Tuesday, 14 January 2014

Making Sense of Audience Theories

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

(A)       Passive Audiences

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.

It was thought that a mass audience could be influenced by the same message. This appeared to be the case in Nazi Germany in the 1930s leading up to WWII. Powerful German films such as Triumph of the Will seemed to use propaganda methods to ‘inject’ ideas promoting the Nazi cause into the German audience. That is why this theory is known as the Hypodermic model.

It suggests that a media text can ‘inject’ 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.

(B)        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. 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.

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

Put simply this means that audiences choose to watch programmes that make them feel good (gratifications) e.g. soaps 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.

Blumier and Katz (1975) went into greater detail and 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 judgments about all sorts of people and things. This is also true of judgments 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.

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