How People Watch Television as Investigated Using Focus Group Techniques

By Adams, William J. | Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, Winter 2000 | Go to article overview

How People Watch Television as Investigated Using Focus Group Techniques


Adams, William J., Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media


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. …

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