2 Audience Theory

Learning Objective: 
to demonstrate knowledge and understanding of audience theory

Success Criteria:
- to understand the role audience plays in the media process of production, distribution and exhibition (AO1)
- to understand the relationship audience has with institutions (AO1)
- to explore audience theories (AO4)
- to expand and use terminology appropriately (AO1)

Many theories try to make sense of the question: What effects do media texts have on audiences?

When you are studying audiences you will find that there are a lot of different theories about why some television programmes have a large audience and others do not, and why people buy certain things and not others. 

There are also theories about the effect that ‘media’ has on audiences. This question has interested people ever since the invention of the printing press, and it became possible to make hundreds of copies of a document, and a ‘message’ could reach a mass audience.

Hierarchy of Needs

An American psychologist, Abraham Maslow, suggested that we all have different layers of needs. We have to achieve certain needs before going on to the next layer. 
His Hierarchy of Needs suggests that once people have their basic needs met like housing, food, safety, shopping, technology, and a job, they can then go on to satisfy successively ‘higher needs’ that occupy a set hierarchy or system of ranking.

Maslow studied well-respected people such as Albert Einstein, and American presidents, and he studied one percent of the healthiest college student population.

<<<He came up with this pyramid where basic needs are at the bottom and at the top something called ‘self actualisation’. This describes a person who has gained the respect of a lot of other people – perhaps a prime minister – and has a high level of self-esteem and self-respect.
What has this go to do with media texts?

It is very relevant to advertisers, and institutions that carry advertising – newspapers, cinema, television and radio channels.

Maslow’s upper levels at the top of the pyramid are about self-esteem and gaining the respect of others. This can be linked to the idea that consuming particular media texts fulfils self-esteem, as does buying certain products.

In a nutshell, Maslow is suggesting that if you buy a new pair of trainers of the right brand, as shown to you on in the media, then you will feel better about yourself, because you have the respect of other people.

Can you prove or disprove this theory from your experience? Do you have any examples to share?

Needs: Activity

Draw a blank triangle. Fill in each level of with examples of media texts which attempt to fulfil that particular level of needs in Maslow’s pyramid.

For example, take the second from bottom layer – safety needs. An advertisement for car insurance or life insurance offers a general level of safety needs.

Some cars are sold on their safety features – what does this tell us about the audience (people) who buy a car for these reasons?

Now construct an audience for a particular product of your choice (e.g. perfume, soft drinks, smartphones, take away pizza, romantic comedy films, etc)using the hierarchy of needs, and the psychographic system.

It is important to be able to ‘read’ or understand a target audience, and to understand if a media product has succeeded or not in getting across to its target audience.

Passive Audiences

Researchers investigating the effect of media on audiences have considered the audience in two distinct ways.

The earliest idea was that a mass audience is passive and inactive. The members of the audience are seen as couch potatoes just sitting there consuming media texts – particularly commercial television programmes.

It was thought that this did not require the active use of the brain. The audience accepts and believes all messages in any media text that they receive. This is the passive audience model.

The Hypodermic Model

In this model, the media is seen as powerful and able to inject ideas into an audience who are seen as weak and passive.

The hypodermic needle was proposed by Harold Lasswell in the 1920s. Also known as the ‘Magic bullet theory’, it explains how the audience is directly affected by what they view and hear. It is said to affect the audience/viewer immediately or in the near future. 

It suggests that a media text can ‘inject’ or 'fire' ideas, values and attitudes into a passive audience, who might then act upon them. This theory also suggests that a media text has only one message which the audience must pick up.This theory suggests that the audience is powerless towards resisting the impact of the message which, in some cases, could be dangerous. 

This appeared to be the case in Nazi Germany in the 1930s, leading up to the second World War. Powerful German films, such as Triumph of the Will (Riefenstahl, Germany, 1935), seemed to use propaganda methods to ‘inject’ ideas promoting the Nazi cause into the German audience. 
In 1957, an American theorist, Vane Packard, who was working in advertising, wrote an influential book called The Hidden Persuaders. This book suggested that advertisers were able to manipulate audiences and persuade them to buy things they may not want to buy. This suggested advertisers had power over audiences. In fact, this has since proved to be an unreliable model, as modern audiences are too sophisticated.

This theory stems from a fear of the mass-media, and gives the media much more power than it can ever have in a democracy. Also, it ignores the obvious fact that not everyone in an audience behaves in the same way

How can an audience be passive? 
Think of all the times you have disagreed with something on television, or just not laughed at a new comedy.
What do you think of this theory?

Cultivation Theory

This theory also treats the audience as passive. It suggests that repeated exposure to the same message – such as an advertisement – will have an effect on the audience’s attitudes and values. A similar idea is known as desensitisation, which suggests that long-term exposure to violent media makes the audience less likely to be shocked by violence. Being less shocked by violence, the audience may then be more likely to behave violently.

Cultivation Theory

The criticism of this theory is that screen violence is not the same as real violence. Many people have been exposed to screen murder and violence, but there is no evidence at all that this has led audiences to be less shocked by real killings and violence. Also, this theory treats the audience as passive, which is an outdated concept.

Two Step Flow Theory

Katz and Lazarsfeld assumes a slightly more active audience. It suggests messages from the media move in two distinct ways.

First, individuals who are opinion leaders, receive messages from the media and pass on their own interpretations, in addition to the actual media content. The information does not flow directly from the text into the minds of its audience, but is filtered through the opinion leaders, who then pass it on to a more passive audience.

The audience then mediate the information received directly from the media, with the ideas and thoughts expressed by the opinion leaders. They are not being influenced by a direct process, but by a two-step flow.

This theory appeared to reduce the power of the media, and some researchers concluded that social factors were also important in the way in which audiences interpret texts. This led to the idea of active audiences.

Active Audiences

This newer model sees the audience not as couch potatoes, but as individuals who are active and interact with the communication process and use media texts for their own purposes. They are prosumers (producers and consumers).

We behave differently because we are different people from different backgrounds with many different attitudes, values, experiences and ideas.

This is the active audience model, and is now generally considered to be a better and more realistic way to talk about audiences.

Uses and Gratifications Model

This model stems from the idea that audiences are a complex mixture of individuals who select media texts that best suits their needs – this goes back to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs above.

The users and gratifications model suggests that media audiences are active and make active decisions about what they consume in relation to their social and cultural setting and their needs.

This was summed up by theorists . 
This means that audiences choose to watch programmes that make them feel good (gratifications), e.g. dramas and sitcoms, or that give them information that they can use (uses), e.g. news or information about new products or the world about them.

‘Media usage can be explained in that it provides gratifications (meaning it satisfies needs) related to the satisfaction of social and psychological needs’. Blumler and Katz in 1974

Blumler and Katz (1975) identified four main uses:
  • Surveillance – our need to know what is going on in the world. This relates to Maslow’s need for security. By keeping up to date with news about local and international events, we feel we have the knowledge to avoid or deal with dangers.
  • Personal relationships – our need for to interact with other people. This is provided by forming virtual relationships with characters in soaps, films and all kinds of drama, and other programmes and other media texts.
  • Personal identity – our need to define our identity and sense of self. Part of our sense of self is informed by making judgements about all sorts of people and things. This is also true of judgements we make about TV and film characters, and celebrities. Our choice of music, the shows we watch, the stars we like can be an expression of our identities. One aspect of this type of gratification is known as value reinforcement. This is where we choose television programmes or newspapers that have similar beliefs to those we hold.
  • Diversion – the need for escape, entertainment and relaxation. All types of television programmes can be ‘used’ to wind down and offer diversion, as well as satisfying some of the other needs at the same time.

Reception Analysis

Reception Theory

Reception analysis is an active audience theory that looks at how audiences interact with a media text taking into account their ‘situated culture’ – this is their daily life. 

This theory was put forward by Professor Stuart Hall in ‘The Television Discourse - Encoding/Decoding’ in 1974, with later research by David Morley and Charlotte Brunsden. 

The theory suggests that social and daily experiences can affect the way an audience reads a media text and reacts to it.

Hall suggests that an audience has a significant role in the process of reading a text, and this can be discussed in three different ways:

  • The Dominant or Preferred Reading. The audience shares the code of the text and fully accepts its preferred meaning as intended by the producers.
  • The Negotiated Reading. The audience partly shares the code of the text and broadly accepts the preferred meaning but can change the meaning in some way according to their own experiences.
  • The Oppositional Reading. The audience understands the preferred meaning but does not share the text’s code and rejects this intended meaning. This can be called a radical reading that may be, say Marxist or feminist or right wing

Interactive Audiences

The internet has opened up new ways to receive and interact with information. We can ‘read’ texts that are downloaded to our computers, or mobiles, or watch TV-on-demand and not just when the broadcasters want us to receive it. We can access music and film wherever we are with an Internet connection. We have access to media 24/7.  

A prosumer is a person who consumes and produces media. It is derived from "prosumption", a dot-com era business term meaning "production by consumers". These terms were coined by American futurist Alvin Toffler, and were widely used by many technology writers of the time. It applies to the fact that we can CREATE our own media and contribute, generating our own audiences. The real power of the audience seems to lie in being able to take part in a media text. Twenty-first-century audiences are creating their own distribution systems without mediation from institutions or companies. Websites such as YouTube, Instagram and blogs offer new possibilities for audiences.
It is what we do and what we spend our money on that gives an audience its value, and to some extent its power. Things that influence audiences include new technologies. New technologies, in turn, influence audiences and institutions.