REPRINTED FROM EXPLORING THE MEDIA – ED BARBARA CONNELL
In this Section
• The ways in which audiences can be described.
• How audiences are constructed by the producers of media texts.
• How audiences- are positioned.
The ways in which different audiences respond to, use and interpret texts. Our main area of focus is the relationship between the text and audience which is fluid and changing. In this postmodern, media-saturated world it is no longer acceptable to suggest that there is only one way of interpreting a text and only possible audience response. Audiences are not mass. They are comple and sophisticated in their responses. It is important also to consider the social and cultural experiences that affect audiences’ responses to a range of texts. In this section, the initial focus will be on the range of possible responses and not necessarily upon audience theories. However, the analysis of the response may lead to an exploration of relevant audience response theories. It is important to move away from the idea that the meaning within texts is already embedded and unchanging and that all audiences respond to messages in title same way. Audiences are made up of individuals who bring social and cultural experiences to their interpretation of any text which may alter the messages they receive from the text. Audiences are not unquestioning consumers as has been suggested by theories in the past:.
‘Far from being turned into “zombies”, it has grown increasingly clear that audiences are in fact capable of a high degree of self-determination in the nature of the responses that they make to the products offered to them.’
(Stewart et aI., 2001, p.251)
Stuart Hall, in his research [19731, suggested that texts were ‘encoded’ by the producers of the texts to contain certain meanings related to the social and cultural background of the creator of the text. However, once the reader of the text ‘decoded’ that text then the meanings intended by the producer may change. Hall then went on to suggest three main perspectives involved in the way in which an audience responds to a particular text. This involves how the audience ispositioned by the text and its subsequent response,
- Preferred or dominant readings – this is where the audience interprets the text as closely to the way in which the producer of the text intended. If the social and cultural experience of the reader of the text is close to that of the producer then there is little for the audience to challenge. If you were a nurse you may well agree with the situations and narratives addressed in Casualty because they are within your breadth of experience.
- Negotiated readings – this is where the audience goes through some sort of negotiation with themselves to allow them to accept the way in which the text is presented. You may agree with some elements of the text and disagree with others. This may mean the way in which you are positioned in a film where you are asked to empathise with a character you do not like, yet you are enjoying the film generally. You may need to adjust your viewpoint in order to get the most out of your viewing.
- 3. Oppositional or resistant readings – this is where the user of the text finds themselves in conflict with the text itself due to their beliefs or experiences. For example, a narrative in a soap opera that views a woman who is having an affair sympathetically will encourage a resistant reading in a person whose culture is against adultery:
These perspectives,allow you to begin to understand thai one text cannot have a static meaning that is communicated in the same way to a mass audience. This concept should also allow us to challenge ‘effects’ theories that suggest that this is the case including the ‘hypodermic needle’ response which puts forward the idea that mass audiences are affected in a particular way by the contents of, and messages within, a specific text. What affects the way in which an audience responds to a text?
Different audiences will respond to the same text differently according to:
- Gender – the relationships between the audience and text according to gender are complex. Men and women will respond to certain media texts in different ways. Certain research has shown that women prefer television programmes like soap operas that deal with narratives concerned with relationships and have strong female characters. Men, on the other hand, apparently prefer more factual programmes related to news and current affairs. However, there are obvious problems with such research as it is generalised and the men / women asked may respond in a way they think their questioner expects. It is commonly accepted that men too watch soap operas particularly those like The Bill. It is
- Also easy to say that women would respond to ‘lads’ mags’ like Nuts and Zoo in a disapproving way – but how then to account for the women who send in their photographs to be published in these magazines or on the website?
- Situated culture – this concerns how our ‘situation’ – our daily lives, routines and relationships – can effect how we respond to media texts; where we are and who we are with has an effect upon our media consumption. Watching a film surrounded by friends or family will be a different viewing experience to one where you view a film alone. This response will change again if you are watching the film at home or at the cinema.
Cultural experience – this is how our culture – our upbringing, experiences and beliefs – affect our response to a text. This also relates to how our understanding and our view of the world are shaped by our media experience. We may have never visited New York but our media consumption of film and television programmes have constructed a view for us. We may never have been in hospital but we feel knowledgeable about a range of medical procedures because our viewing habits include Holby City and ER.
How texts construct and position audiences
Here we need to take a more complex approach to texts which go beyond basic content analysis. Texts can be said to construct an idea of their viewer / reader. This can be applied to an analysis of magazines where the magazine constructs an idea of Men’s Health man or Glamourwoman. Here we can return to the work done on representation and consider the representations constructed by the magazines and the view of the world and related messages that they communicate to readers. Magazines offer discourse.
The discourses of magazines make their topics and subject matter appear normal and make assumptions about the lifestyles and interests of their readers – hence the construction. McDougalllMcDougal, J. [20061 The media Teacher’s Book]
suggests that discourses contained within the pages of Men’s Health include:
• Quick-fix problem solving.
• New male sensitivity.
• Male superiority / manipulation.
• Get a six-pack in six weeks.
• Male narcissism and society.
• How to look good.
• How to understand your girlfriend’s needs.
• If you understand her needs you will get what you want.
Further evidence of the fact that magazines construct audiences can be found by looking at the press packs for magazines where reader profiles are set out. The reader information provided on the Men’s Health website states:
‘Who is the Men’s Health reader?
1. Late-20’s to mid-30’S, predominantly ABC1, a performance-driven achiever, self confident, open minded and adventurous,
2. Advanced in his career with the benefits of success translated into spending power.
3. Older and wealthier than the other major UK men’s lifestyle magazines with an appreciation of quality and an aesthetic eye:
In this way it can be seen that the producers of the magazine construct an idea of their audience and the articles in their publication will mirror and attract this ‘ideal man’.
New Audiences – the interactive users
Our focus so far has been upon how different audiences respond to texts and what affects that response. It has been clear that audiences are complex and changing. With the advent of new technologies and formats including computer games and websites, audiences have become interactive users of the media who are in control and active in their choices, In a video / computer game the user can view the action from first- or third-person boint-of-view and can make choices about the narrative and the actions of the characters. Often the domain orthe male, as discussed earlier in this section, the computer game allows the male ambiguous control over female characters that have been created to be manipulated by him: ‘The terrain of computer games has become the site of erotic spectacle; in it the virtual heroine, as Mulvey described, plays to the male, holds his gaze, and is utterly and completely in his control.’ (Action Chicks, ed. Sherrie A Inness,2004)
Some analysts say that games interact with the user on a range of levels because of the immersion in the artificial world created and therefore the messages encoded in the game are more powerful and elicit a more profound respo.nse than in other formats that involve the audience. The experience of ‘gaming’ is therefore a more heightened one.
The ideas of autonomy and control can also be applied to the users of internet websites, where there is a wealth of information and experiences at your fingertips. But everyone will use the internet in a different way. Learning Point: The ways in which audiences are offered opportunities to use texts and become active is changing how we analyse audience responses.
The internet and web pages offer good examples of David Giuntlett’s idea of the ‘pick and mix’ audience. Here the audience uses texts -it ignores some aspects of them and choose the aspects that suit it at that time. The next time people play or search they may ‘pick and mix’ a different menu – the flexibility is there enable the user of these formats to do this.
Having come around to the concept of using the media to satisfy the needs of the audience at that moment, it may be time to give some consideration to an audience effects theory, ‘Uses and Gratifications’. This is one of the more useful theories as it assumes an active Irather than passive) audience and emphasises what the of media texts do with them rather than what the media does to the audience. However, the theory must be used with reservations as not all audiences have the needs suggested or use the media in this way. Blumler and Katz disagreed with earlier theories which placed the audience as a passive mass who could be influenced and would act upon messages communicated by the media. The Uses and Gratifications theory suggests that individuals and social groups use texts in different ways and the audience is no longer viewed as passive receiver.
The identified needs of the audience were later refined as:
- Entertainment and diversion – as a form of escape from the pressures of everyday life.
- Personal relationships (social interaction – identification with characters and being able to discuss media texts with others.
- Personal identity – the ability to compare your life with that of characters and situations presented in media texts.
- Information/education – to find out and learn about what is going on in the world,
However, you must consider that this theory can be now viewed as a simplistic way of looking at audiences that have become more diverse and complex as media formats themselves have become more fluid and changing. ThiS theory assumes that the media itself has identified and catered for the needs of the audience when In fact it may well be the case that audiences respond to the texts on offer in this way as there is no other alternative. It may be that audiences have needs that are not being addre,ssed by existing media texts: ‘In fact many of our “uses” and “pleasures” can be seen to be “making the best” of what is available and putting it to our [the audiencesl use, which may be different from the one that the producer intended: IRayner et al., AS Media Studies: The Essential Introduction, 2003, p1391