MEDIA AUDIENCES -MEDIA PRODUCTS?

 

Virginia Nightingale

 

The aim of this paper is to explore some of the possibilities of a structuralist way of thinking about media audiences. Mass Media audiences are most often discussed as the destination, the receiver, in a sender-message-receiver system of mass communication in society. This location of audiences seems to hold whether the particular prob­lematic is thought to be the effects of the media, the uses to which media messages are put by media audiences, or the way audiences create meaning from texts (cf. Morley 1980: 9). As receivers, the audi­ence has been thought of as the masses, the general public, marketing targets, commodities, or individuals differing in significant characteris­tics (e.g., age, sex, ethnic origin, self esteem). None of these ways of thinking about media audiences actually locates them in the contexts of their relations to the means of cultural production, to the "mass media". In other words I am arguing for a structuralist theorisation of mass media audiences which is capable of exploring the interaction of people with the means of mass cultural production in modern society. The following is, then, a tentative exploration of some of the possibilities of such a theorisation. As such it, inevitably, exhibits a certain arbitrariness in the identification of the structuring elements.

In attempting to reinstate the audience within the system of mass communication in society, it seems sensible to start by thinking about what is known about the relations between audiences and the "mass media", the industries, the media technologies and the messages/texts, for which they aggregate into being. Initially, then, three relations are proposed as essential for understanding media audiences: audience-industry, audience-medium, and audience-text relations. This classification is a beginning point only for an under­standing of the complex issues of audience consciousness (of itself, the media and the nature of society), audience power (or lack of it) and audience control of certain dimensions of the system. It seems important to point out that the crucial issue which is hidden in cur­rent approaches to audience research is the relation of audiences to power and control within the system. Audiences exist within contexts, and the contexts within which they exist are defined by the relations which exist between audiences and the other elements in the mass communication system. As well as defining the nature of mass communication, these relations appear to promote a number of sets of concerns which are commonly acknowledged as important by


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all who participate in the system, at whatever level. They are the issues of availability, patronage, preference and accessibility, and they are reflected in the ways that the industry talks about audiences, the way researchers talk about audiences, and the way that audiences talk about their media experiences. These sets of concerns do not exhaust the ways that audiences are talked about, but do provide a first step in the analysis of the differing ways in which audiences, politicians, production and industry personnel carry out the struggle for power and control within the system. They constitute the core of what Murdock (1980) has called "the ideology of cultural production". These issues point to the inconsistencies and discontinuities which exist within the system: audiences make themselves available to the media, but the industry has control of the availability of products/texts; audiences patronise certain texts, media and media industries and are in turn patronised by producers; audiences are more or less accessible to media texts while the texts are more or less accessible (comprehensible) for audiences; production for certain sorts of audiences is preferred by different industries and production personnel while audiences express preferences among the available products/texts. Such issues point to the imbalances which exist within the system which both promote and inhibit change, as well as limit the possibilities for redistribution of power and control.

 

The Audience-Industry Relation

Some of the most interesting recent audience research has ad­dressed the audience-industry relation, and raised the issues of power and control at that level. Dallas Smythe's (1981) discussion of media audiences as commodities is a good example. Before discussing his position, it seems worth noting that the audience-industry relation has a history of importance to two groups of researchers. From a criti­cal perspective the mass society theorists have explored the con­straints and coercion exerted on the audience by media industries, while those with direct and vested interests in maintaining and ex­panding their control over media audiences support ratings and market research. It is at this level that ratings research and its current developments intervene to monitor and facilitate the delivery of audi­ences to advertisers. The changing concerns and interests of market research offer an interesting comment on the fluctuations of power and control within the system of mass communication, reflecting changes in audience practices and their impact on the usefulness/value of the audience to advertisers.

 

Audiences as Commodities

The knowledge that audiences are commodities, sold to advertisers by media organizations, has been available to audience research for as long as advertising has financed the commercial mass media. Ad­vertisers have required information about audiences which would

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minimise their risks, and ratings research has by and large more than adequately supplied their needs for information about the media habits, life-styles and consumption patterns of the general public. Ratings provide valuable information about the demographics of media audiences, audience size and composition. Ratings cannot in­dicate why programmes are popular, and as Gitlin (1978: 237) has pointed out, the desire to explain the social meaning of the mass media bears little relation to advertising interests. The marketing orientation "is interested in how the mass media may increase their reach, and in how ordinary social life presents obstacles to the exten­sion of media power".

Until recently ratings research has not distinguished between the 'audience' and the 'general public', reflecting an underlying desire or aspiration of the industry to, at least potentially, address 'everyone'. The size of the 'everyone' possible is increasing dramatically with the availability of communications satellites for broadcasting and private use, a development which paradoxically appears to be encouraging a desire to more selectively address specific segments of the 'general public' (Carey, 1980). A good example of this tendency is found in Frank and Greenberg's audience segment analysis. Frank and Green-berg (1979: 95) claim that

 

one of the most useful ways of studying consumer behavior is to explore not only how people use a product or service but also their interest in and attitude about the product or service. Similarly when advertisers know the varied attitudes and interests of different "segments" of the TV audience, they zero in on the best medium or show to advertise their product.

 

Their research offers the industry an advance in its attempts to ad­dress audiences by adding only life-style/interests patterns and income patterns to the usual demographic information sought. They describe their segments in terms such as "cosmopolitan-self-enrichment — $18,800" and "detached — $10,600" (1979: 102). The characterisation of audiences in such terms indicates the relative importance of such factors in industry at­tempts to use media power according to criteria which audiences themselves probably consider to be of little relevance to their media activities. For example, it is unlikely that audience members would consider the conditions of living alone or earning less than $20,000 relevant reasons for not being able to find something worth watching on television, an interesting magazine at the news agency or a newspa­per dealing with issues of interest or concern. Yet it is precisely such criteria which are constantly taken into account in programming and Production decision-making.

The importance of ratings research to the industry cannot be over­emphasised. Ratings research is the basis on which production is fi­nanced and programming decisions are made. It provides a justifica-

 

 

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tion for the availability/non-availability of media products and is a means by which the possibility of political audience action is appro­priated for commercial ends. Ratings research seeks to answer one question only — what are people watching, reading or listening to? It is a measure only of what people claim to have done. As such it rei­fies acts of patronage and the expression of preferences in using media products, rendering them the only audience acts likely to pro­duce change. Because ratings are based in random sampling tech­niques of the 'general public', and are held to be reliable measures of the real popularity of programmes, they pass as real expressions of audience power, whereas in reality, audiences have little chance to in­fluence what products or ventures are financed, what range of media products are available to them and what cultural dilemmas, rites and contradictions are explored in "content". The gap between industry goals of audience maximization and audience interests can be seen to widen with each new factor identified as relevant by commercial research. At the level of the audience-industry relation, very little control is actually exerted by audiences over the availability of texts. There is a lot of industry guess work and anxiety about what audi­ences will think of the projects which are financed. A patronising and fetishistic concern about the possible/imagined audience replaces any real dialogue or feedback, a repetition of themes, formats and techniques, of proven formulae, replaces any real knowledge of audi­ence enjoyment of media forms and texts. Whatever the desired audience, its consumption of the media product/text is used as a jus­tification and rationale for production practices and for the nature, style and mode of address of that cultural product. The organisation of mass production for private consumption results in no organisa­tional    or    collective    base    for    the    development   of   audience consciousness. There is no precedent for understanding the cultural meaning of mass media products for people whose lives are organized around participation in overlapping, competing and often contradic­tory cultural/social institutions, including media based activities.

Dallas Smythe has argued that audiences possess another quality which is desirable to industry — the ability to "market commodities, candidates and issues to themselves" (1981: 25,26). His suggestion is that self-marketing includes such diverse 'competences' as buying the technological devices which give access to the broadcast media (i.e., TV sets, newspapers, magazines, even access to cable or teletext facilities), the ideas and values inherent in programming, and the consumer durables for which they (the audience) are facilitating demand management. In other words, Smythe is arguing that audi­ences are unconscious of the role their media activities play in the continuation of monopoly capitalism, ignorant of the meaning of their media activities to media industries and capitalist enterprise in general. As with ratings research, Smythe's position suggests a break between industry consciousness and audience consciousness of the meaning of mass communication.

 

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It seems important to include a few comments about the mass com­munication as market analogy which underpins both ratings research and Smythe's position. While there is some justification for the view that audiences vary in their market value (i.e., to production compa­nies and to advertisers), and there is evidence to suggest that the com­modity value of audiences sometimes exerts a constraining influence on the amount and nature of certain sorts of media production, the analogy breaks down because it assumes that the text is incidental to the audience. In Smythe's view the text/media product is the suppos­edly free lunch used to attract the audience. This is an interesting concept because we are used to considering the text/product as the commodity, bought by media industries and "sold" through publicity and promotion to the audience. It raises as extremely problematic just what the audience is an audience of. If anything is sold to ad­vertisers it is a relationship between audiences and texts, a relation­ship which varies with the different possibilities of particular media and texts. Even Frank and Greenberg are aware of this. Production is financed because it is hoped, guessed, believed that it will attract audiences. Audiences are sold because of their media habits and interests, and because of their commodity value. The limitation of the audience-as-commodity position is that it does not help us to un­derstand audiences any better. Self-marketing is not the only audi­ence act which counts. If it were, audiences would be alienated from all power and control within the system. Because the meaning of the system of mass communication for audiences is not a commodity relat­ed one, audiences are limited in what they can do to increase their share of power and control, particularly at the audience-industry level. Consciousness of self-marketing is unlikely to increase power. The problem is that audiences do both possess and use power and control within the system of mass communication in society, but it is limited at this level. The situations and contexts within which audi­ences do exert power and control foreground the ruptures and dis­continuities within the system, and suggest possible points of change and intervention.

The Audience-Medium Relation

The audience-medium relation is one of greater contestation and struggle over the obstacles to media power posed by everyday life. It encompasses issues as diverse as the ways audiences are structured by the media technologies, the ways media technologies are incor­porated into the life-styles of audiences and the relationships which develop between certain audiences and particular cultural forms. Audience experiences of cultural forms depend on both the availabil­ity and accessibility of media and media products. The nature of the media technologies and products is at least partially determined by the possibilities for incorporation into daily life-style patterns, and so by the vagaries of subcultural fluctuations.

 

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The current technological contexts of media-audience interactions are changing from concentration on reactive forms to interactive forms. Our children are among the first to explore the implications of interactive narratives with their experiences of the smallest screens — hand-held computer games. Both hand-held computer games and video games produce stories through interaction. They invite first an interaction with the medium, the technology and its cultural form — the programmed constraints for participation, and the visual and aural signifiers which give each game/text its particular characteristics. The stories created are as much about interaction with the medium as about achieving as acceptable an ending as possible. It is not my aim here to engage in a detailed analysis of the cultural sig­nificance of computer games, but to draw attention to their impor­tance in socializing the adult audiences of the future into patterns of interaction with new media possibilities. They are ensuring audience experience and knowledge, cultural competences, in a new range of audience activities; they are calling into question the assumption of audience activity as a reactive or de-coding/interpretive activity, and blurring still further the distinction between sender and receiver. The new technologies then, highlight another set of contextual con­straints for audiences — reaction and/or interaction — which deter­mine modes of media relationships and another dimension of audi­ence choice and expression of preferences.

Carey (1980: 9) has pointed out that the technology-audience rela­tion has always been a

two dimensional relationship the formation of the mass and crea­tion of the segment.

Satellite and cable, particularly in combination allow for the assem­blage of even more massive audiences and to amass them increasingly without respect to national boundaries. The same technologies allow for disassembling this audience and grading it more finely into segments.

Carey locates this tendency to amass and segment within the devel­opment of 19th century technology as a whole. The mass-segment dimensions of media production were fundamental to understanding the nature of the public sphere. He suggests that publics were trans­formed into audiences because of both mass production and the cen­tralization of the sources of supply of information and facts. Tech­nological changes privatised the public and the contexts and situa­tions of audience-medium interactions. The tension between audi­ence mass-ness and segmentation is not new. In the past the emphasis has been on the mass, whereas now it seems to be shifting to the segment. Media which address segments, which may be broadly geographically dispersed yet highly similar in interests, are becoming increasingly economically viable. As with the reaction/interaction mode choice, this increase in medium availability increases choices

 

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for  audiences   between   broad   and   broader-casting,  essentially  a choice between modes of address.

These examples suggest that media technologies structure audi­ences in terms of the way the technology addresses the audience member (e.g., business, group, family or individual patterns of use, private vs public consumption). Obviously television as a medium differs from radio, magazines and records. The medium changes the form and our expectations of the form, though not completely since genre, narrative style and mode of address, for example, may share more similarities across media than within the one medium. Some media characteristically favour certain sorts of representation, as in the senses in which television news and documentaries progressively approximate entertainment Such inter-media differences exert con­trol over the contexts and situations in which audience-medium in­teractions occur, and play their part in constraining the interactions. However it should by now be clear that audiences possess some potential for determining the nature of their interaction with the media at this level, through their making themselves more or less available to the media.

One of the least researched areas of the audience-medium relation is the senses in which group and individual identity is developed, sig­nalled and/or enhanced by the selection and use of media equipment. People acquire sets of media equipment, sets which vary with differing class and institutional affiliations. It is in relation to the sets of media equipment which people own and control that con­texts and situations are defined within which audience control be­comes a reality. Mass production of media equipment has encouraged private ownership, but personal, group and class pressures interact to define 'desirable' sets and preferred modes of use. For example, my set of media equipment includes a colour television set, a stereo, a transistor radio, a cassette recorder, a car radio and a pocket calculator. In addition I regularly buy a limited range of magazines and newspapers. Most of the people I know possess similar sets of equipment, which vary in the relative sophistication of the components, so expressing our differing attachments to certain forms of cultural production. In other words, a sort of aesthetic code, socio-culturally based, appears to be at work at the audience-medium level. Sets of media equipment access ranges of texts for audiences, differing forms of texts, and suggest access to past, present and future texts. In acquiring media equipment audiences are making them­selves available to ranges of possible texts, and expressing prefer­ences for the particular representational characteristics of different media. The importance of such access cannot be doubted, given the considerable financial outlay required to obtain it. While audiences nave little control over the availability of texts and little control over the availability of media equipment, they do exert control over their making themselves available to the media of their choice.

 

 

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The choices available to audiences do not end with sets of media equipment. Audiences create contexts within which to combine media and other life-style experiences. People make time to use dif­ferent media, they fit their daily tasks and commitments into, be­tween and around media commitments and vice versa. Such patterns are never completely stable, they vary from day to day, week to week, or stay the same for years. Modleski (1983) has suggested that the flow of day-time television closely mirrors the flow of women's domestic work, with even the commercials mimicking the inevitable interruptions to any one task. The audience-medium relation reflects the experiences of everyday life and affirms its meaningfulness. By re­flecting life in this organizational way, television can be seen to be rendering the fragmentation of life-style meaningful. The media do not only mirror the flow of work patterns, they facilitate their own in­corporation into people's life-styles.  

This discussion of some of the complexities of the audience-medium relation is very much a suggestion of possible avenues for further research. It seems important to mention in passing that the issue of audience competences learned and implemented in relation to audience-medium situations has been neglected. Such compe­tences range from the very simple (reading a TV programme) to the difficult (operating your new computer). Yet it seems likely that the aesthetics of equipment choice and the pragmatics of equipment utili­sation cannot be ignored in the search for an understanding of audi­ence participation in the system of mass communication in society.

 

The Audience-Text Relation

It was noted in the previous sections that both technological and commercial availability is dependent on the patronage of audiences. Patronage is maintained by a combination of audience-medium and audience-text factors, which are actively sought and encouraged by the   commercial   mass   media   through   production   values   and procedures. While the medium provides a continuing supply of cul­tural forms which are accessible (comprehensible) to audiences be­cause of their familiarity and proven attractiveness, texts carry the burden of addressing or answering the quest by audience members for the means of making their existence and experiences meaningful. Popular culture is popular, even if innovative solutions to, or com­ments on, the problems of existence are seldom portrayed. New media and new  products can present  the old problems in new packages. The number, variety and ephemerality of texts, and the differing ways in which they address the everyday lives of their audi­ences work to compensate for the lack of creativity and originality of the solutions presented. In an over-arching sense they often suggest little more than the value of continuing, reflecting the consensual nature of the commercial production of popular culture. Allen (1983: 13) has suggested in relation to television soap operas, that such texts

 

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can be read by audiences either as fictitious, or as those "which for various reasons, constantly spill over into the experiential world of the viewer". The tendency of texts to reference the experiential world can be seen as the realm in which the ideological codes of texts are most potent and apparent. What is becomes what should be.

Two different modes of relating to texts can, then, be identified. The first is through the competences audiences have developed by their experiences of media subjectivity. By media subjectivity, I am referring to the knowledge of inter-media, textual and inter-textual codes, as well as the experiential knowledge resulting from participa­tion in media practices, such as those mentioned in the previous section. The second mode of relating to texts is through the ideologi­cal codes referenced by the text. Two qualitatively different types of interpretive work must then be identified in carrying out audience research. How much a given audience member gets out of a given text will obviously depend on his/her media competences, which will include knowledge of the codes and conventions of media production, and be related to the senses in which audience members have incorporated media preferences and practices into concepts of self and group identity, and be expressed in degrees of affiliation with or attachment to the text. It cannot be assumed that audience members approach all texts as though they were equal. Media prac­tices develop bonds of affection (and disaffection) towards particular texts, and categories of texts. The second type of interpretive work is that of evaluation of the discourses referenced by the text. For this work socio-culturally based competences are called into play.

It is this distinction which is noticeably lacking from Morley's (1980) study of the Nationwide audience. Morley's research is impor­tant because of the ways in which he attempted to open out the competing subjectivities of audience groups in relation to signifying practices. He attempted to expose the manner in which such subjec­tivities leave their mark on the ideological relation of audiences to a particular text. Morley used group interviews with people from vary­ing socio-cultural backgrounds. The weakness in his work is that he ignored the media subjectivity of his subjects. They were not all, in fact, part of the Nationwide audience. When, for example, his Group 16 (1980: 87) told him that they were in fact part of the Today and Crossroads audience, Morley claimed that "Nationwide is totally irrele­vant and inaccessible" to them. He interpreted their refusal to engage with Nationwide as an oppositional frame (using Parkin's dis­tinction between dominant, negotiated and oppositional frames) in relation to the programme's discourse. The confusion is most obvious when he speculates on the implications of his analysis. In some senses Morley is suggesting that the discourse of Today is more radi­cal than that of Nationwide. For those of us who live in countries where the commercial mass media have always been more powerful than public media the finding seems strange indeed. Morley's analy-

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sis overlooks the ways media subjectivity develops cultural compe­tences which are likely to influence the senses in which medium-text and audience-text relations can vary in transparency for different audience groups.

In raising media subjectivity as an issue in this paper, the impor­tance of relating the theoretical position of Cultural Studies to audi­ences of popular culture is foregrounded, in particular the impor­tance of "disentangling the real from the constructed or ideological elements" (Clarke et al. 1976: 23), and tracing the social and histori­cal development of that subjectivity, as well as its interaction with other significant subjectivities with which audience members have identifications. Morley over-simplifies the importance of media dis­course by distinguishing only between "differential definitions" based in "common sense" and notions of "good television" (1980: 34). He dismisses the notion of media subjectivity out of concern that it might be considered autonomous and so separated from its "complex articulations with questions of class, ideology and power, where social structures are conceived as also the social foundations of language, consciousness and meaning". This concern is crucially im­portant since an autonomous media subjectivity would forestall recognition of the ideological and power dimensions of media practices, especially if, like Morley, a sender-message-receiver model informs your theoretical debate. Yet in avoiding confronting media subjectivity and recognising it as of similar importance to, for example, educational, legal and work subjectivities, the importance of audience knowledge of textual codes and inter-textual referencing in the interpretation of media texts is under-estimated. The relation­ship between cultural taste, consumption and social locations is under-valued (Murdock, 1980: 40).

Looking at media audiences in terms only of decoding practices is too narrow an orientation to account for the ideological impact of the mass media. Decoding and interpretation account for only some audi­ence media practices. While media practices are interest based and related to the expression of cultural taste, they can also be expected to reflect class and sub-cultural interests, to be appropriated and given special significance by groups differently located within the social structure. As Murdock has suggested, the relationship between social stratification and media interests, affiliations and competences ("cultural taste") cannot be ignored. In this sense audiences can be seen to relate to media through their experiences as media subjects, as well as through their other institutional identifications.

The audience-text relation is the prime site of interpretive activities, the site of the struggle between audience and text over meaning — meaning of a particular text, other referenced texts, and the aspects of life and the world referenced. Audience-industry and audience-medium relations provide the contexts and situations for that struggle, and as such also place their own limitations on audi-

 

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ence attempts to create textual meaning. The commercial mass pro­duction of texts ensures their ephemerality and minimises the signifi­cance of any one text. It also ensures that texts do little more than affirm the experiential worlds of their audiences. The ideological codes used to reference the experiential world of the audience suggest possibilities for the creation of meaning not limited by media subjectivity, but engaging as many of the social subjectivities in which audience members are located as possible without degenerat­ing into incoherence.

The audience-text relation is then characterised by situations in­volving the creation of textual meaning. For audience members two sets of competences are drawn on to accomplish this: intertextual and social/cultural competences. The struggle is between the' pre­ferred readings suggested by the text, both about what other texts might be called to mind in order to understand a particular one, and the possible meanings of the life experiences referenced. At this level there is a real sense in which the text, as a finished product, is at the disposal of the audience, yet not completely. The fact that people write letters to television stations and phone-in to radio stations sig­nals the reality of the struggle as audience members attempt to inter­vene to determine the nature of the text/product being made availa­ble to them.

Audiences and Mass Communication

This paper has basically attempted to give an overview of some of the ways in which audiences are positioned in relation to the system of mass communication in society. Audiences are not irrelevant to the operation of media industries; they are the rationale for their existence. Those involved in financing, in production and in promo­tion talk about audiences all the time. Prospective film makers, tele­vision producers and even academics are all called on to give ac­counts of the target audience before financing of their projects will be considered. Admittedly few real audiences are consulted at this level. At the level of the audience-industry relation, audiences mean money, power and acclaim, while the industry means the continued availability of texts/products. The relations which exist between audiences and the system of mass communication in society are char­acterised by such discontinuities, as well as by inter-level interactions, as seen in the way-that industry ownership and control of the means of cultural production is mirrored by audience own­ership and control of media equipment and texts/products. Explora­tion of the nature of audience positioning within the system of mass communication offers the possibility of identifying sites of contesta­tion and struggle within the system. It is in the identification of such sites that the possibilities of audience power and systemic change can be addressed. Perhaps the questions we should be asking about audi­ences should be less preoccupied with the creation of textual mean-


 


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ing than with the ways in which audiences resist industry, medium and textual domination of the system.

 

Virginia Nightingale teaches Communication at Nepean CAE.

 

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References

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Casey J. (1980) 'Changing Communications Technology and the Nature of the Audience', Journal of Advertising, Vol.9, No,2.

Clarke, J. et al. (1976) 'Subcultures, cultures and class', in Hall, S. and Jefferson, T. Resistance through Rituals, Hutchinson & Co., London.

Frank, R.E. and Greenberg, M.G. (1979) 'Zooming in on TV audiences', Psychology Today, October 1979.

Frank, R.E. and Greenberg, M.G. (1980) The Public's Use of Television, Sage Publications, Beverley Hills and London.

Gitlin, T. (1978) 'Media Sociology: the dominant paradigm', Theory and Society, 1978, Vol.6, No.2, pp.205-253.

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Modleski, T. (forthcoming), 'The Rhythms of Reception: Daytime Television and Women's Work', in Kaplan, E.A. (ed.) Regarding Television: Critical Approaches: An Antho logy.

Morley, D. (1980) The 'Nationwide' Audience, B.F.I. Television Monograph, 11, B.F.I. London.

Murdock, G. (1980) 'Symbolic Stratification: Cultural Divisions and Audi­ence Differentiation'. Unpublished paper.

Negt, O. and Kluge, A., (1983) 'The Context of Life as object of production of the media conglomerate', in Media Culture and Society, 1983, Vol.5, 65-74.

Palmer, P. (1983) TV: The Child's View, Progress Report No.2, Department of Government, University of Sydney.

Smythe, D.W. (1981) Dependency Road, Ablex Publishing Corp., New Jersey.

Williams, R. (1974) Television: Technology and Cultural Form, Fontana, London.


 

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