Television news avoidance: exploratory results from a one-year follow-up study.

Author:Van den Bulck, Jan
 
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Many if not most mainstream television channels in most countries broadcast some form of news program. The news is so ubiquitous that no social scientist has probably ever felt the need to explain what kind of genre or type of program he or she was referring to when asking respondents questions about "the news." We all know what is meant by "the news" even though huge differences exist in the way the news is made in different countries, in different political systems, or even by different channels in the same culture.

The news is given an important role in contemporary society. In a recent article about the role and the position of communication media in democracies, Drale (2004) describes one view of democracy as the doctrine assuming that "the media should serve as a public sphere in which all who are interested may participate in public conversation or deliberation. Popular participation is assumed to be a necessary part of legitimate democratic procedure" (p. 223). Some see the news as a positive force in a democratic society. Spencer (2004), for instance, described television news as an active agent in peace negotiations in Northern Ireland. Beaudoin and Thorson (2004) identified a number of positive effects of news viewing on members of urban communities. Moy, Pfau, and Kahlor (1999) linked television news viewing to positive perceptions of certain democratic institutions. Others have identified potential negative effects of news exposure. Busselle and Crandall (2002), for instance, found correlates of news viewing and issues of racism. Holbert, Shah, and Kwak (2004) found that television news viewing predicted fear of crime.

For the news to have an effect on an individual and, by extension, on society, that individual has to have been exposed to the influence of the news. Researchers have shown that attention to news moderates its effects (e.g., Moy et al., 1999; Pinkleton & Austin, 2004). The question whether and why people watch the news may therefore be important. The current article discusses the processes explaining why some people watch the news religiously, some watch it less often, and others hardly watch it at all.

Two Approaches to the Program Selection Process

There are two apparently mutually exclusive theories explaining how viewers end up watching or not watching a particular program (Van den Bulck, 1995, p. 148; Webster & Wakshlag, 1983, p. 430; Webster & Wang, 1992, p. 125). The first school of thought stresses the importance of individual needs and preferences and states that what television audience members watch is the result of an active selection process. Such uses and gratifications studies postulate that viewers, acting as rational human beings, will express personal preferences in their choice of programs. The second school of thought starts from an econometric point of view, "treating television programs as neutral 'goods,' supplied to the viewers at no 'cost'" (Van den Bulck, 1995, p. 148). This approach studies audiences at the aggregate level and suggests that audience behavior is explained by structural factors such as the programming strategies of networks. It sees no need to look at individual viewing preferences and motivations to explain viewing behavior. Webster and Wakshlag claimed that up to 80% of viewing behavior can be explained by such structural factors as channel loyalty or the programming strategies of the networks. The contents of the actual programs and, by extension, the preferences of the viewers, do not appear to be important explanatory factors.

Although these perspectives appear to contradict one another, Webster and Phalen (1997) have argued that "surely, some fundamental needs provide the impetus for seeking out news and entertainment. But how these needs ultimately find expression is powerfully affected by the media environment and merits fuller consideration" (p. 97).

What an individual viewer ends up watching at any given moment in time thus appears to be the result of the clash between two distinct forces. A viewer seeking to express and gratify his or her preferences will have to do so within the boundaries drawn up by the structural limitations of the programming context.

Research pitting structural factors against preferences seems to overlook an important third factor that Webster and Wakshlag identified in 1983. Although these authors mainly discussed preferences and structural factors, they identified the viewer as a separate, or third, entity. Their treatment of the viewer as a factor in selection processes mainly dealt with availability issues, but it is clear that a number of characteristics of the individual viewer other than content preferences influence the selection process.

Individual Factors Influencing Program Selection

The main structural factor concerning the viewer is availability (see Webster & Wakshlag, 1983, 1985). A viewer cannot watch a particular program unless he or she is available for viewing. Although the introduction of recording devices may have attenuated the importance of this factor somewhat, availability remains an issue each time a viewer is unaware of what is being broadcast or unwilling or unable to use a recording device. Availability is likely to remain an important factor, explaining, in Eastman's (1998) words, "uninterpretable variance in ratings" (p. 360), although the same author believed that digital technologies may make this factor redundant in the future (p. 363).

Webster and Wakshlag (1983, 1985) identified another important, though often overlooked, factor influencing the extent to which an individual is able to watch certain programs. Many people do not live alone. Their viewing patterns are influenced by the presence of others in their living environment.

A third kind of availability is a product of awareness of options on the one hand and selection habits on the other hand. Heeter (1985) has remarked that "most approaches to selectivity implicitly or explicitly assume perfect viewer awareness of program alternatives" (p. 126). Even if viewers use a program guide to select a program, they may not make an elaborate search of all that is offered. When viewers look for programs by going through a number of channels (either with the remote control or by consulting a TV guide), they usually restrict their search to a limited number of channels, what Heeter has called their "channel repertoire" (p. 133). Interesting or gratifying though they may be, some programs may never be selected simply because they are only available on channels that are not part of the repertoire (cf. Van den Bulck, 1995, p. 157). Some programs may therefore be avoided unintentionally because the channels that broadcast them are avoided consciously, habitually, or by lack of awareness. Viewers often have more than one repertoire (cf. Neuendorf, Atkin, & Jeffres, 2001, p. 469). The repertoire is not necessarily the same every day or every time one wants to view television. Sometimes the repertoire is limited to one channel, a form of channel loyalty networks try to encourage using marketing and "branding" strategies to attract viewers (Lin, Atkin, & Abelman, 2002) and programming strategies to keep them (cf. Van den Bulck, 1995, p. 152). By limiting their repertoire to a number of channels smaller than the total number available to them, viewers are unintentionally avoiding the kinds of programs never aired on their favorite channels. Channel loyalty or the channel repertoire of those viewers will therefore never "pull" them towards watching those kinds of programs. Other viewers, who do include such channels in their selection repertoire, may occasionally watch such programs, even though they do not necessarily appeal to particular preferences of the viewer: As long as they stay "unobjectionable," there is no need for changing channels. Rosenstein and Grant (1997) have pointed out that habit is an important part of the viewing process. Repertoire formation is probably the area in which habits play a crucial role. If Viewer X has an unusual hobby and by coincidence comes across a program about that hobby while hopping aimlessly from channel to channel, that channel may move into the viewer's primary repertoire or the viewer could develop the habit of switching briefly to that channel at the same time each day hoping for another program of the same type, and so forth. The concept of habit has been discussed in other terms in research on program loyalty and channel loyalty (cf. Van den Bulck, 1995, p. 152).

Structural Factors

Availability is also an important structural factor on the supply side. Webster and Wakshlag (1983) saw it as the most important explanation of television program selection because "variation in total television viewing might ... be a result of differential availability and therefore random with respect to content" (p. 438), a view shared by Rosenstein and Grant (1997). If broadcasters do not air wildlife documentaries or soft porn in a particular culture, then viewers will not be able to watch such programs, even if they have a preference for them (cf. Gunter, 1985; Potter & Chang, 1990). The impact of this factor may have been reduced by recent developments that have broadened the range of available programs in some instances (cf. Eastman, 1998).

Many programming strategies are designed to stop the viewer searching for a more gratifying program on another channel, based on the assumption that viewers are unlikely to change channels as long as what follows does not annoy them. The aim of many programs, therefore, is not so much to please but rather to avoid displeasure. Jeffres (1978) called such programs "least objectionable programs" (LOP). A viewer may end up watching a LOP even though a program that would satisfy his or her needs more fully is being aired on another channel.

Preferences

Structural factors research sometimes gives the impression that viewing behavior is erratic: Barwise...

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