Uses and Gratifications

The Active Audience

Think about the following situations. When you sneak popcorn and drinks into the cinema to watch the latest blockbuster with your friends, does it really matter what’s flashing on the big screen? When you are travelling somewhere on a bus, do you scroll through your social media feeds to simply pass the time? How long do you spend flicking through the options on Netflix to find something suitable for background noise? Are you reading this page because you want to develop your understanding of the relationship between the audience and the media?

Put simply, what motivates you to consume a media text?

Research consistently dismisses the concept of a passive audience who simply accept the message delivered by a media text, especially with new digital technologies offering a more interactive experience. Since the media does not have a profound or powerful impact on the audience, the Uses and Gratifications Theory attempts to explain why we deliberately choose to engage with certain texts. In other words, why do we use the media and what gratifications can they provide.

Uses and Gratifications Theory

Published in 1972 and widely regarded as the most complete version of the Uses and Gratifications Theory, McQuail, Blumer and Brown’s model of mass communication lists four categories: diversion; personal relationships; personal identity; and surveillance.1

Diversion

Lots of media texts provide a diversion from the stresses and strains of the real world and everyday life. We enjoy the easy distractions of romantic comedies, the thrills of big screen blockbusters and the conventions of fantasy and science fiction. When we are revising for tough examinations, listening to the radio or streaming our favourite playlists is a tried and tested way to release the pressure. Computer games offer a very interactive diversion: we can escape into new worlds, feel the excitement of battle royales or take our favourite sport team to the top of the league.

Put simply, audiences want to be entertained.

Avengers advertisement

In recent years, Marvel has been the most successful franchise at the box office, grossing more than $17 billion in ticket sales and critical acclaim. With awesome visual effects, an immersive audio experience, much-loved characters and terrific storytelling, the Marvel cinematic universe epitomises the diversion category of the Uses and Gratification theory.

Personal Relationships

Audiences often engage with media texts because of the way it helps us develop personal relationships. Perhaps we enjoy certain watching presenters on television, chat with our favourite broadcasters on Twitch or subscribe to interesting content creators on YouTube. That sense of familiarity and companionship is an important aspect of this particular category.

We also like to discuss media texts with other people, such as the latest episode of popular shows or what is trending on TikTok. While most people had to wait until the next day to dissect the plot of a great drama, social media can now spark an immediate conversation with our digital network of friends.

With over 100 million subscribers, a ridiculous view count, and thousands of comments and engagements with each upload, PewDiePie is the most obvious example of a broadcaster with a loyal following. However, perhaps the best example of personal relationships is the shared experience of watching a film in the cinema. The audience sit closely together in the hazy darkness between the projector and screen, and, after the credits roll, there is the inevitable discussion of plot and character. Great stories start great conversations.

Personal Identity

Media texts shape our personal identity in lots of different ways. Following the ups and downs of characters in soap operas, such “EastEnders” or “Coronation Street, can provide us with ideas and solutions to our own problems in real life. We like to compare our lives, good and bad, with the content filling our social media feeds. Lifestyle magazines deliver advice on fashion, weddings, romance, fitness, food, drink, tattoos and everything else that can be commodified in our lives. Problem pages offer reassurance for even the most bizarre of situations. The media reinforces our own values and ideologies. It can also give an alternative perspective.

In other words, we can see ourselves reflected on glossy pages, television screens, mobile devices, laptops or any other black mirror.

Surveillance

People want to know what’s happening. Newspapers have always tried to provide the audience with the latest news and debates, but now they have to compete with rolling 24-hour news cycles on television and online. Gossip magazines and their digital formats keep us up to date with the lifestyles of the rich and famous. Documentaries continue to educate us about the world and beyond. And, of course, social media satisfies our curiosity about the lifestyles of our friends, family and everyone else in our social networks.

In terms of the surveillance category, Reddit is a brilliant example of a platform which fulfils our need to observe and learn about the world. Millions of people log in daily to read what’s hot or controversial in their favourite subreddits and add their own thoughts and feelings to the discussion.

Criticism

Many critics have voiced their concern about the limitations of the Uses and Gratifications approach to media consumption. For example, the theory ignores media effects and their influence on the audience, it focuses too much on the individual and does not take account of any social context, and producers rarely consider a consumer’s needs in this way. Maybe we are simply “’making the best of what is available and putting it to our use, which may be different from the one that the producer intended”.2

Task

Go to the BBC News website, available at https://www.bbc.co.uk/news, and search for content that you think would satisfy these four different functions of mass communication.

Herta Herzog

There have been many studies into our active participation with mass communication. Perhaps one of the best early examples was Herta Herzog’s “On Borrowed Experience: An Analysis of Listening Daytime” which explored the reasons why women listened to soap operas on the radio.2 By interviewing and surveying housewives about their motivations for tuning into these broadcasts, the social scientist identified three types of gratification:

  1. Listening as emotional release: the stories were emotionally engaging and offered a reflection their lives.
  2. Listening as means of remodelling one’s drudgery: the programmes were a form of escapism.
  3. Listening for recipes making for adjustment: many of the stories provided ideologies that the women could implement in their own lives.

Herzog’s questions, such as the simple “why do you listen to the programs”, gave the women an opportunity to voice their opinions and ideas, but it also provided tremendous information about their habits. She was able to conclude that there was a correlation between the amount of exposure to the media and the troubles women were having to deal with in their own lives: “The more complex the listener’s troubles are or the less able she is to cope with them, the more programs she seems to listen to”.3

What motivates people
to listen to the radio?

Bernard Berelson

For seventeen days in the summer of 1945, most citizens of New York City were unable to purchase their favourite newspapers because the delivery drivers of the major publishers went on strike. This gave the behavioural psychologist, Bernard Berelson, the unique opportunity to investigate why people engaged with the print media by asking them what they missed most about their daily fix of the news.

Some respondents identified the quality of information about and interpretation of public affairs, while others liked the how it helped their daily lives, such as film reviews which might influence what they watched in the cinema. Like Herzog’s research suggested, many people consume the media because it offers an “escape” function from everyday strife. One person even commented they liked the “escape trash”.  Another group of people liked to read the newspapers because it helped them to appear informed in their social circle. These respondents must be the opinion leaders of Lazarsfeld’s two-step flow theory! Finally, the human interest stories and gossip columns gave the readers a sense of social contact.4

1 McQuail, D., Blumler J.G., and Brown J.R. (1972): “The television audience: a revised perspective”. In “Sociology of Mass Communications”, ed. D. McQuail. Penguin.
2 Rayner, P., Wall, P., Kruger, S. (2001): “Media Studies: The Essential Introduction”. Routledge.
3 Herzog, H. (1941): “On Borrowed Experience”. Studies in Philosophy and Social Science.
4 ditto
5 Berelson, B (1949): “What ‘Missing the Newspaper’ Means”. In “Communications Research 1948-49” ed. Lazarsfeld, P.F. and Stanton, F.N.

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