In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Television Audiences

  • Introduction

Cinema and Media Studies Television Audiences
Karen Buzzard
  • LAST REVIEWED: 22 April 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 April 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0190


Three models have dominated the study of the television audience: the industry’s commodification of the television audience model, as well as two academic perspectives from the field of mass communication, the passive and the active audience models. The first of these, known as the currency audience, stems from attempts by early raters to count and commodify the television audience—an invisible mass of disparate listeners and viewers—in order to develop a form of currency that could be exchanged between broadcasters and advertisers and programmers. This currency was known as ratings, and each generation of raters added to a growing vocabulary to enhance the ability of advertisers to identify and understand their audiences. For ratings services that conduct empirical measurements of the television audience, the cornerstone of such research has been the scientific method, whereby information about television audiences is gathered largely through various survey techniques and their improvements over the years, together with a body of scientific theory known as sampling. The study of the television audience, in addition to the study of audiences commodified for exchange through the ratings industry, is also a specialized niche within the academic discipline of mass communication. In the field of mass communication, two key models have developed to understand the television audience. First is the view of the audience as a passive victim to larger economic and political forces, whereby media has the ability to brainwash and shape public opinion. Schools associated with the passive audience (and covered here) include the media economics perspective, what is known as the hypodermic needle theory, the Frankfurt School, screen theory, and the political economy approach. Similarly, a second and opposing view asserts that the audience is not simply passive but has the ability to resist and act, known as the active audience view of the TV audience. Critical research has grown since the 1940s to include a number of different schools or approaches including the Frankfurt School, screen theory, the Birmingham School, audience reception studies, and more recently, fan studies. Fan studies will not be covered in this article as there is a separate Oxford Bibliographies in Cinema and Media Studies article entitled “Fan Studies.” Problems are inherent in the extremes of each model. On one hand, one would appear to study masses as numerical figures, on another as manipulable masses through Freudian psychology and propaganda techniques, and lastly as active members of an audience where resistance is based on personal anecdotes and behaviors.

Key Textbooks in the Study of Television Audiences

Key textbooks in the various fields of television audience studies can be organized based on the three models discussed in the Introduction. First are those that understand the television audience in an institutional perspective as a product created by an industry, the ratings industry, and that study the forces behind the ratings and their economic imperatives. A second group examines the concept of a mass audience within the academic field of audience studies that understand the audience as shaped by economic, political, and industry forces that are more powerful than individuals. A third group focuses on a more critical, qualitative, and active interpretation of a resistant audience who defies attempts at determination. A fourth group examines both the passive and active audience models in the field of mass communication.

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