Early approaches to theorising the audience have been criticised as elitist based on the model and how they used to conduct their research. However, research has shown that the early approaches still play a vital part in today’s audience study world. Early approaches used are passive when studying audiences (Morley, 2005). Also, the paradigm used in early approaches was normative in which studied audience as a group depending on their norms, therefore, generalising them as one (Ivala, 2007). This has led to a lot of criticism as it is biased therefore not an appropriate method to be used in analysing and understanding the audience (Choi, 2014). The most common approach that the researchers have been using is examining individuals as active audiences rather than a group who can make their own meaning from what they view. Several changes have been made in how people conduct their research in studying audience behaviour. This includes social psychology, a place in which most researchers have avoided.
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Social psychology focuses on analysing the nature of the active audience and the role of text both on theoretical perspectives of the audience and their ethnological work. This topic gives a clearer outline of conducting the new audience research to study the public. Despite these new approaches of theorising the audience as an active participant, the early approaches still influence the public (Livingstone, 1998). The concept of audience study is very broad and complex and requires researchers to dig deep and try to answer the question about the audience. Both approaches evaluate the global power, audience research methodologies, and the significance of the problem in conceptualising audience members and examining their intellectual progress mode and new media technology (Ivala, 2007). There are substantial questions used to understand the audience and the interrelationship between the new and early approaches, including the limitations of both approaches. Researchers need to integrate early and new audience research methods to fully understand and successfully explain the audience. The paper expounds on various conventional understanding approaches to the audience, their limitation, the influence of the earlier approaches on the public, and how they can be applied in the changing digital era.
Approached to Understanding an Audience
The early approaches to audience research were not effective in understanding audience complexity. Ivala (2007) argues that the early audience research approach used a normative paradigm, a technique that was ineffective in understanding the complexity of the audience. The is approach studies view the audience as a group and according to their norms and generalise them rather than treating the audience as independent variables which can make their own choice, thus differing from one person to another. Assumptions are made regarding a particular group of people (Ivala, 2007). Most television audience research uses a rating model to evaluate the viewers’ needs. If the rating of a specific program is high, it is assumed to have met the viewer’s needs and interests. This is not always the case as not the case and does not necessarily show that a program is being watched, loved, or intensely anticipated. This ends up catering to a specific segment of the audience in the market. Another model used is the social survey which involves taking tabulations that can inform who bought what therefore painting a static quantitative picture of who consumes what (Ivala, 2007). However, this is not the case as it does not bring out the qualitative picture of who consumes what meaning of production throughout consumption. These surveys were ideal for establishing broad patterns of media consumption and taste. This is because it counts people as a unit that can be measured but not are integral parts of the system and relationship (Ivala, 2007). The early approaches have some limitations, including the inability to provide the full ethnographic picture, thus unable to deal with the complexity of social processes and limit the information that can be extracted.
Several theories have been used to discuss both early and new approaches of audience study between two poles. According to Morley (2005), the earlier approach views media audiences as passive and manipulated by the power of media. This research expounds on the power of media to the audience. Mass Media has significantly influenced the rate of consumption pattern through the concept of lifestyle advertisement and the notion of consumer preferences (Choi, 2014). Consumption, in this case, has a powerful presence and has become a means by which people can create identities. By using signs and symbols, it is believed that media can influence people to follow a particular message and cause a behavioural change in a specific group of people (Morley, 2005). Besides, media is contemplated as a powerful persuasion tool that can help restive consumers to stimulate the audience to imagine that they are using a specific product and can use it in certain setups or surroundings (Ivala, 2007; Morley, 2005). In addition, early approaches overestimate the power of media, thus rendering consumers powerless of what is fed to them by the press without filtering. This is different from the new approaches that view their audiences as active participants to choose what they want, filter out what they do not desire, and encode and decode messages from various sources and materials that interest them most.
The transition to the digital era has led to changes in research approaches used in studying the audience; this includes their behaviours. There is the development of new analytic approaches in studying the audience resulting from changes in the media environment (Ivala, 2007). The research shows that changes in the media environment have undermined the early approaches of the audience research as they render them elitist (Napoli, 2012). These developments have been observed in several media study sectors on the audience, including the new form of rating, which can be integrated with the old, renewing and revitalising the field of rating analysis (Napoli, 2012). These changes have resulted from introducing new technologies such as cable, satellites, and the videocassette recorder, which has overcome the older model’s limitation of using assumptions to understand the audience’s tastes and preferences (Ivala, 2007). Changes in the audience behaviours and information system in which the new media audiences divergent from the old audience. Availability of remote controls in the digital communication industry that enables viewers to switch and zap channels has made the diary an obsolete measurement tool. The use of schedule cannibalisation gives new freedom to the viewers (Morley, 2006). It is currently being used as a tactical manoeuvre as the viewers engage and construct their own television experience. This creates the foundation logic and a strategic pragmatic of the early approaches of audience studies. Ivala (2007) argues that despite the habitual character, audience consumption is dynamic rather than static; therefore, it can be considered experimental instead of mere behavioural. This makes the whole process complex and not just an activity that can be merely be broken down into simple and objectively measurable variables. Therefore, people are best modelled according to a multitude of differences.
Early approaches emphasise the power of media, which is still being used to influence the public. According to Choi (2014), social media platforms allow the audience to explore their queries about the various thing, including the leaders that govern them. The opinion of the leaders emerges use of a two-step flow of communication that states that information flows from the media to the opinion leaders before it is disseminated to the general audience. According to Ivala (2007), the theory brings to attention the string media effect on the broad audience, which directly and decisive impact. The traditional approach views social network stands as more meticulous when measuring the audience than any other empirical research (Choi, 2014). This is because the audience relies on these social networks to examine the flow of communication in various platforms to know vital details concerning their leaders, such as the hierarchical position, reputation, and how the rest of the world views them (Ivala, 2007). This is because social media is more accessible and interactive, giving a community-based illusion compared to other platforms (Choi, 2014; Nightingale, 2011). Usenet newsgroups’ bulletin style is less likely to offer long-lasting discussion with unknown individuals. This is evident in various social media platforms such as Twitter which promotes many-to-many interaction in the online public forum and less equality when it comes to the participation opportunity of the rest of the population. Most of the discussion concentrated on a few participants isolating most people from the forum (Choi, 2014; Ivala, 2007). Therefore, the setting is more connected to the relationship between readers and writers where the minority group, which are writers, and the majority group belong to the readers. This significantly affects the mass media’s opinion and attitudes concerning a particular thing or person (Choi, 2014). One of the early theories that explain the hypodermic needle theory states that social networks have a direct and decisive effect on the audience depending on the social-message channel receiver model.
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The theory, however, faces several critics as it dwells much on unidirectional linearity originating from the media to the public. Besides, the theory excludes interpersonal relationships used to conciliate media messages (Choi, 2014). The other early approach used is the two-step flow of communication model, which argues that opinion leaders judge the public. This is because they are more exposed to media messages than the rest of the population and use these media platforms to exert personal influence on the opinions and attitudes of the general public. However, the theory is criticised for not evaluating the context of communication and focusing more on the linear adoption process (Choi, 2014; Nightingale, 2011). In addition, the theory is criticised for assuming the presence of interpersonal influence on the flow of information. The theory has been used widely over the years to explain the power of media to the audience. New approaches have tried to theorise that the audience is active participants rather than the early theories that treat the audience as passive and, therefore, criticised as elitist.
The new approaches emphasise the one-step flow model. This model dictates that development in social and technological setups such as social isolation due to the personalisation of media consumption in recent years (Choi, 2014). The personalisation of media has enabled people to receive messages directly from media, significantly reducing the role of opinion leaders (Livingstone, 1998). This model suggests a more comprehensive framework that focuses on understanding the contemporary dynamic of information circulation (Choi, 2014). The framework is referred to as curate flow, which shows that information flow directly to general public by elites or politicians. It is automatically managed by computer algorithms such as the search engine, therefore selectively chosen by each individual. Thus, individuals are influenced by the social network they actively participate in. According to Choi (2014) and Ivara (2007), the digital technologies currently being used pave the way for unmediated communication between message sender or creators to the target user even in the absence of intercession from opinion leaders. Choi (2014) adds that people can now read news from their favourite social media platforms or those recommended by their friends or family who might or might not play the role of opinion leaders. Therefore, they are able to make their judgments and personal decisions. However, the early approaches on opinion leaders still have a considerable influence (Nightingale, 2011). Most of them are content creators and do it more frequently than the non-opinion leader; therefore, attracting more people and messages they write are more likely to be distributed faster than the latter group (Choi, 2014; Nightingale, 2011). In case an opinion leader has more knowledge resources, they can produce more content than the not opinion leaders; besides, they are able to share more discussion depending on the areas they are more conversant with than the latter group. Frequent discussions with the opinion leader still tend to be of significant influence. Therefore, early approaches that view audiences as passive are still of great effect in today’s world.
Several unanswered questions have been presented to help in audience research. Morley (2006) outline major unanswered topic concerning audience research. The question on various models such as the active audience, cultural power, global media, and transnational audiences are used to study the audience (Morley, 2006). Morley explores the significant changes in the last twenty years and the introduction of new methodologies to study the complexity of media consumption. The first question is the political question about power in which the cultural study focuses more on the inconsequential questions of the benefit of domestic consumption (Morley, 2006). The level of importance of the media to the audience, in this case, television, is questioned on the capacity of the audience to perceive what they are watching on the media platforms and if the message is decoded actively. The other question is the level of influence of the media platforms in manipulating the audience. The research focuses more on the active audience and the respective models that deem them active participants rather than passive (Morley, 2006; Nightingale, 2011). Several models have been used in the new approaches, including Basil Bernstein’s theory of relating the class linguistic form that has an overly deterministic error in conducting or exploring decoding, influenced and structured by social position (Morley, 2006). Even the re-analyses of the national day by Sujeong Kim used a computerised form of statistical which allowed the combined influence of these factors that were more structured by social position (Livingstone, 1998; Morley, 2006). The encoding or decoding model, which conceives the audience, can retaliate actively and controversially to the messages to the media; the question is, is it absolutely open to the viewers to be used to interpret specific programs in different ways. Therefore, this question helps the researcher rethink their “new research” methodology if they are practical and accurate enough to be relied on when conducting audience research.
New approaches have incorporated social psychology as a topic when conducting audience research, an issue that many researchers have avoided. According to Livingstone (1998). Social psychology questions how people make sense of programmes they watch and interpret them under natural circumstances, presumably integrated with the prior knowledge of an event. Human beings are social beings and create and recreate meaning in their everyday lives all day and every day of their lives (Morley, 2006). According to Nightingale (2011), this includes the simplest utterance, which needs the hefty work of one to discern the statement as meaningful to adjudge its relation to the context and thus come up with the appropriate response.
In most cases, watching television is presumed to be a passive process done as a mere routine and seen as unproblematic. However, Livingstone (1998) argues that this simplicity of this approach is illusory as both interpersonal and mediated communication have been recognised as complex in recent years, comprising a rule-governed and constructive set of processes. Social psychologists can focus their attention on revealing the everyday complexities related to the social situation (Ivara, 2007). According to Morley (2006), studying the patterns of social interaction and the rules governing social situations brings new light to finding meaning to the audience’s everyday interactions. Psychological understanding counters the prevailing notions and assumptions of life as an external stimulus and treating an individual as a respondent to give the meaning of the audience being passive and thus portraying the image of the powerlessness of a person (Livingstone, 1998). This is because this notion impedes developments in social psychology and media studies. Reinventing new approaches of media interpretations incorporate the social psychology contributing to active audiences, including their behaviour change and how their social psychology in interpretation has transmuted.
To fully understand the audience, it is fair to incorporate both the early and modern approaches methodologies of audience study as they are equally crucial in analysing audience nature. This is because both approaches give an overview of how audience research has been theorised through diverse perspectives (Nightingale, 2011). Both approaches will serve as a potent source encompassed by various topics, enabling the reader to understand the media audiences in detail. According to Nightingale (2011) the field will only work best by identifying specific audience problems and applying the best theories and research methodologies available to solve them. Therefore, the digital approaches will integrate the early approaches of audience research to contribute significantly from some of the most outstanding international scholars specialising in audience study.
Several approaches have been used when researching the audience, including early approaches and new approaches. Although some researcher terms the early approaches as elitist, they still have a more significant influence in recent years despite the emerging digital audience research methodologies. Several models developed to be used when conducting audience research include the newest that views the audience as active with the ability to make their choices. This is to counter the early models who view the audience as passive and powerless to media influence. Technological advancements such as computerisation have made researchers in audience study to pre-event new approaches where the audience are viewed as active variables rather than the early approaches who viewed audience as passive entities. Recent approaches use social psychology to understand human behaviour, including their social interaction as they try to make meaning of each day.
The early approaches have some limitations, including the inability to provide the full ethnographic picture, thus unable to deal with the complexity of social processes and limit the information that can be extracted. However, the new audience methodology cannot fully describe or understand audiences as an independent entity and therefore need to integrate the best and logical model of the early approaches. The field of audience research will only work best by identifying distinct audience problems and applying the best theories and research methodologies available to solve them. Reinventing new approaches of media interpretations incorporate the social psychology in interpretation has transmuted and therefore will be able to give an overview of models to be used to study audience theorising them from a diverse perspective.