Communication researchers have devoted a substantial amount of attention to understanding consumers in media markets. The processes by which audiences select between the various content options available, as well as the mechanisms by which media organizations seek to understand, anticipate, and respond to these choices have traditionally resided at the core of research focusing on media consumers. The study of media consumers fits within the somewhat broader framework of audience research and is distinguished by its attention primarily to the economic dimensions of media consumption and the processes by which audiences select media products – as is reflected in the use of the term “consumers”.
It is important to emphasize that to speak of media consumers reflects the adoption of a certain perspective on the interaction between media organizations and individuals; one that is, by connotation, primarily commercial or economic in nature. This is, of course, just one of a number of possible lenses through which scholars can examine the complex interactions between media audiences and media content providers. Perspectives that emphasize the cultural or political dimensions of the interaction between content providers and audiences, for example, address vitally important issues that are somewhat outside the bounds of the narrow conceptualization of the audience as consumers. Media content providers, of course, perceive of their audiences primarily through a consumer-oriented lens. Therefore to develop an understanding of this perception – as well as of its broader implications – is also an important element of research examining consumers in media markets, which helps to generate insight into the behavior of media institutions (Napoli 2003).
Attention And Money As Limited Resources
Studying the behavior of media consumers requires a focus on the allocation of two scarce resources: attention and money. The time spent consuming media has continued to expand according to many measures – most likely due to increased multitasking on the part of consumers (in terms of both consuming media while engaging in other activities and consuming multiple media simultaneously). Nonetheless, the attention of media consumers itself remains a scarce resource (Lanham 2006), particularly in an increasingly fragmented and cluttered media environment, in which available content options are growing exponentially, all of which compete aggressively for consumer attention.
Similarly, there is a limit to what consumers can spend on media. Some research has even suggested that the proportion of income that consumers spend on media has remained relatively constant over time, despite the continued introduction of new technologies and content options into the media system (McCombs 1972). Although the validity of this assertion has been questioned, it remains nonetheless important to consider the limitations in consumers’ financial resources that can impact media consumption and consequently create an environment in which different media technologies and content options compete for a pool of resources that is, in all likelihood, not increasing at a rate that is commensurate with the rate at which the media system as a whole is expanding (see Dimmick 2002).
Key Lines Of Research
Early efforts to understand media audience as consumers can be traced (as can many elements of communications and market research) to Paul Lazarsfeld. Work such as his 1946 study, The people look at radio, helped to establish a tradition of examining the interaction between audience member and content provider primarily through a consumersoriented lens. Work such as this was often funded at least in part by various sectors of the media industries, which also helps to explain its focus on media audiences primarily as consumers (see also Steiner 1963).
While early research on media consumers examined issues such as consumer satisfaction with various media products, over time the study of media consumers has come increasingly to focus on understanding how consumers choose to expose themselves to various media products. This focus on exposure can be seen, for example, in the well-known “program choice” literature (see Owen & Wildman 1992). This body of primarily theoretical work has sought to develop predictive models of consumer content selection and media organization content provision under various circumstances of consumer preferences, channel capacity, and competitive conditions. The program choice literature was developed primarily in response to media policymakers’ needs, as an approach for determining the benefits (in terms of format/genre diversity) of competitive versus monopolistic or oligopolistic conditions in the programming market. However, this line of research is also notable for its early efforts at developing theoretical approaches to the process by which consumers select individual media products, even if many of these theoretical models (including the more recent ones) have tended to oversimplify the dynamics of media consumption (Napoli 2003).
Empirical work inspired to some extent by the program choice literature has delved into a wide range of factors that impact consumers’ choices in regards to individual media products. This work has considered both audience factors (i.e., the characteristics of the media consumers, such as tastes, preferences, and awareness of various content options) and media factors (i.e., the quantity of content options, the range of media consumption technologies available) in an effort to account for both the structural-level and individuallevel factors that impact consumers’ choices in the media marketplace (Webster & Phalen 1997). Work in this vein has addressed questions such as the extent to which media consumers’ individual genre or format preferences drive their media consumption; how content selection is impacted by changes in the technological environment (such as increased channel options or increased technological choices); and, more broadly, the extent to which media consumers exhibit passive versus active tendencies in their media consumption (and how such tendencies may vary across different media types and across different demographic categories).
The primary objective of research in this vein is, of course, to identify consistent and predictable patterns in consumer choice that can both have applied utility and yield theoretical insights into the dynamics of cultural consumption. For instance, audience researchers have frequently found evidence of a double jeopardy effect which characterizes media consumption (Webster & Phalen 1997). Specifically, research has shown that, despite popular perception, the common notion of the “small but loyal audience” is largely a fallacy. Rather large audiences tend to be made up of higher proportions of loyal audience members (i.e., frequent consumers) than smaller audiences. Consequently, content that attracts small audiences is doubly endangered – by both the small size of the audience and the fact that these audience members are not likely to be frequent consumers of the content.
Another macro-level trend among media consumers that has received a substantial amount of attention from researchers involves the “one-way flows” of media products. Research on one-way flows has illustrated enduring patterns in media consumer behavior involving (as the name suggests) the tendency for the consumption of media products to flow from large markets to small markets (both nationally and internationally), but seldom vice versa. Such patterns reflect an important tendency among media consumers to gravitate toward content produced for larger markets, due in large part to the higher production budgets associated with it (Owen & Wildman 1992).
Indeed, both the double jeopardy effect and one-way flows reflect the significant extent to which consumer behavior is affected by the underlying production budgets of the available content. To the extent that audiences tend to gravitate to higher-budget over lower-budget content, so arise the difficulties associated with niche content reflected in the double jeopardy effect, and the tendency of one-way flows from large markets to small markets.
The New Media Environment And The Predictability Of Media Consumers
Research on the behavior of media consumers does, however, face an increasingly difficult task in terms of identifying consumer behavioral patterns in media environments that are becoming increasingly fragmented, increasingly complex, and, consequently, increasingly unpredictable. The much greater channel capacity of many media technologies, the rise of alternative distribution technologies, and the increased interactivity of the new media environment all contribute to a media landscape that is vastly different from the one in which early researchers could, for example, in the television context demonstrate with great consistency predictable patterns of “audience flow” from one program to the next.
One important pattern that has emerged, however, is that the tremendous fragmentation of the media environment has not been accompanied by a comparable fragmentation of media audiences. Rather, audiences exhibit a consistent tendency to cluster around relatively few content options, even when their available choices expand dramatically (see Hindman 2007; Neuman 1991).
As this clustering tendency helps to illustrate, at the broader level of media consumer behavior we see fairly predictable patterns across the aggregate of content options. In contrast, however, perhaps one of the most enduring themes of the literature on media consumers is the tremendous uncertainty that inevitably revolves around the process by which consumers select individual content options. From the “nobody knows anything” mantra that long has permeated the film industry, and research into motion picture audiences (e.g., DeVany 2004), to the “all hits are flukes” perspective reflected in research on the production and consumption of television (see Bielby & Bielby 1994), media consumers have been, and continue to be, very difficult to predict. For these reasons, media usage often has been conceptualized as a two-stage process. The first stage – the decision to consume a particular medium – is reasonably predictable and exhibits fairly stable behavioral patterns. The second stage – the selection of the individual content option – is, in contrast, highly unpredictable.
Media Organizations And Media Consumers
To the extent that an understanding of media audiences as consumers is typically a perspective characteristic of the media organizations providing consumers with content, research on media consumers has also frequently addressed the related subject of how these organizations perceive their consumers (Turow 1997), as well as the subject of how these organizations cope with the many distinctive and unpredictable characteristics of media consumer behavior (Napoli 2003).
For instance, the process by which media consumer behavior is translated into tangible information to guide decision-making and to facilitate transactions between content providers and advertisers has received an increasing amount of attention (Anand & Peterson 2000; Ang 1991), particularly in light of the increased difficulties that the increasingly fragmented and complex media environment pose for the organizations charged with effectively measuring consumer behavior (Napoli 2003). A particular point of focus of this research has been on how technological or methodological shifts in the systems for measuring the behavior of media consumers can alter how media organizations perceive the composition and behavioral characteristics of their consumers and the competitive dynamics of their markets. It is also important to note that a tremendous amount of scholarly criticism has been leveled against commercial audience measurement systems and their usage, in light of their substantial methodological shortcomings and the associated questions about whether any legitimate representation of true media consumer behavior is (or even can be) captured by these systems (e.g., Ang 1991; Meehan 1984).
Along related lines, a substantial body of literature has developed that explores the mechanisms by which media organizations (both content providers and advertisers) place value on different categories of media consumers, and on the information sources that feed into the formulation of these valuations (Turow 1997). To the extent that the value of media consumers is, within the context of advertising supported media, tied to their behavior as consumers of other products and services, understanding how the media and advertising industries effectively link these two areas of consumption is central to understanding the interaction between media consumer and content provider.
Contemporary Issues And Challenges In The Study Of Media Consumers
The study of media consumers today faces its greatest challenges in terms of effectively accounting for the ever growing array of media choices that are available, and in terms of effectively accounting for the various ways in which the interaction between content provider and consumer is changing. In a highly fragmented media environment, questions regarding the mechanisms by which media consumers become aware of the content options available to them become increasingly important – particularly in terms of developing an understanding of how consumers utilize the wide range of new search and navigation tools available to them in the new media environment.
Similarly important are broader questions regarding the political, economic, and cultural implications associated with the increased fragmentation of media consumers (Sunstein 2001; Turow 1997). And, in a technological environment in which consumers have increasing control over when, where, and how media content is consumed, researchers inevitably must devote greater attention to these micro-level dynamics of consumption that provide for increasing variation in the consumption process across individual media consumers. And finally, research is only now beginning to address the wide range of questions arising from a contemporary media environment (particularly in the online realm) where the line between producer and consumer of media content is becoming increasingly blurred.
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