The audience is an essential part of mass communication processes, and since the beginnings of communication research, it has been one of its central topics. As regards mass communication, the term “audience” describes the sum of all persons who receive or received (parts of ) a media offering. Thus, audience is a group participating in the public communication process but normally it is not involved in the making of its contents. Audience is not a lasting social formation; it rather originates as the case arises via exposure to communication content.
The general concept of audience is quite abstract. For a more specific analysis, it is possible to differentiate between selected audiences: in this way, audience can be distinguished by its used media (e.g., television audience), channel/product (e.g., CNN audience), or content (e.g., News Audience). In the same way audience can be classified according to social characteristics (e.g., women vs men), or the location of use (e.g., American audience). Quite often audience is also characterized by its needs (e.g., informationoriented audience).
Emergence and Characteristics
The origins of the traditional audience are commonly seen to come from ancient Greece and Rome, where people gathered in stadiums and theaters to attend organized literary and musical works or games and circuses. According to McQuail (1997), one cannot speak of a “mass media audience” before the circulation of printed books and their use by a reading public at the end of the sixteenth century. New printing techniques, the development of audiovisual media, and factors such as an increased reading capability finally led in the second half of the nineteenth and the early twentieth century to the formation of what we today call a mass media audience.
Contrary to the traditional audience, the mass media audience is not assembled where the received contents take place or are produced. The audience of mass media is dispersed: as a general rule, the individual audience members are spatially separated from each other or, at the most, assembled only in small groups. The members of an audience do not know and do not see each other; they do not communicate with each other either. However, they are aware that they are not the only recipients of mass media content, but that a co-audience exists. A media offering can be received by all the members of an audience at the same time, although a temporally separate use is more common. The size of the audience can vary and is in principle unlimited – ranging from a small number of readers of a special interest magazine to the hundreds of millions watching the final of the soccer world cup.
Traditions of Audience Research
There are various approaches to systematize the research into media audience. Taking the purpose of the research as the starting point, audience research can be separated into two sections, despite some overlaps: applied and academic audience research.
Applied Audience Research
Applied or commercial audience research determines on, the one hand, data about the audience’s media usage in order to offer exact information about its composition to commercial industry; these data form the basis for advertisement prices in the media. The most basic unit in this case is the number of users reached. On the other hand, the evaluation of content can be measured additionally.
Applied audience research is of great economic importance. This is why various methods and systems to gather data about media usage from participants exist in many countries. As regards the press and books, the size of the audience can be ascertained through sales figures. However, data acquired through surveys in which interviewees are asked about their actual use of particular publications are regarded as more valuable. A further instrument that is applied quite often for inquiry about TV usage is the storage of usage data via technical devices connected to the TV.
Commercial audience research has been criticized quite vehemently: the focus on quantitative methods and the interest in mere contact data leads to a sheer “head count” (Ang 1991, 56); each practice is said to have weaknesses, too. In addition, a focus on the results of audience research causes the arrangement of the contents only in accordance with the recipients’ needs, thus neglecting normative functions of mass media. Nevertheless, applied audience research is part of the most developed domains of empirical social research.
Academic Audience Research
Academic audience research is a field with different research traditions and interfaces to almost all other areas of communication science. As Webster states, “it is hard to imagine any form of media studies that is not, on some level, about audiences” (1998, 190). Equally manifold are the goals of academic audience research: the audience is the center of attention when investigating the reasons for media usage and the selection of certain offerings, or the experience during reception. Likewise, academic audience research can comprise investigation of the audience in line with media effect analyses or with inquests about the adoption of media and their embedment in the everyday life of a particular recipient. Furthermore, datasets from applied audience research are often used for detailed analyses, for example for the compilation of audience typologies or longitudinal analyses of media reception.
Jensen and Rosengreen (1990) systematize five traditions in academic research of the audience: effects research, uses and gratifications, literary criticism, cultural studies, and reception analysis. These traditions can be distinguished according to the type and focus of theory and the type of methodology and empirical approaches. However, the authors note that, especially in the literary research tradition, the audience plays only a minor role in comparison to the analysis of contents.
Conceptions of the Audience
Academic research on the usage of media content often focuses on the individual user. A reasonable way to represent different traditions of audience research and to enlarge the perspective on the audience as a whole is given in the attempt to systematize the research field according to which audience perception is hypothesized (Webster 1998; Bonfadelli 2004).
The perception of audience as a mass regards the media users as a large group being acted upon by media messages – Webster terms this view the “audience-as-outcome” model (1998, 193f.). The most prominent scientific term for this perception is the stimulus– response model, which failed to prove tenable. Nonetheless, even nowadays one can often find in analyses the notion of a mass to be protected from the power of the media.
Applied audience research and its associated advertisement industries and media corporations also conceive audience as a mass, but more in the sense of a target group. The audience is seen as potential consumers whose attention is to be attracted. In particular, the number and duration of media contacts is quantified. In doing so, the audience is divided into target groups, which are determined, for example, by means of socio-demographic criteria or lifestyle typologies. The composition of a target group should be as homogeneous as possible in order to achieve positive reactions of all recipients to the respective advertisement messages. The value of a target group mainly depends on its assumed purchasing power.
Behind the conception of the audience as social protagonist lies a more normative perspective, which understands the audience in its role as citizen or collective actor who is to inform him or herself about social and political topics and who is to form an opinion. A precondition for this is the provision of certain information – allowed, for example, by establishing broadcast stations regulated by the state or by public law. In the context of the social protagonist idea, the questions that are discussed include, among others, which sub-groups of the audience inform themselves politically via the media, and what information received from the media is consulted for a systematic forming of judgment.
The perception of the audience as an accumulation of active individuals is often considered the counter-draft to the mass concept. It massively confines the assumption of omnipotent media effects. Its basis is the idea that individuals use the media selectively to satisfy their own needs and interests. This conception is mainly associated with the uses and gratifications approach. The research in this approach has shown that many cognitive, emotional, and social needs are seen, depending on the individual and the situation, as having different levels of importance, and are met by the different media offerings to varying degrees.
The interpretation of the audience as fan culture is also based on the view of active media users. It is mainly part of the cultural studies tradition, in which the meaning of culture, including the usage of media, as an everyday practice is explored. Fans, as in fans of a TV series or of an actor/actress, can therefore be regarded as a specific group of an audience because they, for example, include media content in their everyday life to a high degree, join in fan communities, and often proceed productively, for instance in the compilation of fan magazines.
Current Emphases and Future Directions
Much importance is attached to some questions of audience research, as they are currently playing a major part and will be relevant in the future, too. A central question is whether the audience should be conceived as an accumulation of individuals or as a social group. While especially its spatial separation suggests understanding the audience members as independent of each other, it appears that during phases of the reception process it can be important for users to be aware of other recipients. Such co-audience perceptions could include assumptions on size, simultaneity, social structure, and the experiences of exposure to other consumers. In this way, it is possible that a recipient uses a media offering because he or she knows that many people are doing so and, thus, can feel part of a large audience community.
Additionally, the growing consequences of audience segmentation or audience fragmentation are also being discussed. The increased diversity of offerings on the media market as well as social processes of individualization caused the media audience to consist of many diverse audiences. These in themselves homogeneous groups are being specifically served via the media’s target group orientation. From the perspective of an integrative function, which the media are supposed to have in a society, this phenomenon can be perceived as problematic, although it could be demonstrated that there exist many overlaps between the different audiences.
Another central question deals with the development of the mass audience in a new media environment. This topic is also part of the context of fragmentation. In addition, it is relevant in the context of internationalization of the audience. New media, especially the Internet, feature a large plurality of usually worldwide diffused and available offerings. These offerings feature new forms of acting and experiencing due to their high potential for interaction. As the diffusion of the Internet in many countries does not seem to have come to an end yet, it is not possible to anticipate if – as has been observed so far – certain audience groups, such as younger persons, use the Internet more often than others.
- Ang, I. (1991). Desperately seeking the audience. London: Routledge.
- Bonfadelli, H. (2004). Medienwirkungsforschung 1. Grundlagen und theoretische Perspektiven [Research on media effects, I: Basics and theoretical perspectives], 3rd edn. Constance: UTB.
- Jensen, K. B., & Rosengreen, K. E. (1990). Five traditions in search of the audience. European Journal of Communication, 5(2/3), 207–238.
- McQuail, D. (1997). Audience analysis. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
- Webster, J. G. (1998). The audience. Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media, 4(2), 190 –207.
- Webster, J. G., & Phalen, P. F. (1997). The mass audience: Rediscovering the dominant model. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
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