One of the most intriguing aspects of media audience research is that most media audiences do not exist—at least not in the way that the highly visible (and audible) audience for a football match or rock concert exists in a specific time and place. Even though we might reliably assume that a lot of people are reading the same magazines, accessing the same websites, or listening to the same radio stations, it is extremely unlikely that they will ever come together in order to do so. Consider the audience for television at home on the couch, in the bedroom or in the kitchen. People at home do not experience their viewing in the same way that an audience for a film experiences the cinematic event at its local multiplex. Whilst the first event takes place in the context of the home with all its distractions and demands, the second occurs in the anonymity of a very public space. And while both events may be social, the experience of watching TV in a lighted room surrounded by friends or family is very different from that of watching a film surrounded by strangers munching popcorn in the dark. For the most part—and this is the intriguing problem for audience research of any kind—most media audiences do it in private and do it unobserved.
And just what are they doing? What kinds of audience activities are people engaged in? Are they reading a newspaper while eating breakfast or glancing through a magazine while waiting at the dentist? Are they listening to a talk show on the radio while driving to work or listening to music on their headset while they walk to school? Are they at home or at work, accessing the Internet to find something out, do business, buy a Mother's Day gift or ‘chat’ online? In other words, the audience activities involved are extremely varied and may have many different purposes. Indeed there may be no conscious purpose at all since many everyday encounters with the media are fleeting, partial and occur by chance.