Desperately Seeking the Audience

Ien Ang

It must be a sign of the times: yet another academic revival on what audiences do with the plethora of television fare to which they are exposed. This trend tends to suggest that some things were left untouched in the many previous books which addressed the perennial quest for understanding what lies at the roots of the solid bind the persists between television and its viewers. The pervasiveness of the term "audience" in studies of television communication both past and present testifies to the complexity of establishing firm dogmas in a technological universe that is constantly evolving both in contents and in means of distribution. When put next to one another, Television and Its Audience and Desperately Seeking the Audience illustrate two rather antithetical perspectives on the television-viewer connection: the former offers a wide collection of traditional research findings on what, when, and how viewers watch, whereas the latter adamantly calls for the necessity to develop novel forms of knowledge about television audiences that would not be linked to the institutional point of view.

In all fairness to Barwise & Ehrenberg, whose book came out five years ago, one cannot help but question to what degree their background in marketing--both are professors at the London Business School--has coloured their conception of what television behaviour entails. Their ease in reverting to numeric terms to explain many television phenomena is such that the reader is given a considerable amount of factual information that is helpful in grasping the magnitude of how, and to what extent, television infiltrates one's free time.

The book introduces many instances of television jargon, such as "drip effect" which refers to the potential of long-term effects, the "60/40 rule" whereby people are said to be giving their full attention to a TV program 60% of the time and only partial commitment 40% of the time, and the "double jeopardy effect" where low-audience programs would also be among the least liked. Such expressions have the merit of bringing the reader closer to the language of those who make television and are certainly useful in illustrating some basic concepts that shape that specific cultural industry.

The authors must be commended for taking clear, unequivocal, albeit debatable positions on issues that are perceived to be highly problematic within the communication community. Such is the case, for example, on the question of whether or not television elicits any form of activity at all within the viewer. Barwise & Ehrenberg contend that the act of television viewing is a predominantly passive behaviour. The only exception is related to the selection of a program which would necessitate a minimal degree of activity. On the question of the overall effect of television the authors, somehow surprisingly, are of the opinion that "when we take account of how many programs, newscasts and commercials people actually watch, viewing any one of them can hardly ever be a very significant event" (p. 8). Taken a step further, such a posture runs the risk of being interpreted as opposing any form of censorship since any single depiction of controversial material is bound to be neutralized by the sum of the "acceptable" contents. There is many an advocacy group that would have a field day with the suggestion that the cumulative effect of television is nothing more than a direct result of those same seemingly innocuous fragments of television being ingested by vulnerable members of the audience.

In their desire to disentangle the various components of the television audience, Barwise & Ehrenberg acknowledge the ways in which new technological developments are gradually affecting the ways in which television is used. To this effect, we are told how Third-Age-of-Broadcasting technologies do not so much transform the content of television as its means of distribution, by expanding the range of support vehicles that deliver the images to our home. The authors contend that the significant increase in the number of channels now available via cable and satellite facilities cannot be correlated with a corresponding segmentation in the profiles of the various audiences making use of these new channels. Television audiences are said to be largely unsegmented. This observation leads the authors to assert that "the advertiser need hardly be concerned with the content of the programs in which the commercials appear" (p. 112), a surprising statement that seems to collide with the oft-cited notion of "target group" and which does very little to explain why beer and car companies, for example, compete so much to sponsor professional sport broadcasts.

Despite its age, Television and Its Audience remains a worthwhile resource book for anyone interested in obtaining a general quantified overview of some of the most salient dimensions of people's behavioural reactions to television. It is a research path that is still very prevalent in mainstream communication and that has the undeniable advantage of resonating favourably with our fascination to measure, compare, and contrast even the most intangible and dynamic aspects of our nature.

It is precisely the very methods used to attain those intangibles that Ien Ang's Desperately Seeking the Audience challenges. The Dutch scholar who gained substantial praise and recognition for her 1985 critical examination of Dallas--"Watching Dallas: Soap Opera and the Melodramatic Imagination"--this time scrutinizes the theoretical assumptions underlying the dominance of quantitative survey research methods to which so much credence is given among the television elites.

The ideological affiliations of Ang make her one of the foreground figures within the critical tradition of communication. In the preface to her book, as well as in a number of references throughout, her culturalist stance is rendered evident. The numerous references made to scholars such as Simon Frith, David Morley, Charlotte Brunsdon, Roger Silverstone, and Larry Grossberg, to name but a few, give the reader a sense of the intellectual direction that can be expected. Even the title of the book dissimulates the leading thesis that Ang puts forth: television ratings as they are currently formulated and constructed are no more informative about the various ways the audience "uses" television than are box-office numbers vis-à-vis what film-goers take home with them after a showing.

Ang's demonstration is a very compelling one indeed. Borrowing examples from both the commercial and private television domains, she argues that what used to differentiate the two sectors, namely, the conception of the audience as "market" in one and as "public" in the other, has gradually made way for a more unified view that presents, in both camps, the audience as a collective taxonomic term devoid of any subjective peculiarities. Ang is adamant that any attempts to freeze the audience constitutes a most problematic proposition. By defining the audience as an "uncertain discursive construct" that is "socially-constituted and institutionally produced" (p. 3), her perspective is made explicit. Seen under this light, a television audience thus becomes a generic term that is as specific as "nation" or "population" in terms of providing information about individual behaviour patterns.

In Desperately Seeking the Audience the reader is guided through a very detailed argumentative journey regarding the intrinsic limitations of the kind of information that program and/or station ratings deliver. Whether it be the classic weekly diary method or the more sophisticated yet much contested Peoplemeter, or the even the Scan America system that combines viewing habits with purchasing patterns, Ang conceives of them as manifestations of "market feedback technology" (p. 7) whose primary, if not sole, role is to provide post hoc information about the size and composition of any given audience. In this pursuit, statistics achieve the ultimate prestige--or is it simply an undisputed faith within television circles?--of providing television executives with objectifying and controlling knowledge that can be converted into an economic commodity. But how can those aggregations of numbers be instructive if we wish to unravel what is meant by "viewing behaviour"?

The position advocated by Ang in this book is coherent with her previous efforts to operationalize one of the fundamental tenets of the critical studies tradition with regard to the audience. For the proponents of this school, it is doubtful that any discourse would ever arrive at seizing such an elusive concept as "audience." We are reminded that the latter compresses into one word far too many potentially divergent practices and experiences to be able to do justice to the very subjects it is supposed to reflect. In Ang's view, television viewing as the activity that ratings set out to measure is a far too complex and variegated behaviour to be translated by sheer numbers. Watching television gives way to a host of concurrent activities, of ulterior uses, of personal interpretations and pleasures that are, within the limits of everyday life, often contradictory, dispersed, and dynamic. Hence her contention, to the effect that "the world of actual audiences is too polysemic and polymorphic to be completely articulated in a closed discursive structure" (p. 14), conjures up a rethinking of the ways in which we have been approaching the viewer traditionally.

Following in the wake of what appears nowadays to be an ideological bandwagon within the cultural sector of television research, Ang remains faithful to her roots in stressing the necessity of making better use of the richness of the information that an ethnographic approach can deliver. She contends that rather than focusing on the effects of television, we should invest in elucidating the social and cultural engagements to which television gives rise. She argues for the importance of examining the intervening variables that contribute to shape the experience of viewing. From a research standpoint, we clearly see that what Ang is seeking to achieve is a way to particularize the viewing behaviour.

Among the methodological elements that Ang suggests to actualize the ethnographic stance that she prescribes are expressions such as "empirical naturalism" and "methodological situationalism" that are likely to rebuff the uninitiated. Put more simply, Ang recommends naturalistic observations in order to show the ambiguous patterns that are displayed when the act of "viewing television" is taken apart. For the author, the essential aspect of the mission is to focus on the micro-situations in which television is watched and not on the individual practices. Television is a medium that is consumed at home and often-times in the company of other family members. It is through "thick" descriptions of those surrounding conditions that the "real" or "actual" viewer can be depicted. In her scheme of things, television viewing is not to be examined as a separate activity but rather as one among the many activities that take place at home during one's free time. For anyone not familiar with this type of discourse, Ang's portrayal of television as an irreducible cultural practice offers a drastically different view on what many see as an innocent, domestic leisure activity.

The opposition with Barwise & Ehrenberg's angle of analysis could not be starker as Ang brilliantly succeeds in articulating her belief that it is variability and not consistency that is the best descriptor of television audiencehood. Contrary to what is presented in Television and Its Audience, Ang argues that viewing patterns are fundamentally ephemeral constructions much like situational snap-shots that vary from person to person and from one viewing session to the next. Instead of attempting, with all the respect that such an endeavour commands, to paint a piece-by-piece picture of a general viewing behaviour, Ang proposes an alternative that clashes with such a commodifiying posture. For her, it is futile to claim possession of a faithful chart of audiences' behaviour when we realize the fragility and fluidity of people's cultural and psychological frames of action.

However valid Ang's arguments are on the question of improving current television fare, she remains very hesitant to provide specific strategies to correct the ailments that she finds in the industry. Moreover, it is far from certain that claims such as "relativist pragmatism...is the only way to create a democratic element in the organization of our television culture" (p. 169) will ever succeed in making it all the way to television executives' desks. Perhaps this is not even Ang's basic intention. For the moment though, she leaves no doubt that for the most part television research, as it is generally conducted today, contributes to deepen rather than challenge the institutional point of view on the nature, tastes, desires, and habits of television viewers. Her thesis is likely to be singularly influent among those fascinated by the sociology of contemporary communication.



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