Academic journal article Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media

The Loyal Viewer? Patterns of Repeat Viewing in Germany

Academic journal article Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media

The Loyal Viewer? Patterns of Repeat Viewing in Germany

Article excerpt

The extent of audience overlap between subsequent episodes of regularly broadcast programs has been a subject of audience research for more than two decades. More than a dozen studies - carried out solely in the U.S. and Great Britain - have investigated the question of how many viewers of a given episode will watch the consecutive episode. The most remarkable finding is a constant decline of the repeat viewing rates since the late sixties (Webster & Wang, 1992). Beyond this development, it is rather difficult to get a consistent conception of detailed repeat viewing patterns, largely due to variations in study designs and continuing changes in the media environment. Beyond some interesting results, a thorough look at repeat viewing data may yield insights into viewing behavior that can be related to theoretically important questions such as the question of ritualized TV-use (Rubin, 1984) and the discussion on the active-passive dichotomy of program selection (e.g., Biocca, 1988; Gunter, 1988).

The object of analysis in studies of repeat viewing are programs with regular schedules and fixed air times. Not only in Germany does this category of programs constitute a large proportion of the total television schedule (Kruger, 1995). What role does "repetitive programming" (Goodhardt, Ehrenberg, and Collins, 1987) play for participants in the communication process - i.e. the TV stations, the advertising business and the viewers? In contrast to print media and radio, television programs are obviously the most expensive form of mass communication in terms of both cost of reaching audiences and costs of production. Producing a series can lower the per episode costs compared to a one-time-only program, because the setting can be used repeatedly. Moreover, for every non-serial program, success in terms of ratings is less predictable. Therefore, every new program has a higher risk of low ratings. Broadcasting new episodes of the same successful programs, reduces this risk to a bearable level, because the gross viewing rate tends to stay on the same level. For advertisers, regular programs make viewing behavior and thus commercial campaigns more predictable. Regular programs allow them to predict and optimize the number of exposures of a given commercial to people in the target group (Ostheimer, 1970).

While advantages for producers and advertisers are obvious, why should recipients watch the same program over and over again? Goodhardt, Ehrenberg, and Collins (1987) argue in a simple manner: "we like repetition." They point out that through regular viewing of serial programs viewers develop a certain familiarity with plot and characters. This familiarity prunes anticipation of forthcoming programs and episodes, rewarding in itself, and leads to high levels of appreciation.

Theoretical and empirical support for this reasoning is provided by cognitive psychology. Berlyne (1960), for example, suggests that a stimulus should be of an average complexity and an average newness to be processed at an optimum level. Berlyne found that high complexity and newness of a stimulus leads to cognitive stress which is perceived as inconvenient. Moles (1971) confirms these results from the viewpoint of information theory. He concludes that it is a peculiar equilibrium of known and unknown elements which keeps the recipient from being bored or strained. This speaks in favor of some redundant elements in TV programs. One can consider an anchorman of a newscast as a redundant element. It can be assumed that a certain amount of redundant content is essential for recipients to successfully process complex information (visual and verbal) in TV programs. All this could help to explain why recipients repeatedly view certain programs. In terms of system theory, Luhmann describes familiarity as a genuinely human means for reducing complexity: "Familiarity ... enables relative secure anticipations and thus absorbs remaining risks . …

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