The Mass Audience: Rediscovering the Dominant Model

The Mass Audience: Rediscovering the Dominant Model

The Mass Audience: Rediscovering the Dominant Model

The Mass Audience: Rediscovering the Dominant Model


In the early 20th century, a new and distinctive concept of the audience rose to prominence. The audience was seen as a mass -- a large collection of people mostly unknown to one another -- that was unified through exposure to media. This construct offered a pragmatic way to map audiences that was relevant to industry, government, and social theorists. In a relatively short period of time, it became the dominant model for studying the audience. Today, it is so pervasive that most people simply take it for granted.

USE LAST TWO PARAGRAPHS ONLY FOR GENERAL CATALOGS... Recently, media scholars have reopened inquiry into the meaning of "audience." They question the utility of the mass audience concept, characterizing it as insensitive to differences among audience members inescapably bound up with discredited notions of mass society, or serving only a narrow set of industrial interests. The authors of this volume find that these assertions are often false and unwarranted either by the historical record or by contemporary industry practice.

Instead, they argue for a rediscovery of the dominant model by summarizing and critiquing the very considerable body of literature on audience behavior, and by demonstrating different ways of analyzing mass audiences. Further, they provide a framework for understanding the future of the audience in the new media environment, and suggest how the concept of mass audience can illuminate research on media effects, cultural studies, and media policy.


Audience theory has experienced something of a renaissance in recent years. Much of the renewed interest is attributable to students of popular culture who take a critical, often openly political, perspective on the meaning of "audience." For those of us who have worked in audience research for many years, this is both refreshing and, occasionally, aggravating. Critical scholars have argued persuasively for a more sympathetic view of ethnography as a way to understand the role of mass media in the lives of audience members. They have found fault with the assumptions and standard operating procedures of mainstream audience research. Most especially, they have objected to the practice of seeing the audience as a vast, faceless collection of atomized individuals. They have, in effect, challenged the very idea of a mass audience.

This strain of criticism has provided one important impetus for our book about the mass audience. In some ways, the mass audience concept is a victim of its own success. In business, this way of thinking is so deeply ingrained in everyday practice that alternative constructions of audience scarcely come to mind. Unfortunately, the leaders of mainstream audience research, who include many "lapsed" professors, are often too involved in the daily demands of their industry to ponder or publish an academic treatise on the subject. In practice, the mass audience has become simply a fact of life.

To their credit, critical scholars have pointed out that audiences are not naturally occurring "facts," but social creations. In that sense, they are what we make them. We would include this as one of the more refreshing insights of the new audience studies. Our aggravation comes from the rather narrow reading these same scholars have of the mass audience concept and its implications. It is often characterized as a tool for the repression and control of the audience, or it is inescapably bound with discredited notions of mass society. We believe that this criticism misses much of what is good and useful in thinking about the audience as a mass. This volume attempts to provide a more complete picture of the mass audience in both theory and practice.

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