BCMCR Audience theme: research clusters round-up

By Charlotte Stevens on October 31st, 2023

In October 2022, following the launch of the new BCMCR theme of ‘audience’, Hazel and I started our tour of research clusters to introduce the theme and prompt some discussion. We are very aware that our idea of audience is shaped by our shared background in television studies. An audience, to us, are the people who watch television – they are grouped, known, and understood through their relationship to that specific medium. The television audience changes (or doesn’t) as the medium changes (or simply becomes more complex). After meeting with the clusters and attending cluster-curated research presentations on the theme, there were some interesting trends, and compelling differences, in how each piece of the BCMCR research community responded to the theme. This blog post captures our impression of these discussions, and is based on notes that we used for talking through the theme with undergraduate and postgraduate students.

With the Game Cultures cluster, overall the sense was that the traditional media studies triad text, industry, and audience breaks down somewhat as the distinction between text and audience is fuzzy when considering games. This is due to a shift in game studies literature towards thinking of a game as becoming a text only when it is played, meaning a player is involved in the production of a ‘text’, and before a player is involved a game is merely rules, mechanics, code, and/or other potential. (There is also a fuzziness in games between industry and audience, since many of the people who make games also construct their identity as players.) There are certainly different audiences for gameplay; for example, watching a sibling or friend take their turn with a controller, tuning in for a livestream, producing or consuming accounts of MMO activity. However, with each of these examples the player or players are not themselves audiences, meaning they must then be part of the game text.

In many ways, the History, Heritage and Archives cluster was in line with our expectations, primarily because there is a considerable amount of television interest in the cluster, both television studies and with production history. This means when we met with the cluster, our theme-based starting point idea of ‘audience’ was fairly natural, with a very stable idea of what it means to be an audience. From this cluster’s discussion, the measuring and studying of audiences (reception; or, who watches what, and why) and imagining an audience during media production (thinking about address, focus, emphasis) are two sides to the audience question; in both cases the audience is one or more people who are consuming and reacting to a media text. Fan letters, audience survey exercises, and viewing/sales statistics are all ways to gain access to media audiences in their different forms. Audiences also provide evidence of understanding themselves as being constructed as an audience, with all its implications. 

For the Cultural Theory cluster, an early and repeated interest in our conversation was on audience-as-listener, which is fitting because the auditory is indeed from the same origin as the word audience. Key early questions in this cluster meeting raised issues of who has a voice and whether one is listening with a predetermined idea of what will be heard. However, for this cluster, ‘audience’ was a somewhat alien way to theorise groups of people and these groups’ relationship to media texts. Instead, ‘public’ was preferred as it interpolates groups of individuals as social/cultural actors with political agency – not quite as far as ‘citizen’, but close to it. Interestingly this echoes Newcomb and Hirsch’s framing of broadcast television as a cultural forum, though the contemporary fragmentation of the current media landscape means that a singular forum is harder to theorise. Still, the reframing of audience to public is interesting in moving outside of that text-industry-audience triad.

The Media and Place cluster started their discussion around the idea of audience as commodity, stemming from the cluster members’ interest in journalism and broadcasting. For commercial broadcasting (radio, but also podcasting, etc.) audiences are effectively sold to advertisers, but a radio presenter cultivates a one-to-one address where each audience member feels addressed while also part of a community. However, other interests of the cluster in the form of citizen journalists and community/local media producers (print and community radio both), demonstrates an overlap of audience and industry. In these latter cases the audience for media production is not distant or wholly imagined as it is with television – where television audiences are gauged through viewer surveys or fan letters – but where the audience is the community in which the local journalist lives and works. 

Interestingly, for the Creative Industries cluster, the potential of ‘audience’ as a lens was initially taken as a foreign concept without much application. In one case, it was flatly rejected as a way to theorise people’s interaction with media texts. However, the framing as audience as visitor – to art galleries, to tourist sites – has more traction, as it opened up a discussion of audience members as economic actors with cultural capital. This was the inverse of Media and Place’s sense of audiences as commodities whose attention is purchased by advertisers: in this conversation, audiences were taste-makers whose interest in purchasing (for example) indigenous art or admission to heritage sites have a material effect on cultural policy frameworks in which creative industries operate. A final pair of ways of thinking about audience were questions of user vs audience, in a social media sense, and in a space where amateur production again muddies the distinction between producer and consumer. 

Jazz and Popular Music clusters oriented their theme activity around research seminars relating to audience work; as with the History, Heritage and Archives cluster, an audience for music is a more natural fit. The Popular Music cluster’s research seminar programming in spring 2023 addressed music audiences and music fandom, with the fan audience framed as a particularly engaged and dedicated form of audience. The Jazz cluster’s seminar weeks in early winter 2022 focused on live performance and the idea that an audience at a live gig is part of the performance as much as the folks on stage. 

With all clusters we asked what our colleagues thought about the audiences for the work of academics: in our classrooms, with research-led teaching, and for publications. There was a repeated mention of gatekeeping (expensive edited collections, journal paywalls) that keep our traditional scholarly outputs inaccessible. There is a question to what extent a general public – a non-academic audience – is a stakeholder for academic work. 

Following these conversations, we held an Audience Theme conference in early July 2023, and we look forward to teasing out these ideas in an edited collection arising from the conference.