Audience studies have been around as long as there has been commercial mass media – producers needed to prove to potential advertisers that their message was received by a certain number (and later on, a certain type) of people.  As such, audience research has ties to ideas about consumer culture.  But as metrics and other ways of gathering information grew more sophisticated the demographics continued to be refined. For example, these are the demographics that TVNZ currently keeps track of for its advertisers.

We can also investigate audiences from perspectives, rather than as mere commodities. For the mass media, a number of different tools are deployed by different groups – such as counting viewers to identify prime advertising space for advertisers. Focus groups are employed to see how the target demographic is receiving a particular text, and adjustments are made accordingly. In-depth research into a population, such as the bronies, attempts to understand the interplay between reception, consumption and community.

These methods have been refined throughout the history of mass media, however, new media presents new challenges.  For example, modifications to existing methods, such as a media-use diary where audiences note their media consumption, has to cope with the challenges of a context where most people’s media use hours exceed the hours in the day. This is a consequence of multitasking – for example, listening to music while reading Facebook. The technology itself can be employed to provide information about usage (eg: adwords in google).  We can even employ systems, such as eyeball tracking, to identify audience viewing habits within a cluttered media landscape.

Despite these and other techniques, tracking changes in audience behaviour is a challenge. This is as much a consequence of changing concepts surrounding audiences as it is a result of changes in media itself. The idea of the audience must now take into account new concepts of the user and the prosumer, how these interrelate with existing notions of an active audience, and how these change the nature of how we understand texts, readings, and issues of consumption and (re)production.

Discussion Questions

Discuss the relative merits of various methods of audience research such as focus groups, in-depth research, media use diaries, surveying population samples and ‘hidden’ online technologies.

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