Predicting audience exposure to television in today's media environment: an empirical integration of active-audience and structural theories.

Author:Cooper, Roger

The fundamental issue of why audiences choose to watch television is an enduring question for media scholars. This is a progressively complex challenge as the audience continues to fragment and increasingly gains power over media choices through additional content sources (e.g., the Internet) and time-shifting technology (e.g., DVR). Two primary, though conflicting, theoretical perspectives guided explanations of medium choice and use. The first emphasizes individual determinants most commonly articulated through the "uses and gratifications" approach (e.g., Cohen, 2002; Katz, Blumler, & Gurevitch, 1974; Ko, Cho, & Roberts, 2005; McQuail, 2005; Papacharissi & Mendelson, 2007; Rubin, 1994). The second focuses on how structural characteristics, such as audience availability, access, and scheduling factors influence the size and composition of audiences (e.g., Barrett, 1999; Cooper, 1993; Webster & Newton, 1988; Webster, Phalen, & Lichty, 2006; Webster & Wakshlag, 1983).

Each approach provides important insights about the choice of television, but typically ignores key aspects that would provide more complete explanations of exposure to television. Although a number of published studies called for more empirical focus on how individual and structural factors interact (e.g., Cooper, 1996; Pingree et al., 2001; Webster & Newton, 1988; Webster et al., 2006), few studies specifically sought to determine these interactions. As scholars continue to grapple with dynamic, convergent media environments, efforts to integrate divergent theoretical perspectives likely will yield more nuanced explanations of viewing behavior. This study addresses this theoretical gap by integrating individual and structural factors that predict exposure to television.

Traditional Theoretical Conceptualizations of Audience Exposure to Television

The two primary theoretical traditions that frame research about audience exposure to television carry differential assumptions of how television viewers use the medium. The uses and gratifications approach conceptualizes the audience as active and goal-directed when consuming media, and offers an understanding of how audience motivations, individual characteristics, and preferences link to media behavior (e.g., Ferguson & Perse, 2000; Kang, 2002; Katz et al., 1974; Ko et al., 2005; Papacharissi & Rubin, 2000; Roe & Minnebo, 2007; Rosengren, Wenner, & Palmgreen, 1985; Shim & Paul, 2007). Findings demonstrate considerable audience activity in decisions about whether to watch television, especially involving program--or program type--preferences (e.g., Albarran & Umphrey, 1993; Cohen, 2002; Papacharissi & Mendelson, 2007). However, studies in this tradition empirically ignore that exposure is not completely free of constraints. Structural or contextual factors, such as the audience member's availability and access to television or other media, the ability or willingness to pay for multichannel services, as well as scheduling factors, impact use of television. Scholars who focus on these structural determinants use aggregate data (usually secondary analyses supplied by Nielsen) to demonstrate consistent patterns of macro-level audience behavior (e.g., Barrett, 1999; Cooper, 1993; Goodhardt, Ehrenberg, & Collins, 1987; Webster, 2005; Webster & Newton, 1988; Webster & Wang, 1992). Findings from this approach usually have impressive predictive power and utility for explaining the mass audience, but are ill-suited to explain the underlying reasons for medium or program choice, including individual motivations for selecting television in the first place (Cooper, 1996).

Inevitably, these conflicting orientations about media use lead to epistemological and theoretical debates about whether potential viewers are "active" or "passive" in their decision to use the medium (Webster, 1998). Those working under the structural approach view the audience as more passive in their decision to watch television. A number of researchers have conceptualized the choice of whether to watch television as largely passive (e.g., Comstock, 1980; Webster et al., 2006; Webster & Wakshlag, 1983), or as a relationship between the audience and medium itself rather than specific channels or programs (Rosenstein & Grant, 1997). Instead, explanations about choice of medium are heavily dependent on structural factors, especially the audience's availability to the medium. The choice of what to watch, however, is thought to be more active, yet still bound to some extent by factors such as program scheduling and awareness of content options available. Researchers within active-audience theories generally see the audience as more active in the decision to watch television and what to watch, although some research indicates greater activity in content selection than in the decision to watch television (Lometti & Addington, 1992; Rubin, 1984).

Few scholars on either side of the theoretical aisle would argue that their approach can explain everything about the decision to watch television. Most uses and gratifications researchers would not claim that choice is completely unencumbered by constraints or structural influences. By the same token, structural conceptualizations would not argue that viewers, at times, specifically decide to watch television and might actively seek out the medium. The difficulty of combining individual and structural factors in determining audience exposure, in addition to fundamentally different assumptions, rests in the differential levels of analysis employed within each area of inquiry. Scholars working in the uses and gratifications tradition go "direct to the sources" to determine motivations of why viewers choose to watch television and specific content, whereas scholars using structural approaches rely almost exclusively on analyses of secondary data (i.e., Nielsen ratings) to explain broader patterns of viewing behavior. Thus, development of measures that place individual and structural factors on an equal plane of analysis would not only enhance the utility of these measures, but also would help integrate these divergent theoretical explanations for audience exposure to television.

Regardless of the conceptual and measurement challenges at hand, explanations of audience behavior as either active or passive seem increasingly untenable. As Webster (1998) points out, historical conceptualizations of television audiences as active or passive ultimately prove fruitless. Nearly three decades ago, Palmgreen and Rayburn (1979) argued for integration "of the roles played by gratifications and other factors into a general theory of media consumption" (p. 177). Webster and Wakshlag (1983) integrated the dissimilar perspectives of uses and gratifications and models of choice in an attempt to locate the interchange between programming structures, content preferences, and viewing conditions in the program choice process. This useful theoretical template, unfortunately, has not led to many studies that sought an integration of the two research approaches. Pingree et al. (2001) advocate the use of both research approaches to provide a "balanced picture of television viewing" (p. 461). Both Adams (2000) and Pingree et al. (2001), using diaries of viewing and focus groups, respectively, found that individual and structural factors impact uses of television. However, the interactions among these variables or the relative influences of these factors on exposure to television are still not known.

According to Rubin (1984), audience activity is not an absolute concept, but a variable one. In other words, the level of activity differs according to a range of possible orientations in the communication process. The choice of exposure to television, in and of itself, does not infer the level of activity--either passive or active. An individual is likely to be (at varying degrees) passive and active at different points, at times actively choosing the medium (or another technology), and at other times choosing the medium because it is accessible or a habit. Thus, it is logical to conclude that both individual and structural variables should have an impact on the choice of television.

In today's fragmented, robust media environment where hundreds of television channels delivered through multi-channel services compete for viewers and with newer media forms (from the Internet to iPods), the relative influence of individual and structural variables on television choice may indeed shift due to these influences. To advance the scholarship, it is important to develop and test measures that allow an "apples to apples" comparison of the relative interactions and influences of key concepts delineated through both uses and gratifications and structural approaches. This study takes an initial step to integrate measures to examine individual and structural determinants of television exposure.

An Integrated Model of Audience Exposure

Figure 1 presents an integrated model of exposure to television, locating the interactions expected to exist between and among individual and structural factors. As the model demonstrates, audience availability and viewing motivations, access to television, use of other media, and audience characteristics, should all have some influence on exposure to television. Moreover, factors closely associated with structural (availability) and active-audience theories (motivations) are also expected to be related. Because an audience member's availability for television follows predictable patterns and is necessary to watch television (Webster et al., 2006), motivations to watch television out of habit should be related to one's availability for the medium. Audience characteristics, such as age, income, and gender would also be expected to have a relationship with an individual's availability to, and motivation for, television. In addition, access to television channels (i.e., paying to have more channels available)...

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