Responsible Reception: The Importance of an Active Audience

Growing up, my parents would always tell me just how lucky I am for growing up in time when we have so much available at the press of a button. Born in the 1950s, they grew up with the major networks: NBC, CBS, and ABC. They watched whatever was on when it was on because that was usually all they had. They would sit down with their families during prime time to tune into programs the networks deemed fit to service the majority of the nation.

This, of course, is no longer the case. Today, television packages range from basic cable to 1,000 channels. That doesn’t even include networks’ online streaming, both on their own websites and on independent services like Netflix and Hulu. Television has undergone a complete in just a few decades, or in some cases, a lifetime.

But television isn’t the only medium that has gone through this massive expansion. Broadcasting has expanded from radio to multiple platforms; it has inspired new forms of transmission such as podcasting. People can now broadcast to personal technologies like PCs and smart phones, allowing listeners the actively select the few broadcasts they want to hear from thousands.

Movie streaming also has given consumers new affordances. Instead of watching what is in theaters, why not watch one of the millions of films available both legally and illegally online? Theaters no longer get to decide what moviegoers watch; the moviegoer does.

The same goes for music listeners. Digital retailers like iTunes give customers the option of buying individual tracks from albums; if you don’t like a few songs, just don’t buy them. This is a dramatic change from the 1960s and 70s when concept albums were structured a particular way in order for artists to send out a story to their listeners. Now, the listeners get to rewrite the overall album to fit themselves.

This personalization of media content has become a major aspect of the Digital Age. Instead of creating content for the nation, it is now being produced for the individual. The individual is an active consumer, one who (as mentioned) chooses what they watch, what they listen to, what they consume whenever and wherever they want. This means that creative industries must then create for all the different kinds of individuals, whether they are part of the mainstream or a niche.

Consumers now have more power than ever over information and, as Uncle Ben says, power comes with great responsibility. Consumers must be aware that having the freedom to choose the information they take in may not be as good as it seems. Author and Columbia professor Tim Wu explains that active participation in consumerism appears democratic because it “serves the purpose of free expression that sustains democratic society.” However, he goes on to say that it also leads to “bubbles of selective information” in which consumers become trapped in (Wu 213).

changing-channels-americans-view-just-17-channels-despite-record-number-to-choose-from

This graph shows the average number of television channels available per household and the average number of channels actually watched per household. As the graph shows, having many options does not mean viewers are necessarily exposed to all the information. 

When consumers select sources of information that suits them, chances are they are excluding others. Maybe these other options don’t appeal to them or offer conflicting views; maybe they are just sources the consumer has never heard of. Whether it is intentional or not, consumers are limiting themselves.

This may not seem crucial in regards to media as entertainment, but it becomes serious when put in political and social perspectives. For example, limiting the television shows we watch could mean we fail to expose ourselves to other portrayals of the word around us. For example, if a viewer only watches programs that portray family life a certain way that they relate to, they do not get to see what family life may be like for others across the country.

Shows like Black-ishFresh Off the BoatModern Family, and The Goldbergs all follow family set-ups, however they portray how life is different for each family due to their differences in race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, and experiences. These programs have used their platform to talk about contemporary social and political issues, such as the legalization of same-sex marriage and the 2016 election. However, if you only watch Full House and The Brady Bunch, you are missing out on these messages since they lack many of these topics from their narratives.

This is why hashtags like #RepresentationMatters exist. Acknowledging that people either won’t or can’t watch all these shows, many consumers take to social media platforms to call for representation across all platforms so that messages may reach others and not just like-minded audiences. Social media is a space where all sorts of audiences converge despite their interests, making it an obvious choice to such active consumers. To these people, television shows have the responsibility to represent not only their viewers but society as a whole so that their audience does not become trapped in the information bubble.

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This chart portrays a spectrum that estimates the ideological placement of news outlets’ audiences (as found by Pew Research Center

This, however, does not end at entertainment. News and political outlets hold more sway over audiences than almost any other media platform. The Unites States presidential election in 2016 is just one of many recent examples of such. The media has become a battlefield since the Donald Trump’s campaign, encouraging people to take sides on the media they consumer. Many conservative viewers turn to Fox while liberal viewers tend to turn to MSNBC or CNN. They do not necessarily turn to outlets that report the opposite side, or outlets that do not report on the issues they support.

As viewers, we are responsible for hearing all sides of a news story and not just the sides we agree with. We must go beyond our information bubble to actively seek out what other people say, think, and believe whether we agree with  it or not. If not for hearing all sides of the story, consumers should at least be open to different sources to reinforce what they support.

As the means of media consumption become increasingly individualistic, consumers of creative content and other information-based commodities become more responsible for acknowledging the “other” and the whole. All because individuals have more power to serve themselves does not mean that the individual is no longer part of the whole.

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