William R. Seaman’s “Active Audience theory: pointless populism”, 1992
Active audience theory grew in practice during the application of ethnographic research methods in the study of TV audience viewing practices in the 1980’s. In John Fiske’s 1987 book, “Television Culture” he explains how ethnography came to be a valid method of studying television and its viewers. David Morley (who Seaman actually criticizes in his 1992 paper), felt that Stuart Hall overemphasized the role of class in producing different readings (Hall’s work was in encoding/decoding, examining preferred reading, negotiated reading, and oppositional readings). There were some cross similarities between people of different social backgrounds such as bank managers and apprentices, and Morley surmised that the two were similarly constructed as subjects of capitalist ideology, inserting themselves into the dominant ideology in a shared interest of the economy’s survival and success. As a result, the emphasis of ethnography shifted away from the textual and ideological construction of the subject to socially and historically situated people. The emphasis in the late 80s turned to studying “the way people live in their culture” and acknowledged the differences between people despite their social construction and pluralized the meanings and pleasures they found in television. (Fiske) Greg Philo later writes that people do read the intended encoded message of a media text the same; it’s not polysemic in having different meanings to different groups. He believes instead that audiences are likely to criticize the content of a message in relation to another perspective, which they hold to be correct. “They are therefore aware of the encoded meaning and the manner in which it was constructed -they just do not agree with it.” (Philo, Active Audiences and the Construction of Public Knowledge, 2008)
Summary of reading
Seaman has an aversion to ethnographic research in the field of cultural studies, rejecting the overall view that, “television audiences hold far greater power over the medium than is generally acknowledged.”(301) He also says that an “active audience approach has tended more to mystify than to clarify, to rationalize a set of practices rather than to explain them.” (309) Further, he charges active audience theorists with taking a rhetorical role in theory construction, rather than an analytic or descriptive approach. (306) Seaman also argues against the active audience theorist view that the viewer’s individual interpretation constitutes interaction, implying a measure of control over the televisual text, as the text is just an A/V signal and is not altered itself by the viewer. (306) This goes against Fiske’s view that TV doesn’t have an effect on the individual, but rather on the ideology of a society in that it promotes and prefers certain meanings (that already exist).
Seaman has trouble with the term “free agency.” Unless viewers are aware of the “highly constrained character and content of programming…of the information, analyses, perspectives, beliefs filtered out by mainstream media, it is wrong to suggest they are truly free of their decisions to act.” (307)
-Seaman believes it allows cultural studies theorists to makes self-serving judgements
Seaman’s first critique of ethnographic research in active audiences is that it focuses on the apparent characterizations of these theorists in certain cultural practices as “resistant” or “oppositional”. He criticizes Morley’s playing with the oppositional reading. Morley countered an earlier view that Thomas Lindlof and Paul Trandt had earlier observed in that television is used to create personal space and may actually be used to avoid conflicts and be used to lessen conflicts within larger families with his own reading that television is used for things such as acceptable zones for private pursuits and provides organizing centres and an opportunity for new types of communicative contexts. In doing so, Morley started to replace words such as “can be seen” with the more definitive “television is”. Another example Seaman gives is when theorists say that the text is being “used” in a particular context, it implies that the subject is controlling the text for his or her own purposes. Other questions must be asked first, such as whether or not the subject is even aware of alternative choices so that essentially I think what he is saying is that comparisons need to be made in order to judge the assessment’s validity or plausibility. Seaman warns that theorists must be careful that possibilities are not turned into judgments as this can be misleading.
-Ineffective override and negative reinforcement
A) Seaman warns that mediated effects cannot confirm whether or not a target subgroup interprets degrading representations of that subgroup in ways that overthrow the dominant reading.
He used the example of Fiske’s work in stating that “women have told me how much they enjoyed Charlie’s Angels when it appeared on their screens in the 70’s and that their pleasure is seeing women taking active, controlling roles was so great that it overrode the incorporating devices that worked to recuperate feminist elements in its content back into patriarchy.” The way that the women may have perceived the experience of viewing cannot stand alone as the success of overriding the incorporating devices of a television program. “The word “pleasure” has to be explored in context. Seaman surmises that interpretations that rest on such elements as “viewer pleasure” can be self-serving.
B) He also warns that an oppositional reading of a text by a subgroup may work as an affirmation of their prejudices, giving them even more strength. He cites the anti-Arab racism in the American mainstream media and says the harm is not the demoralization of the subgroup, but the reinforcement of the prejudice and an encouragement to continue racist feelings in the dominant group.
Empowerment and the Active Audience
-Seaman wonders how can Active Audience findings empower, if there’s no readable action being taken?
Seaman says viewers do use the information they pick up on TV as reference points in making sense of the world but worries when theorists see this as an empowerment. He argues that viewer empowerment through the use of interaction with television is alarming to the “degree that elite interests dominate our news media and so constrain the field of options for ‘reference points’, examples and analyses” (305). I think he means that knowing that not all of the information and viewpoints make it to the audience by way of TV, it would be scary that we only see what does make it to the tube as worthy enough of conversation, consideration, or even value. More evidence to this view is on page 308 when he writes, “The problem does not lie with audiences, but rather with a system of mass communication that systematically excludes certain forms of programming and imagery in favour of a profoundly restricted and highly interest driven selection. The problem is not with audience interpreting practices, but with what is available for interpretation.”
Seaman seems to have a problem with theorists who use the term “empowerment” when it doesn’t really have a measurable effect in terms of action. On the subject of empowerment, he writes about Madonna as empowering for young women, “does nothing to decrease the staggering risk of date rape and other all too common forms of sexual assault and harassment.” (308) The result deals more with thoughts and feelings, which Seaman says is difficult to characterize, and makes the point that it’s not that he feels audience thoughts and feelings should be ignored.
Seaman harshly slams the active audience approach, saying it provides no insight into research in communication and media theory. He refers to the “pleasures made possible by inflected television readings simply will not address, let alone confront, the parochial bigotries, racist and sexist hiring practices, or the conservative voting trends that threaten even the most basic social programs, affirmative action and abortion rights here in the U-S…the violence against women and people of colour. “ (309)
In 2006, Morley wrote a response to the backlash against ethnographic research in his paper title, “Unanswered Questions in Audience Research.” Morley feels Seaman’s “Pointless Populism” is really “a return to a very old story about media effects and largely readable as the return of a narrowly fundamentalist political economy.”
“It is one thing to argue (as I have myself done) that some recent audience work has exaggerated, and wrongly romanticized the supposed power and freedoms of media consumers, imagining that all audiences everywhere are engaged in a continuous form of “semiological guerrilla warfare” (Eco, 1972) with the media, in which they constantly produce oppositional readings of its products.” (Morley, 2006)
Morley further acknowledges Seaman’s criticism of qualitative ethnographic research for not leading to follow-up action. “The further question raised by the critics of cultural studies audience work is whether it matters if people make oppositional or subversive decodings of media material, unless they go out and ‘do something’ (go on a demonstration; start a petition) about it.” Morley defends himself by saying that the many micro-instances of ‘pre-political’ attitude change in the cultural sphere acts as the impetus for political change. (Morley, 2006)
Morley ends up calling for a balanced approach to the two methodological practices of qualitative and quantitative. He surmises that there are times when more traditional types of research such as quantitative (number crunching and statistics) may be useful in audience research but warns that too much content can “deaden” under the weight of the “quantity of unanalysed contextual data. He gives validity to qualitative and ethnographic research in that it provides insight into, “the complexities of how audiences “indigenise” the media materials which they consume”, but warns that it runs the “danger of, descending into anecdotalism” and “we should not mistake the vividness of the examples it offers us for their general applicability.” (Morley, 2006)