Audience theory

Audience theory is an element of thinking that developed within academic literary theory and cultural studies.

With a specific focus on rhetoric, some, such as Walter Ong, have suggested that the audience is a construct made up by the rhetoric and the rhetorical situation the text is addressing. Others, such as Ruth Mitchell and Mary Taylor[disambiguation needed ] have said writers and speakers actually can target their communication to address a real audience. Some others like Ede and Lunsford try to mingle these two approaches and create situations where audience is "fictionalized," as Ong would say, but in recognition of some real attributes of the actual audience.

There is also a wide range of media theory and communication studies theories about the audience's role in any kind of mediated communication. A sub-culturally focussed and Marxism-inflected take on the subject arose as the 'New audience theory' or 'Active audience theory' from the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies during the 1980s.


Effects models

The hypodermic needle model
The intended message is directly received and wholly accepted by the receiver.
Two-step flow
The people with most access to media, and highest media literacy explain and diffuse the content to others. This is a modern version of the hypodermic needle model.
Uses and gratifications
People are not helpless victims of mass media, but use the media to get specific gratifications.
Reception theory
The meaning of a "text" is not inherent within the text itself, but the audience must elicit meaning based on their individual cultural background and life experiences
Obstinate audience theory
This theory assumes that there is a transactional communication between the audience and the media. The audience actively selects what messages to pay attention to. The Zimmerman-Bauer study found that the audience also participates in the communication by influencing the message.

Media effects

Early research into media audiences was dominated by the debate about 'media effects', in particular the link between screen violence and real-life aggression. Several moral panics fuelled the claims, such as the incorrect presumptions that Rambo had influenced Michael Robert Ryan to commit the Hungerford massacre, and that Child's Play 3 had motivated the killers of James Bulger

In the 1990s, David Gauntlett published critiques on media 'effects', most notably the "Ten things wrong with the media effects model" article; and then in the 2000s sought to develop new methods which would explore possible media influences using 'creative' approaches, using processes in which participants were asked to make things such as collage, video, drawings, and Lego models using metaphors[1].

Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies

From the 1970s, researchers from the CCCS produced empirical research about the relationship between texts and audiences. Amongst these was The Nationwide Project by David Morley and Charlotte Brunsdon.

Stuart Hall's Encoding/Decoding model can be seen as the beginning of research into how audiences are active consumers rather than passive recipients.

Nic Gough's seminal Methods of Dissemination essay can be seen as the beginning of research into the media's use of various channels to get the message to the recipient audience.

Methods of Dissemination

The printed medium (ie books, texts, scripts) enables the end user (audience) to use their own imagination and fill in the blanks for themselves. This gives every audience member a completely unique and original experience based on the limits of their own intellect and application of it in the areas of creativity. This can however lead to them feeling disappointed when viewing the same basic story in another medium. When a book is transposed onto the big screen (cinema) the audience member is then finding themselves in the position of having to accept the film director’s interpretation of it. The Director, Producer and Script Writer now have control of the project, which in turn, affects how the characters look, the backdrops/settings and locations used. This is also furthered by the choice of lighting and moods portrayed by incidental music and so forth. A screen adaptation of a book or short story can change so much that it is sometimes almost unrecognisable from the original printed version from whence it was derived. The use of existing and new dialogue in the transition from book to film is often one of the key areas that people who are familiar with the original written piece find that they are left feeling cheated. It must be understood though that the two mediums are completely different and have to use different sets of rules in applying the craft to produce a best seller as opposed to a box office hit. It is therefore understandable that fans of the written work may not like the film version of that ‘special book’. The film fan however who sees the film prior to reading the book may experience different opinions on the transposition. The enjoyment of the film may then inspire him/her to seek out the book from which the film was based. This in turn gives the audience member a new angle to which they approach the book, as they will now have a mental picture of the characters and sets gained from the viewing of the film. This ultimately limits or controls the amount of personal imagination that can be exercised in their overall interreaction with the printed version. I would not presume to make an opinion as to which one should be put first be it book or film. I would, however, say that each delivers a story in a way that can in all intents be homogenised when looked at simplistically. It is left to the end user to take that information (be it print or film) and make their own interpretation and judgements on its merits as a form of entertainment, education or whatever category it aims to target.

A book that is transposed to radio can more often than not adhere more closely to the original script. This medium relies on people’s imagination nearly as much as the printed word. The use of sound effects and music are used to paint a picture of mood and tempo. This still gives the audience the opportunity to listen and get a feel for what is happening but still enables them the input of their own imagination to give characters faces and make locations seem real to them. A radio play also lends itself to the almost seamless transfer to webcasting.

Webcasting suits both spoken word and musical transmissions and can be accessed at anytime by the audience with the use of computers and/or convergent technologies. This new medium give the audience the opportunity to choose when to listen and also the opportunity to record or even transfer to other technologies for playback at a later time such as use on an iPod. The audience is now also able to discuss the show/play not only with other fans on message boards and discussion groups on the internet but also in many cases with the actors and directors and producers of the show themselves, thus enriching and adding value to the listening experience. Previous generations of listeners may have discussed radio plays and television soap operas with friends and work colleagues as a form of social interaction but never to the extent that we are seeing today. The high adoption rate of convergent technology amongst the younger generation has changed the way film/video/music etc is accessed and the worlds largest companies and broadcasters are continually looking and reviewing the way that they use these mediums to feed the ever hungry audiences the diet of media they desire.

News items are always in demand from audiences all over the world and the hunger for news will never cease. The audience experience depends on how the news is received, a picture accompanying an article on children starving in Africa will usually not have the same impact as viewing the same child on television with the sound recording of him/her crying in pain from the situation they are in. It could be said that the reporting of news on the television of wars, starving children and shootings desensitises the audience and they become numb to the atrocities of the world. It then follows on that if this is so only the most horrific, gruesome and abhorrent news items now actually shock or make the audience think or react to items. If this is the case it could be said that the effects on audience will eventually lead to the collapse of moral standards. The reporting of graphic images of wounded and dead soldiers during the Vietnam war on television desensitised audiences and ultimately gave Horror film audiences an appetite for gore which film makers served up in the wave of blood and gore Horror films that post dated that period.

News items that were once only broadcast through the news programmes of television and radio stations now make ready use of all the technologies available. People (audiences) are also not only the receivers of news, but they have; through the use of convergent technologies, become news machines themselves. It is now not uncommon for a ‘person on the street’ to witness a newsworthy event unfolding before their very eyes, this can be recorded on video phones for example and within minutes be uploaded onto internet websites like Youtube. This takes away governments and broadcasters ability to edit or censor items of news. People all over the world are becoming empowered, thus enabling them to broadcast stories that might otherwise be suppressed to a global audience. This use of convergent technology also allows the media to be used in the narrowest of narrowcasting when an item may be sent to just one person.

Audiences will always seek (if not demand) the best possible experience when using the media for information or pleasure. The human brain feeds off ‘experience’, sight, sound, emotion and a host of intellectual and sensory mores need to be satisfied. This drive and search pushes the boundaries to which the media and entertainment industries constantly try to meet. ‘There is no substitute for being there’. At an Ultimate Fighting competition the audience not only experience the buzz of being in the crowd but also the smells of the hotdogs and beer perhaps. The smell of sweat and the sounds of men physically fighting each other. This does not give you the same feeling if viewed on television or on a webcam. This is barbarism and you are experiencing it at first hand - you could almost be at the Coliseum in Rome in another time! Any true sports fan or music fan will tell you the same story, “A live match or concert cannot be beaten”. You can shout encouragement at your sporting heroes, abuse the other team and fans or sing along to your favourite band. Yes, you can shout at the TV but it won’t respond or react. (Yet!).

In today's world we have the greatest choice of channels of communications to choose from than at any other time in history. It has never been easier for the individual or broadcasting giant to reach its audience. The true challenge still remains the same today, as it did when the first radio message was transmitted and the first book printed; and that is ensuring that the right message is delivered to the right audience and the objectives of the message are received and meet with the audience’s expectations. Until that science is perfected the media in all its incarnations will continue to experiment with technologies both old and new to satisfy its audience.

See also

External links


  1. ^ Gauntlett, David (2007), Creative Explorations: New approaches to identities and audiences, London: Routledge.


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