In This Article Television Audiences

  • Introduction
  • The Uses and Gratifications Approach to the Audience

Cinema and Media Studies Television Audiences
Karen Buzzard
  • LAST REVIEWED: 06 June 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 31 August 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0190


Classical understanding of an audience assumed that it is composed of individuals physically co-present. With the interposition of a device or system between the source and the receivers, such as that made possible by the rise of mass communications technology in the 20th century, ideas of the audience changed over time from an audience as co-present to a mediated audience, one of disparate individuals often separated substantially in space and time. The television audience is an invisible mass of disparate viewers that is commodified into more visible forms by ratings services, through different methods of audience measurement at the behest of advertisers, broadcasters, and programmers. But it is also a specialized niche within the academic discipline of mass communication. This article will cover both. For rating services that conduct empirical measurements of the television audience, the cornerstone of such research is 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. Scholars approach the study of the television audience from many theoretical and interdisciplinary perspectives, largely stemming from the field of mass communication research. However, most academic theories of the television audience focus either on how powerful the media is in influencing the audience and shaping their perspectives (passive audience) or conversely on the power of the audience and their preferences in deciding what media texts are produced (active audience). Paul Lazarsfeld’s 1941 article, “Remarks on Administrative and Critical Communications Research,” in Studies in Philosophy and Social Sciences (Lazarsfeld 1941, cited under Theory of Personal Influence), further distinguished between “administrative research” that deployed empirical research for the goals of corporate or state institutions and “critical research” which he, at this time, associated with the Frankfurt School. For “critical theory,” the emphasis has been on qualitative methods, stimulated by the belief that reality was too complex to be grasped by a quantitative model. 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 article entitled Fan Studies in Oxford Bibliographies in Cinema and Media Studies. Problems are inherent in the extremes of each model. The decades-long dominance of quantitative research and the scientific method does not make a distinction between science and commerce or indeed reflect on the politics of the knowledge produced. Its focus is on advancement and improvement of technical instruments, which aid in the creation of scientific knowledge. On the other hand, the struggle to legitimize qualitative research and its methods, of which critical studies is an important part, confines its methodological relevance to the academy. On one hand, one would appear to study masses as numerical figures and, on the other extreme, as personal anecdotes.

Textbooks and Anthologies

Key textbooks in the various fields of television audience studies fall into several key areas. First are those that attempt to position the study of the audience, especially the uniqueness of the concept of a mass audience, within the field of communication. A second area includes those that understand the television audience in an institutional perspective as a product created by an industry, the ratings industry, and study the forces within and behind the ratings institutions and their economic imperatives. A third area in the study of the television audience is the field of media economics. A fourth area includes those that focus on a more critical, qualitative, and active interpretation of the television audience.

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