The Compact Oxford English Dictionary defines an audience as either “the assembled spectators or listeners at an event,” or “a formal interview with a person in authority.” For the purposes of media studies, I will focus on the first definition and emphasize the ways in which theorists have problematized the concept of the audience as a distinct group and as an object of study. Shaun Moores neatly sums up this dilemma:
There is no stable entity which we can isolate and identify as the media audience, no single object that is unproblematically ‘there’ for us to observe and analyze. …Exploring the etymology of the word, Janice Radway (1988:359) has noted its original usage to refer to an individual act of hearing in face-to-face verbal communication (to ‘give audience’). Only later was it employed as a collective label for the consumers of electronically mediated messages. … It becomes harder to specify exactly where media audiences begin and end. The conditions and boundaries of audiencehood are inherently unstable.
Additionally, I will briefly note the history of the audience as it has evolved alongside media technologies and illuminate some of the ways that the development of newer forms of media implies a further restructuring of the term for the twenty-first century.
One commonly thinks of an audience as a collection of people experiencing some form of media as a group. However, if we expand conventional notions of media to include the vast number of ways in which human interactions are “mediated [link],” it becomes challenging to determine what, exactly, turns an individual into an audience member. James Hay asks:
Under what conditions is one not an audience? Given the ambiguities of audience, much of everyday life (driving a car, riding a subway, shopping) could be described as an audience anywhere, the key issue becomes locating the socially sanctioned and culturally produced sites where ‘audience’ assumes a significance and meaning.
The term audience, then, carries with it cultural/social connotations that are specific to particular times and places. Virginia Nightingale writes that “the problem is that people are not audiences by nature but by culture[…]. We learn to act and think of ourselves as audiences in certain contexts and situations […]. From a research perspective, ‘audience’ is always context- and text-bound.”
Furthermore, if audiences are only evident in the presence of a medium, it is clear that the two concepts are mutually dependent upon one another. Can media exist without audiences? If there were no media, would there be audiences? It is difficult to extricate the two ideas. “An important distinction concerns the source of the audience, depending on whether the audience is believed to exist before the medium, or whether the medium creates the audience”. Other scholars echo this sentiment, connecting the rise of the media with the presence of audiences, and pointing out that there would not be one without the other.
Generally speaking, being part of an audience means being part of a media event, where people engage with mediated information. People are audience when they are in an audience and in audience. All media events are audience events since they require people to hang out in media time-spaces where they physically, mentally, and emotionally engage with media materials, technologies technologies and power structures. The audience event invokes the power relations that structure the media as social institutions and delimit the options available to people for involvement in the means of cultural production.
Being part of an audience, then, indicates that one is not involved in the production of the media event, but instead is a consumer/recipient/negotiator of information. (This has changed with new technologies and the ways in which the internet encourages a more active audience. Newer media forms facilitate a more fluid exchange of information and blurs the lines between consumer/producer distinctions.) Again, however, were there no media event, there would be no consumer; and conversely, without consumers, no media.
A Brief History of Audiences
Because the development of the concept of an audience and the evolution of different forms of media are intertwined, their growth is connected throughout history. According to Tony Bennett, “the modern concept of the audience … as the receivers of messages from a centralized source of transmission, then, was not present at the birth of the modern media but has emerged in tandem with their development and, in part, as a product of their own practices.”
The examination of audiences is a new field. Researchers paid relatively little attention to audiences before the invention of television [link] and radio [link] in the early twentieth-century. Robert Snyder described how technological advances radically re-formed the way audiences were conceived:
Through the middle of the nineteenth century, the audience for popular entertainment was constituted in highly public places. … In the twentieth century, however, popular culture came to be defined by records, film, radio, and television– the products of a centralized entertainment industry that disseminates what it produces to a nationwide, and increasingly international, audience.
New, modern methods for communicating, entertaining, and conveying information produced different variations of the public.
With the increasing popularity of film in the early twentieth century and the rapid diffusion of radio in the 1920s, and 1930s, the composition of the public shifted dramatically. As the new media captured the public imagination, community-based groups… faded further. Advertisers and politicians started to exploit new communication technologies to influence buying and voting decisions while broadcasters developed new means to study their audiences.
Recently, however, scholars from various fields (media studies, cultural studies, anthropology, psychology, consumer research, and the newest addition, audience studies) have begun to investigate audiences.
Whilst the second half of the twentieth century saw a significant growth in audience studies, with the actual concept of ‘the audience’ moving through the arc of passive sap to interactive player, it was arguably the 1990s with saw the most significant shift in thinking about the audience with the widespread incursion of the internet into everyday lives and culture and the explosion in talk and reality TV shows.
Knowledge about audiences has become an increasingly important commodity for media producers. Broadcasters and advertisers spend a significant amount of time and money in an attempt to learn about those who watch/read/listen to different kinds of media. In their efforts to market products and increase the popularity of their programming (be it audio, visual, or textual), researchers work to meet the high demand for information about audience preferences and tastes.
Audience measurement is a type of audience research that documents the size and composition of media audiences. It allows patterns of audience activity to be tracked over time and it generates the type of data that permits comparison of audience behavior from one medium to another. An industry-based research service, audience measurement generates information that is essential to the operation of media industries. Information about audience size and composition is, after all, the basis on which programming and pricing decisions are made.
This connection between audience research and marketing has greatly influenced how media producers understand the public and design their products. Often, the success or failure of a media product (a television show, movie, radio program, website) is determined by audience response, and so it follows that examinations of the public as media consumers has a direct impact on the kind of media that are developed. As Richard Peterson writes, “media history offers many illustrations of how audiences and markets are only tenuously related to each other and how the measurement concepts and methods of the time determine that relationship”. Often, those producing media are advised to “know your audience” and tailor their products for a specific group, a specific taste, specific values, etc. “An occasional premise of communicator studies has been that professional mass communicators hold – or at least, ought to hold – some image of their audience”. As previously stated, these kinds of statements become problematic in that the definition of an audience is unclear. With no concrete notion of exactly what an audience is (or, for that matter, is not), it continues to be challenging to clarify these ideas. As James Anderson reminds us, “theories of the audience should take account of the fact that ‘it’ is always a construction."
Audiences and New Media
In the twenty-first century, changes in technology [link] are influencing the kinds of interactions that audiences have with media. Now, more than ever before, individuals are able to make decisions about how they wish to engage with different media in different contexts. Media and audiences are continually co-constitutive, but the notion of an “online audience,” for example, further complicates attempts at definition. One might argue that the World Wide Web is a public location; and as such, when we log on, we become a part of an audience. However, not only are members of online audiences separated spatially and temporally, it becomes nearly impossible to know demographic information about those who are engaging with content. According to Ross and Nightingale,
The information age is changing what it means to be an audience. Audiences are no longer passive receivers of media texts. […] Audiences are learning how to bethe media, how to net-work. This means that their activities as audiences are becoming increasingly diverse, and moving beyond the entertainment arena. […] Being an audience is now a much more active and interactive experience that in the broadcasting era. … The information age has brought about fundamental changes in the ways people approach the media and in their engagements with media texts.
With the proliferation of the internet and the more evident "mediatization" of nearly every aspect of daily life, the question of what makes an audience is even harder to pin down. We have more agency, more power, more ways to contribute than ever before, and this has changed the ways in which researchers understand audiences and the public in general.
In media psychology… [there has been a] gradual shift from studying ‘the viewer’ as a random human subject whose responses to stimuli can be easily measured and aggregated with other subject responses, toward understanding ‘audiences’ and the variety of meaning with which they invest media texts. This shift is appropriate for the 21st century because, more than ever before, the influence and effects of media can no longer be isolated (say, by presenting audiences with a clip of film [link] in a laboratory), and because of such wide cultural variations even within the same broad social group.