Studying Television Audiences:
Problems and Possibilities
D Vinod Pavamla
Media audience research has, during the past five decades, fluctuated between positions that have represented the audiences as passive receivers of all-powerful media messages, and perspectives that have sought to portray the audiences as active, selective, and critical interpreters of media texts. Recent scholarship, however, has provided more nuanced insights into the different ways in which audiences interact with media texts. In this paper, I will critically examine some of these perspectives, with particular emphasis on work related to television audiences in the West, and attempt to locate the current status of audience research in India within that larger body of work. In the end, I will raise some issues that deserve our special attention in the Indian context.
IN SEARCH OF TELEVISION AUDIENCES: A REVIEW
The earliest media research was clearly influenced by the pessimistic 'mass society thesis' which in turn emerged out of late 19th century European scholarship which painted a ^leak picture of the breakdown of traditional social systems — the rise of bureaucratic organizations, contractual arrangements, large-scale migrations, social stratification and differentiation, and psychological isolation and weakening of binding social ties in urban-industrial societies. Another source of influence was the ideas emanating from the Frankfurt School of the 1930s regarding the disintegration of German society into Fascism, which they attributed partly to the easy manipulation of atomized masses of people through powerful instruments of propaganda. By the end of World War II, researchers were convinced of the vulnerability of mass audiences to the power of media whose effects on individuals were direct, immediate, uniform and maximum, a behaviourist formulation that has come to be called the 'magic bullet" theory or the 'hypodermic needle' theory of mass communication. After about a decade of research conducted within Hs assumptions, this paradigm lost its attractiveness to mass communication scholars as accuihulating empirical evidence and new concepts developed by