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Audience Theories

Any form of media has to be analysed on 3 levels:

Production - Text - Audience

Therefore it is essential you refer to theories that explore the

relationship between the audience, media texts and producers:

 Hypodermic needle or effects theory

 Cultivation Theory
 Two step flow theory Uses and Gratifications
 Reception Analysis
 Semiotics and audience readings

NB! Audience theories are an essential part of all 3 units in the

second year.
Model Level of How Does It Work? Theory of Media
Influence it mainly relates









Vance Packard (1957) the hidden persuaders

Media can directly inject message

Audience is;

• passive – weak & inactive

• homogeneous
• like blank pages
two step flow
The audience is diverse & more complex

Diversity in the way we identify & recognise – due to different

backgrounds and experiences

• Preferred (or dominant) reading

• Ruling classes bombard audience

• It becomes difficult to ignore and retain a critical viewpoint

• This is not a direct process but has a ‘drip-drip-drip’


Active audience approach

Some media messages get through others are ignored

or rejected (filtered out)

Klapper (1960) for a media message to have any

effect must pass through three filters

• Selective exposure
• Selective perception
• Selective retention
• Blumler & McQuail (1968) suggest that people get what they
want from the media

• Young people may watch MTV for the ‘music’ - middle age men
for the semi-naked pop stars

• They are active interpreters and choice makers

• Marxists argue this ignores possibility of socially created needs

created by capitalism to detract from class inequalities
People interpret media texts differently according to
class, ethnicity, age, etc.

Reception analysis

Morley (1980) – messages often have many meanings


Audience has three responses

• Dominant response
• Oppositional response
• Negotiated response
Postmodernism & ‘Active Audience’
Audience are too diverse

Media is diverse and complex

Generalisations are impossible

Reception analysis at an audience level is meaningless

What is the point then of studying audience effects?

Hypodermic syringe or effects theory

This theory was popular in the 1950s. Academics viewed the mass
media in a negative way in terms of its effect on a mass
This theory asks who owns and controls the media and what
messages are inscribed into media texts.
The media is seen as a syringe which injects ideas attitudes and
beliefs into the audience who are seen as passive sponge like
junkies who are powerless to resist.
Proposes a simple cause and effect relationship between the
producers of texts and the audience. In other words if you
watch something violent you may act violently.
On a ideological level dominant political ideas and values are
injected into the public by powerful media moguls or groups. If
you constantly see women washing up on TV you will come to
accept this as a ‘natural’ role for a woman.
Cultivation theory
Because of the difficulty of proving the effects of individual texts
on their audience a more refined version of the effects theory
was needed.
Rather than the crude injection metaphor this theory sees the
audience as being more like a patient on a slow drip feed.
According to cultivation theory whilst any one text does not have too
much effect, years and years of watching violence will make you
less sensitive to violence.
Recent research suggests that whereas playing Grand Theft Auto
occasionally might not make you want to run over old ladies
overuse of PS2 can have adverse effects on the brain
development of young children.
There are many criticisms of effects theories but the models do
raise interesting and important questions regarding the influence
of the media in several Unit 4 and 5 topic areas:
Can cartoons create violence in young children? Does the music
industry construct teen identities and sub-cultures as consumer
groups? Does the sports media present male sport and
personalities as more important
The two step flow theory

Based on the premise that whereas the media might not have a
direct effect (one step/first hand) they do have an indirect
effect via selected others (two step/second hand).
This theory is based on the idea that whatever our experience
of the media we will be likely to discuss it with others and if
we respect their opinion (or not sometimes we all gossip or
pass on unsubstantiated stories) we are more likely to be
influenced by it.
In terms of media personalities or respected journalists or
opinion formers we all have our own particular favourites.
These people can be newsreaders, critics, writers,
photographers, sports stars, soap stars, or certain lifestyle
magazines, chatshow hosts etc.
Are your opinions about TV, films or groups ever influenced by
other people?
Uses and gratifications
Dissatisfaction with effects theories led to the development of
theories that give the audience a more active role. U & G
sees the media in a more positive light and gives the
audience an active role in making meaning.
Rather than asking”what does the media do to people?” it
focuses on the audience and asks “what do people do with
the media?”
We all have different needs (leisure, entertainment,
information etc) and some of these can be provided by the
media. Therefore we make choices over what media we want
to use in order to gratify these needs.
This links to a pluralist/liberal theory of media and society in
which we as consumers largely control the media. We get the
kind of media we want and deserve via market forces.
Any ideological messages inscribed in the text are mediated by
the audience who are not passive sponges.
Reception analysis
This extends the U & G approach. Once you accept that people
use the media in different ways then the next step is to
actually study how this happens.
This theory is based on the idea that no text has only one simple
meaning. Rather the audience themselves help create the
meaning of the text.
Each one of us is constructed in many different ways through
family, education, peers etc and it is these differences that
enable us to encounter the world including the media in
different ways.
Reception analysis looks at the differences in the ways people
read texts and the reasons for this.
Asks questions such as “Why do soaps mean different things to
men and women?”
Semiotics and audience readings
Semiotics as you all should know means the study of signs and focuses
on the way meanings are encoded into a media text and how an
audience may decode these meanings.
Although mainstream texts usually reflect dominant ideologies and
audiences are positioned to accept this message they still have
choices in how they read/respond to a text. The process by which
dominant ideology is maintained is called hegemony. These different
responses have been categorised as:
Dominant or preferred response – the dominant or commonsense values
of society are accepted by the audience
Subordinate or negotiated response – the audience accepts most of the
dominant values but may be critical of some aspects.
Radical or oppositional responses – the audience totally rejects the
dominant values inscribed in the text.
Semiotics therefore recognises both the power of the text but also
the ability of the audience on some occasions to deny it.