Changes to the Concept of Mass Audience


23 Mar 2015 11 Dec 2017

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Is the concept of the mass audience becoming increasingly redundant as new communications technologies such as the internet and interactive tv develop.

In order to understand whether the concept of the mass audience is still influential, with regard to new communications such as the internet and interactive TV, one will first need to know the meaning attached to the concept of mass audience theory.  Blumer (1950) argues that mass audience theory can be described in four parts.  Firstly, the mass audience may come from all walks of life, and from all distinguishable social strata; it may include people of different class position, of different vocation, of different cultural attainment, and of different wealth etc.

Secondly, the mass is an anonymous group, or more exactly is composed of anonymous individuals (he means anonymous in the sense that unlike the citizens of earlier communities, the people who are members of the mass audience for the media do not know each other).  Thirdly, there exists little interaction or change of experience between members of the mass.  They are usually physically separated from one another, and, being anonymous, do not have the opportunity to mill as do members of the crowd.  Fourth, the mass is very loosely organised and is not able to act with the concertedness or unity of a crowd.  His statement was five years after the second world - war. 

This was during and after a period when the media was used as propaganda, through films, radio, and poster art that they had attempted to persuade mass audiences to follow their policies, in which to the critics of the time it is not surprising that the media must have seemed like a dangerous weapon in the wrong hands, capable of persuading millions to follow evil men.  The concept of the mass audience is essential to our understanding of the media.  It is the public in whose name programs are made and laws are passed.  It is the commodity that supports commercial broadcasting.  It is the arena in which the effects of mass communications are played out.  It is the place where the meanings and pleasures of media use are ultimately realized.  The audience, in short, is the foundation of the media’s economic and cultural power, whereby, without it, the entire enterprise has very little purpose, Webster and Phalen (1997).  The idea of an audience is common to both academic theory and industry practice. 

As McQuail (2005) puts it, it is one of the few terms which can be shared without difficulty by media practitioners and theorists alike.  In most cases the audience is conceptualized as a large, loosely connected mass on the receiving end of the media.  In addition to this there are sufficient reasons to wonder whether the term audience is still a useful one, especially as there are so many kinds of use of many different communications media.  The term audience cannot easily be divested of its strong connotation of spectatorship, of rather passive watching and listening.  It is also closely tied in meaning to the reception of some message despite the fact that we know audience behaviour to involve several equally important motives or satisfactions, for example, social togetherness and the pleasures of actual use of a medium, regardless of content. 

Despite this, there seems to be no viable alternative term, and so it will be used to cover diverse occasions.  In addition, Livingston (2002) comes to a similar conclusion, noting that no one term can be expected to cover the variety of relationships which now exist between people and the media.  She also adds that what is central is the nature of the relationship, rather than an artificial concept.  With this in mind one will move on to talk about the validity of the concept of the ‘mass audience’ becoming redundant as new communication technologies such as the internet and interactive TV develop.  Now, technology can be said to be one of the greatest challenges to the media in recent years, and one that will intensify further in the 21st century.  Its potential impact on the form and content of media output, the processes through which media messages are produced and consumed, and on the role of the media in society is bound to escalate to a level never seen before.  Such challenges are not new as the history of the mass media is a history of technological development with profound social consequences and implications at every stage.  There are however, strong grounds for believing that contemporary media are undergoing particularly dramatic technologically driven change, heralded by a qualitative new phase in the cultures of advanced capitalism. 

This is a time that will be characterized by media interactivity, accessibility and diversity, with new freedoms for the audiences (or the consumer) McNair (1996).  It will also be the era of universally available cyberporn, information overload, and the decline or disappearance of some traditional media.  Cyberporn for example, is one big issue which has prompted some politicians and other interested parties to be pessimistic about the impact of these new technologies on the quality of cultural life.   The internet which is also known as the information superhighway through which information can be passed at an unprecedented rate, is a new medium which is currently having a strong impact on the production and consumption (mass audience) of the media.  The internet links millions of individual users and networks by satellite and cable, offering access to the Worldwide Web mainly used by commercial organizations and Usenet, a network for private individuals organized into thousands of newsgroups.  These facilities can be used for advertising and promotion (including that of university departments, many of which now have a Web page profiling their activities); for on-line publishing of the type discussed earlier in the discussion of print media; and for communication between individuals by e-mail.  The latter maybe used for the circulation of data by researchers (for example, one could subscribe to a Latin American based services supplying up-to-date information about the Latin American media) or for a two way communication between geographically disparate users with a common interest. 

As the internet develops and the infrastructure becomes more sophisticated it has become routine for virtual conversations to take place in cyberspace involving many individuals sending and receiving messages almost as quickly as if they were in the same room.  The power of the internet was first demonstrated during the San Francisco earthquake of January 1994, when it was used to send out the first information about the disaster, beating CNN and other news organizations to the Scoop.  But the significance of the internet for media culture goes beyond that of another leap in the speed of information dissemination.  It constitutes an entirely new medium, harnessing the vast information-handling potential of modern computers, now easily accessible to the mass consumer market as well as the traditional scientific and industrial users, and the distributive power of cable and satellite delivery systems.  The internet presents a further, and to date the most radical dissolution of the barriers of time and space which have constrained human communication since after the Second World War.  Speculation about what the Internet will do for and to human society abounds.  From one perspective, which we might describe as utopian; the Internet does indeed herald the emergence of a true global village, a benign virtual community accessible to anyone with a computer terminal and a knowledge of how to use it.  This perspective stresses the accessibility and interactivity of the new medium; the fact that it allows ordinary people to communicate across continents at the pressing of a return key on the keyboard of the computer, at relatively low cost (by comparison with telephone and fax), on all different types of issues and subjects. 

The internet is not owned by any state or multinational company, and no state or company can control its use.  The internet’s relative freedom from the commercial and political constraints which have accompanied all previous communicative media, combined with its accessibility and interactivity, censorship, regulation, and commercialization like no other.  Another view is to see the internet as the latest in a long line of dehumanizing technological developments, producing a population of computer-nerds who, if they are not watching TV or fiddling with their play stations, are addictively surfing the Net.  The internet can be said to encourage not communication but isolation, in which one talks not to real people, but disembodied screens.  In addition to this, the cost of buying and owning a PC or laptop is rather expensive for countries whose economies are still developing.  Most people in these countries would not be able to afford to buy and own a PC or a laptop.  Hence, although it is a very useful medium used by people in the developed countries, it will take sometime before a more than average percentage of the general populis becomes aware of the major advantages of the use of the internet.  In most counties in the UK for example, there are libraries that provide free internet services for certain duration of time. 

However, most people tend to use the internet for personalized e-mail services and searching for items and services.  These are not accessible through the traditional forms of the media (i.e. newspapers, brochures, etc).  Concerns about the implications of the internet are often based on a fear of its anarchic, uncontrollable character, precisely the qualities welcomed by its most enthusiastic advocates.  The internet, it is argued, provides an uncensorable platform for the dissemination of all kinds of antisocial messages.  For example, in the US newsgroups are devoted to the propaganda of extreme right-wing, pro-gun militias.  Cyberporn as earlier mentioned is also cited, particularly in relation to children and young people.  In July 1995, Time magazine devoted the bulk of an issue, and its cover, to the problem of cyberporn Elmer-Dewitt (1995).  The cover depicted a young boy, face reflecting the green light of a computer terminal, his eyes wide open with amazement.  The article warned that Usenet and Worldwide Web networks were being used to distribute pornography all over the world, including as the cover illustration made clear to children and young adults.  The material being distributed was of the most extreme kind.  Rimm (1995) argues that computers and modems are profoundly redefining the pornographic landscape by saturating the market with an endless variety of what only a decade ago mainstream America defined as perverse or deviant.  Cyberporn does illustrate the threat posed by the internet, as seen by some. 

To a greater extent than is true with traditional forms of disseminating pornography to the mass audience (and this applies to all morally or legally sanctioned information), the internet permits a private mode of consumption (no need for guilty browsing among the top shelves); it is user-friendly, allowing a high degree of selection and choice for anyone familiar with the system; and it is free of censorship, respecting no community standards or national boundaries.  As McNair (1996) puts it, traditional means of regulating and restricting pornography are useless on the Net.  And as children and young people are known to be among the most frequent and adept users of the Internet, cyberporn thus emerges as a serious threat to new generations.  Moral chaos and anarchy without the control of legislators does harbour information overload which acknowledges the inherent difficulty in imposing traditional constraints on the medium.  The key issue here is whether the internet is a print medium, which enjoys strong protection against government interference, or a broadcast medium which enjoys strong protection against government interference, or a broadcast medium, which enjoys strong protection against government interference, or a broadcast medium, which may be subject to all sorts of government interference, or a broadcast medium, which may be subject to all sorts of government control Elmer Dewitt (1995).  The internet is neither print nor broadcasting, but a qualitatively new medium, to which conventional means of exerting control are extremely difficult, if not impossible, to apply. 

It still remains to be seen if the global community (and it would have to be a genuinely global effort) can agree on standards of taste and decency for the Internet which are both enforceable and acceptable to the growing population of users.  According to the BBC (2004), new technologies and services are increasing the choice available to audiences and transferring power from schedulers and broadcasters.  Public sector broadcasting (PSB) providers will have to work much harder in future to persuade audiences to access their material and build brands across a variety of platforms.  They also add that fragmentation of audiences and the growth of digital television are posing new challenges for public service broadcasters.  BBC (2004) do suggest that changes in technology are also creating new and potentially more effective ways of meeting the needs of audiences in the nations, regions and localities.  The BBC also accepts a responsibility to explore partnerships with other broadcasters designed to sustain the wider PSB ecology.  The BBC is currently engaged in discussions with Channel 4 about a number of potential areas of co-operation.  These range from sharing R & D and technology advances in new media services, through co-operating on international distribution, to options for pooling technical infrastructure, back-office functions and training.  In the same response by the BBC they argue that there is mounting evidence that regional television may be insufficiently local to meet the needs of some communities, having been hindered for decades by technology, topography and patterns of transmitters.  This response by the BBC to Ofcoms review also states that many viewers would prefer more local news to the current model of regional provision.  In their view, it is important to consider new ways of harnessing digital TV technology and broadband distribution, rather than simply replicating the traditional model of regional opt-outs.  McQuail, Blumler and Brown (1972) published results of research into the goals served by media use, not for society, but for media users. 

They assumed media and content choice to be rational and directed to specific goals and satisfactions.  Audience members are conscious of the fact that they make choices.  In general these choices, or personal utility as McQuail calls it, are a more significant determinant of audience formation than aesthetic or cultural factors.  All these factors they assumed could be measured.  They do, offer an explanation of media-person interaction, which lists: diversion, personal relationships, personal identity and surveillance (or information seeking) goals.  McQuail in general was critical of this with regard to his earlier work and suggests that social origins and ongoing experience are important in understanding audience and media relations, which fell outside the initial behaviourist and functionalist leanings of the research.  These however are not so easily measured.  Social origins, any person’s class background, for example, can be translated into quantitative terms (as more or less formal and informal schooling), but ongoing experience may, for any one person, take a multitude of forms that need not even relate directly to one another: from what one learns from an individual film or article in a magazine, to witnessing everyday racism or parental neglect in the street, to boredom doing a job that has seemed so exciting.  Theoretically, uses and gratifications never really develops. 

It is impossible to establish whether uses indeed precede gratifications in time, or whether gratifications are legitimized by inventing uses.  If the latter is the case, the uses and gratifications model cannot free us from the dominant paradigm: we are still seduced by the media, to such an extent even that we invent needs for what is basically imposed on us by capitalism (commercial media) or paternalist nation-state (PSB).  It is also important to stress that gratificationist research as it has also been called, was not initially understood to be a mainstream or conservative approach to media and society.  On the contrary, it appeared to break with a tradition of only looking at effects (mass communication research) or at texts (such as the film criticism of the British journal Screen) in order to conclude something about audiences.  Gratifications research at least asked people and made them part of the media meaning society equation. 

It is only when gratificationaist research is used as a spearhead in debates about the possible convergence of quantitative and qualitative traditions in media research (the first seen as conservative and mainstream, the second as its challenger), that media critics such as Ang (1989) offer a strong defence of ethnographic method against individualistic quantitative research and of taking a closer look at what we mean by the term active audience.  Ang (1989) argue that it is basically impossible to bring the two traditions in mass communication research together.  The social scientists who work with quantitative method in uses and gratifications research and have here been labelled mainstream may superficially be seen to use the same terms the critical researchers use, but this does not mean that the two have consensus over the way in which the object of study needs to be conceptualized, or infact over the goals and aims of science or social research as an enterprise.

One can conclude here that neither the optimistic nor pessimistic views described above represent a realistic appraisal of the Internet’s significance for media culture.  Certainly, as the utopian perspective asserts, the internet permits a qualitatively new level of communication between human beings, and hitherto unimagined access to all kinds of information.  But the resulting global village can be no more benign than the individuals who use it, and the materials sent down its superhighways and byways.  The Internet, like all previous developments in communication technology is destined to reflect the best and the worst that humanity has to offer.  It will continue to evade state censorship and arbitrary moral regulation, undeniably a good thing, but it will certainly be subject to a creeping commercialization, as its economic potential becomes clear in which the mass audience will play a major role in this revolution.  This process has already begun, and will accelerate in the twenty-first century.  One will also add that successive waves of information revolution from the invention of the printing press to film and television, and now cyberspace have each presented problems of control and regulation for legislators in the UK and around the world, problems of adaptation and restructuring for the media industries; new challenges and temptations for audiences.


Ang, I., (1989), Wanting audiences, On the politics of empirical audience research, in E. Seiter, H. Borchers, G. Kreutzner and E. Warth (eds) Remote Control, Television, Audiences and Cultural Power, London:  Routledge, pp. 79 – 95.

Blumer, H., (1950), Audiences and Media Effects, An introduction.

Briggs, A., and Cobley, P., (2002), The Media:  An Introduction, 2nd edition, Pearson Longman.

BBC (2004), Ofcom review of public service television broadcasting – Phase 2 Report, November, A BBC Response.

Berger, A.A., (1995), Essentials of Mass Communication.
Elmer-Dewitt, P., (1995), On a screen near you: cyberporn, Time, July.

Hay, J., Grossberg, L., and Wartella, E., (1996), The audience and its landscape.

Livingston, S., (2002), Young people and New media, London: Sage.

McNair, B., (1996), Mediated Sex, London: Arnold.

McQuail, D., (2005), Mass communication theory.

McQuail, D., Blumler, J., and Brown, J., (1972), The television audience, a revised perspective, in D. McQuail (ed.), Sociology of Mass Communication, Harmondsworth:  Penguin, pp. 135 – 165.

Rimm, M., (1995), Marketing pornorgraphy on the information superhighway, (on-line version), first published in George town Law Journal Spring.

Whelan, P., and Webster, J.G., (1997), The mass audience:  Rediscovering the dominant model.


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