Measuring Exposure to Television
James G. Webster University of Maryland
Jacob Wakshlag Indiana University
Exposure to television may well be the most extensively studied of all communication behaviors. For over 3 decades, rating services have regularly measured television audiences to satisfy the demands of those seeking to exploit the medium's commercial potential. Beyond such pragmatic and far-reaching efforts to document the extent of television viewership, scholars from a variety of disciplines have devoted considerable attention to assessing the uses and effects of exposure.
Given this wealth of research, one might imagine that the procedures for measuring exposure to television were well understood and universally applied in industry and academe alike. But this is not, in fact, the case. Exposure has been conceptualized in a number of ways, resulting in a wide range of operational definitions and an even wider array of measurement techniques. On the one hand, such diversity is an entirely appropriate reflection of the different theoretical assumptions and rationales of various research efforts. On the other hand, applying so many different approaches to measurement has made comparisons across studies difficult and has produced a rather confusing collection of results on the nature of exposure to television.
It is the purpose of this chapter to summarize and critique the methods that have been used, are being used, and can be used to measure exposure. Obviously, no single method of measurement will be appropriate to the objectives and resources of all researchers. We hope, however, that such a review will draw into sharper focus the strengths and weaknesses of different techniques and, so, encourage researchers to be more discerning in their application of these measures.