Without an audience there isn’t much point in producing a text, so we can start this thorny topic by saying that the audience is crucial. If the text appeals to the audience then it is a successful text. If the audience doesn’t respond, then the text has failed. Nobody makes any money and actors and media people are all thrown out into the snow to starve with their entire families, dogs, cats and Filofaxes.
Studying audience theory is just that – studying theories or ideas about audiences. Who are they? Where are they? How old are they? What do they want? What should they want? How do we (the media producers) give them what they want so we can make lots of money?
Typically, we will begin with a short gallop through the history of audiences and the media.

 The History Gallop: 

Now we come to the theory side of things. How audiences are affected

The first is called the Hypodermic Syringe Theory (1977) 

TV and video games act on audiences like a direct drug injection. The audience is seen as passive and addictive. The media-makers ‘inject’  a kind of ‘instant fix’ into the viewer. 

Payne’s Studies (America - 1930’s) 

Children watching too much cinema suffered from lack of sleep and a tendency towards delinquency. 

(Before we all get too neurotic, it must be pointed out that recent research into this has shown that children are quite capable of distinguishing between real and simulated violence, so maybe Mr Payne didn’t get it right.) TV can be a positive influence which brings education, play values, realism differentiation and understanding to young audiences. 

Audiences and Political Persuasion 

The media’s power in this field is not as significant as it may appear to be, despite Mr Blair’s constant manipulation of the media to suggest otherwise. Audiences will filter political messages to fit their existing ideological and political stances and it has been found in recent research that there are more significant factors affecting audiences than media texts. Audiences do tend to be quite active, rather than passive in interpreting political content and all individuals are members of diverse social groups. They have pre-existing ideas and do not easily change their political minds because of media influence alone.

So we can say that as far as politics is concerned it is quite likely that the media don’t necessarily do things to people, but people do things with the media.

Another very important theory: 

Individuals actively consume and use the media to meet certain needs. (Blumler & Katz  - 1974) 

In this theory we see that there are four basic audience needs:

1.       Diversion (escapism) the audience use the media for escapism or emotional release from everyday pressure

2.       Personal Relationships the idea that the audience needs companionship with ‘known’ TV programmes or characters as well as the interaction with other people who can discuss the TV programmes. “Did you see East Enders? I really felt for poor Peggy/Sharon, Little Mo………”

3.       Personal Identity the ability to compare ones own life with characters’ lives and situations, thereby gaining a perspective on one’s own life.

4.       Surveillance being given the opportunity to see what else is going on in the world

It’s worth looking at the first idea of escapism in a little more detail: 

Cinema and TV offer suspension or erasure of ‘real’ life. You go to the movies or watch the TV and you are ‘taken away’ to another place or time or situation. Literally, you ‘escape’ everyday worries and pressures. Media texts work this in different ways

·         The content ignores reality. Pure music/dance/opera and the so-called ‘high arts’

·         The content offers a contrast to reality, e.g. Coronation Street supplies a sense of a close-knit community, but it’s different to where the audience ‘really’ lives.

·         The content makes  reality ‘better than life’ (the media term for this is called incorporation

Task: Watch several texts from film or TV and try to apply some of the Blumler & Katz ideas about audiences to them.

 Now we move on a bit to something called Reception Theory or Audience Positioning 

This is media speak for the business of the relationship between media content and audience. The idea here is that media texts can be seen as being structured according to defined codes and conventions (you’ve already done this – it’s called SEMIOLOGY) So the semiology does something to the audience and the audience is positioned by the text

Confused? This is how it works: 

In cinema the structure of the film language produces a PERSPECTIVE or a POINT OF VIEW (p.o.v. for short) for the audience. The viewer is ‘drawn in’ to the narrative flow of the text by the CAMERA. There are many ways of doing it – here are two: 

·         Shot / reverse shot – one character ‘sees’ another then a second character ‘sees’ the first. The viewer ‘becomes’ both people & sees what each sees.

·         Glance / object shot – a character glances off-screen and ‘sees’ something then the camera cuts to the object looked at. Audience is SITUATED in character’s position and ‘sees’ like the character sees. 

By means like this the audience is ‘sewn in’ to the narrative. The technique is called SUTURE (like stitching up skin) You can assume that all the cinematic techniques work for TV as well, although they may be scaled down a bit to suit budget and format.

© V Pope