Virginia Nightingale. Handbook of Media Studies. Editor: John D H Downing, Denis McQuail, Philip Schlesinger, Ellen Wartella. Sage Publication. 2004.
“Remarkable as it may seem, Americans spend more of their lifetime being an audience than working or sleeping. This reflects the cornucopia of entertainment and communication that surrounds us in the latter part of the twentieth century. Its pervasiveness makes it central to understanding our culture and our society today. “ ~ Richard Butsch (2000, p. 295)
There are several competing and sometimes overlapping ways of understanding audiences. Publics, markets, communities, and fans are the main terms used to describe people when they are “being an audience.” This chapter will explore these audiences conceptually, using a variety of empirical examples.
The Changing Audience Experience
As a mode of human experience, audience is a way of describing how humans come to know the world through systems of mediated representation. Nowadays, more and more of what we know is introduced to us via the media, and less and less of our access to received knowledge is moderated by teachers, other human intermediaries, or direct experience. As noted earlier, Butsch (2000, p. 295) has stated that Americans spend more time being audiences than working or sleeping. Audiences routinely expand the time they spend being audiences either by combining their audience time with other activities, such as working, traveling, and having fun, or by doubling up on audience activities, such as listening to the radio while reading the newspaper or watching TV while leafing through a magazine. Some people even monitor radio and TV while using the Internet, checking e-mail, or playing computer games. In this sense, the media multiply time and play havoc with our sense of duration (our sense of the passing of time). The more media surround us, the less attention we pay to any one medium or any one text, the harder it becomes to distinguish audience activities from other life skills, and the more widely the word is used to describe anyone doing anything with media.
Several media histories have documented the various and dramatic changes that have occurred in what it means to be an audience. Some writers have done so as part of tracing the history of particular media (Manguel, 1996; Small, 1998; Smulyan, 1994). Richard Butsch (2000) has traced the changing nature of audiences for theater and light entertainment in the United States over a period of 250 years. The U.S. conventions for being an audience were, of course, based in even older European, particularly British, theatrical traditions. Butsch describes Elizabethan audiences as an example of the great difference between past and present ways of being an audience, noting that
in Elizabethan theatres, courtiers and gallants treated theatre as their court where they could measure their importance by the attention they received. Fops sat on stage, interrupted performances, and even on occasion grabbed an actress. All of this annoyed the plebeian pit, who shouted, “Away with them.” But pittites were hardly meek. They too ate, smoked, drank, socialised and engaged in repartee with the actors. (Butsch, 2000, p. 4)
Although some audiences today, particularly for rock music and major sporting events, continue aspects of past traditions of such audience “sovereignty,” Butsch (2000) has noted that the experience of audience as an integrated component of performance has virtually disappeared. He explains that for 18th- and early 19th-century theater audiences, “The meanings from text (the play) and from social interaction (performers with audience) merged, since audiences interacted with actors as both text (the characters) and as social beings (actors)” (pp. 289-290). Such audiences were local but also microcosms of the community that the participants experienced daily, in the sense that the theater reproduced within its walls the discursive relations between participants as a replica of those that patterned the social world outside.
Butsch (2000) considers the difference between past and present experiences of being an audience to be so marked that he questions the appropriateness of using the term audience at all to describe the dispersed audience phenomena produced by broadcasting, with which we are most familiar today.
“The television audience” exists only with the text of a program. Beyond that, “the audience” does not exist; rather the individuals or households exist as entities unrelated to each other. In contrast to “the audience,” these individuals are defined by environmental artefacts beyond the program, and TV is merely one of these artefacts. (Butsch, 2000, pp. 289-290)
This point is extremely important for understanding audiences and the nature of their power and agency in the contemporary world. It suggests that the “group” nature of audiences, inherent in the way we refer to audiences as just “people,” needs to be reevaluated. In particular, the tendency, following Raymond Williams (1980), to imagine the audience in terms of a polarity between “the masses,” on one hand, and “community,” on the other, has led in recent years to neglect of the varieties of mass audiences and of their social and political significance. The focus on audience communities has created a better understanding of the nature of audience agency but deflected attention away from the evolving phenomenon of mass audience agency.
If, as Butsch (2000) suggests, audiences now derive their identity as audiences from other social groups or from their labeling by corporate entities (particularly those that control the media), then the parameters of what it means to be an audience in the contemporary world are derived from contexts outside the media. Extra-media groups, such as publics, market segments, families, cultures and subcultures, associations, and ethnicities, provide the contexts or social environments where being an audience is reworked as sociocultural meanings, actions, and ideas. These contexts of audience, in turn, leave their imprint on the nature of the audience experience. As a result, the activities associated with being an audience have multiplied and diversified in a manner to match the growth in new media, new media forms, the distribution systems arranged for them, and the new audience configurations they permit. This diversification suggests the value of
- Returning to the investigation of the mass audience,
- Introducing a more elaborate vocabulary for discussing and describing audiences in general and mass audiences in particular,
- Interrogating the socio-cultural rights and privileges audience groups draw on to challenge the media, and
- Again addressing the diverse tactics that the institutions that finance the media industries adopt to minimize the impact of audience agency on the smooth operation of the media.
Engaging with Media
Being an audience involves engaging with media. There are four dimensions to this engagement: a media time/space location is defined, people gather, media materials are presented, and a mediated event occurs. Elsewhere, I have discussed these components as four separate definitions of the word audience because in everyday talk, each may be used separately to refer to audiences. The definitions emphasize either the people involved—who the people in the audience are and how they have come together—or they emphasize aspects of the audience event that is occurring—who is holding audience with whom and what is happening (Nightingale, 1996, 2003). Audiences are complex mixtures of people and mediated events, but they are often defined primarily as “groups of people” or “events.”
The “people” dimension of audience is dominant, for example, when we talk about audiences as the public, as markets, and sometimes even as communities. As audience publics and audience markets, people are thought of as aggregates of individuals. As audience communities, people are thought of as group members. By designating people as markets, publics, or communities, we are referring to their sociocultural status beyond the program or text and outside the mass communication process. The event component, by contrast, is dominant when the sociocultural significance of an audience event of actual media use is examined.
Although the terms the public or the markets have a metaphorical dimension when used to refer to audiences, these terms are not just ways of imagining the otherwise unknowable masses of people available as viewers or listeners. When applied to audiences, these terms are better understood as ways of identifying and addressing the specific rights and privileges that contemporary audiences exercise in the system of mass communication—and of assessing the limitations on those rights and privileges. Publics and markets are varieties of mass audiences—as well as ways of distinguishing among the variety of communication rights people command as human beings and as citizens—that contrast people’s rights as audiences with the rights of the corporations, organizations, and institutions that own and control the mass media; the rights of advertisers and others who use the media to promote their products and corporate identities; and the rights of governments and other power elites who define the limits of media power (both political and commercial).
We often talk about “the public” without thinking of audiences, so audiences clearly are not the same thing as the public. We often talk about markets, and audiences never come to mind, so clearly audiences are not “the market.” On the other hand, there is no dividing line between the audience market and the market or the audience public and the public. When we talk about audiences as the public, we are referring to the mediated nature of some aspects of being the public, as well as to the rights and privileges people bring to their engagements with the media, based on their political status. When we talk about audiences as markets, we are referring to the rights and privileges exercised by audiences as consumers. But when we talk about audiences as communities, we refer to the communal nature of cultural expression and to the rights that people possess as cultural beings to express their identity through texts. Part of being a member of the general public involves using the mass media, part of being a consumer involves noticing (and acting on) advertising in the world around us, and part of being a member of our culture involves familiarity with the key texts of our times. It is possible to bring about change in the media by the choices we make about what to watch and what to turn off, what to buy and not buy, and what political information we ignore or accept. This action only has impact as mass action. Unless supported by a massive groundswell of like-mindedness, such action encourages little sense of agency and may instead make people feel powerless. Turning off particular program content makes a difference to the production of the program (and to the media) only if lots of other people, independently, act in the same way at the same time.
Audience Power and Agency
The most important democratic reason for researching media audiences is to explore the scope for audience action. For this reason, I have chosen to focus this discussion of audiences on their power and agency.3 In this context, I use the term audience power to refer to the social and political power of the social formation(s) from which an audience is drawn. In other words, questions of audience power arise in what Anthony Giddens (1984, p. 31) has described as the structures of domination and legitimation. This terminology has, however, tended to emphasize audience helplessness and to underestimate the value to audiences of the power they do have within these structures. National political structures are structures of domination, but they are also structures that underwrite human rights. National legal systems are systems of domination, but they are also the means by which ordinary people can seek redress for injury. From this perspective, audience composition, the basic information about audiences produced by audience measurement, for example, also provides a demographic profile of, or a rudimentary guide to, the sources of the social power of an audience. The basic demographics—age and gender—signal that these groups may have the scope to argue for special consideration in the development of media policy.
Audience agency, by contrast, is used here to refer to the situated and embodied practices that denote audience engagement with specific media products and that signal the cultural significance of audience activities for the participant and for the culture. Audience agency is awakened by the media, by texts, and by textual production. It is the process by which media materials are recycled in the cultural experiences of individuals, forming and transforming both the person and the social world. Again, we could think of audience agency as operating within an overarching and preexisting structure of meanings, but this would unnecessarily limit the range of creative action recognized as being linked to audience issues when power in discourse is linked with the capacity of audiences to undertake legal and social action to secure their media rights and interests.
From an audience perspective, audience is always a combination of people and event, power and agency. From a media management perspective, it is often considered useful, as we will see below, to minimize the importance of the “event” component of audience and to act as though audiences are in effect only people. Those working from within the structures of domination and legitimation often seek to maximize the focus on audiences as collections of individuals, as demographics or swinging voters, and to minimize the scope for meaningful audience action. As we will see, limiting media agency in an information-dominated world can result in unforeseen consequences.
The Public, Audiences, and the Media
The position on audience power presented in this chapter differs somewhat from that advanced by mass society theorists who argued in the mid-20th century that audiences are alienated and marginalized by the structures of mass communication. On the contrary, if, as Kellerman (2000) has suggested, contemporary society is an “information-dominated” one, then power, as Castells (1998) has asserted, “does not disappear” but is “inscribed, at a fundamental level, in the cultural codes through which people and institutions represent life and make decisions, including political decisions” (p. 347). There is no doubt that the introduction of mass broadcasting disrupted age-old patterns of expressing ideas and experiences through music, dance, and storytelling. Initially, it had the impact of silencing and depersonalizing some avenues for cultural expression, particularly among the working classes. As mentioned earlier, we know from the historical record that audience was once an experience that offered people both power and agency in relation to the performance of texts, the expression of cultural ideas, and the opportunity to affect social outcomes. But in the pre-broadcasting era, audience was also a less significant social activity overall. With the introduction of mass broadcasting, the balance of power in the control of the production and distribution of texts tipped in the favor of media organizations, corporations, companies, and government agencies. Audience power and agency split into discreet fields of influence: The exercise of social and political power shifted to the public or commercial domain, and the exercise of cultural agency, vested in remnants of communal commitment to (and control over) cultural forms, genres, products, and performances, began to be seen as private or personalized.
The separation of audience power and agency that characterizes audience publics and audience markets means that we engage with political debate as it is represented in the media but enact our judgments of those debates when we go to the polls. We view ads on TV but enact the social power inherent in that viewing, whether it is approving or disapproving of either the advertising or the product, in stores, supermarkets, and malls. Rather than destroying audience power, this reorganization relocated the site of enactment of audience power, shifting it from the media to the public sphere. In the public sphere, however, individuals count in the abstract as statistics rather than as “living bodies and as systems of consciousness” (Luhmann, 2000, p. 107).
We create our identities, by contrast, in the micro-contexts of both physical and mental engagement with texts and the flow of ideas and representations that fill the media spaces in our lives. The exercise of audience agency remains, in this sense, tied to the person and, as such, is politically insignificant until, in association with others, personal interests and needs are publicly represented in the form of communal or cultural intervention. Audience agency is realized only insofar as the “event” dimension of audience becomes recognized as politically and commercially significant by both audiences (as the basis for informed social action) and governments (as the basis for better informed policy development).
Today, the social and political power of audiences is based on the capacity of audience members to lobby governments, industry, and media organizations to make changes to what is broadcast or published. The targeted deployment of audience power requires the availability of, and access to, expert representation—legal teams, politicians, or activist organizations—to achieve its ends. Increasingly, those ends are achieved through media policy, media activism, and litigation—further evidence that the information revolution is changing the nature of power relations and facilitating new modes of audience affiliation, from which media action can be enacted. Manuel Castells (1998) has argued that, “in a sense, power, while it is real, becomes immaterial. It is real because wherever and whenever it consolidates, it provides, for a time, individuals and organizations with the capacity to enforce their decisions regardless of consensus” (p. 347). To achieve such outcomes, people engage in media activism with political or social ends in sight, even though the existence of the group may be curtailed by the achievement of its socio-cultural purposes.
Public Activism and Litigation
From this perspective, litigation represents the hard edge of public advocacy and audience power. It is increasingly used to redress wrongs, imagined to be caused at least in part by media representation, particularly in advertising. Litigation is now part of the audience power repertoire. Examples of high-profile litigation include that directed against tobacco companies for misleading advertising and suppression of scientific evidence regarding the effects of smoking, as well as recent discussion of litigation against fast-food chains for advertising that encourages consumers to underestimate the health implications related to consumption of their products. Behind litigation, however, are public advocacy groups, working behind the scenes to further the interests of their constituencies and to right the wrongs they identify in the status quo. These groups act as intermediaries for audience associations, linked to common interests, and they make life uncomfortable for manufacturers, advertisers, and broadcasters. The rank-and-file members of such groups often consider themselves victims of activities the group regards as oppressive and therefore seeks to change. The work of such groups depends, in turn, on their media activism, their representation of themselves in the media, and their capacity to convince others of the importance of their concerns and of the necessity to keep governments and the corporate sector in check.
Much of the research about the effects of the media—evident in moral panics over media violence, as well as in debates about the impact of the media on people’s mental and physical health—is justified, ultimately, by reference to beliefs and values. In some cases, these values and beliefs are formalized in national, regional, or international legal systems, declarations, and charters that programmatically identify human rights, which include communication rights (von Feilitzen & Carlsson, 1999). The formulation and explicit defense of human rights help to protect the interests of audiences by mandating the means by which “media harm” can be assessed and media power exercised. Such protection is particularly important for the media interests of groups such as children or indigenous minorities, who require specially designed and produced communication forms. In such cases, the costs of production often cannot be recouped by the sale of exhibition rights, so governments are called on to devise media policies to ensure the provision of suitable media materials.
A significant component of what we know about broadcast audiences has been the result of the demand for research to assist policy formation (Nightingale, Dickenson, & Griff, 2000) or to encourage industry and commercial interests to be proactive in the protection of audience rights, if only to avoid the regulation that would result from failing to defend those rights. Castells (1998) has suggested that, even though these power struggles are often enacted through the media, the media “are not the power-holders…. Power … lies in the networks of information exchange and symbol manipulation, which relate social actors, institutions, and cultural movements” (p. 349). And cultural movements are becoming ever more adept at using the broadcast media to mobilize their audience power.
Assumptions about the Public as Audiences
As members of the public, people act as informed citizens, as voters, as “everybody” in a particular jurisdiction. On behalf of the people, governments authorize ownership and control of the media. They retain responsibility for the regulation of the media, even when their regulatory responsibility is discharged through policies of media “self-regulation.” Clearly, there are areas where governments and the media assist each other. Governments have a special interest in the media’s management of public life, particularly in its representations of the actions and interests of the ruling elites. They therefore demand and are allocated a special place in media programming. Governments and opposition parties receive vast amounts of free publicity for their views and positions in the form of news and current affairs. News coverage provides ongoing representation of the public sphere, which is monitored regularly by public opinion polling and other political research. Political parties actively represent themselves in the media through political advertising and through their mandated access to the media during election campaigns. Campaign management requires access to the commercial audience data-gathering technology developed for measuring audience markets: ratings. The media provide not only mandated election coverage but also an environment where political advertising and propaganda can be advantageously deployed.
Public opinion research often doubles as a form of audience research. Its findings inform electioneering and the expenditure on political advertising. The aim of public opinion research is primarily utilitarian—to produce research outcomes that will enhance the success of political campaigns. The aim is usually to develop an understanding of broad patterns of public opinion rather than to track the personal path individuals take in reaching political decisions. Like ratings research, public opinion polling is based on the misleading premise that the public is composed of rational individuals, who seek information relevant to the political decision making in which they are involved, when it is undertaken to facilitate often emotion-based persuasion and propaganda. Public opinion research, in a sense, focuses on finding ways to bring about shifts in community attitudes sufficient in scope and scale to alter voting intentions.
Some viewers and listeners clearly do not fit this assumption. Children, for example, cannot be assumed to have attained such a level of independent thought and action. Other special categories in the mass audience (e.g., victims of violence or those with hearing and sight impairments) fall outside the assumptions of political, moral, and ethical equality and individualism—if not permanently then at particular times or in particular circumstances. Recognition that materials freely available in the media may adversely affect some people often leads to public expression of concern about the effects of media materials on those groups. Russell Neuman (1991, p. 82) has described effects research as focusing on “the helpless audience.” He suggests that public concern has been mobilized by the possibility that people suffer from information overload, that audience segmentation makes people vulnerable to persuasive messages, that the media use special effects to evoke emotion-laden responses from audiences, that communication flows attack the structures of communal knowledge, that people become addicted to the media and are more susceptible to media persuasion, and that the continuous exposure to media cultivates consent and discourages dissent.
Research about the public as audiences has intrinsic value to governments and broadcasting companies, at least to the extent that it is instrumental in the achievement of their aims. Unfortunately, research that pursues a critical and evaluative agenda and seeks to make the media reflect on its own practice is often of secondary interest to both governments and the media. Niklas Luhmann (2000) has argued that this happens because the media treat criticism of “the media” as though it is just another news story—not the media’s concern but a problem for the public or the government to investigate. This strange inability to critically analyze their own performance or to take responsibility for their actions is, from Luhmann’s perspective, a matter of the media discriminating between information that is essential to their operation as media (such as having enough journalists to cover a particular event or getting the news to air on time) and information that, if they took it to heart, would slow down and complicate their performance because they would have to take account of the social and cultural implications of their practices. A systems theorist, Luhmann therefore distinguishes between information essential to the media’s continuing operation and self-reflexive information that critically evaluates the quality of the media’s performance. He has suggested that,
by representing themselves as a system, [the mass media] generate boundaries with an inside and an outside that is inaccessible to them. They too reflect [or represent] their outside as public life, so long as specific external relationships, such as to politics or to the advertisers, are not in question. (p. 106)
The media contribute to the construction of reality by selecting and editing information for presentation to the public and by focusing attention on what is revealed rather than on the process by which information is selected and edited. “The effect if not the function of the mass media seems to lie, therefore, in the reproduction of nontransparency through transparency, in the reproduction ofnontransparency of effects through transparency of knowledge” (Luhmann, 2000, p. 103).
Luhmann (2000) has hypothesized that, in general, audiences accept the media’s representation of the world and forget to question how it was produced and in whose interests. Audiences are predisposed to accept the news agendas and criteria for inclusion of information because so much information is provided and because diverse viewpoints are included (even if the range of diversity given credence by the media is quite limited). This creates a sense of “transparency of knowledge” because audiences rationally evaluate the information provided and make decisions based on it, assuming that the range of information and opinion provided by the media includes all they need to take into account in reaching conclusions. Yet it is on precisely this point that the media are unable—and frequently unwilling—to reflect on their own performance and that audiences lack the time and the means to enquire further.
A number of structural factors contribute to this “nontransparency of effects.” Audiences do not witness the production of news or other broadcast material. Though there is widespread understanding of the degree of human frailty at the core of journalistic practice, this seldom features as the content of news and so is represented as an issue of media workplace practice, not as one of legitimate audience concern. The media represent news about the world as “outside” the media system. News about audiences, in terms of coverage of moral panics and other concerns about media effects, is represented as existing outside the media system, as though the media system itself cannot be held responsible—though, of course, the media both generate the concern and represent it as though it were outside the system. The audience is positioned and addressed as though outside the media system, instead of being understood as an integral component of it. This permits a self-protective amnesia within media corporations, which protects their functionaries from recognition of their past contributions to present audience problems while simultaneously shielding their coverage of issues from being questioned as to its dependence on subsidization by advertising. Not least, there is amnesia concerning the dependence of the media on governmental good will. In the discourse on cigarette advertising (Chapman, 1986; Leiss, Kline, & Jhally, 1986; Schudson, 1984), for example, the subsidization of media operations by advertising budgets slips into the haze of the misremembered past, and biased coverage that serves to elect a government is seen to have been generated by the political parties rather than by the media.
Although the media may displace their responsibility to the public onto the public or onto government regulation, they take their responsibilities to advertisers very seriously indeed. To this end, they sponsor a form of audience research (ratings analysis) that, in effect, parcels audience viewing into sellable commodities. The result is that people participate in the mediated commercial sphere in two ways: as consumers and as audiences. They are buyers in the marketplace (external to the media), and they are viewers or listeners (inside the media system). As audiences, people therefore possess a different meaning “inside” the media than they possess “outside” them. Inside the media, audiences are a resource (like forests, minerals, or agricultural products). They are considered to be the product of the media’s work and, as such, a resource that can be offered for sale to recoup the costs of their production. Outside the media, viewers and listeners are clients or patrons. They are those whom the media, manufacturers, retailers, and others seek to serve.
The abstract representation of viewers by the media, for their own use as a commodity, means that they cultivate audiences as though they are a resource. They see audiences as a product of good programming, the result of their hard work, and therefore available to the media as goods for sale to outside bidders. As commodities, audiences are cultivated like crops—harvested, bundled, and sold in the media marketplace. Audiences, as people, are not actually sold, of course. In reality, the trade is in projected audience “exposures,” and it is based on statistical estimates that certain numbers of people will tune their TV sets to particular channels at particular times in the future. In this, it resembles an often-risky futures market.
Audiences are consumers of both media services and advertised products. Their consumption of media services is reflected directly in the day-to-day operations of media companies. Their consumption of advertised products is, on the other hand, only indirectly related to broadcasting. It is registered and monitored as product sales, but in deciding where to situate their advertising and how to develop the best media mix to promote their products, manufacturers and advertisers draw on audience measurement services that are directly paid for by media industries. As a result of this close relationship, audience measurement services, such as ratings, combine measures of media patronage with indicators of the spending capacity and psychological profiles of segments of the mass audience.
Beville (1988) has explained this relationship in the following way: “Programs are the heart of broadcasting, while sales provide the muscle. Ratings with their feedback element are the nerve system that largely controls what is broadcast” (p. ix). Both Beville (1988) and Webster and Lichty (1991) have described how ratings, as well as other audience measurement services, are the most influential information available about audiences. Broadcasters, advertisers, governments, and activists all make use of them. Ratings inform media-buying negotiations between broadcasters and advertisers and are called on in decision making to license new products, plan programming, devise program schedules and formats, and structure public information campaigns. Most license renewal hearings and media policy development take audience measurement information into account. The reason for this importance is that ratings provide information about audiences that is integral to the operation of the media as an industry.
In most countries, mass broadcasting is dependent on advertising revenue. This dependence has a structural impact on audiences and the opportunities available to them. Audiences are the only resource at the disposal of the broadcasting companies. Broadcasters therefore use them to finance the broadcasting service and to generate funding for new program acquisition. This is the basic premise of advertising supported media. Broadcasters package audiences in forms that can be used to price advertising spots and to sell those spots to advertisers. The packaging involves the reduction of millions of complex life situations and events, occurring simultaneously around the world, into standardized, measurable, and comparable “packages” of information.
The first part of this packaging process involves separating audience program choices from the people making the choices. This is accomplished with the assistance of metering technologies, such as people meters, and with statistical analysis predicated on such abstraction. The activity of viewing or listening is reduced to the registration of a measurable action—the pressing of buttons on a meter or a remote control. Webster and Lichty (1991, p. 179) describe ratings as a “snapshot” of viewing, and they consolidate this analogy by referring to audience viewing as “exposure.” Ratings involve taking numerical “snapshots” of audience button pushing and extrapolating general pictures of program and channel selection from that data. “Exposure” transforms the moment of meaningful engagement with the media into standardized and measurable time-based units (Webster & Lichty, 1991, p. 179). Viewing time is divided into day parts, quarter hours, 5-minute segments, and sometimes 1-minute segments to enable researchers to track movements in audience patterns of viewing. By these means, all evidence of audience interpretation or response to media content is extracted from the experience of being an audience for the purposes of statistical analysis. Being able to separate audience response from “exposure” enhances the reliability of ratings measures but also defines qualitative information about the experience of being an audience as irrelevant to the operation of media organizations.
Criticism of Ratings
There is evidence that the interests of audiences are not always the primary consideration for commercial media. Making a profit, especially at the expense of an opponent, can prove to be, strategically, a higher priority. One manifestation of this is the practice of programming for the least objectionable program (LOP) rather than the best available programming, knowing that audiences will make this choice before switching off (Webster & Lichty, 1991, p. 153). Neuman (1991, pp. 153-159) provides an overview of the strategic thinking that encourages network executives to take advantage of the known propensity for viewers to continue viewing, even though they are not particularly interested in a particular program. Even the audience behavior known as grazing—“the tendency of viewers to frequently change channels” using a remote control device (RCD) (Webster & Lichty, 1991, p. 249), a clear indication of audience boredom—is rationalized as being caused by the RCD rather than being accepted as a response to poor programming. The behavior is dismissed as irrelevant to broadcasters because the technologies used to record audience exposures can be used for minute-by-minute tracking of audiences. As audiences, we experience the effects of these practices when we feel forced to choose from an unappealing range of programs or forced to choose one of two or more equally attractive programs. For the broadcaster, providing program options that are of similar value to the target audience, when compared with the program options offered by the opposition, is more likely to win the ratings chase. Offering diversity is seen as a sure way to lose the mainstream and is therefore regarded as the obligation of government-funded broadcasting. From an industry perspective, the strategically best programming option will always be to remain as close as possible to the main opposition but also slightly closer to the interests of most viewers. The competitive market structure of mass broadcasting, combined with viewer commitment to watching television, as opposed to watching particular programs, encourages broadcasters to engage in this practice, which brings about a regression to mainstream or middlebrow programming.
Joseph Turow (1997) has commented that
when people read a magazine, watch a TV show, or use any other ad sponsored medium, then, they are entering a world that was constructed as a result of close cooperation between advertisers and media firms. Designed with marketing goals in mind, the formats and the commercials aim to signal to people whether and how they fit the proceedings. They also signal what people might buy or do to keep fitting in. (p. 16)
Such audience segmentation and targeting appear initially to work in the opposite manner to least objectionable programming. They address particular groups of consumers in the mass audience rather than the whole audience. Barban, Cristol, and Kopec (1987, p. 32) explain that three types of variables are taken into account when identifying target audiences: demographic, sociopsychological, and product usage variables. Of these, product usage variables are currently favored. Decisions to target audiences are made for commercial reasons, rather than to please audiences, yet they produce a comfortably complacent symbiosis between audiences and the “media vehicles” developed to attract them. As a result, Turow (1997) suggests, viewers who are targeted enjoy more satisfying media experiences but at the expense of the lack of enjoyment of people in the audience who fall outside the targeted segments. He is concerned that by always being in the comfort zone, the audiences targeted are encouraged to focus inwards on their own needs and aspirations. He is critical of this trend, arguing that it leads people to become less tolerant, to be more dismissive of the interests and viewpoints of others, and to ignore social responsibilities. The end result of this consumerist trend is that protection of the consumption function may eventually be taken to be the only justifiable public “good” (Turow, 1997, p. 127). Turow argues that rather than celebrating cultural diversity, this “hypersegmentation” encourages an “impulse to keep diversity hidden.”
Signalling, tailoring, and other targeting activities encourage people to join their own image tribes apart from other image tribes. As a result, marketers’ concerns with diversity act to push groups away from one another rather than to encourage them to learn about the strengths of coming together to share experiences and discuss issues from different viewpoints. (Turow, 1997, pp. 199-200)
The Cultural Critique of Ratings
The research methods and practices developed for public opinion and ratings research treat “being an audience” as a form of industrial production, not by audiences but by industry. For media industries, mass communication is still understood as a component of “the hegemonic economic system and social contract that most powerfully propelled the post-war boom in the USA” (Soja, 2000, pp. 98, 169). The discourses of economic rationalism, emanating from the industrial power block, naturalize the ratings system. They also justify acceptance of the pictures of the audience it produces as accurate and as the only pictures worth having because of the economic value attached to the data produced. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, several academics challenged the ratings rhetoric by developing a cultural critique of ratings. John Hartley (1987), for example, pointed out that the reliance on ratings by media industries encourages media managers to infantilize the audience and avoid accountability for programming actions. Ien Ang (1991) criticized the inability of ratings to address the situated practices of actual audiences. Eileen Meehan (1990) took aim at the research methods used and attacked, particularly, the inadequate representation of community viewpoints that is the end result of sampling practices and the length of life of TV ratings panels.
Lack of a Theory of Popular Culture
The central points of disagreement between ratings researchers and their cultural critics concerned the lack of a theory of popular culture. The same criticism was leveled at “uses and gratifications” researchers in the late 1970s (see Carey & Kreiling, 1974; Nightingale, 2003). If we really want to understand media audiences, we need to understand how culture works: the processes of both its production and reproduction. The absence of a theory of culture is most obvious, as previously mentioned, in the emphasis on “exposure” to media content rather than on responses to it or engagements with it. The ratings approach does not analyze media content but judges audience engagement as an irrelevant consideration in its pursuit of its limited but influential purposes. Although ratings speak directly to the interests of advertisers and broadcasters, they deflect discussion of the cultural significance of audience engagements with media onto the detail of ratings. The use of ratings as the ultimate guide to whether programs are scheduled encourages broadcasting companies to minimize their responsibility for program content, for the social and cultural implications of the discourses they produce and disseminate, and for their social and cultural responsibilities beyond the loose guidelines set by government regulation.
The suggestion that a theory of popular culture should inform audience research pointed to two aspects of “being an audience” that are systematically overlooked by the emphasis on publics and markets: the group nature of audiences and the sociocultural significance of the meanings produced when audiences engage with texts. The culture theorists (Carey & Kreiling, 1974; Morley, 1992) argued that the individualist approach to audience should be replaced by a cultural theory capable of explaining why some groups and audience communities enjoy better access to the media and find more to enjoy in the media than others. They argued that the sociocultural meaning of participation in media events should play a central role in defining our understanding of audiences. They have had some success with this project, particularly in documenting the ways indigenous and ethnic communities have been able to use their audience power to establish and maintain the capacity to express their histories and cultural heritage through indigenous production of media materials. In doing so, a clearer picture has developed of the crucial role mass media materials play in the formation and experience of identity.
One achievement of the cultural approach in audience research has been to force a reconsideration of the individualist assumptions that are (nevertheless) still used to justify the abstract and impersonal understanding of audience publics and markets, focusing attention instead on audiences as groups and communities. The insistence on the importance of understanding audience agency as cultural action has allowed the fixation with audience composition and with economically exploitable audience data to be pushed aside, so that the spatial and experiential dimensions of being an audience can be added to the picture. Audiences can now be appreciated as places where things happen: Identity is developed, cultural meanings are shared, and new ideas are generated. In other words, audience describes the places where the most constructive and crucial reproduction of culture, meanings, and ideas occurs (Nightingale, 2003). This culturally rich world seldom figures in the “power” contexts of the public and the market, where the opportunities for audiences to exercise agency are deliberately minimized so that the media, advertisers, and policymakers can operate as organizational entities with as little interference from the public as possible.
Emphasizing the communal and networked nature of audience shifts attention away from people as individuals and onto people in communal and associative contact with each other. People are audiences as cultures, subcultures, ethnicities, and diasporas; work teams in associations, clubs, and collectives; and families and other forms of domestic or cultural groups. The alienated individual of mass culture theory is as much a product of the structures of the mass production of audiences as an indication of the ways people operate in a media-dominated world. It is only when understood in the context of the complexity and diversity of associative contact that the nature of audience engagement with the practices of everyday media life can be appreciated. Associative contacts generate the real-world meaning systems where media information is debated, discussed, and enacted. Most people belong to, and participate simultaneously in, a range of both generalist- and interest-based sociocultural groups, so in seeking to understand how people enact media meanings, attention must be paid to the competition between ideas and affiliations originating from these groups, alongside the competition within media and texts.
Much of the cultural research about audiences has been motivated by two research aims: to demonstrate that audiences are active in their use of the media and to document instances of viewers who actively resist the hegemonic ideas produced by the mainstream media. It has been shown conclusively that audiences actively engage with media and also that they are sometimes systematically “resistant” in their information processing. Audience activity has been demonstrated to involve an impressive array of activity: “bricolage” (Hebdige, 1979), “textual nomadism” (Radway, 1988), “textual poaching” (Jenkins, 1992), and improvisation, impersonation, and cultural transposition (Nightingale, 1996), in addition to information-processing activities of a receptive kind, such as cognition (Morley, 1992) and critical reflection and textual analysis (Buckingham, 1987), to name but a few examples. Yet it is the groupings within which such activity occurs that tell us most about the character of audience activity and that point to its cultural significance.
As mentioned earlier, I am using the concept of “audience agency” to talk about the meaningful actions people perform in engagement with media. Meaningfulness requires social convention—a sociocultural group or system of meanings that frame the particularity of personal experience. The use of the ethnographic method has underpinned the documentation of situated audience practices and expanded our knowledge of the many ways media are integrated in the development of identity. Audience groups make differential use of being an audience: Some focus on the representation of their group by the media, others focus on the access of their group to key media texts or to the media as a source of employment, and yet others focus on their modes of engagement with diverse media. Even if the meanings produced in audience engagement are personal in nature, they are interpretable only in terms of the conventions of meaning making used by the social groups in which the person was formed.
Audience agency therefore encompasses media engagements that affect identity and cultural participation. It involves cultural groups in the surveillance of, and commentary on, media representations. It attempts to acquire the resources to establish independent media controlled by specific communities rather than by commercial interests, and it engages media organizations in copyright skirmishes directed at textual poaching and other improvisatory activities based on existing media materials. For the most part, though, audience agency remains powerless to change the existing networks of mass communication. In the examples we consider next, audience groups seek power over media production, both as complements to and as alternatives for the mainstream media. Although they have established alternative broadcasting capacity, they nevertheless continue to exist in a complementary relationship with mainstream media. In this sense, audience agency is tactical rather than strategic in its focus.
Ethnic Communities and Audience Agency
The structures and processes of mass broadcasting often fail to keep pace with changes occurring in the population. Once established, administrative structures and organizational hierarchies successfully reproduce themselves but fail to reflect the changing composition of the world around them. Charles Husband (1994) has pointed out that dominant ethnic groups in the developed world tend to co-opt the mainstream media. As a result, the diversity of represented culture underestimates the actuality (Husband, 1994, p. 2). In the shift from imagined monoculture to multiethnic state, this cultural lag can have unintended outcomes. For some cultural minorities, lack of representation may reiterate a lack of sociocultural power linked to immigrant or indigenous status in ways that are dis-empowering for group members. Husband has noted that “ethnic minorities are marginalized not only through media images but through their exclusion from full and equitable participation in media industries” (p. 14).
Some of the most interesting audience research of the 1980s and 1990s has documented the diverse tactics that viewers of underrepresented backgrounds adopt to meet their needs for affirmation from the media. Early investigations into racist reporting in the British media documented the systematic nature of the much less-than-friendly representation of people of color in the British media (Hartmann & Husband, 1974). Such studies noted the absence of positive representation, the linking of ethnicity to reports of criminal activity in ways that create distrust and even fear of particular communities, and the patronizingly positive representation of particular “ethnic” individuals. Recently, Ross (2000, p. 138) has provided evidence that such practices do annoy Black British viewers, whom, she found, expressed concern about racial and ethnic stereotyping in the media, the marginality of Black minority characters, and the dominance of racism themes in programs featuring Black minority characters.
Many researchers in this field have drawn attention to the fact that media representations often imply that ethnic communities are homogeneous when, in fact, they are divided and differentiated. Sreberny (2000) has noted that the Iranian community in London is far from homogeneous. Its members see themselves as representing the diverse gender- and age-based differences from the “home culture” and are divided by whether members are political refugees waiting to return (looking back), immigrants preoccupied with starting a new life (looking forward), or members of either category just trying to get by in a strange environment (looking inwards). The different views community members hold on the relevance of their culture of origin for their current life circumstances suggest that their media needs will be diverse. No single type of media content will prove adequate.
In her ethnographic study of British South Asian youth, Marie Gillespie (2000) noted that coming to terms with their “limited” representation in mainstream media led many to experience disaffection with their British identity, fostering instead a “desire for new kinds of transnational and Diaspora identities.” This disaffection precipitated more intense identification with transnational issues such as consumerism, feminism, environmentalism, and human rights, alongside “Diaspora identifications and connections.” The Diaspora identifications and connections included viewing everything from Bollywood blockbusters to home videos that maintain family connections, exchange family information, and allow family members to engage in video tourism (Gillespie, 2000, p. 166). The distance between the personal meaningfulness of home video and the identification with global cultural issues leaves an unfortunate vacuum where national identity should be developed.
Naficy (1993) showed that independent video production could be a precursor to ethnic broadcasting capacity. In his ethnographic study of Iranian exiles in Los Angeles in the period from 1981 to 1992, Naficy documented the nature and extent of the media activities of this community. The Iranian exiles produced periodicals and radio broadcasts, sponsored newscasts and TV programs, and rented airtime and sold advertising space during its broadcasts. Access to broadcast materials were considered not an option but essential for the survival and mental health of the exiles. Naficy believes that “exile heightens the desire for constructing difference, for creating weight,” and broadcast media offered opportunities to fulfill such desires. “Creating weight” for the exile culture is a significant concept. It refers to the ways that seeing one’s culture on TV or encountering its language and stories on radio proves the importance of the culture because it sustains the shift from reminiscence to broadcast story. It bears testimony to the fact that media are one of the chief means for learning about the world. They give materiality to stories that would otherwise exist only as reminiscences and family folklore. Experiencing one’s cultural heritage in the media gives an authority to the story that takes it beyond the personal and into the historico-social.
Naficy (1993) goes further, however, and notes that the popular culture produced in exile assisted the development of a grounded sense of self, from which engagement with mainstream American and other national identities could be negotiated. Paradoxically, the production of exilic popular culture also helped the exiles loosen their dependence on their “home” culture.
Exilic popular culture and television are instrumental in the survival of uprooted Iranians. They constructed a cohesive semiotic and discursive space for exilic communitas and an exilic economy, but their commercially driven nature served ultimately to recuperate their resistive and counterhegemonic spin, turning them chiefly into social agencies of assimilation. (Naficy, 1993, p. 192)
Naficy’s analysis signals ways groups within the mass audience may identify shared interests, define agendas for the production of particular media events, produce the required media materials, and identify exhibition strategies to counteract the problem of nonrecognition in mainstream media.
Indigenous Groups and Audience Agency
Desire for access to production, as well as control of both story content and cultural representation, appears to be routinely produced as a result of systematic underrepresentation or misrepresentation of ethnic and indigenous groups in the broadcast media. It is a trigger for audience activism not only among migrants, exiles, and refugees but also among indigenous peoples throughout the world. The situation for indigenous peoples is, however, rather different from that described above because the aim is to resist assimilation and the recuperative aftereffects sometimes produced by a media presence while “creating weight” for the group members. Jakubowicz (2001) has noted that
the desire for a separate system over which Indigenous people can exert some influence and in which they can take pride of ownership reflects their exclusion from other mainstream media … there is an awareness in the Indigenous communities that the non-Indigenous media may speak about them, but speak neither to them nor for them. (p. 211)
Indigenous communities, then, use their agency as audiences to add their voices to the cultural mainstream, to make sure that they are speaking to each other and to the mainstream, but the maintenance of the indigenous community is their prime purpose.
Riggins (1992) has described indigenous groups as responding to the “media imperative of modern life” by seeking access to the means of media production while simultaneously (and usually unintentionally) encouraging “assimilation of their audiences to mainstream values” (p. 4). The “variability of interpretation” in audiences virtually guarantees that outcomes other than those imagined will follow from the viewing experience. Riggins has suggested that, in some cases, politicians and mainstream media, to hasten assimilation, deliberately exploit the “dual role of ethnic media.” Like minority-ethnic communities, indigenous groups have sought control of the means of media production (particularly of broadcast media) as a survival strategy. They see indigenous production of their own stories as a way to cure the cultural malaise created by the experience of systematic domination and exclusion and to restore their stolen cultural pride and integrity.
The policy initiatives pursued by indigenous communities are clearly demonstrated in the media project outlined by the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission in Australia. They include the following:
- “The right to full access to information and entertainment media”;
- Access to the use of broadcasting for purposes associated with “cultural restoration, preservation and growth”;
- Efficient access to the use of local radio and television for informational services of particular relevance to indigenous communities;
- Employment opportunities in indigenous media that open access to mainstream media employment; and
- Enhancement of self-image (Jakubowicz, 2001, pp. 211-212).
Such policies demonstrate that indigenous communities are not content to sit back in reception mode and absorb visions of a world that systematically expunge the histories that explain their current sociocultural position, gloss over the richness and traditions of their cultural heritage, and “forget” their ongoing contributions and sacrifices to the status quo. They combine their independent media production capacity with their political activism to secure their achievements from recuperation by the mainstream media and, importantly, to educate the mass audience.
This institutionalization of the rights and opportunities for indigenous production contrasts starkly with the experience of fan groups, which operate solely within mainstream media culture. Although indigenous communities have had to prove the existence and importance of traditional culture, along with their communities’ unique experiences of urban life, as worthy of independent media representation, this can be put into abeyance (at least for a time) once institutional recognition has been received. Fan communities seek, by contrast, to base their rights to engage in textual production on their pleasure in the text. For this reason, fan groups are more dependent on the media companies and increasingly insecure in their hold on an identity that is separable from mainstream media. Enforced independence from the media is a more threatening prospect for fan groups than assimilation into it.
Fans and Audience Agency
In his definitive study of fans and fan culture, Henry Jenkins (1992) documented the richness of the cultural activities fans pursue: writing (producing stories and fan fiction), filking (composing fan music, songs, and lyrics), scripting new episodes, and constructing “reality” videos. The list of fan activities is potentially limitless. According to Jenkins, fan activity has demonstrated that media texts may inspire audience investment in complex interpretative play with texts, joy in associating with others who share the fan’s enthusiasm and detailed knowledge of the text, critical discussion of the textual “canon” and the relative worth of its component parts, and establishment and maintenance of Web sites, chat rooms, and other virtual spaces.
Jenkins (1992) chose the term textual poachers to describe fan audience activities. The term captured the quality of rebelliousness in the appropriation of commercial texts and, in retrospect, prophetically anticipated the copyright and licensing disputes that now beleaguer some fan communities. Although fans enhance the cultural value of the originating texts, they are not the first writers of the stories. Their imaginative improvisation on the originating texts potentially sets them on a collision course with the registered owners or exploiters of copyright. Many fan activities are potentially lucrative, especially activities such as holding conventions and trading memorabilia. For this reason, fan activity has prompted awareness among copyright owners of the unexploited value that remains in the texts after broadcasting. Jenkins (in press) has noted that
in such a world, intellectual property, which has proven popular with mass audiences, has enormous economic value and companies seek to tightly regulate its flow in order to maximize profits and minimize the risk of diluting their trademark and copyright holdings.
The policing of intellectual property rights causes ongoing and widespread concern within fan communities about the types of materials that are and are not covered by copyright. Jenkins (in press) documents a veto by the Usenet hierarchy on the establishment of a filter site (a separate site devoted to the critique or discussion of another site) “where fans could post and critique original fiction set in the Star Warsuniverse.” Usenet described the proposed activities as “illegal,” and even though a compromise arrangement was finally agreed that provided free Web space and original content for fan sites, this was at the cost to fans of their rights to the intellectual property generated by the site. Jenkins has recalled that
many believe that they made this decision based on a series of “cease and desist” letters issued by Lucasfilm attorneys aimed at shutting down Star Wars fan Web sites or blocking the circulation of fanzines.
This mirrors a similar incident in Australia, where the U.S. company Viacom issued “cease-and-desist” letters to Star Trek fan clubs in 1986 in an attempt to control the clubs.
Despite the ethos of sharing among fans, Jenkins (2001) has indicated a range of specialized roles pursued by fans. This specialization has centered on three activities: textual production; publication, distribution, and management of fan creative work; and criticism and cultural research.
- Fans who specialize in creative production, particularly of scripts and stories based on the originating texts, are important to the fan group because they offer hope of tighter integration of the fan group with the production company. A similar effect is produced when media producers involve themselves in fan group activities and discussions.
- Fan specialists who manage the production and distribution of fan materials: producing and distributing newsletters, organizing fan conventions, and taking on the management of clubs, meetings, fund-raising, and other activities. In the past, this group included fans who have been in the frontline of skirmishes and battles with copyright holders.
- Fan specialists who are “academic fans,” such as Jenkins himself. Though probably the least central to the ongoing existence of fan groups, academic fans have assisted the establishment of fan studies in university curricula and contributed to the critical analysis of the originating texts in academic publishing and conference contexts. They ensure that the sensibilities of fan communities are acknowledged and respected within the academy and generate better public appreciation of the value of fan “work” to the broader community (Jenkins, 2001).
However, it is possible to argue that the basis of fan specialization and creative improvisation was linked to the independence of fan communities, and the tightening of control over fan communities will curtail the opportunities for independent production and group maintenance. The intervention of the commercial sector in fan activities potentially threatens the creative freedom of fan communities. The increasing likelihood that fan groups are sponsored and monitored by copyright holders signals the imposition of limits on the future scope of fan activity. Although assimilation into the commercial mainstream is not necessarily a threatening prospect for fan communities in the ways it is for ethnic and indigenous communities, it suggests that some fans work for the copyright holders first and the membership second.
Fans actively pursue several of the media policy initiatives targeted by indigenous and ethnic communities—particularly those associated with employment opportunities in mainstream media, access to the use of broadcast materials for cultural and personal development, and enhancement of self-esteem (see Jenkins, 2001). Like indigenous and minority-ethnic communities, fans react vigorously to stereotyping or misleading characterizations in the mainstream media and by the public in general. Like indigenous and minority-ethnic groups, fans actively try to change these inaccurate perceptions. Correcting the misconceptions and enhancing the reputation of fans has been one of the tasks addressed by academic fans. Like indigenous and minority-ethnic communities, fans have taken to producing media materials that satisfy the particularity of their interests in the originating texts. Unlike the other audience communities we have considered here, their preservation and heritage activities have focused more on the originating texts rather than on their communities.
Fan communities are products of consumer society rather than victims of it; as a result, their relationship to the commercial producers of texts currently incorporates a degree of dependence. Jenkins (2002), Banks (2002), and others believe that the relationship between fans and media industries should be a collaborative one, capable of recognizing the contribution fans make to the broadcast or online text. This is not necessarily considered a bad thing by fans because commercial copyright holders increasingly include fan sites as part of their initial product designs and provide them with special privileges. Fan involvement in the production process can be a way of “adding value” to new media products, which now routinely include both merchandising and the establishment of an online fan base. The production companies benefit from the money fans are willing to spend to satisfy their interests and investments in texts, thus offsetting the company’s initial financial risk. Fans are encouraged to discuss, share ideas, and, in doing so, publicize new products.
Jenkins (2001) has suggested that collaboration may prove to be a positive outcome for fans, especially if the types of engagement fans are seeking from media materials are taken into account in the production of the original texts. This “incorporation” of the mind of the fan into the media product is the equivalent for fans of indigenous and minority-ethnic participation in mainstream media. The other side of the equation involves the privileged access the fan is given to the commercial materials. Banks (2002) has documented requests by fans for rights to develop third-party commercial products that can be sold as add-ons for particular games. Such desires challenge the control of intellectual property by multinational corporations but may be more acceptable to independent games developers. Jenkins (in press) suggests that
at the moment, we are on a collision course between a new economic and legal culture which encourages monopoly power over cultural mythologies and new technologies which empower consumers to archive, annotate, appropriate, and re-circulate media images. The recent legal disputes around Napster represent only skirmish in what is likely to be a decade long war over intellectual property, a war which will determine not simply the future direction of digital cinema but the nature of creative expression in the 21st century.
In the fan context, the preoccupation with the meaning of texts has given way to border disputes over the control of textual materials and the ownership of cultural materials that have been integrated into the foundations of cultural identity. Rather than protecting or promoting traditional cultural information, fans dispute the ownership of mainstream culture.
Emphasis on marginalized and sometimes spectacular audience groups has been a feature of the cultural approach in studies of audiences. Taken as a whole, this work has delivered a strong statement of the intensity of audience engagements with media texts and of the desire for greater involvement in, and control over, production among marginalized audience communities. It has demonstrated the importance to local communities of access to media materials that enhance rather than diminish identity development. Organized audience groups have established their own production and broadcasting companies and taken responsibility for ensuring that meanings often sidelined by mainstream media gain more attention, at least within their own communities. They have also fostered the production expertise of members and supported their efforts to gain employment in the mainstream media, so that group interests are better represented. Overall, they demonstrate the importance of the achievements that follow when audience groups are able to support their interests in ensuring that particular ideas and representations are available to group members first and also to the broader society. However, the cultural approach has also generated a deafening silence about the potential for the activation of mass audience agency.
Earlier in this chapter, I suggested that the introduction of mass broadcasting created a split between audience power and audience agency. This separation has proved of great value to both commercial organizations and government authorities involved in the administration of mass communication because it permitted them to minimize their responsibility for “signification” and allowed them to ignore the impacts of the audience events they produce. The separation of audience power and agency ensured that structures of signification were demoted, characterized as personal and private interest rather than as core components of the culture industries and the media system. Because audience agency was relegated to this personal space, the issues it raises were considered irrelevant to the ongoing work of the media. The personal and the private do not register in a world where representation through the abstraction of numbers is all that counts.
The cultural approach to audiences focused centrally on meaning making and the importance of the media for cultural survival. It identified and documented the ways minority-ethnic and indigenous communities have been able to combine their power as communities with their special interests, as audiences, in the preservation of key cultural ideas and values. By recognizing the achievements of indigenous and minority-ethnic communities in these respects, it is possible to notice the difficulties that confront groups such as fans, for whom the basis of their affiliation (as groups) is textual—grounded in dependence on the mainstream media. Fans are as much products of the mass audience as they are of the originating texts, though researchers often fail to recognize this. In celebrating and reworking loved texts, fans have written themselves into a scriptural landscape that initially failed to register their agency as audiences—at least until a commercial value could be attached to it. Fans therefore point to the future of the mass audience and to new types of media engagement with increasingly interactive texts that demand more of the mass audience than television ever has.