Since the mid-1960s there have been two seemingly irreconcilable theories at the heart of much of the research debate into television audience behavior. One theory sees the audience in terms of passive receivers while the other sees them in terms of active participants. On one side, the passive theory assumes, as Paul Klein (July 1971) stated: "The biggest star in America is not any actor or show. It's television. People watch television, they don't watch programs." This was stated in more scientific terms by Webster and Lichty (1991) who said:
The idea that the total audience is determined by things other than the programming is common to both the conventional wisdom of programmers and to more formal theories of audience behavior ... In effect, what Klein suggested was that audience behavior is a two-stage process in which a decision to use the media precedes the selection of specific content. The tendency of people to turn on a set without regards to programming is often taken as evidence of a passive audience (p. 152-153).
Supporters of the active theory reject this idea that a passive audience is deciding to watch television with little or no concept of what is being presented, arguing instead that viewing is based on specific needs and gratifications. Under this active theory, program selection is linked to content, the viewer's mood at the moment and the desired mood. Followers of this position refer to the Carter (1960) model which viewed this process in terms of three phases:
1. Selection -- An active choice based on known alternatives, taking into account such things as expectations, knowledge, needs, personal opinions and expected benefits or behaviors.
2. Cathection -- Viewers react on an emotional level to what they are seeing. Carter described it in terms of warmth of assumed relationship, nostalgia, identification with characters or events, and so on. The strength of this reaction then led to:
3. Reinforcement -- Viewers adapt their beliefs and behaviors in response to what they have seen. This then affects their next selection of a program and so on.
Until recently, the passive view was the clear winner as far as the industry and most media researchers were concerned, while the active theory was relegated to sociology, psychology and a few media academic holdouts (Basser, 1964; Delia, 1978; Rosengren, Wenner & Palmgreen, 1985; Swanson, 1979, Dervin, 1981). The general stability of the audience over long periods of time (U.S. Office of Telecommunications Policy, 1973) regardless of programming changes and the seeming ability to predict duplication of audience, repeat viewing and audience flow with strictly rating based mathematical formulas was often used as proof that people were watching the medium, not programs as such -- i.e. passive viewing. To paraphrase Paul Klein, each broadcast network (there were only three he recognized at the time) had a 33 share just by random chance. Any share below 33 indicated a scheduling mistake -- i.e., your program was not the "Least Objectionable." Any share above 33 indicated your network was capitalizing on the mistakes of others. In any case, there was nothing that could be done to alter HUT (Homes Using Television) levels. HUT was stable so the only way to gain an audience was to take it from someone else and that had very little to do with variables such as quality, content, variety, number of reruns and so on (Klein, 1979).
In the late 70s the stability in which the passive theory placed so much faith seemed to vanish. Rating patterns (Robins, 1991), demographic conditions (Adams, 1994; Kissinger, 1991; Metzger, 1983; Miller, 1991), programming trends (Adams, 1994; Bagdikian, 1985; Bellamy, McDonald & Walker, 1990; Wakshlag & Adams, 1985), and basic viewing behaviors (Albarran, Pilcher, Steele & Weis, 1991; Alexander, 1990; Foisie, 1994; Heeter & Greenberg, 1985; Henke & Donohue, 1989), particularly as they related to the broadcast networks, all shifted in ways the passive theory could not explain. As a result the active theory made a comeback of sorts, with some researchers arguing that the mass viewing that passive theory had assumed was loyalty to television as a medium, was actually a stable desire for entertainment combined with a lack of any real alternatives -- i.e. only three networks to select from all doing basically the same thing. In the face of real competition, supporters of an active theory of viewing suggested passive models would collapse. Williams, Phillips and Lum (1985) claimed that as media alternatives increased, mass viewing patterns would break down in favor of individual, or content based viewing patterns. Head (1985) agreed and added that "channel stability" would disappear in favor of "channel hopping." Head and Sterling (1987) further went on to state that the remote control would put an end to tuning inertia, a major component in audience flow which itself was a major component of the passive theory. This breakdown of audience flow was supported in research by Heeter and Greenberg (1988; 1985) and Adams (1994; 1997).
Some researchers have even begun questioning areas once assumed to be completely understood. For instance, duplication of audience (defined by Goodhardt, Ehrenberg & Collins as "the size of the audience common to two different programs on different days depends on the ratings of the programs and the channels on which they are shown, rather than the content of the programs.") and repeat viewing (the percentage of people seeing one episode of a show who then see the next episode is a percentage based on the rating, not the content) were supposedly proven as principles years ago. Definitive work by Goodhardt, Ehrenberg and Collins (1979) and by Barwise (1986) claimed to have demonstrated that program loyalty was a myth. Repeat viewing and duplication were factors of availability and total audience size rather than any specific liking for the programs themselves. Researchers were so sure of this they often referred to the model as a "law" (Barwise & Ehrenberg, 1988; Goodhardt, Ehrenberg & Collins, 1987). But, building on work by Wober (1988; 1989), Brosius, Wober and Weimann (1992) challenged this traditional view, suggesting the earlier findings were a result of the method used rather than any "law" regarding behavior. They claimed too much audience research averaged viewing behavior, thus destroying the very patterns they claimed to be evaluating. Viewing, they asserted, was individual in nature. When they followed individual viewing patterns they found strong program loyalty, significant repeat viewing and significant duplication related to some program types.
While this work did not end the debate, it did demonstrate one of the major problems with audience research at this time. Researchers cannot even agree on the methods to use or what questions to ask. As Craig (1993) put it: "Even as we do more theory, we become collectively (if not individually) less certain of exactly what we are doing or should be doing ... The field remains in ferment and more than ever requires rethinking." He was supported in this view by Meyer (1994) and Hurwitz (1984) who claim audience research does little to explain audience reasoning. Hurwitz went on to say media research has become very good at generating "random numbers."
This renewed discussion, combined with the seeming inability of either the passive or active theories to provide adequate explanations for observed behavior has led some to call for a basic change in research methodology. Schlosberg (1993) went furthest perhaps with his call to drop quantitative methods altogether in favor of qualitative research. However, researchers like Morgan (1988), Walcott (1990), Livingstone (1993), Morley (1993) and Craig (1993) seem to be more in line with present thinking with their call for a combination of qualitative and quantitative work. They argued that the two methods together might be able to explain patterns that neither method alone had been able adequately to deal with. This view seemed to echo Merton, Fiske and Kendall (1990) who wrote:
It is not enough to learn than an interviewee regards a situation as "unpleasant" or "anxiety-provoking" or "stimulating"--summary judgements which are properly suspect and, moreover, consistent with a variety of interpretations. The aim is to discover more precisely what 'unpleasant' denotes in this context, which concrete feelings were called into play, which personal associations came to mind. (p. 4)
In reality, while Herzog's (1944) original use of focus group methodology was to better understand listener reactions to radio programs, since the introduction of a universally accepted rating system in the early 1960s, media audience research has concentrated on numbers. Ratings, shares, basic demographics and the patterns they form have become the basic units of analysis and discussion. As a result there is no widely accepted media based qualitative model to draw on when it comes to television audience research.
This study was designed to help fill that gap by providing initial qualitative research into the basic questions of how people choose to watch television and why they select the programs they do. It also uses qualitative methodology to examine support for either the passive or active theories of viewing. Perhaps, it may even be able to indicate what the bridge, suggested in the Webster and Wakshlag (1983) program choice model, that would link the active and passive theories together. However, at present the goal of this research is less grand. It is to see what qualitative methodology can tell us about the changing ways in which people choose what and when they watch network television, and to see if this can suggest new directions or areas of investigation for future audience research. This study will also begin to investigate perceptions of network television itself.
Focus group methodology was used for this study. As stated by Morgan (1988) and by Wimmer & Dominick (1997) this method was designed to:
1. gather a great deal of data from several subgroups within a population in a relatively short amount of time.
2. generate insight into areas that may not already be well understood.
3. gain understanding of relatively complicated cognitive processes as they relate to motivation, and
4. is the best method for developing insights that require group interaction.
The researcher, when selecting this method, also took into consideration Merton, Fiske and Kendall's (1990) statement that focus groups are very good at interpreting results from quantitative research. It should also be acknowledged that some consideration was given to Wimmer and Dominick's (1997) position that many media researchers, while inexperienced in the actual practice, are comfortable with the idea of using focus groups.
Twelve focus groups, which were separated based on the following criteria, were conducted in late 1996 and early 1997 using a total of 93 people. The twelve groups were divided among five subgroups within the population. Survey data from Gallup and Newport (1990) indicated there may be major differences in television viewing patterns based on age. Therefore the researcher divided the participants into three age brackets:
18 to 24 -- representing a group comfortable with new technology and relatively unfamiliar with a time when the major networks controlled virtually all viewing,
25 to 43 -- representing the so called "ideal demographic" age for network television viewers, and
44 up -- an audience with heavy ties to the traditional broadcast structure and more resistant to change.
The youngest age group, which represents the main university population, was the easiest to recruit and produced a relatively large number of participants. These 18 to 24 year olds (57 people in the final study), were recruited from large lecture courses which filled general requirements in a college of arts and sciences at a major mid-western university. Potential participants were screened to eliminate those limited to only group viewing situations, i.e., dorm TV rooms or other such conditions which would severely restrict their control over their own television viewing. This age group made up eight of the focus groups and were divided by major and race as researchers reasoned that communications majors might respond differently from non-communications majors, and that opinions might differ based on race. This was the only age group so divided.
Another 22 participants, two focus groups, were specifically recruited from graduate-student-only courses, or from non-traditional students. These participants ranged in age from 26 to 37. The remaining 14 people, forming two focus groups, were drawn from the surrounding town using organizations like the PTA and Rotary Club. They ranged in age from 45 to 71. The domination of the youngest group as far as the number of participants is concerned was not a reflection of their importance, but rather an indication of who was easiest to recruit.
Participants were told the sessions would take about 90 minutes, based on Morgan's (1988) and Wimmer and Dominick's (1997) recommendations concerning time. They were also told they would be asked to give their opinions concerning the television industry. Each group consisted of no fewer than six or more than 11 participants. As recommended by Merton, Fiske and Kendal (1990), all sessions worked from the same core of questions developed around the passive and active theories of television choice. (The moderators were given wide leeway to follow up on topics brought up by the group). This core included such open-ended questions as:
How do you usually decide when to watch? Do you have favorite networks or shows? Why or why not? Do you plan time around favorite programs? Do you plan time for viewing? Why or why not? How familiar are you with the major networks' schedules? Do you use TV Guide or some other guide to plan your weekly viewing?
Moderators were selected from mass communications graduate students and were trained by the researcher using trial focus groups. Their performances were evaluated and corrected until they were comfortable with the sessions and possible side issues or questions. They were also extensively trained on recent prime time programming trends so that they would be aware of any programs mentioned and their history.
Each session started with a brief explanation of the changes in the world of television, pointing out the growth in cable and the VCR. Participants were then surveyed as to their access to the various forms of television. This initial explanation and survey acted as the "effective stimulus" to get participants thinking along similar lines (Merton, Fiske & Kendall, 1990). All subjects had access to all major broadcast networks and 92 percent had access to at least nine channels on basic cable. This figure is high compared to nation-wide cable penetration (Cable Television Developments, 1995) and resulted from the fact that the community in which the study was conducted does not receive strong signals in most areas without cable. About 80 percent had access to a VCR and 40 percent had access to premium channels.
Following the stimulus, moderators then proceeded with the core questions, following up on the answers given until they felt they had exhausted discussion or were seeing patterns or consensus in the answers. At the end of each session the moderator summed up the major points that had come out in the discussion and asked participants if they agreed with those points or if the moderator had missed what they were really saying. All sessions were recorded, and the recordings were transcribed. Moderators also wrote up their own analysis of each session as soon as it was completed. The researcher in charge of the study did the final analysis. Based on Wolcott's (1990) recommendations, two types of analysis were done. The first consisted of a simple count system which produced the percentage of agreement given between participants in this study. The second analysis used the more in-depth ethnographic summary techniques drawing from each moderator's summary, the transcriptions and the actual tapes from each of the sessions (as the sound of the voice can indicate the emotional state of the participant at the time).
The Relationship Between the Media and Programming
The following quotes were taken from all sessions with no participant being quoted more than twice. Age is indicated only when that information was important to understanding or interpreting what was said. The race and major variables made no difference at all in any of the areas covered in this study. The topic of how and why participants watch television proved to be very complicated and indicated that many of the seemingly divergent opinions found in active vs. passive studies exist within the participants' cognitive processes as well. For example, all but three of the participants expressed a strong liking for television as a medium. All had favorite programs and most expressed no intention of reducing their viewing. Indeed, only six participants said they would even consider giving up television for any length of time. (However, several did claim to restrict their children's viewing.) All participants claimed viewing was an enjoyable, easy way to relax. The majority also confirmed that they spent most of their viewing time with the major networks, although none of them selected ABC, CBS or NBC as their favorite programming source (12 of the younger group and 5 of the 34 to 44 group did select FOX). When most participants named a favorite channel, it was usually a cable network which limited itself to a specific genre such as ESPN, A & E or CMT. But, 60 percent of the favorite shows mentioned were on one of the major broadcast networks (including FOX).
However, when talk turned specifically to the broadcast networks, the mood in all groups changed dramatically. The majority of the participants felt strongly that television itself was bad for society. This finding confirmed the opinion shift from a generally positive to a very negative view of the networks found in polls over the last 20 years (Gallup & Newport, 1990; Louis Harris, 1971), but may also indicate why the change in attitude occurred. For example:
I prefer the old reruns to the stuff they're doing now. All they are really interested in is money and they don't care what they have to do to get it. They've lost the way. They don't have any real ideas or values anymore. I won't allow my kids to watch TV. Its values are just too low. There really isn't any difference between the news, the talk shows and the National Enquirer anymore. It seems to me the people who make television must have miserable family lives. At least that's the way it looks based on the shows they produce. They're totally out of touch with people who don't live on the coast.
It must be pointed out that this anger was not with the television the participants watched themselves, but rather with the broadcast networks and production system as a whole. Participants were quite capable of separating these areas in their minds. They were also able to separate their own favorite programs from programming in general, seeing what they liked as exceptions to the norm. More surprising, participants were able to separate their programs from the network that ran them.
CBS use to offer things for the family and people my age, but not anymore. Thank goodness for Touched By An Angel and Murder She Wrote. If it wasn't for them I wouldn't have any favorites left. But they're both on CBS. Are you sure? I don't like NBC, but I like Seinfeld. FOX is about as sleazy as you can get, but I still think Married, With Children is funny.
In short, there was virtually no perceived loyalty to networks found. But, this overall dislike of what was going on in the media did not lessen participant's enjoyment or desire to watch. As one person put it:
I love to watch TV: it's just getting harder and harder to find anything I like.
or, as another said:
I can always put in a tape.
The Meaning of Habit
The decision to view television was more complicated than has traditionally been assumed. When asked how they decide to watch television, about 80% of the participants said they watch out of habit or when they have time. They also revealed that they do not plan viewing around even their favorite programs (although five people did say they plan time around specific soap operas), and will not change another activity even to watch a favorite show.
The majority subscribed to a program guide of some sort, and most claimed they regularly read parts of it. Several said they used the guide to check out the movies for the week, to see what specials were on, or to see if this week's episodes were reruns. Several also admitted they had tuned into a program as the result of an article they had read. But, none of the participants felt the guide had any real influence on their general weekly viewing habits.
This is pretty much what the passive theory claims will happen. However, the follow-up questions indicated these answers were not as passive as it would seem on the surface. When participants said they viewed out of habit, it turned out that the majority meant they already had a strong mental image of the schedule, and didn't need to look things up. They actually knew what was supposed to be on and usually tuned in with a specific program in mind.
If it's Sunday you have 60 Minutes, then Murder, She Wrote, followed by movies on all the networks. One of them's usually pretty good. There's not much on Thursday, but channel 7 has a good line-up of comedies. I use to never watch on Saturday, but now they have Dr. Quinn, Early Edition and Walker. They're all pretty good.
This would seem to fit Carter's (1960)first phase in the action theory model.
This mental image may be one of the reasons new shows have a problem, as they are not yet part of this picture. Most participants, even those who claimed to like the genre, were not aware of new series being offered and therefore could not tune in with them in mind. Most participants also claimed not to be influenced by the heavy promotion at the start of the season or by advertisements for new series. This did not indicate a lack of interest, but, rather disbelief in the claims being made, or that the message itself did not register in their mental image.
In September everything's new and improved. No it isn't. Sometimes I see promos for series that look great, but I usually forget to watch.
This viewing based on an existing mental image also led to a great deal of resentment aimed at program moving and preemptions. Both practices led to an enormous level of frustration, and, if they occurred too often, resulted in even the most devoted fans giving up on the show.
I tried to watch Brooklyn Bridge, but every other week it was gone. It makes me so mad when they won't leave the schedule alone. I'm not going to keep watching for that show when they won't leave it in one place for more than a couple of weeks at a time.
The Process Of Channel Selection
The actual viewing process consisted of several different steps and considerations. These steps had little to do with the stated love for television as such. Rather, the actual decision to watch was a factor of what else was going on in their lives at the moment, combined with a high level of comfort with the medium itself (this will be discussed further in the next section). When the decision to turn on the set was being made, usually participants were also going over a mental image of the schedule and selecting a specific program or channel to tune in. While the process certainly contained elements of the passive viewing theory, the actual viewing was not random in nature, but highly directed. At the exact same time participants were choosing to watch and selecting a program, these same people were also eliminating a cluster of channels from consideration. This step was interesting as it often included the majority of available sources, and often participants had not actually seen the channels in question. They eliminated them based on perceived content:
I haven't seen it, but I don't like the kinds of programs they show.
If for some reason the desired program was missing or not satisfying, the participants then began to channel surf, but only through a limited cluster of channels where they felt they could usually find something they liked. This step supports findings of limited channel use even under unlimited channel conditions in works by Eastman & Newton (1995) and by Ferguson (1992).
If this surfing process still did not provide a program, participants wanted to watch, then one of four events would occur. The largest number of participants said they would leave the set on, but go do something else. In essence, the TV then became background noise. This behavior may not be of any real use to advertisers or to the industry, however. During such times the vast majority of the participants claimed they had no idea of what was on even while the show was running.
I don't know if it's really watching. I couldn't even tell you what's on.
This behavior was common in both the younger and older participants, but for slightly different reasons. Among the younger people the action was simply to provide noise. Among older participants the reason centered around avoiding loneliness.
I like the sound, it's company for me. I really can't work if it's too quiet. It makes it seem like the house isn't so empty.
Another group, when frustrated by the choices on their favorite channels, claimed they would expanded their search into channels they did not normally watch. However, even at this point, many participants still maintained a cluster of non-considered channels. About an equal number of participants said they would play a video tape. In fact, this step can take us all the way back to the top of the process. Most of the participants in all ages groups stated there were nights they knew they had decided to watch, had already run through their mental image of the schedule and come to the conclusion there was nothing on. On such nights, participants claimed they picked up rental tapes on the way home, or decided then to play back shows recorded earlier. The smallest group would turn the set off.
The Meaning Of "When I Have Time"
The statement that people watch when they have time also seems to overemphasizes the passive nature of viewing. Follow-up questions indicated that the answer, "When I have time", was actually an indication of the unusual place television fills in participants' lives. They were all extremely comfortable with the feeling that it would always be there. Other activities would not. As a result, all of the subjects felt television was not their first or even second choice as far as social activities were concerned (although the oldest subjects in general tended to value television more than younger viewers and spent more time with it. There were no differences between the two younger age divisions). None of the participants would change planned activities to watch even their favorite shows, but over half did state they would tape a program and watch it later.
If my friends come over I'm not going to watch TV when I can go with them. That's what the VCR is for.
This refusal to change plans, however, did not indicate a dislike for the programs or a disinterest in television. Indeed, this reaction may be one of television's greatest strengths. When pressed as to why they didn't plan time around favorite shows, participants invariably answered with a variation on the idea that the show would be there next week, they could watch it later, or they could catch the episode in rerun. (Indeed, this also turned out to be the major reason a few participants did plan time around Soap Operas. There were no reruns or second chances if they missed something important.) This comfort with availability also turned out be one of the main objections to new shows. Participants felt they could not depend on them being there from one week to the next.
It doesn't matter if I miss it, it'll be there next week. You can't depend on new shows. They're always being canceled or moved. If it (the episode) was that good, they'll rerun it.
Participants stated they would not follow a favorite program that was moved too often, and that such moves made them angry. Most felt this was an indication that the network was planning to cancel the show. All agreed that there was nothing the networks could do that would get them to watch on nights they were not watching already. However, again, most stated they would tape a desired program and then watch it later. While the majority of the oldest group also expressed this view, they were, as a group, less comfortable with the VCR when it came to taping off-air, but expressed no greater concern about playing back rented tapes. In fact, many felt this was a way to keep up on current movies without actually going out.
Expectations and Program Choice
From a long term network programming point of view, perhaps the most important conclusion to come out of the focus groups was the way the participants had come to view the programming potential of the major broadcast networks. The answers to follow-up questions indicated over 75% of the participants had given up as far as certain types of programs were concerned and wouldn't watch them even if they were offered. The program types most often mentioned were variety shows, science fiction, westerns, animation (with the notable exception of FOX) and traditional family value dramas. But, there was a strong, stated feeling that the broadcast networks were not interested in anything unusual, preferring to just copy existing popular series.
When moderators mentioned specific programs within unusual genres, people who had indicated a real liking for that type of show had usually not seen the network offering. The reason turned out to be virtually the same in all cases and was a variation on the idea that the networks were only going to dump the program anyway. For example:
Why should I get involved? I might like the show and they're just going to cancel it. Even if the show should happen to succeed, the networks will find a way to get rid of it. Look what they did to Battlestar Galactica, The Flash and Buck Rogers. I watched Brooklyn Bridge, and I liked it, but it was on, then it was off, then it was on a different day, then it was gone again and so on. You know CBS was just trying to find a place where they could lose it, so that there wouldn't be too much complaint when they dumped it. Yeah, and they think we should be grateful for that. I saw on ET where CBS was bragging about how hard they tried to make it work. Who do they think they're fooling?
In short, viewers are already convinced that the networks will not support certain types of programs regardless of what the audience does.
Participants further indicated that when the networks put a new show on and then quickly cancel it, this belief was reinforced. The cancellation itself was seen as proof that participants were right not to watch and were right about the networks' plans from the beginning. This suggests that often low ratings may not be an indication of audience dislike for the genre, or even that particular show, but rather a distrust of the networks' commitment to the series.
I started watching Space Rangers and just like I knew they would, they canceled it in less than six weeks. If it's expensive or really different they (the networks) don't care how many people like it. They'll find some reason to get rid of it. When the network starts moving a show around, you know they plan to cancel it. If it's still on next year I might watch Buffy The Vampire Slayer. But not now. I might like it.
Other Problems With Strong Program Preferences
All of the subjects expressed strong program type preferences, but the people who identified themselves as strong fans of a specific genre were also the ones most critical of the programs offered under that category. Such fans either liked or hated shows with virtually nothing in-between. Simply offering a program in the genre did not mean they would watch. In fact they might deliberately avoid the series. Furthermore, participants who agreed that they were strong fans could not agree on what was a good program. Strong fans have strong view points. They may tune in because of a particular genre, but that does not mean they will continue to watch. Participants who described themselves as less avid fans were more willing to give a show time to develop or to give it a second chance.
These particular focus groups produced some interesting findings concerning how and why people watch television. They suggest that the selection process is much more complicated than has traditionally been assumed, and that strong elements of both the active and passive theories are at work. While viewers did watch "when they had time," a basic passive element, they were also tuning in for specific programs or types of shows, a basic active element.
Participants did indicate a strong "love" for the medium itself. But that love was tied to specific programs and expected moods. As far as "favorite" programs were concerned, a lack of repeat viewing did not indicate disinterest in the show, but rather reflected a strong comfort level with the way series are offered. In other words, there was no strong "need" to watch any given episode, as the show would still be there next week. If a particularly good episode was missed, it could be viewed in rerun. The VCR has added to this comfort as participants now have the added option of watching whatever they can time shift or rent based on their own personal needs and schedules. The main interference with this sense of comfort came from frustration caused when participants tuned in expecting a program and didn't find it. Future research needs to look at this "frustration level" and how long it takes before it begins to break down habit viewing.
It was clear that these participants were attached to specific programs as opposed to genres or networks. This finding suggests real problems for researchers looking at things such as duplication or repeat viewing as the research is traditionally done. For example, for repeat viewing to be accurately measured, research would have to cover a much longer period of time, concentrate on individual behavior and take into account whether or not the individuals were watching anything at all during a given week. As far as traditional assumptions about duplication are concerned, participants were very clear in their rejection of network loyalty as they understood it--i.e., favoring a specific broadcast network (however, there was some loyalty expressed to cable networks based on perceived content). Also, participants felt no reluctance to change channels and often switched even during a program. Over half of the youngest age group admitted to often watching more than one program at a time by switching back and forth between them. This is an area that needs to be examined and which may lead to a redefining of the duplication theory.
Participants made it clear that a love for a specific genre did not mean they would watch all shows of that type. Viewers have to be convinced a program has a good chance of survival before they will think of looking at it. Even then, strong fans have strong opinions about what is good or bad. For example, in these sessions, science fiction fans tended to separate into the "Star Trek" crowd, or positive future and the "Babylon 5" crowd or darker future. Neither of these groups tended to be particular fans of programs like "The Flash" or "Wonder Woman" even though fans of these two programs also described themselves as science fiction devotees. The difference between people identifying themselves as strong fans and those describing themselves in less avid ways could prove to be a useful area for future work, particularly as it is related to program development.
The fact that these participants had strong mental images of the schedule which they used in selecting what to watch, suggests a real problem for the network practice of continually shuffling programs and quickly canceling new series that do not immediately establish themselves in the ratings. Participants made it clear that it takes a good deal of time for a series to become part of the viewers' mental image. It also takes time for word of mouth, content, assurances about network commitment to a program and other such variables to take effect and produce true loyalty such as was observed with Seinfeld (which took years before it became a legendary top rated series). Until then, even people who intend to watch often forget and instead return to more familiar series or channels out of habit. This would suggest it is unrealistic to expect a new series to generate immediate rating success based on anything other than where it is placed in the schedule -- i.e., taking advantage of a pre-existing habit pattern. That pattern in turn would only assure sampling, not acceptance of the new show, and would tell programmers nothing about how the new series would do on its own or how it would hold up over time.
The fact that participants had no problem totally separating their love for the medium and particular series from the networks who supplied the programming did surprise the researcher. There seemed to be no perceived incongruity between the facts that these people could love a show and hate the network that ran it and the people who made it. Participants believed so strongly that the networks' and producers' views were different from their own that they saw their own favorite shows as abnormalities, exceptions to the rule. Participants reject large numbers of both cable and broadcast networks out of hand, simply because they believed those networks will have nothing to offer. They chose not to watch shows they thought they might like, because they believed the networks were going to cancel them anyway. Perhaps, from a long term point of view, this belief that certain types of programs will not be allowed to succeed on a major network could be the most dangerous finding for the business itself. The fact that participants would not watch many programs even when they were offered, and considered the quick cancellations that followed the low ratings to be proof that their initial perception was right, could make it extremely hard for networks to reintroduce the kind of programming variety participants claim to want. It could also mean that a program that would succeed in syndication would fail on a broadcast network simply because fans believe it will fail.
These focus groups indicate the process of how and why people watch television is much more complicated than either the active or passive theories have traditionally assumed. They also indicate elements of both theories seem to be at work, and that a number of traditional network practices may actually be at the heart of their problems when it comes to holding viewers under present competitive conditions. Whether or not these findings will hold up is still debatable. Focus group data by its nature cannot be generalized. Therefore, it would be interesting to see how people in other areas respond to these same topics. Are the concerns of these mid-western participants similar to other areas of the country? Interesting questions were raised that need to be followed up on to truly interpret the result of this research. But, the study does suggest several areas of concern for the business and possible direct cognitive links between the active and passive theories of viewing in the public's own mind.
(1) A complete list of core questions can be obtained from the author.
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William Jenson Adams (Ph.D, Indiana University, Bloomington, 1988) is an Associate Professor in the A.Q. Miller School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Kansas State University. His research focuses on programming theory and audience behavior…