RECEPTION, indicating the processes by which understanding and significance are produced by viewers from what they watch, within the shaping contexts and habits of viewing, was the most significant new focus in the television research of the 1980s. It has continued through into the 1990s with both a diversification in the kinds of enquiry undertaken and some signs of uncertainty as to guiding ideas, as I shall discuss later. It can be regarded as an emphasis on the consumption of television, the modes and the settings of this, but the way in which viewers engage with television and work its meanings, knowledge, and pleasure into their everyday lives raises issues very different from the consumption of material goods. In this respect, the notion of consumption can simplify what is at issue for criticism and research.
Essentially, the focus on questions of reception emerged from the cultural studies strand of work on the media, where it is in sharp contrast with the earlier commitment of that strand to an exclusive focus on the forms and contents of television output. Radically breaking with the kind of approach which suggested that depth analysis of television's texts could reveal adequately both what lay behind programmes (in terms of production contexts and assumptions) and what lay in front of them too (viewer influence), reception study opened out on to more empirical and contingent matters. The main strand of international television research, deriving from sociology, had a long tradition of paying attention to audiences through a variety of survey and focus group methods. Yet, however subtle this had become, in terms of its sense of the complexity and indirectness of influence processes and the active character of viewing itself, it had not shown much interest in how television's meanings were actually produced through the specific engagement of viewers with programmes. The reception perspective has thus had something to contribute here too, although the general rift between social science and cultural studies approaches has meant that there has been less dialogue between reception research and concepts and methods in this area, at least until quite recently (see the discussions on this point in Jensen 1996; Rosengren 1996; Lewis 1997).
By placing emphasis on the ways in which meaning is made and experienced by viewers, reception analysis necessarily develops an account of interpretation and its variables which is in some tension with conventional ideas of 'influence' or 'effects'. This does not have to result in a direct conflict of ideas, although for those theories of influence which work with notions of the direct impact of messages upon audiences (notions which can still be found, for example, in discussions of on-screen violence), this is