The Active Pursuit of Active Viewers: Directions in Audience Research

Debra Clarke (Trent University)

Abstract: This article reviews the contemporary shift to active audience research among European and other media scholars, following the influential work of those such as Ien Ang and David Morley. It proceeds to examine the comparatively underdeveloped state of Canadian research about media audiences, and the variety of incentives to develop such research here. The distance between academic and industry research in Canada is discussed, and possible explanations of the gap in our academic knowledge of Canadian audiences are offered. Finally, the article considers possible means to approach the meaningful study of the media reception process within Canadian households. In the end, it is argued that the work of Ang, Morley, and others offers fruitful prospects for the understanding of media interpretation here.

Résumé: Cet article examine l'intérêt contemporain parmi les chercheurs d'Europe et ailleurs pour les recherches sur la réception active, à l'exemple de recherches influentes menées par des chercheurs comme Ien Ang et David Morley. L'article examine ensuite l'état comparativement sous-développé de la recherche canadienne sur les publics médiatiques, et les diverses raisons pour développer de telles recherches ici. Il discute de l'écart entre recherche académique et industrielle, et offre des explications possibles pour le retard dans notre connaissance académique d'auditoires canadiens. Enfin, l'article considère des moyens possibles pour entreprendre une étude significative sur la réception des médias dans les ménages canadiens. À la fin, il soutient que les travaux d'Ang, Morley et autres offrent des modèles prometteurs pour comprendre comment on interprète les médias au Canada.

The best means to understand television audiences was most clearly and succinctly expressed by Fiske (1987) in his simple pronouncement in Television Culture: "[T]he television audience is composed of a wide variety of groups and is not a homogeneous mass . . . these groups actively read television in order to produce from it meanings that connect with their social experience" (p. 84). It follows from Fiske's fundamental principles that any concept of or even reference to "the audience" must be abandoned in favour of a more sensible conceptualization according to which audiences must always be understood in the plural. The road to this pragmatic and realistic view, however, has been a long and circuitous one along which reception research has proceeded through a successive series of powerfully influential paradigms, from classical American "effects" research and the "uses and gratifications" model to the more contemporary "cultural turn" which traces its influences to the very significant school of British cultural studies. Until the early 1960s, for example, American "effects" research largely pursued what Jeffrey (1994) has described as a consumer/market orientation whereby Lazarsfeld's influence steered the field along a singular course: the empirical study of media effects in which audiences were narrowly conceptualized as individuals who quite incidentally lived in social environments.

At a very early stage of his ethnographic work, Morley (1974) identified the important characteristics of audiences to be considered in any analysis, including social class, gender, age, ethnicity, and region of residence. Level of formal education was later found to be significant as well. All of these characteristics were seen to correspond with different audience groups and subgroups, and likewise with alternative cultural codes and meaning systems. At that very early juncture in the emergence of ethnographic audience research, he wrote: "[W]hat is needed is the development of a `cultural map' of the audience so that we can begin to see which classes, sections of classes and subgroups share which cultural codes and meaning systems, to what extent" (p. 12).

Together with the more contemporary work of Morley (e.g., 1980, 1986, 1992), Ang's work (e.g., 1985, 1991, 1996) has contributed very importantly to the continuing debate about how television audiences should, or should not, be investigated. In Desperately Seeking the Audience (1991), she made a powerful case for the necessity of the ethnographic approach. She claimed that our knowledge of audiences had been formed and shaped by what she called "the institutional point of view." This institutional point of view-the way in which industry and mainstream academic research were inclined to perceive audiences-had in fact prevented a true understanding. In Ang's view, only "a perspective that displays sensitivity to the everyday practices and experiences of actual audiences themselves" can supply any true insight into television viewers (see Ang, 1991).

Institutional knowledge, according to Ang, is formed by the industry's need to "get" an audience. The audience as seen by the industry is a taxonomic collective, a collection of individuals with identifiable and categorizable attributes: age, gender, and so forth. Ang demonstrates that this view of "the audience" (singular) is a discursive construct and therefore does not match any actual audience. This in turn explains why broadcasting organizations are bound to be "desperately seeking the audience." Despite all of the sophisticated methods of audience measurement-for example, the people meter-the industry is never truly certain of actually "having" an audience. Actual audiences are whimsical, unpredictable, constantly changing their preferences, and therefore the attempt to describe the audience in terms of neatly defined categories is in itself absurd.

She proceeds to describe the uncomfortable relationship between both private and public broadcasting organizations and their audiences. Although the two types of organizations differ in their conceptualizations-private broadcasters see audiences as consumers to be sold to advertisers while public broadcasters see audiences as citizens to be educated and informed-both lack insight into the behaviour of their viewers. Ang provides detailed and useful insights into institutional conceptualizations of audiences and the difficulties encountered in their efforts to attract viewers. Finally, she points out that communication researchers have often too easily adopted the institutional point of view. She argues that mainstream communication research, with its search for generalizations, is totally in contrast to the ethnographic approach that she advocates. Rather than seek to generalize, ethnographic research asks how specific audiences differ in the social production of meaning within their daily lives and especially in view of the diverse social settings in which media are received. Practically, such analysis requires qualitative empirical methods including in-depth interviews and observations of audiences in the primary household settings where viewing occurs.

The contemporary shift to active audience research

Following the path of Ang, Morley, and others, there has been a clear and definitive shift towards research which embraces a model of active audiences. The bulk of this literature stresses the diversity of textual interpretation, the importance of the ways in which programs are processed in everyday discourse with others about media output, the skills used by audiences to criticize what is seen and heard, and the ways in which television in particular is persistently referenced to everyday life; see, for example, the work of Lewis (1985, 1991), Livingstone (1990, 1994), and Livingstone & Lunt (1994). A related concern is to identify the ways in which media technologies are "embedded" or actively incorporated into the daily routines of domestic life and the "micro-geography" of the household, including the dynamics of gender relations within it; see, for example, the work of Gray (1987, 1992), Lull (1988, 1990), and Moores (1993).

Critics of the active audience approach raise several issues. Those who prefer to argue that texts are more inclined to constrain audiences than to activate them find that the approach tends to overemphasize the autonomy of audiences in the reception process. It is frequently pointed out that active audience studies often tend to underplay the fundamental, overriding significance of the preferred reading that is invariably inscribed into a media text and the inescapable limitations that it places upon both audience autonomy and alternative readings.

A second and closely related problem arises out of the sometimes apparent confusion between active viewers and resistant viewers in that the active viewer is not necessarily resistant, although this is frequently implied. The confusion, however, is needless. To be active in one's reading of a text is not in itself empowering nor should it even imply the capacity to resist. Audiences can actively derive their own interpretations of texts without any necessary implication that the preferred reading has been subverted. And in any event, even where the preferred reading is subverted by a subsection of the audience to a text, others in that audience are likely to find their perspectives confirmed or reinforced by the preferred reading (Abercrombie & Longhurst, 1998; Cobley, 1994).

Are audiences constrained by media texts or resistant to them? Must the question be posed in such either/or terms, and must active audience research be seen as forever opposed to a political economy approach which would point to the constraints intrinsic to media texts? Rather, it seems more sensible to allow that audiences are active and, in some cases, also resistant, albeit within the fundamental constraints of the text, including its silences.

A third problem cited by critics is that the centrality of the active audience within the approach, together with the emphasis upon the polysemic nature of the text, runs the risk that "the issue of power will slide off the agenda altogether or, more likely, will be allocated a less central place in the theoretical debate and ensuing empirical work" (Abercrombie & Longhurst, 1998, p. 30). Morley (1992) has acknowledged the risk himself:

The implicit valorization of audience pleasure in this work leads easily into a cultural relativism which, as Curran notes, is readily incorporated into a populist neo-liberal rhetoric which would abandon any concern with cultural values-or "quality" television-and functions to justify the positions of the deregulators who would destroy any version of public service broadcasting. (p. 26)

Perhaps most fundamentally, the approach has been accused of a failure to connect its results to "the complex economic determinations, technological and policy changes occurring around television nationally and internationally" (McGuigan, cited in Ang, 1996, p. 9). In response, Ang (1996) admits to the gap between the economic and the cultural "in most audience studies, new or otherwise," yet, as she argues, there is a need to proceed beyond the view that "attention to the `active audience' is necessarily antagonistic to a consideration of media power" (p. 10).

Active audience research is also commonly perceived to be in opposition to textual analysis à la Screen in that it questions the capacity for individualistic interpretations of social texts. As Deacon, Fenton, & Bryman (1999) point out, this opposition has created a divide between those, on the one hand, who insist that media serve to disseminate the ideology of the powerful and inevitably constrain the beliefs of audiences and, on the other hand, those supporters of the active audience approach who insist that audiences have the capacity to "resist all manner of ideology by generating meanings entirely of their own making" (p. 7). With respect to research preoccupations, a fundamental split was created between those focused upon political economy and the process of media (especially news) production and those focused upon the process of reception or audience analysis.

Deacon, Fenton, & Bryman point to recent evidence that the divide has mellowed somewhat and that active audience researchers have also mellowed their stance. As discussed, the approach has been generally criticized for its tendency to distract attention from the social reality of media as instruments of power and, at the same time, in the case of some active audience studies, there have been allegations of misinterpreted research evidence. The common finding that audiences derive their own pleasures from texts does not necessarily justify the conclusion that audiences do in fact derive their own interpretations or thereby undermine the inscribed messages of those texts. While audiences are active in their consumption of texts, it should not be implied that audiences are necessarily critical or that alternative views are necessarily developed. A related criticism is that the approach fails to recognize that authors of texts are able to frame issues and messages through both what is actually present in the text and what is absent: the silences in texts are just as significant as the messages within the texts with respect to the capacity of audiences to derive alternative interpretations (see Deacon, Fenton, & Bryman, 1999).

Secondly, Deacon, Fenton, & Bryman (1999) suggest that, as a result of an increased sensitivity to the framing power of texts, more circumscribed accounts of audience activity are emerging. These are more readily inclined to acknowledge that, while audiences of different social locations may produce distinctive interpretations of media texts, the text itself is rarely subverted in the process and the essential power of producers to frame audience reception remains largely unchallenged.

Thirdly, Deacon, Fenton, & Bryman observe that some of the key scholars in active audience research have, in recent years, started to distance themselves from certain aspects of it. Yet, as early as 1990, Ang expressed concern that such reception studies are too myopic in that there is a tendency to isolate and thereby to overemphasize the significance of a single moment in the overall process of media production and reception and to underemphasize the wider sociocultural conditions of audience practices. At that time she proposed that "what we need is not more ethnographic work on discrete audience groups, but on reception as an integral part of popular cultural practices that articulate both `subjective' and `objective', both `micro' and `macro' processes" (Ang, 1990, p. 244; see also Schroder, 1994). Later, in her work subtitled Rethinking Media Audiences for a Postmodern World (1996), Ang made the point that to be "active" is not the same as to be "powerful" and that the extent to which audiences genuinely exert power over the text is limited. Likewise, Morley (1993), in an article entitled "Active Audience Theory: Pendulums and Pitfalls," has criticized the neglect in most active audience research of "the economic, political, and ideological forces acting on the construction of texts" (p. 15).

Is there a re-evaluation of the approach in progress? Yes, according to Deacon, Fenton, & Bryman, who endorse the recent movement towards more "holistic" approaches: those in which production, text, and reception all receive equal attention and in a fully integrated manner. Their own analysis follows the "history" of a particular news story from its production through to its reception. There can be little argument that such a mode of analysis is idyllic. Yet is such a fully integrated analysis truly practical and realizable on any grander scale? This remains to be seen.

Abercrombie & Longhurst (1998) carry the concept of the active audience one recent and radical step further with their proposal for a new paradigm which recognizes that audiences are not only active consumers of cultural commodities, but also cultural producers and performers in their own right. With reference to Willis' (1990) research into the subcultural pursuits of young boys, it is argued that media such as television and popular music, rather than constrain audiences, instead provide the resources with which to formulate self-identities. From their perspective, this proceeds beyond a formulation of audiences as active to a conceptualization of audiences as cultural producers in themselves. In the case of popular music, for example, Willis found that the boys engage in home recording, dance, operate sound systems, and perform in bands, and in the process use lyrics and rhythms to articulate and express their attitudes and thoughts. In this fashion, according to Abercrombie & Longhurst (1998), the boys "impose their own uses on the raw material provided" by popular music (p. 25). Such a line of argument indeed represents a radical departure from the otherwise sensible tenets espoused by active audience researchers in Australia, Europe, and elsewhere.

The state of Canadian research about audiences

Canadian audiences are of special interest for a wide variety of reasons. Not only are audiences here diverse along numerous demographic, linguistic, regional, and other dimensions, these diverse audiences are situated in a variety of diverse family forms and household types, a range of reception settings which can be expected to shape their media experiences in a multiplicity of different ways. At the same time, this inevitable multiplicity of media experiences presents a very difficult challenge to those who seek to undertake any form of serious ethnographic research into the experiences of Canadian audiences, at least of the sort that might produce meaningful and somewhat generalizable results.

Among the many other factors which render the Canadian case both a special interest and a special challenge is the extreme fragmentation of the television market: Canada is second only to the United States with respect to the number of channels available to each household. This extreme fragmentation has been found by at least one industry source to lead to a proliferation of viewing alternatives, more channel-switching capabilities, unplanned viewing, a greater occurrence of solo viewing, and decreases in average audience size (Warrens, cited in Jeffrey, 1994). The extraordinary number of multiple-set households in Canada may further contribute to solo viewing, which in turn results in a greater degree of channel switching. The same industry source has predicted that fragmentation will ultimately enable viewers to control the set according to whim, equipped with both the means (remotes, VCRs) and the incentive (more channel alternatives) (Warrens, cited in Jeffrey, 1994). And it is also evident that the decline in network share has intensified, while audiences for independent stations and specialty channels have increased substantially.

Jeffrey (1994) has summarized the many other reasons why Canadian audiences are of special interest. In addition to the tremendous diversity of audiences here, there are the exceptionally high levels of media, and particularly television, consumption. There are the continuing, historically rooted concerns over the impact of American media, especially in the case of television. There are the exceptional contrasts between the audiences for English-language and French-language television, including the apparent preference of the former for foreign media products, contradicted by the clear preference of the latter for domestic media products. There is the extensive history of state mediation in the broadcasting industry, and the historical emphasis placed upon the CBC's mandate to preserve and promote a national cultural identity, which in itself remains largely untested by academic audience research. Indeed, others might find it surprising that the very question of audience responses to the CBC, which is formally founded upon goals of public service, has rarely been systematically investigated except by those within the Corporation.

In fact, it remains true that the great bulk of research about broadcast audiences in Canada continues to be conducted primarily by researchers within the broadcasting industry. Obviously, this research is by no means free of limitations, and it exists at some distance from the interests of academic researchers. The distance is such that it has traditionally been difficult to obtain information about the activities and projects of industry researchers, and likewise difficult to obtain access to the data gathered by them. Organizations such as the Bureau of Broadcast Measurement (BBM) and the Print Measurement Bureau (PMB) are owned and operated by their members, and are expected to serve their members primarily if not exclusively. In both cases, members occupy formal categories which include advertisers, advertising agencies, broadcasters, and publishers. Thanks to their contemporary operation of Web sites and the greater availability of their data to university libraries, academic researchers are now better able to access the research results generated by these industry organizations, although there is not the fully interactive exchange of materials that might potentially lead to fruitful collaborations between academic and industry researchers.

Somewhat more promising in this regard is the research conducted internally within broadcasting organizations such as the CBC and TVO, and it has tended to be much more extensive than BBM and PMB research (see, for example, CBC Research, 1991). Eaman (1994) points out that the CBC's internal research has extended to content analysis, studies of gender imagery, extensive studies of television viewing habits and practices, and other work, some of which has been presented at academic conferences (see, for example, Savage, 1993; Staple, 1993) and some of which has actually bemoaned and lamented the distance between academic and industry researchers as well as the reticence of academic researchers to empirically examine audience issues. For example, a CBC researcher began a paper presented at the 1993 CCA meetings as follows:

The point of this paper is to demonstrate that the best scholars in Canadian communication studies can and should be involved in developing empirical measures of success that allow broadcasting to be judged on the basis of criteria aligned with public service rather than private profit. In failing to consider the empirical data on Canadian audience activity, scholars abdicate a legitimate intellectual and political role in shaping broadcasting as a context for an active citizenry. (Savage, 1993, p. 1)

Savage (1993) suggests that there may be a reticence on the part of academic researchers to make use of industry data, a tendency to dismiss the activities of industry researchers entirely as "rather sordid"-centrally concerned to reduce audiences to carefully controlled and packaged commodities to be sold to advertisers, and a notion that to even make use of the data would be to legitimize a system which transforms audiences into commodities. Other explanations offered by Savage include a resistance to quantitative data, yet this would seem to be less true of Canadian scholars than of those elsewhere. Finally, Savage points to the fundamental problem of accessibility, both in terms of the availability and the cost of the data: "BBM and A. C. Nielsen data are very expensive-beyond the means of most academic researchers even with the healthiest of SSHRC or other government agency grants" (p. 18).1

There is perhaps also a reticence on the part of Canadian media scholars to pursue a type of analysis perceived by some to be "the audience research arm of modern cultural studies" (McQuail, 1997, p. 19), a tradition which, as McQuail points out, "occupies a borderland between social science and the humanities" (p. 18). While there is little doubt that active audience theory derived much of its original impetus from the influential work of those such as Stuart Hall and his colleagues at the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, and Morley's own roots trace directly there-his 1974 Stencilled Occasional Paper for the Birmingham Centre has become something of a collector's item-the work of ethnographic audience research has developed and evolved in such a way that it no longer rigorously follows a strict adherence to the original "encoding/decoding" model or other formulations associated with that group. And furthermore, as Deacon and his colleagues (affiliated with a major site of political economy work at the University of Loughborough) emphasize, the research need no longer be perceived as being in direct theoretical opposition to a political economy approach.

Future directions: Active and diverse Canadian audiences

In the words of Justin Lewis (1991), "television's power lies in the specificities of its encounter with the audience. One cannot exist without the other" (p. 61). As he immediately proceeds to acknowledge, however, this idea is "often difficult to grasp empirically" (p. 61) and the issue of how the idea works in practice remains full of methodological muddles and puzzles. Much of the methodological complexity derives from the nascent discovery that specific readings of media texts originate in both macrosocial factors such as class, ethnicity, gender, age, and so forth as well as in microsocial or interactional/contextual relations such as household dynamics, which impose their own influences and at the same time serve to mediate the larger macrosocial factors that are operative (see Schroder, 1994).

What further complicates any research design is the reality that media reception occurs in a variety of settings, of which the household is but one-albeit dominant-setting, and it is mediated and negotiated in a yet greater variety of multiple social settings. Schroder (1994) strikes home the fundamental reality that even research which summons together naturally interactive social groups (such as families or peer groups) is problematic in the sense that each member of such a group or "interpretive community" is simultaneously a member of many other social groups or communities. Just by virtue of the act of selecting one of these as the unit of analysis, the researcher unavoidably accords priority to that unit, to the necessary exclusion or neglect of all of the other interpretive communities to which the individual belongs:

If, say, we wanted to explore the role of broadcast news and its social signifying processes among the population of a country, it would be impossible to do justice to the vastness of this subject through a study of one interpretive community. To interview families/households, for instance, is clearly insufficient if one wants to capture the multiple interpersonal discourses through which people make sense of the news. . . . (Schroder, 1994, pp. 341-342)

Despite that acknowledgement, Schroder's "solution" is "to use the individual interview in the informant's home as the research setting that best does justice to the whole array of cultural discourses that the individual inhabits" (p. 342). After all, one need not directly observe the individual in each and every possible social setting; while the individual is situated in the household setting, one can also freely explore the multiple sociocultural circumstances and scenarios which contribute to the individual's readings and uses of television or other media. As Schroder states, "this is ultimately an empirical question" (p. 342), and a research design can be formulated in such a way as to capture the experiences of subjects in other settings.

Such additional challenges aside, a preliminary step in the formulation of any research design is the need to first sketch out the variety of households that are contained within "the Canadian case" and to assemble some of the available data regarding their respective patterns of media usage.2 It can be seen that the "overseas" contributions of those such as Ang, Lull, and Morley do provide fruitful fodder for the empirical exploration of the reception process as it operates here. Since the dominant setting of ethnographic audience research is the household, what can add to the fodder are the potentially useful linkages between discussions of households in the family studies literature and discussions of household media reception in the media studies literature. There is, in other words, much to be gained from an attempted integration or at least intersection of family studies and media studies along several counts, particularly if one is concerned, like most ethnographic audience researchers, to unravel the operation of the media reception process within its everyday household context.

For example, there is a tendency within ethnographic audience research to treat families and households in a monolithic manner, to consider so-called "nuclear" families almost exclusively, and to overlook the extensive and increasing diversity of family forms and household types-including solo-parent families, childless couples, gay and lesbian couples, multigenerational households, one-person households, and so forth. There is, in other words, a tendency to overlook the variety of ways in which households are differentially structured, which in turn leads to differential configurations of interactional dynamics, and which in turn can be expected to lead to differential patterns of media usage and differential outcomes of the media reception experience.

There are also several components of media usage patterns that can be distinguished, including: the type and quantity of media available within a household, the extent of usage, gendered patterns of usage, and, not unrelatedly, power and control over media usage as it is exercised within the social-interactional dynamics of family media experiences. Unfortunately, the available Canadian data are largely limited to those regarding the extent to which Canadian households are equipped with communication and information technologies. These data are indeed extraordinary, and reflect the tradition whereby Canadians have tended historically to be voracious consumers of media technologies.

According to Statistics Canada's 1996 Household Facilities and Equipment Survey (Statistics Canada, 1997), 3.6 million households or 31.6% were equipped with a home computer, which represented an increase of 365,000 from a year earlier and triple the proportion a decade earlier.3 A total of 1.6 million households or approximately one in seven (14.1%) are equipped with cellular telephones, while almost four in 10 households are equipped with three or more regular telephones. At the same time, 53.4% of households were equipped with a compact disc or CD player, an increase from 47.4% in 1995 and more than double the proportion just five years earlier (21.1%). Also in 1996, more than half of Canadian households featured two or more colour television sets, more than double the rate of a decade earlier, and 74.0% were cabled, an increase from 65.4% in 1986.

VCRs have clearly become a standard item of household equipment, found in 83.5% of all households in 1996, an increase from 82.1% a year earlier and only 35.2% a decade prior. Indeed, close to one in five Canadian households or 18.6% are equipped with two or more VCRs. Interestingly, Ang (1996) suggests that the popularity of the VCR provides true evidence of active audiences in action, in that it enables audiences to "opt out" of the centralized transmission structure of the broadcasting industry and to circumvent the arrangement whereby program schedules are controlled by a limited number of powerful central broadcast service providers:

What we have here is a clear manifestation of the "active audience," but of course this does not imply a conscious intentionality on the part of VCR users to "resist." It would make more sense to suggest that when given the opportunity, people opted for "choice": they wanted to decide for themselves what to watch, or at least they wanted to be able to watch programmes at times convenient to them. (pp. 11-12)

As we know, the very extensive array of communication and information technologies in Canadian households is also very extensively utilized. The availability of new cable specialty channels in 1995 influenced an increase in television viewing to an average 23.2 hours per week (Statistics Canada, 1996). Francophone households in Quebec averaged the greatest volume of television viewing at 26.7 hours per week, 66.9% of which was directed at indigenously produced Canadian programs. With respect to program genres, more than one fifth of all viewing of Canadian television productions was directed at news and current affairs programs, by far the most heavily viewed genre of all Canadian productions.4

How, then, does media usage vary by household type? Statistics Canada is less inclined to provide such a breakdown of the data than to distinguish individual viewers by age and gender, and these data commonly indicate that the volume of viewing increases with age and is greater among women. Both the BBM and CBC research departments are similarly inclined to focus upon the age and gender of individual viewers.5 Of these three principal sources, Statistics Canada comes closest to the provision of data which distinguish between household types; however, the data refer only to the existence of household media equipment (Statistics Canada, 1998) and do not extend to the use of that equipment.

The importance of a comparative dimension in the study of media usage across different household types has at least been implied by Ang, Morley, and others. Morley (1994), for example, refers to "seemingly elementary considerations-such as the determining effect of the structure and size of the domestic space available to different families-that have been improperly neglected by researchers in this field to date" (p. 107). While it may not have been his intent, we might read his use of "structure" here in such a way as to include household composition, which clearly "structures" the domestic spaces in which media are experienced.

There is a tremendous amount that can be gleaned from the sociological and other literature about families and households in order to shed light upon the process of media reception which, after all, occurs principally within the household and amidst a complex set of interactional family dynamics. For example, there is contemporarily within the family literature a rejection of the notion and use of "the family" in that it is widely understood to be a monolithically biased conceptualization of the primary object of analysis, and in its place there is a renewed focus upon "households" in the plural and the polysemic character of diverse household structures (see Eichler, 1983, 1997).

For example, there is also Zaretsky's (1976) historical analysis of the process whereby the household was transformed from a unit of production to a unit of consumption, including media consumption, seemingly creating "a new sphere of social activity" (p. 61) distinct from the mode of production. Tomlinson (cited in Morley, 1994) carries the analysis further in his discussion of the (increasing and ongoing) development of the household as a self-contained, self-sufficient unit of consumption, ever transforming in a continuing process of increasing privatization.

For example, there is also the relative wealth of sociological literature about the gendered division of household labour (e.g., Kluwer, Heesink, & Van De Vliert, 1997; Luxton, 1990; Meissner, Humphreys, Meis, & Scheu, 1975), crudely yet succinctly captured in the observation that the household is principally a site of leisure for men and an ambiguous site of labour and leisure for women-a body of literature which might be seen as "required reading" prior to the formulation of any explanations of the gendered patterns of media consumption in the household.

What needs to be explored is how these contributions might be allowed to intersect or might indeed be integrated in such a way as to construct a comprehensive and sensitive approach to the analysis of the media reception process within Canadian households. Morley (1994) perhaps comes closest to such an attempt at integration in that his work starts from the premise that any analysis of the uses of communication and information technologies must confront a set of parallel oppositions, including public/private, masculine/feminine, production/consumption, and work/leisure.

There continues to be a persistent reticence to launch wholeheartedly in this fashion into audience research in Canada, or at least to move beyond the limited material produced by industry organizations such as the BBM. A singular source of promise has been CBC Research, which at one time produced a range of interesting studies apart from unimaginatively quantitative calculations of media usage demographics, yet which, as Eaman (1994) reports, has very much reduced its focus over the past two decades to, for example, the effects of simulcast-substitution or the efficacy of the Corporation's publicity campaigns.

In marked contrast, Silverstone (1994), for example, concisely conveys the level of theoretical development in the investigations of overseas media scholars into media consumption by families. In his formulation, media consumption within a family occurs in

a complex social setting in which different patterns of cohesion and dispersal, authority and submission, freedom and constraint, are expressed in the various subsystems of conjugal, parental, or sibling relationships and in the relationships that the family has between itself and the outside world. These relationships are played out in variously cramped or expansive, highly differentiated or undifferentiated domestic spaces; and they are played out through variously organized or disorganized, routinized or chaotic domestic temporalities. They are played out in public and they are played out in private. Patterns of media consumption-especially television viewing-are generated and sustained within these social, spatial, and temporal relations. (p. 33)

He notes the focus upon "the family" by some audience researchers, pointing to Lull and Morley as exemplary, "yet these researchers need to recognize . . . that families are problematic entities" (Silverstone, 1994, p. 33) and here he points to the decline in the U.K. of so-called "nuclear" families and the concomitant growth of solo-parent families as well as one-person households. Parallel trends among Canadian households have been very well documented.

In his observations of the debates about families and television in the U.K., Silverstone (1994) makes the point that while television has been traditionally perceived as a displacement of other family activities or as somehow destructive of family relations-the nature, path, and repercussions of the destruction are rarely elaborated, let alone documented, in these more or less exclusively moral debates-it has more recently come to be perceived as both a focus of family activities and as a resource. The idea of its status as a resource harks back to the uses and gratifications research of the 1950s (e.g., Katz & Lazarsfeld, 1955). Yet, despite their nominal attention to the primary setting of media usage, the work of "uses and grats" researchers was fundamentally centred upon the individual in that it addressed the central question of the uses made by individuals of media products and the gratifications derived by individuals from these products.

Lull's (1990) discussion of cultural variations in family viewing and the rituals and rules of social interaction and communication within households moves further towards a comprehensive and contextualized understanding of the media reception process. His notion of "cultural variation" extends to three levels of analysis: by "the culture" he refers to characteristics of a social context beyond the microlevel parameters of the household; "the household" encompasses the structure of family relations as well as the physical location or place in which television is experienced; and the third level of analysis is "the person." He acknowledges that television viewing occurs most commonly and most fundamentally within the household: what is understood to be a complex, very intricate mix of persons, social roles, power relations, ritual activities, processes of interpersonal communication, and physical factors that characterize the household environment, as well as the technological equipment contained within it.

Television, as the dominant medium towards which attention is directed in these discussions, is seen to serve a variety of purposes in everyday family relations. In households with children, it can be called upon to alleviate somewhat the burden of child care by occupying the attention of children while other household labour chores are completed. In solo-parent households, it is sometimes called upon in order to play out symbolically the role of the second parent. And in all but one-person households, it can be incorporated into strategies to avoid physical or emotional contact with other household members.

As Morley (1980, 1986), Rogge & Jensen (1988), and others have demonstrated, the uses and patterns of television viewing may be highly routinized, yet are not at all static or invulnerable to change. Where household circumstances change-for example, where the composition of the household changes or where a member becomes unemployed-family viewing patterns can be dramatically affected with respect to the amount of viewing, the content of viewing, and the linkages between viewing and other household activities. In the case of a household struck by unemployment, communication and relations between members can be expected to change as new viewing patterns are negotiated in order to arrive at a viable arrangement that will work within the nexus of prefigured social relations in the household.

While, again, we are without any specific Canadian data, it can at least be speculated that the introduction of the VCR into Canadian households required yet another re-negotiation and restructuring of household media activities. Lull (1990) implies that its introduction was potentially highly conflictual, in that the VCR makes use of the television screen and thereby precludes the viewing of regular off-air programming, at least in single-set households (although we do know that more than half are multiset households in the Canadian case):

The family constructs new patterns of viewing-of video and television-that may also require the articulation of new rules for access. This is especially the case in families with children since they are most likely to have a VCR [note at least one variation by household type]. The addition of a VCR at home increases the entertainment options, provides more control over viewing (thereby changing the viewing experience for audiences) and makes the interpersonal dynamics of the home more complex. (p. 169)

The VCR also figures prominently within gendered viewing patterns, which can be expected to lead to variations between households based upon the absence or presence of men. In those households where men are present, they are commonly responsible for the installation and operation of the VCR, are most likely to develop user competency, and are most likely to govern rules of access and control over the VCR. Since there are also indications that children, regardless of gender, at least seek to develop VCR user competency, it can be expected that children in female-headed solo-parent households are likely the main operators of video equipment.

As Gray (1987; see also Morley, 1994) has argued, the reticence of most women to operate a VCR is much more than a matter of perceived technological complexity. While the women she observed did not use their VCRs, relying instead upon male partners or children, she points out that they routinely operated other equally complex items of domestic technology, such as washing machines or sewing machines. Interestingly, their sense of alienation or distance from the VCR was less related to its perceived technological complexity than to its location, like the television, within what the women felt to be a principally masculine domain of domestic leisure-in which most of the women felt they had no rightful place. The issue of variations by household type might lead one to examine how these feelings are accommodated in, for example, lesbian households where men are absent.

Lull (1990) outlines a full range of ways in which the VCR impacts upon family viewing patterns. The use of the VCR, particularly to view a rented or purchased video, carries with it greater significance and status as a viewing event than regular television viewing, which in turn raises issues such as when the video will be played, which household members can or will be present, how it will be integrated into regular television viewing and the use of other household media, and so forth, all of which must be negotiated among household members and which may lead to a somewhat different set of interactional dynamics at the "viewing event." The event becomes more social, more of a family occasion and, as Lull points out, the social dimension of the event is likely to be the responsibility of women, while the selection of the video and its playback is most often the responsibility of men.

What further affects the dynamics of viewing is the fact that the VCR can be started and stopped at any time. Time management of the viewing experience is left entirely to household members, which in turn requires interpersonal co-operation and at the same time offers new opportunities for family conflict. In particular, the fast-forward capability of the VCR permits a user-controlled tempo of viewing which highlights the issue of control over the remote control device and further increases the potential for family conflict.

Perhaps the most assured potential source of family conflict, and at the same time the most developed realm of analysis in this field, is that of the gendered patterns of television consumption within households. Morley (1994) states the significance of this body of work very simply: "men's and women's differential positions in the domestic sphere-home as, fundamentally, a site of leisure for the one but, more contradictorily, a site of both leisure and work for the other-determines their differential relation to television" (p. 108). One would think that these well-established gender-based patterns would lead to a consideration of differential media experiences in households differentially structured by their alternative gender compositions, yet that has not been the case.

Morley's now-classic analysis in Family Television (1986) clearly revealed the structuring effect of gender relations whereby gender was consistently associated with distinctive viewing patterns, amounts and styles of viewing, and distinctive program preferences. Furthermore, it has been well established, by Morley and others, that power and control over program choice are very much the outcome of gender relations. What needs to be acknowledged, therefore, in any analysis of media reception within Canadian households, is the critical connection between the social construction of gender and the domestication of television.

The refinement of a comprehensive approach to the analysis of everyday media usage in Canadian households simultaneously demands a sensitive theorization of differences in the reception process between households which assume different compositional forms and between those which represent different social classes. Here, one cannot afford to overlook the vital importance of class distinctions between households, as both audience and family researchers elsewhere are inclined to do; including, for example, Shattuc (1997) in her recent work about television talk shows and women where, despite an early acknowledgement of the importance of class location, gender and genre remain the most persistently critical variables in her analysis.


Almost all of the work of overseas audience researchers, just a small sampling of which has been discussed here, raises many intriguing questions about the extent to which and the ways in which these family viewing patterns may also pertain to the case of Canadian households. Particularly in view of what we know to be exceptionally high levels of media consumption in Canada, there are rich opportunities to explore the intricacies of the reception process as it operates here. This article has merely sought to suggest, in a highly exploratory and tentative fashion, that we might set about to call upon existent knowledge of Canadian family structures and family dynamics, alongside and together with existent knowledge of family media consumption elsewhere, in order to begin to address questions of media reception in Canada in a truly comprehensive and contextually sensitive manner.

Such work might call upon a variety of methods, and utilize both qualitative and quantitative data. Schlesinger and his colleagues, for example, in their analysis of women's responses to televised violence against women (Schlesinger, Dobash, Dobash, & Weaver, 1992), obtained quantitative data from questionnaires about personal backgrounds and individual responses to screenings of televisual violence as well as qualitative data from group discussions of the programs. In this particular case, interviews with women in their family context were ruled out, to enable women to express their views freely, especially in situations where family violence prevailed. The questionnaire data made it possible to more fully understand how the social characteristics of viewers shaped their responses.

The use of quantitative data in this manner, to identify broader patterns, provides reinforcement to qualitative results focused upon a limited number of interpretative positions to the possible neglect of others. In this way, as Schlesinger, Dobash, Dobash, & Weaver suggest, quantitative and qualitative results can be synthesized into a more comprehensive and more fully contextual analysis of media reception. In the best of all possible (and best-funded) research worlds, such results would form part of a broadly integrated analysis of production and reception.

The development and refinement of a comprehensive and fully contextual analysis of the reception process within Canadian households may, at this juncture, be difficult to envision. It raises a plethora of theoretical and practical methodological challenges, and these are not easily overcome. Perhaps above all, the ultimate payoff is not great, if one thinks in terms of the extraordinary investment of research time and effort demanded by such a project, all in order to reveal little more than a sampling of the reception experiences of a large and very diverse Canadian population. Despite these challenges and the inevitable limitations of the research results, it needs to be acknowledged that each and every active pursuit of our own active viewers can only contribute greatly to our understanding of audiences here.

In 1991, Ang pointed out that "the world of actual audiences is too polysemic and polymorphic to be completely articulated in a closed discursive structure" (p. 14). Schroder (1994) agrees yet declares:

But then let's get on with it and produce incompletely articulated accounts of audience readings and practices which may, in spite of their (no doubt) multiple shortcomings, provide illuminating insights into the polysemic and polymorphic relationships between media and people in the world we live in. (p. 341)

And as Radway (1988) along with numerous other foreign media scholars has discovered, the project of everyday ethnography is "potentially unwieldy and unending" (p. 369). Nonetheless, in the case of Canadian audiences, there is plainly a need to first at least make a beginning.


Ironically, perhaps, of all the organizations in Canada which have audience data to offer-such as the Bureau of Broadcast Measurement, the Print Measurement Bureau, A. C. Nielsen, the CRTC, and Statistics Canada-CBC Research has tended to be the most available and helpful to academic researchers, and yet it is also the one source of data that has seen its own research resources very sharply reduced.
Much of the following discussion in this section derives from Clarke (1998).
All of the following data regarding household media equipment were derived from Statistics Canada (1998).
These data regarding amounts of television viewing were obtained from Statistics Canada (1997).
Eaman (1994) points out that CBC audience research is not without its value in that it does include qualitative studies. However, by virtue of funding constraints, the CBC's research has come to be more and more limited to analyses of the size and composition of its audiences. Nevertheless, it must be appreciated that this research has never been strictly or even primarily motivated by audience maximization: there has been a concerted, if not always consistent, effort to identify and document the expression of audience needs and preferences.


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