Audience Analysis

Audience analysis emphasizes the diversity of responses to a given popular culture artifact by examining as directly as possible how given audiences actually understand and use popular culture texts. Three kinds of research make up most audience research: 1) broad surveys and opinion polls (like the famous Nielsen TV ratings, but also those done by advertisers and by academic researchers) that cover a representative sample of many consumers; 2) small, representative focus groups brought in to react to and discuss a pop culture text; and 3) in-depth ethnographic participant observation of a given audience, in which, for example, a researcher actually lives with and observes the TV viewing habits of a household over a substantial period of time, or travels on the road with a rock band. Each approach has strengths and weaknesses, and sometimes more than one approach is used as a check on the others.

Audience analysis tries to isolate variables like region, race, ethnicity, age, gender, and income in an effort to see how different social groups tend to construct different meanings for the same text. Audience analysis also includes looking at that special category of audience, fan subcultures, that have grown up around certain pop culture texts and celebrities (i.e., Britney Spears “wannabees” or the “Trekkies” devoted to Star Trek). Online fan cultures are a particularly appropriate and accessible audience research topic for an online list such as this. Thus, below I have listed a few fan links to get you started. But almost any pop culture celebrity, group, or text has a fan club of some kind, so follow your own interests, obsessions, or curiosities.

One key distinction to keep in mind is “official” or “authorized” fan sites created by the media, versus “unofficial” sites created by various fans themselves. What similarities and differences do you find between these two kinds? In what ways do the fan sites reflect the same values and interests as the corporate sites? In what ways do the fan sites show differences from or even active resistance to the values and interests projected on the corporate sites?

Another good resource for online audience analysis is sites that provide space for user reviews. The Internet Movie Database, for example, has thousands of movie reviews by ordinary folks. Samples are not statistically random, but they are often wide-ranging and with enough of them can provide important information on audience responses.

General Sites

Articles And More Specialized Sites

  • Soap Operas Send Educational Messages to Global Audiences. Arvind Singhal argues for the progressive social value of soaps in an international context, especially in state-sponsored programs.
  • Star Trek sites. Without doubt, Star Trek wins as the most fanned program of all time. It is a natural for the cyberworld. Begin here to go where no one has gone before in terms of fan loyalty and creativity.
  • Fox vsThe Simpsons Fansites. Article a major battle between official and unofficial websites for the TV series.
  • Xena Fan Fiction. Fan fiction, unauthorized stories/scripts, often erotic, written by fans has become a major part of Internet audience culture. And no one, except perhaps Kirk and Spock, has generated more such fiction than Xena: Warrior Princess.
  • Whoosh! The journal of the International Association of Xena Studies. Seriously.
  • Watching TV Viewers. A learning module on audience analysis by media scholar David Chandler.

Bibliography

Few topics on popular culture can be adequately researched on the web alone. These reading suggestions are designed as beginning points for further offline study.

Allen, Robert C. Speaking of Soap Operas. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1985.
Excellent study of the production and consumption of daytime soap operas.
Allen, Robert C., ed. Channels of Discourse Reassembled: Television and Contemporary Criticism. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992.
Introduces a variety of critical approaches to popular culture (semiotics, genre analysis, ideological analysis, etc.) through essays focusing on American television.
Ang, Ien. Living Room Wars: Rethinking Media Audiences for a Postmodern World. London: Routledge, 1996.
Excellent collection of essays exploring various difficulties and possibilities in analyzing the responses of popular culture audiences.
Gamson, Joshua. Claims to Fame: Celebrity in Contemporary America. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.
The best book yet written on the role of pop “celebrities” in US culture, using production, textual and gender analysis.
Kellner, Douglas. Media Culture: Cultural Studies, Identity and Politics Between the Modern and the Postmodern. London; New York: Routledge, 1995.
Broad study that offers both a fully developed theoretical model and case studies ranging from Rambo to Madonna to Gulf War news coverage.
Lewis, Lisa. Gender Politics and MTV. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990.
Takes an audience-ethnographic approach that sees Madonna and similar figures as empowering to girls and young women.
Pustz, Matthew. Comic Book Culture: Fanboys and True Believers. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1999.
Study of contemporary comic strip fans, from the casual to the nearly pathologically devoted. The subtitle refers to the author’s distinction between mainstream “fanboys” and “true believers” devoted to alternative comix culture.
Radway, Janice. Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy and Popular Culture. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 1991.
One of the most often cited “classics” in American Studies literature, this analysis combines production analysis, textual analysis and ethnographic audience analysis of the “romance novel” genre.
Another Bibliography on Audience Research.