Audiences and Spectatorship

Are audiences’ vulnerable pawns ensnared under the manipulative and calculating control of the media or, do audiences’ actively engage in the media by constructing their own interpretations and meanings of the world? This is an extremely controversial issue that is extensively debated all around the world. Some view audiences as being easily influenced masses of people who can be persuaded to purchase products and conform to societies ideals or even follow corrupt leaders through advertising. There have also been fears that the media may alter the way people behave for example, being more violent and aggressive.
On the other side of the coin, there are theorists who believe that the media has a great deal less influence over audiences then is hypothesized. This is the central argument that this essay will be debating, to conclude whether audiences are passive individuals who are targeted victims of the media, or whether they are active and are thus not fictitious cohorts who believe everything they are told or watch in the media. To avoid misrepresentation the definition and differentiation of audiences is crucial. An Audience is…… dictionary definition. There are two types of audiences that are marketed in the media-mass and niche.
The mass audience includes people of different social cultures, different degrees of class and wealth and people with varying grades of education. The mass is composed of individuals who are oblivious to each other and who, in an ocean of people, don’t individually stand out. Due to this oblivion, members of the mass audience rarely interact and this lack of interaction means little exchange of experiences. A niche is that part of the audience, being relatively small in size, that marketers produce and can thus be easily targeted, producing only a small but secure profit.

Audiences are not blank sheets of paper on which media messages can be written; members of an audience will have prior attitudes and beliefs which will determine how effective media messages are. ” (Abercrombie, 1996:140) Mass media assumes that its audiences are credulous, susceptible and incompetent. This is however challenged by the idea of an ‘active audience’ in which individuals are not mere sheep that follow the flock but individuals who possess agency over their lives and the messages they receive.
As Philip Hanes (2000) states, meanings are encoded by the producer into the media text and the audiences decodes the meaning from the text. “… this intended message is not simply dumped into the minds of passive audiences… “(Croteau and Hoynes, 2000:263), the producer inscribes a specific meaning in the text that he/she hopes to be decoded, but encodes it by the conventions of the particular medium so as to hide the texts own ideological construction. This concealed message is then decoded by the audience according to external influences such as class, ethnicity, gender, age etc.
Thus a text could mean completely different things to different audiences meaning that no text has only one meaning and is thus polysemic. ‘Reception Analysis’ suggests the audience themselves help to create the meaning of the text by individually decoding the intended message in different ways according to the mood one may be in or as a result of ones own beliefs and morals. So we can conclude that audiences create their own meanings from the text and are thus not mere passive adherents.
However, Its is also shown that media texts contain an excess of meanings within them and thus, “media contains the raw materials for multiple interpretations; the texts are structured in ways that facilitate peoples reading against the grain… the most successful texts will have components that appeal to different audiences” (Croteau and Hoynes, 2000:266-267) As with all debates it is imperative to discuss and analyze certain theories pertaining to that debate. Firstly, it is important to note that the media only has a limited influence and effect on audiences.
As Klapper(1960) demonstrates, “persuasive mass communication is in general more likely to reinforce the existing opinions of its audience than it is to change its opinion. ” The idea of ‘Selectivity” deals with the idea of the resistant audience-it is up to the audience to resist the manipulative powers of the media and be not only cognizant of its manipulative capacity but bend these manipulations in favour of themselves. The Gratifications theory is in support of the premise that audiences are active.
This theory testifies that we do not engage in media texts as “some kind of mindless entertainment. “(Baker) but make choices over what we consume and thus presume to get something out of it, some form of satisfaction. The types of gratification that we incur comprise of: satisfying our curiosity regarding the world-information; finding ones personal identity by looking to others i. e. celebrities for assistance and corroboration; to find out more about others circumstances and for social interaction(Media allows for communication amongst friends. ); and lastly for pure entertainment. Agenda setting’ deals with the notion that although there is an abundance of media messages being thrown at the audience, the audience intercepts this bombardment with their prior beliefs and attitudes.
Thus media effects are limited because the audience practices a degree of autonomy. The Marketplace Model positions the audience in the rank of the consumer. This model states that audiences are not inert victims of the media but enthusiastically elect to choose commodities that satisfy their desires and preferences. This model suggests that audiences are realistic and clued-up and know exactly what it is they want.
Their preferences allow them to pick and choose the viewing they wish to indulge in and if “the audience demands diverse content, then the marketplace will provide it. “(Webster and Phalen, 1994:29) This model insinuates that in view of the fact that audiences actively engage in their choice of viewing they, to a certain degree, have power over the media. One must, however, not be too hasty in succumbing to the notion of the active audience because there is a proliferation of theories regarding audiences as being passive entities.
The debate concerning audiences being passive victims of the media and media being capable of radically effecting people’s behavior and beliefs, dates far back into history. An extremely appropriate illustration of this is when Hitler and Stalin attempted to use the media as propaganda by persuading the mass audiences to follow their policies and beliefs. Thus we can see how what an extremely precarious weapon media can be in the wrong hands, capable even of convincing millions to follow iniquitous beliefs.
We see this persuasion still today in elections which is the same sort of propaganda. The Effects model of media audiences assumes that being exposed to adverse content can result in harm, that the audience is equally harmed by the media withholding high-quality content and the fact that although beneficial content is made accessible, it is being underused by the audience. “The Commodity Model is less wedded to any notion of audiences as individual decision makers and is more a reflection of the fact that, under advertiser support, they are a common coin of exchange. (Webster, 1994:30)
Audiences are thus seen as commodities; the media will construct a text, in such a way that it will produce an audience. An example of this is the show Friends and how it is theorized that this show is actually a method of selling beauty products. Friends features stunning people, in amusing situations who are all blissful. Thus young audiences wanting to follow the latest trends of the main characters and experience their happiness would buy the beauty products sponsoring the show.
In the argument pro passivity, “The Frankfurt School, who were concerned about the possible effects of mass media… considered society to be composed of isolated individuals who were susceptible to media messages. “(Hanes, 2000) Thus the theory of the Hypodermic Syringe was proposed. This theory states that the media takes on the life of a syringe by injecting principles, and beliefs into the audience, who as passive mass viewers have no option but to be influenced and accept or imitate these messages.
An example of this is if you see a woman sweeping the floor, being a woman you would go and do the same or being a man, you would expect the woman to go and sweep the floor. ” Certain films such as the Exorcist were banned for this very reason; it was felt that it might encourage people to imitate the acts of violence in the film, in other words, if you watch something violent you will accordingly perform a violent act yourself. Yet another theory supporting the passivity debate is the Cultivation theory.
This theory surmises that although an individual media text might not impact or affect an individual, years and years of being exposed to violence may consequently make you less sensitive and responsive to violence. If an audience, for instance, is constantly exposed to domestic violence, it may not bother them too much because they have been desensitized and domestic violence may have become just another societal norm which is exceptionally problematic.
Yet another theory hypothesizes that we are likely to communicate our media encounters with others, and if we value their judgment, the likelihood is that we will be influenced by it and thus come to a deduction concerning our experience established on the foundation of the ‘opinion leaders’. These theories give us a great deal of insight into the reality of the audience as a passive victim. It is imperative that mention is given of how violence in the media can influence audiences as this is an integral part favouring the audience as victims’ debate.
It seems evident that by observing violent or aggressive acts on television and film, audiences are learn behaviors which are appropriate, in other words, which behaviors will be punished and which are rewarded. Audiences imitate those behaviors which are positively rewarded. For instance, if the protagonist is in a fight scene with the ‘enemy,’ although the enemy may get punished by being defeated by the protagonist and thus the protagonist be rewarded for defeating evil, the protagonist himself was still involved in the violence and aggression.
What is problematic is the fact that the protagonist is seen as the hero and is in turn imitated by audiences as it is seen as a good thing. So we can assume that violence in television and film is encoded and continuous viewing of this violence can help to maintain aggressive thoughts and violent ideas. It is also evident how the media may allow for the release of tension and desires through identification with fictional characters. Violent acts in the media may also erode inbuilt inhibitions against acting violently.
Through the attraction of television and films, audiences acquire an imprecise comprehension of society, realism and moral values. Although the many theories surrounding the debate of whether audiences are passive or active are extremely influential, they have also been criticized. Firstly, the Gratifications theory can be criticized as it disregards the actuality that we do not always have absolute selection as to what we receive from the media. We typically have to choose the media that we consume from what is available.
This emasculates the Gratification theory since we may not all have the equal prospects to utilize and benefit from the media merchandise we want. The Hypodermic Model can also be criticized on account of it being too simplistic and disregarding audiences’ individuality. There is a definite association between the mass media and social change but many of the consequences attributed to the mass media can also be attributed to many other influences within society, thus the extensive debate.
In weighing up the evidence of whether mass media is influential or not, it is clearly identifiable that the media does play a major role in the construction of representations in society. Therefore we see how the media is used as a powerful instrument in influencing audiences into certain modes and beliefs within society. So we can deduce from the arguments presented in this essay that while audiences are passive victims of an all-encompassing world of messages, they too are active in that they can rebel against the medias domination by ardently participating in it or by resisting it.

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