Audience Segmentation: The Lonely Crowds
by: David Marc / Syracuse University
The “Television as 'Cultural Center' in an Age of Audience Segmentation” panel concerned social, psychological, and consumption effects brought about by the change from limited spectrum telecasting (“the three-network era”) to contemporary multiple delivery-system video culture. Though several discussants dismissed attention to the past as “nostalgia,” I have always found summaries of previous episodes helpful in discovering the pleasures and horrors of new plot developments. A taste for drama does not preclude a love of montage. In any case, the segmentation of “mass” audiences into “separate-but-of-course-never-equal class” audiences is a form of segregation that is probably behind the polarized gang-war mentality that is evident in America everywhere from Congress to the secular street.
For most of the 20th century, the American communications industry worked at building audiences of unprecedented size in order to take full advantage of the new production and distribution technologies at its disposal. Its most extraordinary accomplishment was the creation of a body of “general interest” content that routinely transcended traditional cultural divides of education, income, religion, ethnicity, age, and region. The project takes form in the 19th century with mass circulation periodicals, such as The Saturday Evening Post (1821-1969) and Colliers (1888-1957). It accelerates in the popular genre films of the Hollywood studio system, reaching a precipitate in network over-the-air broadcasting, a two-stage process beginning with radio and culminating in television. When radio emerged as the general-interest medium of popular choice, general-interest magazines gradually declined in favor of target-market magazines. When television replaced radio as the central story-telling medium, almost all American radio stations gave up general-interest content in favor of niche-market formats.
With mass diffusion of satellite cable service, general-interest appeal became a secondary concern for much of the industry, thus ending the (classical?) “age of mass culture.” The entertainment-industrial complex that dazzled the world for a century by attracting “the undifferentiated mass audience” has since worked to disassemble its prime creation into as many differentiated segments as marketers can imagine for advertiser-audience relationships. Terms such as “generation gap,” “income gap,” and “education gap,” invented to describe elements of consumer resistance to mass audience participation, are now salient markers guiding the wisdom of corporate advertising expenditures. Least-objectionability, recognized as a key element in the esthetics of general-interest mass communication, is mocked, by name or otherwise, as a regressive obstacle that arrested the aesthetic development of the broadcast media. However, least objectionability persists as a valuable editing protocol within many target-audience programming bureaucracies. At what point, for example, does a sympathetic-but-disapproving treatment of a killer become too heroic or too villainous for the viewers of which channels when the victim is a doctor who performs legal abortions?
To the extent that it imposed audience segregation on television programming, cable robbed the medium–and American society–of a functioning electronic gathering point for shared information and aesthetic experience. Nothing has replaced over-the-air network broadcasting at the transdemographic crossroads of mass communication. Instead, cable saturation has established the primacy of “taste culture” (Herbert Gans, Popular Culture and High Culture, 1974) over mass culture in American life. “General interest,” the broad way leading to the hard-to-find “public sphere,” shrinks into disuse as heads are redirected toward the diverging paths of “special interests”: Christianity, current affairs (“the news”), Chinese cooking, pet ownership, reruns of decades-old sports events, a music, and so on. Just as mass culture gained shape from its signature home delivery appliances–phonographs, movie theaters, broadcasting receivers, and so on–the design of taste culture emerges from the character of digital devices quaintly bearing their heritage in such names as television, radio, and telephone.
The consequences for the crazy-quilt American social fabric are logical: identification with narrow group interests at the expense of “oceanic” feelings for humanity or even dutiful republican citizenship. Groups, including those in close physical proximity, become increasingly isolated from each other. Flashpoints ignite over opposing viewpoints on key issues or, just as often, over the perceived insensitivities of “others” to the importance of a flagship issue. Group members identify themselves as constituents of righteous societies who are persecuted by barbaric societies, rather than as citizens of a comprehensive society whose general welfare includes their own. When the source of alienation is not addressed, the pain is alleviated by solidarity with the likeminded. The old mass culture critics (such as Dwight Macdonald and T.W. Adorno) feared the individual's loss of personal identity in the midst of a crowd hypnotized by spectacle. Taste culture draws back from this pitiful 20th-century nightmare and offers a hero slipping past both spectacle and crowd by following the homing signal throbbing through the ear buds.
In The Lonely Crowd (1953), David Reisman and Nathan Glazer feared mass media were pushing Americans into dangerous psycho-social territory by cultivating social identity without benefit of social contact. Where is television pushing Americans by cultivating several dozen social identities without benefit of social contact? Is there anyone at Time-Warner, News Corporation, Viacom, or GE who has been put in charge of interdemographic relations? A recent ad campaign to promote Time-Warner's HBO-on-demand services depicts “water cooler” conversations at the job site: “Is Tony really going to have Carmella whacked?” says one worker before returning to the terminal. “Whacked…that's so extreme,” replies another. The campaign urges viewers to watch HBO programs on-demand to “know what you need to know.” A challenge posed to 21st-century television critics by this text: Define “you.”
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