Audience theory. Aim: To investigate a number of theories relating to media audiences. You will learn about: The Frankfurt School Hypodermic Syringe theory The Media Effects debate Two Step Flow theory Uses and Gratifications theory Stuart Hall’s encoding/decoding theory
To investigate a number of theories relating to media audiences.
You will learn about:
The Frankfurt School
Hypodermic Syringe theory
The Media Effects debate
Two Step Flow theory
Uses and Gratifications theory
Stuart Hall’s encoding/decoding theory
Mode of address and interpellation
Early theory focused on the idea of MASS AUDIENCE.
This emphasised the power of the mass media and suggested a passive audience was influenced by the messages communicated by media institutions.
The Frankfurt School of critical theory was the first Marxist attempt to theorise about the media.
But it was influenced by conservative notions of ‘mass society’ and therefore pessimistically felt the media was an irresistible force.
Having seen Hitler’s rise to power in Germany, the Frankfurt School believed the contents of the media were ‘injected’ into the thoughts of an audience, who accepted the attitudes, opinions and beliefs expressed by the medium without question.
As it was believed an audience was ‘injected’ with messages, this theory was called the HYPODERMIC SYRINGE model (or EFFECTSmodel because it presupposes the media has a negative effect on audiences).
It isn’t hard to see how the experiences of The Frankfurt School in Germany were key to their idea of mass media effects.
The Nazi Party was a master of propaganda, evident in the films of Leni Riefenstahl such as Triumph of the Will.
Totalitarian states and dictatorships are similar in their desire to have complete control over the media, usually in the belief that strict regulation of the media will help in controlling entire populations.
The effects model was at the centre of arguments used by the self styled ‘moral majority’ which took issue with television programmes considered to be too sexual, violent or objectionable in other ways.
They were concerned vulnerable members of society could be corrupted in some way.
Mary Whitehouse’s National Viewer and Listeners’ Association was the most famous of these groups in the UK, making Whitehouse a household name.
Although the effects model continues to be cited by politicians or social commentators when there is a moral panic around issues such as violent video games, it is now largely discredited.
Research shows that human behaviour is more complex than the theory suggests and newer models point to the fact that an audience is far more active and individual then was previously thought. However, it is worth noting that general perceptions about public events and social trends can be influenced by the media. Discussion over how far the media influences behaviour is known as the media effects debate.
Two Step Flow
As the mass media became an essential part of life in societies around the world and did NOT reduce populations to a mass of unthinking drones, a more sophisticated explanation was sought.
Research findings in the 1940s suggested that information does not flow directly from a media text into the minds of its audience, but is filtered through "opinion leaders" who then communicate it to people over whom they have influence. The audience then mediate the information received directly from the media with the ideas and thoughts expressed by the opinion leaders, thus being influenced not by a direct process, but by a two step flow.
Uses and Gratifications theory
Another more recent model of audience suggests there is a highly active audience making use of the media for a range of purposes designed to satisfy needs such as entertainment, information and identification.
In this model the individual has the power and selects the media texts that best suit his or her needs and attempts to satisfy those needs.
The psychological basis for this model is the hierarchy of needs identified by Maslow.
Uses and Gratifications theory
The main areas that are identified in this model are:
the need for information about our geographical and social world (news and drama)
b) the need for identity, by using characters and personalities to define our sense of self and social behaviour (film and celebrities)
c) the need for social interaction through experiencing the relationships and interaction of others (soap lives and sitcom)
d) the need for diversion by using the media for purposes of play and entertainment (game shows and quizzes).
Stuart Hall’s encoding/decoding model
Other theories argue that media messages are fundamentally polysemic: they contain the possibility of numerous interpretations even if the audience is steered towards one particular reading.
Hall says that media institutions encode a text with messages which are then decoded by the audience. He identified:
Preferred reading: agreement with the encoded message.
Negotiated reading: a qualified acceptance of the preferred reading in which some aspects are rejected.
Oppositional reading: a total rejection of the preferred reading.
This tendency of an individual to elect one of these readings in relation to a particular text may well be influenced by his or her gender, age, ethnicity, class or some other social factor.
The ways in which media texts offer positions to audiences has emerged out of the study of film. Writers have become interested in how the language of media texts can produce a perspective or point of view for the spectator, thus weaving them into the flow of communication. For example, film language through the use of shot/reverse shot and the glance/object shot can enable us to ‘stand in’ for individual characters - to see the world from their perspective.
Male gaze theory is relevant in terms of audience positioning
Modes of address
Media producers are keen to establish a relationship with their perceived audience. How they address or speak to their audience is a crucial factor in establishing a relationship and constructing an audience.
Audience identity is written into texts in a number of ways. Variations in tone, pace, language etc. will reflect the producers notions of who the audience is. Modes of address will vary depending on the media form and the perceived audience.
As a general rule the more specialised the target audience, the more distinctive will be the mode of address. e.g. computer and other technical magazines will, through style and language, restrict access to those without the required knowledge.
Modes of address
Louis Althusser, the father of semiotics, identified a specific mode of address he called interpellation.
He explained it by using the example of a policeman walking down a street and shouting ‘hey’. Everyone on the street will look around yet all but one person will have misrecognised the call.
In a similar way, Althusser suggested that media texts ‘hail’ an audience so members of the audience think the text is addressing them personally, but this is a misrecognition.
A good example of interpellation is the theme tune at the start of a soap opera such as EastEnders, or an advert that seems to appeal to you directly.
As audience theory has developed, it is no surprise that advertisers in particular have attempted to categorise audiences in order to target them better.
In the UK, the National Readership Survey’s social grades are a widely used way of classifying demographics:
A upper middle class (Higher managerial, administrative or professional)
B middle class (Intermediate managerial, administrative or professional)
C1 lower middle class (Supervisory or clerical and junior managerial, administrative or professional)
C2 skilled working class (Skilled manual workers)
D working class (Semi and unskilled manual workers)
E Those at the lowest levels of subsistence (Casual or lowest grade workers, pensioners and others who depend on the welfare state for their income)
The middle class is generally referred to as ABC1
The working class is referred to as C2DE.
Only 2% of the British population describes itself as ‘upper class’ and this group is not included in the classification scheme.