RE-VIEWING VIEWERS RECONCEPTUALIZING MEDIA AUDIENCES

Jason Vincent Cabafies

Abstract

Taking issue against the moral panics approach that undergird the works of some media-related researches in the Philippines, this paper sides with recent works in communication studies that push for a more nuanced understanding of the dialectical ij'uneven, relationship between media and audiences. In specific, it tries to map out the intersections and tensions of the various developments emerging in the maturingfield ofWestern audience studies-the audience as (a) active, (b) embedded, (c) engaged, and (d) responsible-through a critical review of the literature. In doing so, it hopes to open up new vistas for local empirical research that explores the media-audience connection.

Some researchers inion the Philippines (e.g., Carandang, 2002; Cruz et al., 2001;' Hedman, 2001) still approach the relationship between the media and its audience with a considerable tinge of moral panic, whichis a belief that assumes the double notion of a powerful media and a vulnerable audience (Cohen, 1972). However, it must also be asserted that there are local media studies scholars (e.g., Cabafies, 2007; Corpus Ong, 2007; Lorenzana, 2007) who have begun to provide more complex ways of understanding the dialectical, though uneven, relationship between media and audiences (Silverstone, 2002a). In a bid to help push such nuanced perspectives to the foreground ofloeal academic discourses, I shall attempt to provide a broad synthesis of the key, but as yet disparate, developments that have emerged in the maturing field of Western audience studies.

RECONCEPTUALIZATION 1: THE AUDIENCE AS ACTIVE

The various divides within the social sciences have had their fair share of anxiety-filled critics lashing out at the mass media. Indeed. the classical

positivist researchers have been at it since the 1930s. With Harold Laswell's "Who says what to whom and with what effect?" (in Czitrorn, 1982) as their key thrust, they have invariably assumed a more or less influential media as responsible for altering human perception and/or behavior. Hence, the unceasing cycle of moral panics as regards the portrayal of sex and violence. The realists are equally forceful in their condemnation of the media. For instance. the Frankurt School theorist Theodor Adcrno (1975) claims that the Culture Industry has forced retrogression upon the rest of society, making them mere cogs in the capitalist machine. The customer might be made to believe that he/she is king/queen, but this false consciousness blinds them from the reality that the media industries make the world go round. Far from being outdone, the interpretists have displayed their own brand of postmodern pessimism as well. Take Jean Baudrillard (I983), who exaggeratedly proclaims that reality has collapsed in favor of the hyper real. To be sure, he goes on to lament that we are immersed in an empty sea awash with pure signifiers that have no referents. On a more issue-oriented note, Berger (2007) collates a list of crimes that the mass media-television most especially-have committed, at least from the view of intellectuals who have been antagonistic to it. Quite tellingly, the indictment catalog includes items that parallel the observations above, like the media's ability to desensitize viewers to violence (as what the classical positivists say), overwhelm their critical faculties (as what the realists say), and distort their perceptions of reality (as what the interpretists say). In all these, there is a pervading sense that the media are akin to a juggernaut: powerful and, quite crucially, unstoppable.

Of course, I have no issue against theorists problematizing the media.

Both on the level of figures (i.e., political economic reality) (Albarran & Dimmick, 1996; Schiller, 2000; Sussman, 1997) and of the figurative (i.e., symbolic reality) (Bagdikian, 1993; Kellner, 1995; Silverstone, 2006), there is much to be said about their failure to foster both inclusive and meaningful human connections. What I argue against though is that because the media are seen as invincible, audiences are implicitly understood to be their hapless victims.

Scholars who work within the field of audience studies have sought to dispel such simplistic assumptions. Rooted in the tradition of Reception Theory (which posits audiences that are able to interpret texts) and Uses and Gratifications Theory (which posits audiences that are able to select particular media for particular purposes) (Berger, 2007), they have pushed for the notion of active audiences.

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One of the seminal articulations of this position is Stuart Hall's (1980) Encoding/Decoding Model. With this, he brings about two revolutionary conceptual changes. First, he rejects the technical view of media messages in favor of a more semiotic perspective. Rather than stressing on the elimination of noise in information delivery systems, he highlights the frameworks of knowledge that affect how people perceive mediated ideas. Related to this, he emphasizes those so-called determinate moments wherein audiences assume any of the three (out of the four) ideal-type decoding positions when dealing with media messages:

"[1] within the dominant or hegemonic code the connotative level of the messages is decoded in terms of the dominant or preferred meanings ... [2] the negotiated code contains a mixture of adaptive and oppositional elements; and finally [3] the oppositional code is the position where a viewer perfectly understands both the literal and connotative inflection given to an event, but determines to decode the message 'in a globally contrary way'" (Alasuutari, 1999a).

This is why it is possible for individuals to look at exactly the same media text and still end up having distinctly varied impressions ofit, For instance, the online comments on Resiklo, one of the entries in the 2007 Metro Manila Film Festival, range from:

• Dominant or Hegemonic: "This is the biggest Pinoy movie ever ... Better watch it!" (from clicktheciry.corn)

• Negotiated: "There is not much to like about Resiklo ... But you have to admire Imus Productions for daring to take a risk to move Philippine cinema a step forward." (from azraelsmerryland. blogspot.com)

• Oppositional: "I think I they should have paid me for watching this disgusting movie in the first place." (from critiko.blogspot. com)

Indeed. the audiences' ability to assert their own ways of making sense of media texts is clear here.

Of aU of the media users though, fans are perhaps the starkest illustration of audience activity. Once caricatured by scholars as characters prone to extreme stalking behaviors (i.e., the fanatic fan), crowd contagion (i.e., the teenage pop fan), and low art consumption (i.e., the cultural

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moron fan), they are now understood in more nuanced terms (Ross & Nightingale, 2003). Indeed, it may be true that they can be a tool to intensify commodification. In terms of political economic reality for instance, their support for media merchandise has allowed the top five media licensors in the world-Disney, Warner Brothers, Nickelodeon & Viacom, Marvel Enterprises, and Sanrio--to rake in $33.75 billion in annual earnings (Riorto, 2006). And in terms of symbolic reality. their penchant for celebrities have spawned quite a few unscrupulous media industry practitioners who treat celebrities as prized prey for public consumption, like the case of the paparazzi literally chasing Princess Diana to the death (Alasuurari, 1999b). Despite all these, they are now also acknowledged as able to challenge this objectifying system. Through such endeavors as writing fan fiction, filking (or fan music-making), or creating discursive fan communities both on- and oRline. they can highlight and subvert various aspects of the media texts that they deal with (Ross & Nightingale, 2003). More radically, they are even capable of launching campaigns that try to force media companies to change their decisions on show cancellations. Some attempts to do this have flourished, such as the case with the return of cartoons Farscape and The Family Guy after much clamoring from its American fans. Although unsuccessful, a similar pitch was made locally by the viewers of GMA Network's LG BT-oriented show Out. Quite obviously then, audiences, and fans most especially, are not mere drones who are at the mercy of the media.

RECONCEPTUALIZATION 2: THE AUDIENCE AS EMBEDDED

If text-centrism is a problematic tendency, audience-centrism is equally so. To be sure, there are scholars who can be recklessly optimistic about the idea of active audiences. For instance, some postmodernists would tend to harp on the concept of eclecticism, which is "the degree zero of contemporary general culture: one listens to reggae, watches a western, eats McDonald's food for lunch and local cuisine for dinner, wears Paris perfume in Tokyo and 'retro' clothes in Hong Kong" (Lyorard, 1984). Or, more specifically geared towards media users, they also posit the idea of bricolage, which is about "draw[ing] selectively and creatively on cultural materials and imagery from consumer culture, popular music and the mass media since these provide a shared and easily available source of cultural options" (Chandler & Roberts-Young, 1998). With this framework, it would appear that the perfect poster boys! girls for audience studies are those Internet users who have the proclivity for constructing ludic or

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playful identities (Turkle, 1995). Examples of this are those who assume different personalities when they enter chatrooms (e.g., Yahoo Messenger, MSN Messenger, iChat, etc.), play online games (e.g., Ragnarok, DOTA, Counterstrike, etc.) or participate in virtual reality worlds (e.g., Second Life, The Sims Online, Disney Toontown, etc.).

However, thinkers like Bird (2003) caution us against such overly celebratory approaches to audience activity. Refusing to confer absolute agency to media users, she instead puts forth a more reasonable claim: that, at best, what they have is constrained cultural creativity. In arguing this, she stresses how both economic capital and cultural capital figure in enabling or disabling their capacity to have a say in their media engagements. As an example of the problems brought about by the lack of economic capital, we can look at the ever-widening dual digital divide that plagues our information society (Friedman, 2000). While there are those in the developed world who can toy with altering their online identities, there are still a lot more from the developing world who have never laid their hands on a computer. As for the lack of cultural capital, we can look at how ethnic minorities within particular nation states struggle for a media space that would allow them "visibility, presence, community, influence and symbolic power" (Silverstone & Georgiou, 2005). And while they have yet to succeed in this, they continue to suffer the indignity of being on the fringes of social visibility, if not in virtual invisibility.

With the acknowledgement that social context does matter in audience studies, scholars have recently begun to shift away from a psychologistic vista and to .rnove towards a more sociological one. As Alasuutari (1999a) says,

"the main focus [should not be] restricted to finding out about the reception or 'reading' of a programme by a particular audience. Rather the objective is to get a grasp of our 'contemporary media culture,' particularly as it can be seen in the role of the media in everyday life, both as a topic and as an activity structured by and structuring the discourses within which it is discussed."

The importance of this move becomes quite clear when we look at how media culture plays out from a global perspective. For instance, Gillespie (2005) asserts that because different countries have different contexts, they give rise as well to necessarily different relationships between television drama and its viewers. In Trinidad for instance, she finds it useful to frame their dynamics in terms of the media imperialist thesis (because

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of the dominance of the US shows) and the global/local thesis (because of the Trinidadians ability to appropriate these shows). Meanwhile, she understands the situation in Egypt to be a mix of the development thesis (because the government uses the state media to promote nation building) and the media imperialist thesis (because the government's use of the media is patterned after Western procedures). And finally for India, she employs both the development thesis (because the government uses the media to form particular national and gendered subject positions) and the global/local thesis (because viewers continually resist the government's suasions).

Certainly more complex than the above though is the situation of diasporic audiences who constantly travel across the increasingly porous national boundaries of rodays globalized world. Indeed. their use of the media would most probably be in relentless Hux, especially since they have to deal with perpetually varying public discourses that impinge on how they perform their identities (Gleese, 2(03). In other words, their everchanging situations make them ever-changing too (i.e., adaptable, mutable, non-definable, and imaginative) (Oilier. 2(05). With the numbers of such audiences on the rise, the idea of emphasizing embedded ness, or maybe even multiple embeddedness, can only become even more salient.

RECONCEPTUALIZATION 3: THE AUDIENCE AS ENGAGED

With aU the talk about audience activity, many political communication scholars (e.g., Ansolabehere & Iyengar, 1995; Sorirovic & Mcleod. 2004) find it appalling that, for one reason or another, a significant number of media users appear to be unconcerned about traditionally political issues (e.g., macro-economy, national security, foreign relations, etc.), And it appears that this phenomenon is quite stark in the USA, where ordinary folks may launch a petition to prevent the teen-oriented TV series The DC (The Orange County) from being axed, vote in blocks to save their favorite American Idol contestant, or collectively censure Britney Spears' lifestyle, but only muster a fifty to sixty percent voter turnout during national elections.

This apprehension about politically uncaring audiences is based on a dichotomizing view of media users. On the one extreme are those who are active, deliberate and engaged citizens, while on the other are those who are passive and apolitical consumers. In between them lay the varying degrees of political involvement, ranging from (and the following moves from citizen to consumer): (1) maki ng proposals about public issues, (2)

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responding to politicians. (3) commenting on an issue/event/group without making proposals for actions. (4) speaking about a personal experience or as consumers, and (5) speaking about sports. celebrity or entertainment (Lewis, Inthorn, & Wahl-Jorgensen, 2005). Here of course. those who are thought of as citizens are favored over those who are thought of as consumers.

In one of her latest works though. Livingstone (2005) forcefully argues against the valorization of the citizen and disparagement of the consumer. First, she says that the private (or the realm of the consumer) is necessary for the formation of the public imagination of media users. In the local context for example, watching the top-ratingfontaseryes-such as GMA Network's Kamandag and ABS-CBN's Lobo-may seem like an individual foray into outlandish realms. However, this activity nevertheless affords the viewers experiences that they can bank on to bond with others, whether it be informal conversations or highly organized fan conventions. Conversely, she also says that the public (or the realm of the citizen) is necessary in circumscribing the private imagination of media users. It is in remembering their responsibility to the broader public that they think twice about what media texts they are supposed to consume or not. This is why local advertisers have had to face the indignation of a considerable number of Filipinos, as in the case ofTanduay Rhurn's Nakatikim ka na ba ng kinse anyos?(Have you ever tasted a fifteen year old?) billboard or Frenzy's television advertisement that depicted teens happily choosing from a wide array of colored and flavored condoms.

It must be said though that Livingstone (2005) does not intend to conflate the conceptual notions of publics (or citizens) and audiences (or consumers). Rather, she discusses the possibility of a middle ground between these two. And here, she raises the idea of a civic culture, defined as a precondition for democratic engagement (i.e., the public sphere) that emerges from the realm of our everyday activities (i.e., the private sphere). As she explains together with Couldry & Markham (2006). it is here where public connection-that basic orientation towards a public world where public issues should be confronted-becomes a possibility for media users. To further clarify this, they expand the traditional meaning of public issues and of their mediation. As regards public issues, they assert that these "include politics but may go much wider than politics, and particularly traditional definitions ofpolitics.?' And as for their mediation, they contend that these "[extend] beyond factual news and documentary (important though those are) to many other forms of storytelling and talk, from phone-ins to soap operas, where debates about the substance

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and principles of collective issues get expressed and debated." With the traditionally and nontraditionally pol itical all part of civic culture then, audiences are no longer just citizens or consumers. Rather, they are, in varying degrees of mixture, cultural citizens who arc involved in cultural activities that matter to the public sphere (Livingstone, 2005).

Livingstone's (2005) conception of a civic culture also brings up another important shift in perspective. Quite importantly, it allows researchers to examine media users' public engagements not merely from an institutionally conjured discourse (i.e., the Habermasian public sphere), but also from their own quotidian understanding of what it means to be an audience (i.e., the moral hierarchies in the culture they are embedded in) (Haagen, 1999). As Morley (1999) says, it makes people "pay attention to whatever it is that the audience do seem to think is 'real,' 'important' and/or 'serious,' rather than berate (or ignore) them, when their choices are at odds with [academic] presumptions."

RECONCEPTUALIZATION 4: THE AUDIENCE AS RESPONSIBLE

Beyond acknowledging that audiences are more or less engaged with the wider society, there is still the more difficult issue of the quality of their engagements. Indeed, there is always the danger that they use the increasingly mediated nature of their involvement as a padding to cushion the impact of the less palatable realities oflife, such as the hunger, disease, and poverty that continue to ravage people around the world. For some, this is all right. For instance, De Zengotita (with \Vescotr, 2005) has what he calls the Justin's Helmer Principle. In explaining this, he says,

"That's what I call judgments of mediated options where you say 'OK, this puts me off aesthetically, but .. .' I see these kids in certain neighborhoods, all padded up in their padded playgrounds -and it looks so precious, almost ridiculous, compared to the way things were in my childhood when no one had ever heard of a bike helmet. If I just stopped there, I would be a grouch. But the truth is, if I had a young child today, she would be padded to the nines. And that's the way it goes across the field of options the media present to us."

However, I would tend to agree more with those who find such a stance

L

problematic, like Robins (in Silverstone, 2002a). Speaking in more somber

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terms, he laments,

"The screen exposes the ordinary viewer to harsh realities, but it screens out the harshness of those realities. It has a certain moral weightlessness: it grants sensation without demanding responsibility, and it involves us in a spectacle without engaging us in the complexity of its reality."

To be sure, media texts today have a penchant for two polarities, both of which are unacceptable in this era of increased interaction among people from different cultures. On the one hand, they can either push the unfamiliar "to a point beyond strangeness, beyond humanity" or draw it "so dose as to become indistinguishable from ourselves" (Silverstone, 2002b).

Precisely because audiences are active, embedded, and engaged, they cannot but be implicated in this kind of mediation that pervades our present society. In discussing this, I rely heavily on the works of Silverstone, who tirelessly insists that audiences recognize that by donning their socalled Justin's Helmets, each one of them, first and foremost, is responsible in sustaining this kind of world where their understanding of distant people is hindered. They are either complicit (i.e., willing participants) or collusive (i.e., actively engaged) in the failure of our mediated world (Silverstone, 2002a). As an example of this, we can look at how they use the various social networking software, such as MySpate, Multiply and Friendster. In the act of selecting whom to accept or whom to reject as their friends, they tend to categorize people as strangers (thereby annihilating them from their reality) or familiar friends (thereby incorporating them into their reality). And more than this) what is truly appalling here is that the care that they are supposed to extend to people who are truly Other than themselves is replaced by excessive narcissism. What becomes important is what the "I" wants. I click "add" to connect with you. And I click "delete" to disengage from you. In asking media users to remedy this kind of situation, Silverstone points to two paths forward.

On a more philosophical note) he urges audiences to throwaway their Justin's Helmets and live in a world that is unpadded, uncertain, but ultimately a feeling one. With this act) he understands them to be involved in seeking what he calls Proper Distance (Silverstone, 2003). Here, he instructively points to Levinas' notion of the touch, which is about reaching out to Other without being immersed in or subsuming his/her otherness (Pekkarinen, 2003). He says it is through this nuanced experience that

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they will learn that although the distances that their ways of mediating bring about can be called proper or not, there is no one measure for all of them. Rather, "like everything else that is meaningful in social life, [it] can neither be taken for granted nor is it pre-given. It has to be worked for. It has to be produced" (Silverstone, 2003).

And then on a more practical note, he asks them to push harder for media literacy (Silverstone, 2006). By this he means two things. One, he says that they must ensure that their educational institutions are able to hone their capacity "to make effective and authoritative choices and judgments when confronted with the welter of information and narrative at his or her disposal and when confronted with the glossing simplicities of media representation." In other words, serious work must be done in considering media studies as important as the other traditional forms of literacies-like English and Math-that are presently emphasized in primary and secondary school curricula. Beyond this though, he says that they should also be able to "engage with the conditions of [media texts'] production and more importantly ... the world that they bring to [their] front doors." This means that beyond being able to critique what is on print, on speakers, onscreen, and online, audiences must also equip themselves with knowledge about the political economy of the mediated world that they live in.

Certainly, Silverstone's radical admonitions of responsibility for audiences are "threatening" and "violent" in more ways than one (Dayan, 2006). Indeed, many argue against its impossibility, However, others have started taking up the challenge. Chouliaraki (2006), for one, thinks that, with enough work on the level of the everyday, fostering publics of proper distance that are hospitable, respectable, and just can be done.

CONCLUSION

In this paper, I sought to link together the various strands of development that have emerged from the field of audience studies. In the first half, I attempted to present a nuanced view of media users as both enabled and disabled in dealing with media texts. Through Hall's (in Alasuurari, 1999) Encoding/Decoding Model and Ross & Nightingale's (2003) work on fans, I underscored both their interpretive and material ability to deal with the media in their own terms. To balance this, I also brought up reminders from Bird (2003) and Alasuutari (I 999a) that their agency is constrained by the context they find themselves in, as is clear in the global comparisons done by Gillespie (2005) and the diasporic

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research done by Gleese (2003). For the second half of my work. I began by establishing that audiences are indeed oriented towards the wider society. Using Livingstone's (2005) notion of civic culture and its further development in Couldry, Livingstone. & Markham's (2006) concept of public connection, I tried to show that what is presently happening is less about audiences' becoming unengaged with public issues but more about them being differently engaged with these. Then, I raised the question of their quality of engagement through the moral lens of Silverstone, who implicates audiences in the ills of our mediated world (Silverstone, 2002a; 2002b) and urgently calls on them to create a world of Proper Distance (Silverstone, 2003) and of media literacy (Silverstone, 2006). Hopefully this attempt to discuss the intersections and tensions of audience activity, embeddedness, engagement and responsibility will spur researchers in/on the Philippine media context to take a closer look at the new (and ever renewing) resources for making sense of the mediaaudience connection.

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