Counting the House in Public Television: A History of Ratings Use, 1953-1980

By Stavitsky, Alan G. | Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, Fall 1998 | Go to article overview

Counting the House in Public Television: A History of Ratings Use, 1953-1980


Stavitsky, Alan G., Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media


A spate of recent scholarship on the contemporary crisis in public broadcasting has highlighted the economic, political and technological challenges faced worldwide by non-commercial broadcasters (Avery, 1996). Within this mediascape critics have noted a fundamental change in the nature of public broadcasting, away from its educational, service-driven origins toward an audience- and funder-driven orientation, in which public broadcasters target demographically upscale segments of the potential audience (Aufderheide, 1991; Avery, 1993; Behrens, 1996b; Croteau, Hoynes and Carragee, 1996; Friedland, 1995; Goodman, 1993; Hoynes, 1994; Jarvik, 1997; Lapham, 1993; Ledbetter, 1997; McChesney, 1993; Mifflin, 1997; Raboy, 1995; Schiller, 1989; Stavitsky & Gleason, 1994; Tolan, 1996). These audience segments include viewers and listeners most likely to support public television and radio stations financially, people who are also attractive to corporate underwriters. This changing conception of audience raises timely and important questions about what constitutes the public to which the public broadcaster is beholden, and through which the industry claims its legitimacy in tenuous times.

One way to illuminate the relationship between public broadcaster and audience is by examining audience research as practiced in U.S. public television. As Hurwitz has noted in the context of commercial broadcasting, "the adoption of increasingly sophisticated research methodologies has been more a product of broad economic, social, political and cultural motives than of the pursuit of truth or better service" (1984, p. 208). This argument wields additional power in the realm of non-commercial media, in which the broad application of audience research reflects the tension between the imperatives of those who fund the service, whether they be consumers or corporations, and traditional conceptions of public broadcasting's social role.

Public broadcasters today are actively engaged in studying their viewers and listeners; networks and many stations employ audience researchers, and a cottage industry of consultants has emerged. Many public television program directors pore over the "overnight" ratings derived from Peoplemeter data, just as their commercial counterparts do. Such research, however, has been a lightning rod for criticism in terms of encroaching commercialization (Stavitsky, 1993; 1995). This study will explore the evolution, diffusion and application of audience research in U.S. public television from its origins through the 1970s, the formative period for the system.

Researching Audience Research

Audience research is fundamental to decision-making in U.S. commercial broadcasting. Programming decisions have long been grounded in audience interests and desires, as perceived by a variety of research methodologies. Research data, reported as "ratings," provide the institutional knowledge used for the sale of advertising time, the industry's economic base, as well as providing criteria for program selection. Accordingly, most scholarly attention paid the subject of audience measurement has focused on functional, methodological and historical issues of the commercial research industry (Beville, 1988; Webster & Lichty, 1991; Webster & Phelan, 1997). More recently, however, scholars have viewed audience research in terms of the complex accommodations among broadcasters, advertisers, policy-makers, academics, and members of the audience. Rowland's (1983) study of the role of effects research in the television violence debate, Buzzard's (1990) history of the ratings services, Rogers' (1994) description of the roots of communication study, Ettema and Whitney's (1994) edited volume on how media "create" audiences, and Ang's (1991) comparison of U.S. and European approaches to objectifying audiences all typified audience research as a social construction with important political and economic implications.

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