The Active Audience

The Television Audience

By: Cameron A. Straughan

Student # 205337985

November 14, 2002

I found James Lull’s The Active Audience chapter to be well-written, thorough, succinct, and well-rounded. He provided lots of great examples and simple, easy to understand models that, in fact, represent very complex topics (in which case I must question whether or not the models are really appropriate). His thoughts and ideas were always grounded in a strong context. I also appreciated how he outlined his holistic approach to the material, in an effort to understand the “active audience”. In this regard, I found his writing reminiscent of Raymond Williams. Along these lines, Lull’s article proved to be a good overview and criticism of both hypodermic and functional theories.

In The Active Audience, Lull points out that despite the fact that an enormous number of statistical mass communications studies have been carried out during the past 50 years, few truly important insights have been produced and “media effects” is an iffy science. This is similar in tone to most criticisms I’ve read regarding audience studies. In fact, this is why I dispensed with the idea of post screening surveys to judge the effectiveness of my own documentary. It’s just too difficult to capture audience reactions to communications. I also agree with Lull’s ideas that media reinforces prior convictions and audiences are complex and unpredictable. This is also inline with many of my other findings.

Yet, one author I encountered suggested that, if you are to judge the effectiveness of a communication, you can only do it in situ. That is, it must be done immediately, as the audience watches the communication. This suggests a much more interactive approach, yet I wonder how a researcher could avoid the obvious distraction and interference that this would have on his/her subjects.

Lull effectively pinpoints several pitfalls of previous mass communications studies and theories. It’s interesting that authors cannot even agree on what a “need” is. If the most basic definitions cannot be agreed upon by communications scholars and experts, then doesn’t that suggest some unstable research foundations?

In my mind, the concept of “needs” seems too complex. Needs are flexible and never ending; they change with advances in technology and – I’d assume – changes in the age and behaviour of the audience. Thus, I wonder how you can study needs at all. How can you nail down an unpredictable moving target? In a way, the idea of needs reminded me of Freud’s Pursuit of Happiness theory. Fulfilling needs seems like an absurd quest in which you get temporary relief, only to have another need come along. Accordingly, need fulfillment strikes me as a vicious circle!

Yet, it was interesting that Lull mentioned needs could be manipulated for profit. This is very Marxist (i.e., manipulate the demand for surplus supply). In this manner, where people can be told that they need things when they really don’t, I can definitely see some people getting stuck in a vicious circle of consumerism and wish fulfillment – chasing their own tails, only to find that they are never really satisfied. Yes, true happiness, in accordance with Freud, is difficult to find!

The reason this vicious circle of consumerism exists is because, according to Lull, advertisers can deliberately confuse and displace meaning, then get you to pay to have it back – and then take it away from you again! This seems like the Law of Diminishing returns to me. It’s a grim thought, but it does seem like advertising can lead people to gamble their money on happiness, and to keep returning to the same one-armed bandit, regardless of the fact that the house is stacked against them.

Similar to needs, I had many questions regarding “wants”. I wonder how advertisers might exploit both needs and wants, or is one chosen over another for certain products? If wants are more of the moment, then is coffee and junk food a want, or a need? How do wants change to needs – or do they? What triggers that? If you desire it, but don’t need it, then do advertisers convince you that you want it, or do they go for gold and make it seem like you really need it? Lull says that wants and needs are related, and there is a continuum between them, but I’m still confused as to how they function and how advertisers manipulate both of them.

I thought it was interesting that Lull pointed to research on the impact of TV violence on children as the most conclusive and a significant achievement. However, I wonder if this could be due (at least in part) to the incredible pressure placed on broadcasters and politicians – via parents, churches, media pundits, rival politicians, and family-related groups – to curb TV violence? It follows that this constant pressure would result in more research dollars being put towards study in this particular area. In turn, more study results in a higher chance of significant achievements.

I was also interested in Lull’s description of the flip side of “gratifying uses”. That is, the hidden agenda in communications – the “indirect suggestions” that promote the dominant political ideology and perpetuate unequal social relations. Here he is describing hegemony, which is of great interest to me because I just wrote a paper entitled Hegemony in Culture and Mass Communications for my Popular Education for Social Change course.

Lull also mentions the importance of qualitative audience research and ethnography. This is also important to me since I will be taking Qualitative Methods in the winter and I will be performing open-ended on-camera interviews (first hand observation) for my documentary.

Strinati’s The Television Audience also criticizes audience studies and surveys, while providing a good history of TV audience studies. Between these two readings, I wonder if any audience survey can be believed, especially since it seems so easy to find one survey that contradicts another.

Unlike the scientific community, which can reach consensus on research results (although results are always open to falsification), it seems to me that social and cultural studies cannot achieve consensus as easily. This is probably because they have to deal with human behaviour. They don’t have the luxury that “hard science” has – that is, separating itself from society and studying homogenous units. Humans are not homogenous units. Thus, the results of social and cultural studies are more contestable. Interestingly, Strinati admits that even defining “audience” is difficult. Again, audiences are not homogenous either.

Strinati makes an interesting allusion to the drug metaphors and symbolism used to describe TV (i.e., hypodermic theory, opiate of the masses, addiction etc.). No wonder the moral majority wants to control it! Along these lines, isn’t it odd that TV was created, and introduced on a massive scale, without knowing the impacts it would have? I can’t think of any other “drug” that has enjoyed that type of freedom – especially since it is such a potent narcotic! It’s like we are all being used as guinea pigs. Any deleterious effects could be determined only in hindsight, but by then it could be too late!

I think that Strinati is correct in criticizing the liberal-pluralist theory as it relates to TV audiences. However, I’d add one point to his critique. How can TV audiences be viewed through a liberal-pluralist lens when TV itself is strictly controlled via sponsorship, censorship, hegemony, and monopolies over broadcasting? Most TV production is far from liberal, in fact it often reaches towards fascism and totalitarianism. Thus, can individuals really enjoy freedom to manipulate TV to suit their needs, or are they fooled into thinking so?

Strinati’s analysis of semiotics is interesting. Personally, I think semiologists are a bit to arrogant and self-assured to think that audiences can’t decode messages like they do. I imagine that artists, whether they be writers or painters or photographers, would recognize and decode certain messages in accordance to what they are accustomed to. Morley’s The Nationwide Audience seems to operate along these lines. In fact, I should read Morley’s article, since it sounds like his survey approach might assist me with the surveys I want to use within my documentary.

Strinati does acknowledge that “coded messages” are decoded by audiences, but this is highly variable and unpredictable. Again, I think this encoding is like hegemony. The impacts of hegemony are also unpredictable. Some cultures can manipulate hegemony into to something useful!

So, in the end, how do we analyze audiences? What is the best critical lens to use? I’m under the impression that, amazingly, theories and criticism revolving around TV audiences are still in their infancy – after 60 some odd years of development. Thus, in my mind, and as suggested by Strinati, the only thing to do is to combine certain aspects of all critical lenses into a more holistic, contextual view of how TV impacts audiences. Clearly, this is a complex issue!

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