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The surprising history of the active audience

Such evidence as can be discovered is proving intriguing, not only for our

understanding of the past, but also for our understanding of the present. Richard Butsch

(2000: 2) observes that:

‘While the underlying issues were always power and social order, at

different times the causes of the problems of audiences had different

sources. In the nineteenth century, the problem lay in the degenerate or

unruly people who came to the theater, and what they might do. In the

twentieth century, worries focused on the dangers of reception, how media

messages, might degenerate audiences. In the nineteenth century, critics

active passivity

audiences; in the twentieth, their .’


This nineteenth century audience has a longer history. In Elizabethan England, theater

audiences were highly active, asserting their right to participate, vocally critical or

appreciative, or even ignoring the action by loudly engaging in conversation, walking about

or playing cards during the performance. Indeed, the more noisy they were, the more

privileged they were seen to be, actors having the status of servants. As Butsch comments,

‘aristocratic audience sovereignty affirmed the social order’ (2000: 5), a provocative reversal

of the present day argument that consumer sovereignty asserts the power of the people

against the control of the property-owning elite.

How did things come to change? Butsch shows how, as the plebeian audience

followed the example of their betters, incorporating elements of carnival into their own

performance as an audience, by the nineteenth century the privileged classes had came to

fear, and so to critique and attempt to control, this rowdy, ‘over-active’ lower-class

audience. The importance of manners – together with the introduction of such physical

constraints as bolting chairs to the floor and dimming the lights – came to dictate

8 18

attentiveness and deference to the performers on the part of a ‘respectable’ audience in the

theatre and the early days of cinema. Meanwhile, ‘active’ engagement with the performance

marked the lower classes, with the consequence that ‘audiences at these entertainments let

slip their sovereignty and were contained if not tamed’ (2000: 6).

Reception becomes interiorized

One may speculate that it was the contrast with the visible activities of the live

audience which preceded it that contributed to twentieth century worries about the

television audience. How much do these worries center on the fundamental ambiguity, to

the observer, of physically inactive audiences? Is the person sitting quietly on the sofa

watching television part of a respectable audience, paying careful attention and

concentrating on understanding and benefiting from the entertainment offered, or are they

passive couch potatoes, dependent on media for their pleasures, uncritical in their

acceptance of messages, vulnerable to influence? And, if they do not sit quietly, are the

active audiences participating in their social world or disruptive audiences, unable to

concentrate? Such uncertainties invite prejudiced interpretation inflected by class and

gender: a middle class man attentively watching the news is assumed to be alert and

thoughtful, a working class woman attentively watching a soap opera is assumed to be

mindless and uncritical. Other people’s children are mindless, your own can concentrate

properly (Davison, 1983).

Interestingly, in the days when audiences participated vociferously, marking their

pleasure and displeasure, their critical response or their incomprehension, there was,

arguably, less of a distinction between media use and media reception – how people acted

materially, in time and space, could be taken to reveal their symbolic or cognitive

engagement with performances. Undoubtedly, documented accounts of the ‘reception’ of

the first production of a Shakespeare play, for example, would feel free to assume what the

9 19

audience thought from how they acted. Butsch argues that the change came partly because

literary form , although the introduction of the cinema further

of a transformation in

sedimented these new conventions. Thus, he suggests that:

‘As realism replaced rhetorical styles of dramatic acting in the nineteenth

century, the separation of audience from performer became paramount.

Realism also required silencing audiences, making them passive. The “well-

behaved” audience became preferred among the middle and upper classes

to audiences exercising sovereignty, which became a mark of lower class’

(Butsch, 2000: 9).

Such passivity not only describes the social conventions which govern polite behavior

but also, as genre studies have argued, audience passivity is assumed by a narrative form

dedicated to the construction of an impermeable, closed text in which the audience is firmly

required to identify with the hero, no other position being available (McCabe, 1974). Yet, as

audience reception studies have shown, audiences increasingly will not have it thus, their

rapt and adoring gaze at the Hollywood film being ever less the norm for television (Ellis,

1992). Rather, audiences today read against the grain, finding the opportunities for

engaging more creatively, or resistantly, with whatever openness they find within the text

or, as television genres blur further one into the other, they delight in contesting the genre

itself, questioning the shifting conventions of realism, joining in noisily albeit in the privacy

of their living room (Livingstone and Lunt, 1994),

An oral history of the television audience?

Both media use and media reception have continued to change during the twentieth

century. In terms of use, it seems that, as each new medium enters the home, it undergoes

a gradual transition from pride of place at the center of family life to a variable status

pitched somewhere between focal and casual, communal and individualized uses, where

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these are spread spatially throughout the household and temporally round-the-clock (Flichy,

1995; Livingstone, 2002). Reception, however, remains more difficult. Since that century

falls within living memory, I have argued (Livingstone et al, 2001) that the method of oral

history could be used, although the difficulties in interpreting such data should not be

underestimated (Samuel and Thompson, 1990). Again, we find the familiar problem, for

conventional wisdom among oral historians suggests practices are more reliably recalled

than meanings (O'Brien and Eyles, 1993). We may therefore have more confidence in

asking people to recall going to the cinema in the 1940s than in asking them what they then

thought of a particular film and how they interpreted it.

Consider Jackie Stacey’s (1994) survey of women fans of Hollywood stars during the

1940s and 50s. Although she acknowledges the problems of oral history - 'these histories of

spectatorship are retrospective reconstructions of a past in the light of the present and will

have been shaped by the popular versions of the 1940s and 1950s which have become

cultural currency during the intervening years' (1994: 63) - what comes over clearly is the

fascination with glamour and escapism conveyed by her informants. As one comments, 'I

think in those eras, we were more inclined to put stars on a pedestal. They were so far

removed from everyday life, they were magical'. Must we conclude only that this viewer has

reconstructed the past from the vantage point of the present, now seeing herself as a more

knowing and critical viewer? Or can we agree with Stacey when she also argues that modes

of perception, or relations of looking and seeing, are not universal but are historically

contingent. As she puts it, the post-war period saw a shift from a spectator/star relationship

based upon distance to one based on proximity.

Relevance, realism, relativism

In some recent research, my colleagues and I attempted to extend the oral history of

leisure practices to the domain of media reception (Livingstone et al, 2001). The project

1 21

interviewed different generations, from people in their teens to those in their eighties, about

the crime-related media they had seen throughout the postwar period (or such of it as they

had lived through). Crime, and its representation in the media, proved a provocative

subject, stimulating lively discussion of the media, society and its morals. From listening to

what these different generations remembered or found interesting, the ways they talked

about the different periods, the different media and, indeed, their lives today, we tentatively

identified three changes.

First, and consistent with Stacey’s argument, above, it seemed that while in the early

post-war period, people found pleasure in crime media primarily for their escapist

relevance – for them, the point of

irrelevance, today’s audience is strongly concerned with

engaging with the media is that connections are made with one’s own life. This stress on

relevance motivates not only the gratifications sought from watching crime dramas but also

the process of reception, so that where before, the characters and action were interpreted

primarily in terms of the internal coherence of the – preferably glamorous – narrative, now

interpretation draws more strongly on frameworks or situations from daily life while the

narrative is, in turn, made to ‘speak to’ the audience’s everyday experiences. That the

importance of escapism was once greater is confirmed by Sally Alexander (1994) in her

account of becoming a woman in London in the 1920s and 1930s. She argues that the

cinema played a crucial role in making it possible for young women to conceive of other

ways of living, particularly ways different from those of their mothers - glamour, freedom

from drudgery and housework, romance, new conceptions of femininity. In other words, for

them at that time, escapism was vital, and as Alexander sees it, positive in value.

Second, and connected with the desire for connection to one's own life, is a change in

judgements of realism. The current, young audience preferred representations which they

considered realistic (including the appeal of 'just like us' soap opera characters dealing with

2 22

crimes) and able to offer them useful information about crime risks etc. Realism for them

means fuzzy moral boundaries, complex situations, seeing both sides of an issue,

unresolved endings, seeing for oneself the physical consequences of violence. For the older

audience, by contrast, realism was little talked about for past media, but has now been

adopted as an evaluative criterion for present-day media. However, for them it is more likely

to representations with recognizable characters, everyday settings, an absence of glamour

or melodrama, a concern with minor crimes, and a lack of gratuitous or gory violence. Using

these different criteria, then, we saw younger audiences criticize past media for their lack of

realism by comparison with the present, while older audiences make the opposite


Third, we identified a change in the moral framework for interpreting media crime,

from a frame of moral absolutism to one of contextualised relativism. A series of symbolic

reversals were enumerated by the older generations: ever since the 1960s, they argued, the

world is upside down - the police get sued by the criminals, the criminals get financial

compensation or a comfortable life in prison while their victims are shown to suffer, the

police are themselves corrupt, and so forth. Yet for younger people, these same

observations are interpreted as far from distressing, as a legitimate relativism, realistic in a

world where good and bad are a matter of contextualised judgements rather than abstract

principles. All this has interesting implications for the reception process for what makes a


'good story' has been redefined, with audiences shifting from an interest in working out

how means

s/he will be caught to an interest in working out what it to be

is the baddie and


the baddie and they will be caught.

From the past to the future

Although we have still little historical knowledge of reception – of people’s

understandings, interpretations, and critical awareness of media contents – we can hardly

3 23

suppose these historically invariant. Nor, of course, are these likely to remain constant given

the continuing changes in both the media environment and the social contexts of media

use. Beyond arguing for the importance of taking a longer-term perspective on audiences’

engagement with the media than just the immediate lens of today’s concerns, I have also

suggested here that the very separation which is currently bedeviling audience research,

that between the analysis of the use of media-as-objects and the reception of media-as-

texts, is itself historically contingent. For the invisibility, or privatization, of what audience

members are thinking, or learning, or feeling is a new (i.e. twentieth/twenty-first century)

problem, and one which marks a new degree of separation – in theory, methodology, and

practice - between the use of media-as-goods and the reception of media-as-texts.

I will end this chapter by sketching how this look back at the past may illuminate the

future, drawing out implications of the above arguments for our understanding of how

people engage with new media as objects and as texts. But first, one must address the

semantic difficulty that one can hardly begin to analyze the new media without realizing

that, in both ordinary and academic language, we currently face an uncertainty over how to

audience was, and to

discuss people in terms of their relationship with media. The term

some extent still is, satisfactory for mass media research, but it clearly fits poorly within the

domain of new media for, arguably, audiences are becoming 'users.'

The end of ‘the audience’?

The term ‘audience’ only satisfactorily covers the activities of listening and watching

(though even this has been expanded to include the activities which contextualize listening

and viewing). The term ‘user’ seems to allow for a greater variety of modes of engagement,

although it tends to be overly individualistic and instrumental, losing the sense of a

collectivity which is central to ‘the audience’, and with no necessary relation to

communication at all, leading one to wonder whether users of media technologies differ

4 24

from users of washing machines or cars. Analytically, audiences are being relocated away

from the screen, their activities contextualized into the everyday lifeworld. They are also

users insofar as they are grappling with the meaning of new and unfamiliar technologies in

their homes, schools and workplaces. These media and information technologies open up

playing surfing

computer games, the

new, more active modes of engagement with media --

searching writing responding visiting shopping

databases, and to email, a chatroom,


online, and so on. We don’t even have a verb to capture that increasingly important way in

which people are engaging with media, namely fandom: one may be part of an audience for


soap opera, but one’s relation to Harry Potter, or Barbie, or even Manchester United 2

precisely intertextual, spanning multiple media and hence multiple modes of engagement.

Rather than offering a new term here, I suggest that no one term can continue to

cover the variety of ways in which technologies mediate relations among people. Hence,

instead of asking what audiences - conceived as an artificial reification of a particular

technological interface - are really like, we should rather conceptualize 'the audience' as a

relational or interactional construct, a shorthand way of focusing on the diverse

relationships among people – who are first and foremost workers, neighbors, parents,

teachers or friends – as mediated by historically and culturally specific social contexts as

well as by historically and culturally specific technological forms. For ‘audience’ researchers,

then, the interesting questions are less and less, when and why do people watch television

or read a newspaper, if this question means, implicitly, why do they do this instead of doing

something else? Rather, as social spaces, and social relations, which are untouched by

mediated forms of communication become fewer and fewer, we must instead ask questions

about how, and with what consequences, it has come about that all social situations

(whether at home or work, in public or in private, at school or out shopping) are now,

5 25 both

simultaneously, mediated spaces, thereby constituting their participants inevitably as

and as audiences, consumers or users?

family, workers, public or communities

Reception and use converge

It was argued above that, while in earlier centuries, use and reception were intimately

connected, so that reception could be ‘read off’ from the participatory activities of audiences

in particular social contexts of media engagement or use, in the age of mass television use

and reception became disconnected. In a curious reversal of this trend, I now wish to

suggest that in the new media environment, reception may be once again gleaned – at least

to some extent - from an analysis of use. For audiences are increasingly required to

participate audibly and physically, albeit that their activities require a subtle eye on the part

of the observer. Users are, necessarily, clicking on hypertext links in order to create a

sequential flow of images on the world wide web, typing in order to co-construct the

messages of the chat room, externalizing their conception of interface design and genre

when producing their website, and manipulating their game character in order to keep the

game going. They are also accumulating auditable references to their content preferences

though ‘favorites’ folders, inboxes, history files, software downloads, and so on. Although it

will remain a methodological challenge to discover what participants are thinking or feeling

when they engage with such media, it is intriguing that, increasingly, without physical and

hence visible participation in the process of reception, there will be neither text nor

reception in the first place. However, most of this remains to be researched, as thus far,

perhaps because new media technologies have arrived in our homes in advance of radical

new notions of content, more audience (or user) research on new media has focused on

media-as-objects rather than media-as-texts.

Undoubtedly, then, the new media pose some interesting challenges to audience

research in relation to both reception and use (Livingstone, 1999). First, they facilitate the

6 26

multiplication of personally-owned media (from mobile phones to the television set), thereby

encouraging the privatization of media use, including the media-rich bedroom culture of

young people (Livingstone, 2002) and the sound bubble of the Walkman commuter.

Further, the diversification of media and media contents, is facilitating wider trends towards

individualization, in which media goods and contents are used to construct lifestyles no

longer grounded in sociodemographically-defined traditions. More recently, the convergence

of traditionally distinct media, is resulting in a blurring of traditionally distinct social

boundaries (‘edutainment’, ‘infotainment’, tele-working, e-learning), potentially undermining

traditional hierarchies of expertise and authority.

Most significantly, however, new media technologies hold the possibility of expansion

of interactive forms of media, and the resulting potential for transforming a once-mass

audience into engaged and participatory users of information and communication

technologies. From the literature now emerging, it seems that these first three challenges

are already being researched, particularly insofar as these concern changing discourses and

practices of media use. But as for the fourth, we have barely begun to investigate the

intellectual, symbolic and social contexts for and consequences of engaging with the

particular forms and contents of the new media. Some preliminary observations may be

offered, however.

From mass to interactive audiences

While the argument for the active audience of traditional media has probably been

taken as far as it can go, interactive technologies now coming onto the market increasingly

put such interpretative activities at the very center of media design and use. Thus, the new

media environment extends arguments in ‘active audience’ theory by transforming hitherto

marginal or marginalized tendencies into the mainstream of media use. Audiences - as users

- are increasingly active (i.e. selective, self-directed, producers as well as consumers of

7 27

texts) and therefore plural (i.e. multiple, diverse, fragmented), although Neuman (1991:

166) is among many who question ‘whether or not the proliferation of new communications

channels will lead to fragmentation of the mass audience’. At the same time, the once-

accessible and supposedly powerful media text is becoming as elusive as were audiences

before: because hypertext, characteristic of Internet content, is ‘a structure composed of

blocks of text connected by electronic links, it offers different pathways to users… the

extent of hypertext is unknowable because it lacks clear boundaries and is often multi-

authored' (Snyder, 1998: 126–7). To use Eco’s (1979) terms, the distinction between

‘virtual’ and ‘realized’ text is greater for interactive media, particularly for the flexible,

impermanent, non-linear, hypertextual data structures of the Internet.

Potentially, the text-reader metaphor of reception studies may prove particularly apt


. Whether for the Internet, or digital television, or mobile

for the new focus on the

technologies, analyzing the interface is proving demanding, for both designers and users

(Star and Bowker, 2002), bringing questions of literacy increasingly to the fore (Tyner,

1998). Literacy has, of course, underpinned all previous phases of ‘audiencing’, from the

conventions of participating in public performances, to the emergence of print literacy, the

more recent conceptions of audiovisual or media literacy required to decode the genres and

conventions of cinema and television, to the new questions posed especially by interactive

media, especially the internet. And, as Luke (1989) points out, literacy – in encapsulating

the cognitive and cultural competencies that underpin effective communication, and hence

effective social functioning - has always been intimately related to questions of power and

inequality. Here we return to a familiar debate within audience studies, now apparently to

be replayed in the new media environment. For optimists celebrate the liberating potential

of such an escape from the confines of the dominant text:

8 28 add

'In general, then, hypertext seems to dimensions of writing, and to

that extent may encourage new practices of reading as well: ones that

might prove more hospitable to alternative, non-traditional points of view

and more inclusive of cultural difference’ (Burbules, 1998: 107).

And others are more pessimistic, identifying ways in which the world wide web

remains more hierarchical than hypertextual, more commercial than public, more closed

than open (e.g. Joyce, 1998).


But all this is to anticipate the future. What should now be clear is that, throughout

the latter half of the last century, in most industrialized countries, television has been a

medium which has dominated and still does, for the moment at least, dominate our leisure

hours, our national cultures, our domestic living rooms, and our modes of family life, all with

a consistency and durability of reach and scale with which the media both preceding and

following have not been able, and are unlikely, to compete (though interestingly, in non-

industrialized countries, it remains radio which has the greatest reach). I have argued in this

chapter that if research adopts a longer historical lens, we may begin to position our

present theories of audiences in relation to actual audiences past and future.

We may then appreciate that to review contemporary audience research is to review a

phenomenon unique to twentieth century industrialized nations, namely the dominance of

mass broadcast television and, hence, the heyday of the mass television audience. Such an

appreciation makes the case for comparative research, both historical and cultural, ever

more compelling. As I have begun to indicate, the history of audiences is now beginning to

be told, and it already shows clearly that audiences were not the same before and will not

be the same again. Interestingly, both in looking back and in looking forward, it is already

proving easier to investigate the contexts within which people use media-as-objects than it

9 29

is to identify the interpretive ‘work’ with which audiences engage with media-as-texts. In

this sense, then, it is in understanding audience reception past and future that the greater

challenge remains if we are to keep in focus both audiences as consumers of media goods

and audiences as interpreters of symbolic mediations.

Sonia Livingstone

London 2002

Further reading Audiences: A Sociological Theory of Per f

ormance and

Abercrombie, N., & Longhurst, B. (1998).

Imagination . London: Sage.

The Making of American Audiences: From stage to television, 1750-1990

Butsch, R. (2000). .

Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Consuming Audiences? Production and recep t

ion in media

Hagen, I., & Wasko, J. (Eds.). (2000).

research . Cresskill, N.J.: Hampton Press.

Making Sense of Television: The Psychology of Audience Interpretation .

Livingstone, S. (1998c).


(2 ed.). London: Routledge.

Star gazing: Hollywood cinema and female spectatorship

. London: Routledge.

Stacey, J. (1994). The media and moderni t

y: a social t heory of the media

Thompson, J. B. (1995). . Cambridge:


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Questa dispensa fa riferimento al corso di Interfacce, contenuti e servizi per le tecnologie interattive, tenuto dalla Prof.ssa Poggiani. Si tratta di un documento frutto di una ricerca sull'audience da parte di Sonia Livingstone in cui evidenzia come nel tempo sia cambiata la natura di un pubblico prevalentemente di massa, che ha ceduto il posto ad un pubblico fatto di utenti interattivi, diversi e frammentati.

Corso di laurea: Corso di laurea magistrale in industria culturale e comunicazione digitale
A.A.: 2010-2011

I contenuti di questa pagina costituiscono rielaborazioni personali del Publisher Atreyu di informazioni apprese con la frequenza delle lezioni di INTERFACCE, CONTENUTI E SERVIZI PER LE TECNOLOGIE INTERATTIVE e studio autonomo di eventuali libri di riferimento in preparazione dell'esame finale o della tesi. Non devono intendersi come materiale ufficiale dell'università La Sapienza - Uniroma1 o del prof Poggiani Alessandra.

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