Audience theories

There are many theories that attempt to make sense of the question: what effects media texts have on audiences? An American psychologist – Abraham Maslow - determined that everyone has different layers of needs and these needs must be met in order to move on to the next layer. Maslow’s ‘Hierarchy of Needs’ suggests that once people have achieved basic needs like food and shelter, they then move on to satisfy higher needs that the hierarchy. Maslow created a pyramid where basic needs are labelled at the bottom and self-actualisation lies at the top, people who would be categorised at the top of the pyramid would be individuals with a high level of respect like a president or member of the royal family – it essentially describes a person who has a lot of respect from others. This is relevant to companies that advertise like cinema, television or radio because buying certain products could raise someone’s self-esteem, for example if you buy a new pair of shoes that were advertised on TV, because you have the respect from others you will feel better about yourself. Human basic needs are advertised using the psychographic system for example safety features on cars will be targeted at family orientated audiences, advertisements offer security from life insurance which is from the second layer of the Hierarchy of Needs. However, texts can be interpreted by audiences in two ways; passive audiences that believe everything the media says and active audiences who question what they are viewing. The Hypodermic Needle theory dictates that the media is powerful enough to inject their ideas onto passive audiences. This theory was proposed by Harold Lasswell in the 1927, when he released the book, ‘Propaganda Technique in the world war,’ after the observation done by researchers over the effect propaganda had during World War One and the ‘War of the Worlds’ broadcast by Orson Welles. This broadcast had the public believe they were to be under attack by aliens. The New York Times documented the mass hysteria as thousands of people were left in panic, ( This displays how the Hypodermic Needle is a linear communication theory stating passive audiences just absorb the information provided to them, but this theory suggests that we all respond to the messages in the media the same way. In the 1930’s the limitations to this theory were realised by researchers and some theorists wonder if this theory really had any serious attention applied at all nevertheless, the Hypodermic Needle theory still influences the way we perceive the media. We all witness the power of the media such as how news outlets are able to instore fear in the public – ‘Grand Theft Auto led teen to kill’ this simply aims to the parent demographic group stirring up a global snowball effect making parents worry about the effects of video games. This resulted in games having a higher age restriction than joining the army. I believe this can fit eloquently into the Cultivation Theory which suggests that over a period of time we all become desensitised thus passively absorbing the information – in the news audiences are exposed to violent media meaning we are not as shocked when the news reports about a murder or crime. The media want to suggest that violence in video games desensitizes users but a logical criticism to this would be virtual violence is completely different to real life violence and users cannot be desensitised from this by playing online. This theory is dangerous if correct, because it shows that we are all agentic agents passively absorbing the same message. This was horrifically dangerous in 1930’s Nazi Germany, films such as ‘Triumph of the Will’ used propaganda to inject promotion of the Nazi cause to Germany. In 1957, Vane Packard published a book called ‘The Hidden Crusaders’ and this book is heavily implicated towards how advertisers are able to sway the public into wanting something they don’t need – this shows the power that advertisers have over the public. Predominantly, this theory is unreliable as the modern audience is to advanced to just solely be passive, constantly ignoring active audience members and it gives the media greater power over the public then it will ever have in a democracy. With the assumption from Katz and Lazarsfeld that the audience was slightly more active than previously mentioned that the Two Step Flow Theory was applied suggesting that audiences received messages from the media in two ways. Opinionated audiences will have their own interpretation of media messages and pass on their interpretation to others. This shows that the information is passed onto these opinionated spectators and then that message is filtered to others through their interpretation on to passive audiences; which then mediate information from the media with the opinionated interpretations of others. Spectators are not influenced through a direct process but instead a two-step flow; concluding social factors affect the way active audiences interpret messages creating the concept of active audiences. A more proposed model considers audiences as not all passive but instead actively communicate messages for their own intentions – classified as prosumers (producers & consumers). This is the active audience model which is applied still to most audiences – it is generally considered the most realistic model to apply to audience theory. The Uses and Gratification model extends from the Hierarchy of Needs’ proposal that audiences pick their media that is best suited to their needs but the Uses and Gratification model implies that audiences have to be inactive in order to select what they wish to consume – relating all to their cultural/social settings and needs. Theorists applied this to media by stating that spectators indulge in media that seduces their gratifications engaging them in what they watched for example obtaining information they can apply to life (uses) or make audiences feel great about the world around them (gratifications). ‘Media usage can be explained in that it provides gratifications related to the satisfaction of social and psychological needs,’ (Bulmer and Katz in 1975). Bulmer and Katz identified four uses why of why audiences desire to indulge in media messages; surveillance – spectators have a need to know what is occurring in the world (extending from Moscow’s basic need for security), by keeping up to date with information audiences feel more safe with knowledge how to stray from danger; personal relationships – audiences desire for interaction and are able to form virtual relationships by aspiring or identifying with characters in films or programmes; personal identity – viewers have a need to sense their identity, most of our sense of self is formed by judging others and judging what we watch or even listen too as this all forms an expression of identity. Value reinforcement is an aspect of gratification where because what we are told is a large aspect of what we want to view, and lastly; diversion – escapism, we all need a diversion offering relaxation and entertainment, this form of entertainment satisfies the viewers needs to unwind. Reception analysis is a theory that indulges into how active audiences interact with media taking their ‘situated culture’ into account. Professor Stuart Hall proposed this in ‘The Television Discourse – Encoding and Decoding’ in 1974 and his theory entails that the way an audience reads and reacts to media is dependent on their cultural and social settings. The audiences significance in the process of interacting with a text can be divided into three different ways; the dominant and preferred reading – this means the audience all share the code of the text and accept its preferred meaning as the producers intended; the negotiated meaning – this is where spectators share the code of the text but interprets the meaning in accordance to their own experiences; the oppositional meaning – this is where viewers understand the producers preferred meaning but rejects the intended meaning and do not share the same code as the text. This is also known by Marxists or Feminists as a ‘radical reading.’ Marxism is in the roots of Active Audience theory, influencing the concept of resistance and submitting that consumers and producers should have a co-role when interpreting texts. However, this theory has been under strict criticism because of its suggestions of moral relativism and questioning what is universal truth? Fake news, can be a constructed truth believed by many, this is mainly witnessed with politics in media attempting to determine spectators’ political opinions. John Zaller, motioned that intellectual engagement in politics in relation to ideological and partisan leanings will deter audiences ‘political sophistication. The higher the spectator’s political sophistication is; they are more inclined to retain political perspectives handed down from the media, once the perspective has been filtered through predisposition attitudes it will lead to intricate opinions, this might result in an ‘echo chamber’ where extremist attitudes are amplified. According to Zaller political sophisticates obtain a highest amount of political information but they are also the most susceptible to biases. Audiences now offer a concept of resistance against existing meanings by individually interpreting them; forging media into a ‘cultural battlefield’ of hegemony and oppression. Derrida, in deconstructionism put forward that readers construct their own meaning for a text and in fact the writer has created a reality about their intended meaning. Jacques Derrida gave power to the reader that was equal to the writer establishing that each spectator creates their own meaning to texts. Michel Foucault defends structuralism as an alternative to Derrida’s theory. Truth and meaning are dependent on the content and structure of human elements such as culture, this creates the relationship of overarching methodology. Today, in the digital age of society prosumers can access media twenty-four hours a day. ‘Prosumers’ was coined by Alvin Toffler – he abbreviated ‘production by consumers’ and this term was widely used by technology theorists. Toffler applied this to the fact that we create our own media by contributing and generating our own audiences for example YouTube, Facebook and other online platforms have little mediation from conglomerates or subsidiaries so they are able to distribute their own content allowing new possibilities to blossom for audiences. This shows that where we choose to spend our money is what gives power to audiences and is what influences new technologies and in return it’s the new technologies that inspire new audiences. Media plays such a crucial role in creating their spectator’s belief systems it creates a blurred line between distinguishing our own opinions and the reflection of biases created in the media – when we play the role of the ‘active audience’ are we just remaining bias to something we acknowledged in the media. Subsequently, adaptivity is needed and found in people’s interactions with media. In a world constantly changing accommodation, resistance and appropriation is needed – people who are used to tradition will feel pressure to conform; people who have limited social interaction like students will interact with the media more as described in Hall’s encoding/decoding model (1980); viewers that lack participation in media might conform to the cultural norm out of the fear of being different. However, this can’t be applied to all audiences as some people may interact with media out of cynicism such as watch politics, these spectators resist the preferred meanings and using a variety of sources create their own alternate meaning. With audiences have the ability to look at international films, foreign films are breaking out of the box they have maintained in within Anglo-American circles. The wider immerging non-English language films reveal the nature of the film industry. UK awards reflect the Anglocentrism of their viewing habits; there have only ever been twelve films that aren’t in English that have made their way into the Oscars. The BAFTAS provide a curious case of transatlantic Anglocentrism. The only non-English language film to win the BAFTAS is ‘Roma’ (2019) unless you want to count ‘The Artist’ (2012); this shows persistence of subtitles in awards. When looking at Netflix productions in the UK, it shows that audiences are shifting away from the Anglo-American culture despite all the money the framework has made. However, not a single English film is in the top ten in another country but shows such as ‘La Casa de Papel’ (Tower Heist) has become popular in the USA/UK. Predominantly, we can see that audiences are constantly adapting and rejecting media messages instead of remaining passive and just having information injected into them. It is hard to apply a theory to a constantly changing audience but still in modern day even with the adaptations to technology, audiences are still able to view the news and broadcasts which do still heavily influence audiences and can cause a mass panic within minutes. As we can see many theories cannot be applied to a modern day public because we are opinionated and are less of a passive audience than what we used to be. Fox News. (2020). Lawsuit: 'Grand Theft Auto' Led Teen to Kill. [online] Available at: [Accessed 1 Mar. 2020]. Chilton, M. (2020). The War of the Worlds panic was a myth. [online] The Telegraph. Available at: [Accessed 1 Mar. 2020]. Lamb, B. (2020). The Hypodermic Needle Theory | VCE Media, Victorian Curriculum, Media Arts, digital literacy, media education, filmmaking. [online] Available at: [Accessed 2 Mar. 2020]. (2020). 2 Audience Theory - Media Studies. [online] Available at: [Accessed 2 Mar. 2020]. (2020). [online] Available at: [Accessed 2 Mar. 2020]. (2020). Presidential Lectures: Jacques Derrida: Deconstruction. [online] Available at: [Accessed 2 Mar. 2020]. Eikelenboom, T., Moes, J. and Stevenson, M. (2020). Power according to Foucault. [online] Masters of Media. Available at: [Accessed 2 Mar. 2020]. Anon, (2020). Anglo-centric film culture and the continuing resistance to subtitles. [online] Available at: [Accessed 3 Mar. 2020].



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