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  The audience (from Latin audire, ‘to hear’), in the sense of the potential recipients of experiences of media texts, has increasingly become a focus of debate within media studies. At one end of the spectrum is the model of a passive viewer helplessly affected by a text and at the other is the notion of an active viewer using the text for his or her purposes.

Much of the argument has centred on ‘effects’ analysis which claims that the mass media have the power unproblematically to impose their meanings onto audiences and that this causes direct social and political effects (the analogy of injection with hypodermic needles is sometimes used here). Thus in recent decades research has purported to show the link between television violence and subsequent violent behaviour in some categories of viewer. In the past, similar accusations have been levelled at comics, radio and gangster films. Much of this work is inconclusive but it has nonetheless proved powerful and popular in fuelling moral panics about the mass media.

This relative neglect of the audience\'s subjectivity is mirrored in the work of the Frankfurt School. They saw the burgeoning mass media as the generator, via film, advertising, pop music and television, of ideology which contributed to the reproduction of the capitalist system and the subordination of the working class. In recent decades some Marxists, particularly those working within British cultural studies, have replaced the concept of imposition with the idea of an active, conscious audience interacting with the text. Here audiences in the process of decoding (and to some extent this will be dependent on socioeconomic background) may conform by producing a dominant reading of a text, but equally they can resist domination by producing negotiated or oppositional readings. Thus, following the Italian Marxist Gramsci, the ruling bloc cannot impose its will on an audience but must struggle to ‘win it over’.

Equally, effects analysis has been countered by research which asks not what effect the media have on people but what people do to the media. Uses and gratifications theory investigates how audiences use the media for their own purposes to satisfy existing needs. So, individuals will buy particular newspapers to confirm their political beliefs or they might install a satellite dish because they like watching sport on television. In neither case is the reader passive or, in the words of the American sociologist Harold Garfinkel, a ‘cultural dope’. Critics of this approach have complained that the idea of a reader making a free choice is mythical, and argue that there should be a renewed focus on who produces media texts and why.

More recent work has sought to fuse the advances of uses and gratifications theory with the emphasis on decoding in Gramscian cultural studies, where the audience is restricted in its understanding by social position but free to decode in different ways within that context. Research has concentrated on the experience of viewing and the awareness that such apparently mundane issues as who we watch television with will fundamentally influence the act of viewing. BC

See also encode/decode; performing arts; pop culture.Further reading D. Morley, Television Audiences and Cultural Studies.



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