extent to which people prefer exciting action and violence-oriented programs.
Below the level of broad social categories and traits, individual preferences for certain kinds of programs are regarded as the most important determinants of viewing behavior. These preferences are regarded as temporarily stable dispositions, which depend on the viewers’ needs and interests; inasmuch as these needs and interests change, e.g., due to major life changes and challenges, individual program preferences might change as well. The broad research on selective exposure to television has provided strong evidence of how viewers selectively compose their personal television repertoire.
On the lowest level of concrete situations of exposure to television, affects and moods are treated as important determinants of viewing behavior.
Methodological Issues And Future Challenges
Exposure to television and, more generally, television audiences are not natural entities that can be objectively observed by researchers. On the contrary, assessing television exposure and measuring audiences is a constructive process shaped by underlying theoretical conceptualizations and methodological procedures (Kent 1995). Therefore, it is important to reflect on how different methodological approaches define “contact with television” as the core aspect of television exposure.
The dominant approach to measuring television exposure is people-meter systems. These systems are run by the television and advertising industry in most countries. Electronic devices are installed in representative samples of households, which continually register the channels watched on any of the households’ television sets. While data from people-meter systems are sometimes re-analyzed by academic researchers (e.g., Krotz & Hasebrink 1998), most studies run outside the television industry rely on less expensive methodologies.
Studies on the links between television exposure and everyday practices often use standardized or nonstandardized diaries, in which subjects have to note their activities over a certain period. Partly for pragmatic reasons, the most popular method of investigating television exposure is questionnaires, which allow for an easy combination of indicators of exposure with other dependent and independent variables. Other methods, like participating observation or, more generally, ethnographic methods have been used more often in recent years; these methods allow for an examination of television exposure as an integrated part of cultural and social practices (e.g., Lull 1990).
Due to this diversity of methodological approaches, the comparability of these studies is often limited. Exposure to television as measured in the people-meter-based research might be completely different from exposure to television as measured by questionnaires or participating observation. Consequently, results from the different areas of research are often hard to integrate, and exposure to television, although being a core element of public communication and of any process of media effects, has not yet developed as a coherent field of research with an agreed set of theoretical concepts and empirical methods.
One of the future methodological challenges of research on television exposure will be how to identify and classify the increasing number of audiovisual services that are similar to television but not (yet) regarded as television. Watching a television news program or a movie downloaded via the Internet on a computer screen; following a sitcom on the small screen of a mobile phone; watching vodcasts offered on broadcasters’ or other institutions’ websites: a decision will be necessary as to whether we should define all these activities as “watching television,” or whether there should be conceptual distinctions between different kinds of audiovisual services.
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