The history of studies of the media audience can be seen as a series of oscillations between perspectives which have stressed the power of the text (or message) over its audiences and perspectives which have stresses the barriers "protecting" the audience from the potential effects of the message. The first position is most obviously represented by the whole tradition of effects studies, mobilising a "hypodermic" model of media influence, in which the media are seen to have the power to "inject" their audiences with particular "messages", which will cause them to behave in particular ways. This has involved, from the Right, perspectives which see the media as causing the breakdown of "traditional values" and, from the Left, perspectives which see the media causing their audience to remain quiescent in political terms, inculcating consumerist values, or causing then to inhabit some form of false consciousness.

One of the most influential versions of this kind of "hypodermic" theory of media effects was that advanced by Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, along with other members of the Frankfurt School of Social Research. Their "pessimistic mass society thesis" reflected the authors' experience of the breakdown of modern Germany into fascism during the 1930s, a breakdown which was attributed, in part, to the loosening of traditional ties and structures--which were seen as then leaving people more "atomised" and exposed to external influences, and especially to the pressure of the mass propaganda of powerful leaders, the most effective agency of which was the mass media. This "pessimistic mass society thesis" stressed the conservative and reconciliatory role of "mass culture" for the audience. Mass culture was seen to suppress "potentialities", and to deny awareness of contradictions in a "one-dimensional world"; only art, in fictional and dramatic form, could preserve the qualities of negation and transcendence. Implicit here, was a "hypodermic" model of the media which were seen as having the power to "inject" a repressive ideology directly into the consciousness of the masses.

However, against this overly pessimistic backdrop, the emigration of the leading members of the Frankfurt School (Adorno, Marcuse, Horkheimer) to America, during the 1930s, led to the development of specifically "American" school of research in the forties and fifties. The Frankfurt School's "pessimistic" thesis, of the link between "mass society" and fascism, and the role of the media in cementing it, proved unacceptable to American researchers. The "pessimistic" thesis proposed, they argued, too direct and unmediated an impact by the media on its audiences; it took too far the thesis that all intermediary social structures between leaders/media and the masses had broken down; it didn't accurately reflect the pluralistic nature of American society; it was--to put it shortly--sociologically naive. Clearly, the media had social effects; these must be examined and researched, but, equally clearly, these effects were neither all-powerful, simple, nor even necessarily direct. The nature of this complexity and indirectness also needed to be demonstrated and researched. Thus, in reaction to the Frankfurt School's predilection for critical social theory and qualitative and philosophical analysis, American researchers, such as Herta Herzog, Robert Merton, Paul Lazarsfeld and, later, Elihu Katz began to develop a quantitative and positivist methodology for empirical audience research into the "Sociology of Mass Persuasion".

Over the next twenty years, throughout the 1950s and 1960s, the overall effect of this empirically grounded "Sociology of Mass Persuasion" was to produce a much more qualified notion of "media power", in which, media consumers were increasingly recognized to not be completely passive "victims" of the Culture Industry.

Among the major landmarks here were Merton's Mass Persuasion and Katz and Lazarsfeld's Personal Influence, in which they developed the concept of "two step flow" communication, in which the influence of the media was seen as crucially mediated by "gatekeepers" and "opinion leaders", within the audience community.

Looking back at these developments, in the early 1970s, Counihan notes the increasing significance of a new perspeitve on media consumption -- the "uses and gratifications" approach largely associated in the United States with the work of Elihu Katz and, in Britain, with the work of Jay Blumler, James Halloran and the work of the Leicester Centre for Mass Communications Research, during the 1960s. Within that perspective, the viewer came to be credited with an active role, so that there was then a question, as Halloran (1970) put it, of looking at what people do with the media, rather than what the media do to them. This argument was obviously of great significance in moving the debate forward--to begin to look to the active engagement of the audience with the medium and with the particular television programmes that they might be watching. One key advance which was developed by the uses and gratifications perspective, was that of the variability of response and interpretation. From this perspective, one can no longer talk about the "effects" of a message on a homogenous mass audience, who are all expected to be affected in the same way. Clearly, uses and gratifications did represent a significant advance on effects theory, in so far as it opens up the question of differential interpretations. However, critics argue that the limitation is that the perspective remains individualistic, in so far as differences of response or interpretation are ultimately attributed solely to individual differences of personality or psychology. From this point of view the approach remains severely limited by its insufficiently sociological or cultural perspective.

It was against this background that Stuart Hall's "encoding/decoding" model of communication was developed at the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, as an attempt to take forward insights which had emerged within each of these other perspectives. In subsequent years, this model has come to be widely influential in audience studies. It took, from the effects theorists, the notion that mass communication is a structured activity, in which the institutions which produce the messages do have the power to set agendas, and to define issues. This is to move away from the idea of the power of the medium to make a person behave in a certain way (as a direct effect, which is caused by a simple stimulus, provided by the medium), but it is to hold onto a notion of the role of the media in setting agendas (cf. the work Bachrach and Baratz on the media's agenda-setting functions) and providing cultural categories and frameworks within which members of the culture will tend to operate. The model also attempted to incorporate, from the uses and gratifications perspective, the idea of the active viewer, making meaning from the signs and symbols which the media provide. However, it was also designed to take on board concerns with the ways in which responses and interpretations are socially structured and culturally patterned at a level beyond that of individual psychologies. The model was also, critically, informed by semiological perspectives, focusing on the question of how communication works drawing on Umberto Eco's early work on the decoding of TV as a form of "semiological guerrilla warfare". The key focus was on the realisation that we are, of course, dealing with signs and symbols, which only have meaning within the terms of reference supplied by codes (of one sort or another) which the audience shares, to some greater or lesser extent, with the producers of messages. In this respect, Hall's model was also influenced by Roland Barthes' attempts to update Ferdinand de Saussure's ideas of semiology--as "a science of signs at the heart of social life" by developing an analysis the role of "mythologies" in contemporary cultures. The premises of Hall's encoding/decoding model were:
The same event can be encoded in more than one way.
The message always contains more than one potential "reading". Messages propose and "prefer" certain readings over others, but they can never become wholly closed around one reading: they remain polysemic (i.e. capable, in principle, of a variety of interpretations).
Understanding the message is also a problematic practice, however transparent and "natural" it may seem. Messages encoded one way can always be decoded in a different way.

The television message is treated here as a complex sign, in which a "preferred reading" has been inscribed, but which retains the potential, if decoded in a manner different from the way in which it has been encoded, of communicating a different meaning. The message is thus a structured polysemy. It is central to the argument that all meanings do not exist "equally" in the message: which is seen to have been structured in dominance, despite the impossibility of a "total closure" of meaning. Further, the "preferred reading" is itself part of the message, and can be identified within its linguistic and communicative structure. Thus, when analysis shifts to the "moment" of the encoded message itself, the communicative form and structure can be analysed in terms of what the mechanisms are which prefer one, dominant reading over the other readings; what are the means which the encoder uses to try to "win the assent of the audience" to his preferred reading of the message.

Hall assumes that there will be no necessary "fit" or transparency between the encoding and decoding ends of the communication chain. It is precisely this lack of transparency, and its consequences for communication which we need to investigate, Hall claims. Having established that there is always a possibility of disjunction between the codes of those sending and those receiving through the circuit of mass communications, the problem of the "effects" of communication could now be reformulated, as that of the extent to which decodings take place within the limits of the preferred (or dominant) manner in which the message has been initially encoded. However, the complementary aspect of this problem, is that of the extent to which these interpretations, or decodings, also reflect, and are inflected by, the code and discourses which different sections of the audience inhabit, and the ways in which this is determined by the socially governed distribution of cultural codes between and across different sections of the audience; that is, the range of different decoding strategies and competencies in the audience. In this connection, the model draws both on Frank Parkin's work on "meaning systems" and on Pierre Bourdieu's work on the social distribution of forms of cultural competence.

In parallel with Hall's development of the encoding/decoding model at the course for Contemporary Cultural Studies, in Birmingham (U.K.), the growing influence of feminism, during the 1970s led, among other effects, to a revitalisation of interest in psychoanalytic theory, given the centrality of the concern with issues of gender, within psychoanalysis. Within media studies, this interest in psychoanalytic theories of the construction of gendered identities, within the field of language and representation, was one of the informing principles behind the development of the particular approach to the analysis of the media (predominantly the cinema) and its effects on its spectator, developed by the journal Screen, which was, for a time in the late 1970s, heavily influential in this field, particularly in Britain, within film studies, in particular.

Screen theory was centrally concerned with the analysis the effects of cinema (and especially, the regressive effects of mainstream, commercial, Hollywood cinema) in "positioning" the spectator (or subject) of the film, through the way in which the text (by means of camera placement, editing and other formal characteristics) "fixed" the spectator into a particular kind of "subject-position", which it was argued, "guaranteed" the transmission of a certain kind of "bourgeois ideology" of naturalism, realism and verisimilitude.

"Screen Theory" was largely constituted by a mixing of Lacan's rereading of Freud, stressing the importance of language in the unconscious, and Althusser's early formulation of the "media" as an "Ideological State Apparatus" (even if operating in the private sphere) which had the principal function of securing the reproduction of the conditions of production by "interpellating" its subjects (spectators, audiences) within the terms of the "dominant ideology". Part of the appeal of this approach to media scholars rested in the weight which the theory gave to the ("relatively autonomous") effectivity of language--and of "texts" (such as films and media products), as having real effects in society. To this extent, the approach was argued to represent a significant advance on previous theories of the media (including traditional Marxism), which had stressed the determination of all superstructural phenomena (such as the media) by the "real" economic "base" of the society--thus allowing no space for the conceptualisation of the media themselves as having independent (or at least, in Althusser's terms "relatively autonomous") effects of their own.

Undoubtedly, one of Screen theory's great achievements, drawing as it did on psychoanalysis, Marxism and the formal semiotics of Christian Metz, was to restore an emphasis to the analysis of texts which had been absent in much previous work. In particular, the insights of psychoanalysis were extremely influential in the development of later feminist work on the role of the media in the construction of gendered identities and gendered forms of spectatorship (see, inter alia, Mulvey, 1981; Brunsdon, 1981; Kuhn, 1982; Modleski, 1984; Mattelart, 1984; Gledhill, 1988; Byars, 1991).

Proponents of Screen theory argued that previous approaches had neglected the analysis of the textual forms and patterns of media products, concentrating instead on the analysis of patterns of ownership and control--on the assumption, crudely put, that once the capitalist ownership of the industry was demonstrated, there was no real need to examine the texts (programmes or films) themselves in detail, as all they would display would be minor variations within the narrow limits dictated by their capitalist owners. Conversely, Screen theory focused precisely on the text, and emphasised the need for close analysis of textual/formal patterns--hardly suprisingly, given the background of its major figures (MacCabe, 1974; Heath, 1977, 1978) in English studies. However, their arguments, in effect, merely inverted the terms of the sociological/economic forms of determinist theory which they critiqued. In Screen theory, it was the text itself which was the central (if not exclusive) focus of the analysis, on the assumption that, since the text "positioned" the spectator, all that was necessary was the close analysis of texts, from which their "effects" on their spectators could be automatically deduced, as spectators were bound to take up the "positions" constructed for them by the text (film).

The textual determination of Screen theory, with its constant emphasis on the "suturing" (cf. Heath, op cit.) of the spectator, into the predetermined subject position constructed for him or her by the text, thus allocated central place in media analysis to the analysis of the text. As Moores puts it, "the aim was to uncover the symbolic mechanisms through which cinematic texts confer subjectivity upon readers, sewing them into the film narrative, through the production of subject positions" on the assumption that the spectator (or reading subject) is left with no other option but, as Heath suggests, to "make...the meanings the film makes for him/her".

Although the psychoanalytic model has continued to be influential in Film studies (and has been usefully developed by Valerie Walkerdine, in a way that attempts to make it less universalist/determinist), within communication and media studies, Hall's encoding/decoding model has continued to set the basic conceptual framework for the notable boom in studies of media consumption and the media audiences which occurred during the 1980s. To take only the best known examples, the body of work produced in that period included, inter alia, Morley's study of the "Nationwide" audience, Hobson's study of Crossroads viewers, Modleski's work on women viewers of soap opera, Radway's study of readers of romance fiction, Ang's study of Dallas viewers, Fiske's study of Television Culture, Philo's and Lewis' studies of the audience for television news, Jhally and Lewis' study of American audiences for The Cosby Show, and the work of Schroder, and Liebes and Katz on the consumption of American TV fiction in other cultures. Towards the end of the decade, much of the most important new material on media consumption was collected together in the published proceedings of two major conferences on audience studies--Drummond and Paterson's collection Television and its Audience, bringing together work on audiences presented at the International Television Studies Conference in London in 1986, and Seiter et al.'s collection Remote Control: Television, Audience's and Cultural Power, based on the influential conference of that name held in Tubingen, Germany, in 1987.

During the late 1980s, a further new strand of work developed in audience studies, focusing on the domestic context of television's reception within the household, often using a broadly ethnographic methodology and characteristically focusing on gender differences within the household or family in TV viewing habits. The major studies in this respect are Morley's Family Television, James Lull's Inside Family Viewing, Ann Gray's Video Playtime, Roger Silverstone's Television and Everyday Life, and, from a historical perspective Lynn Spigel's Make Room For TV. Much of this work can be situated within the broad framework of reception Analysis Research as discussed below.

-David Morley


Adorno, T. and Horkheimer, M. "The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception." In Curran, J. et al. editors, Mass Communication and Society. London: Edward Arnold, 1977.

Althusser, L. "Ideological State Apparatuses." In Althusser, L. Lenin and Philosophy. London: New Left Books, 1971.

Ang, I. Watching "Dallas." London: Methuen, 1985.

Blumler, J. et al. "Reaching Out: A Future for Gratifications Research." In Rosengren, K. et al., editors. Media Gratification Research, Beverly Hills, California: Sage, 1985.

Bourdieu, P. Distinction, London: Routledge, 1984.

Brunsdon, C. "Crossroads, Notes on a Soap Opera." Screen (London), 1981.

Budd, B. et al. "The Affirmative Character of American Cultural Studies." Critical Studies in Mass Communication, (Annandale, Virginia) 1990.

Byars, J. All That Hollywood Allows. London: Routledge, 1991.

de Certeau, M. The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 1984.

Condit, C. "The Rhetorical Limits of Polysemy." Critical Studies in Mass Communications. (Annandale, Virginia), 1989.

Corner, J. "Meaning, Genre And Context." In Curran, J. and M. Gurevitch, editors. Mass Media and Society. London: Edward Arnold, 1991.

Curran, J. "The "New Revisionism" in Mass Communication Research." European Journal of Communication (London), 1990.

Drummond, P., and Paterson, R., editors. Television and its Audiences. London: British Film Institute, 1988.

Evans, W. "The Interpretive Turn in Media Research." Critical Studies in Mass Communication (Annandale, Virginia), 1990.

Fish, S. Is There A Text In This Class? Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1980.

Fiske, J. Television Culture. London: Methuen, 1987.

Gledhill, C. "Pleasurable Negotiations." In Pribram, E., editor. Female Spectators, London: Verso, 1988.

Gray, A. Video Playtime: The Gendering Of A Leisure Technology. London: Routledge, 1992.

Gripsrud, J. The Dynasty Years, London: Routledge, 1995.

Hall, S. "Encoding And Decoding In The TV Discourse." In, Hall, S. et al., editors. Culture, Media, Language. London: Hutchinson, 1981.

Halloran, J. The Effects of Television. London: Panther, 1970.

Heath, S. "Notes on Suture." Screen, (London), 1977-78.

Hobson, D. Crossroads, London: Methuen, 1982.

Iser, W. The Implied Reader, Baltimore, Maryland: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974.

Iser, W. The Act of Reading. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976.

Jauss, H. R. "Literary History as a Challenge to Literary Theory." New Literary History, (Baltimore, Maryland), Autumn 1970.

Jensen, K. B. and Rosengren, K. E. "Five Traditions in Search of an Audience." European Journal of Communication, (London) 1990.

Jensen, K. B. "Qualitative Audience Research." Critical Studies in Mass Communication (Annandale, Virginia), 1987.

Jhally, S. And Lewis, J. Enlightened Racism. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1992.

Katz, E. and P. Lazarsfeld. Personal Influence. Glencoe, Illinois: Free Press, 1955.

Kuhn, A. Women's Pictures. London: Routledge, 1982.

Lewis, J. The Ideological Octopus. London: Routledge, 1991.

Liebes, T. and E. Katz. The Export of Meaning. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Lull, J. Inside Family Viewing. London: Routledge, 1991.

MacCabe, C. "Realism and the Cinema." Screen, (London), 1974.

___________. "Days of Hope." In Bennet, T. et al., editors. Popular TV and Film. London: British Film Institute, 1981.

Mattelart, M. Women, Media, Crisis. London: Comedia, 1984.

Merton, R. Mass Persuasion. New York: Free Press, 1946.

Metz, C. "The Imaginary Signifier." Screen (London), 1975.

Modleski, T. Loving With A Vengeance. London: Methuen, 1984.

Moores, S. Interpreting Audiences. London: Sage, 1993.

Morley, D. Family Television, London: Comedia, 1986.

__________. Television, Audience and Cultural Studies. London: Routledge, 1992.

__________.The Nationwide Audience. London: British Film Institute, 1980.

Parkin, F. Class Inequality and Political Order, London: Paladin, 1973.

Radway, J. Reading The Romance, Chapel Hill, North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press, 1984.

Rosengren, K. E. "Growth of a Research Tradition." In Rosengren, K. E. et al., editors. Media Gratifications Research. Beverly Hills, California: Sage, 1985.

Schroder, K. "Convergence of Antagonistic Traditions?" European Journal of Communications, (London), 1987.

_____________. "The Pleasure of Dynasty." in Drummond, P. and R. Paterson, editors. op cit., 1987.

Seaman, W. "Active Audience Theory: Pointless Populism." Media, Culture and Society (London), 1992.

Seiter, E. et al., editors. Remote Control. London: Routledge, 1989.

Silverstone, R. Television and Everyday Life. London: Routledge, 1994.

Spigel, L. Make Room For TV. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.

Tomkins, J., editor. Reader Response Criticism. Baltimore, Maryland: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980.

Walkerdine, V. "Video Replay." In Donald, J. et al., editors. Formations of Fantasy. London: Methuen, 1987.

See also Americanization; Children and Television; Demographics; Market; Ratings; Share; Violence and Television