Three ways of thinking about audiences - work, commodity, or voice?

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Last week I mentioned that I was interested in stories about resisting surveillance in the home, and Michael Newberry sent me this excellent NYT article about an anti-Alexa bracelet. It emits ultrasonic noise, which will not only stop Alexa from listening to you, it’ll also annoy the hell out of any dogs and teenagers in the vicinity. The fact it’s a bracelet is nice coincidence, as there’s a long history of dubious medical bracelets, like the Power Balance Band, which had a strong following amongst elite athletes in 2011 before the company went bankrupt in the face of multiple lawsuits.

I’d like to imagine someone wearing the anti-Alexa bracelet on one arm, and an Apple Watch on the other. Surveillance on one hand, Privacy on the other, like Radio Raheem’s Love/Hate knuckle rings in Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing - “The story of life is this - one hand is always fighting the other hand”

I’ve found a rich vein of research in the last week, and have quite a few old books about the history of TV ratings arriving in the post. One of the books is an academic essay collection called Television Audiences Across The World: Deconstructing the Ratings Machine, edited by Jérôme Bourdon and Cécile Méadel. The bibliography alone has led me to many great research sources, but the intro is also a really good short account of the politics and sociology of TV ratings.

Bourdon and Méadel suggest a number of ways of thinking about what we’re actually doing when we measure TV ratings. First, they refer to a 1977 essay where Dallas Smythe uses a Marxist framework to suggest that audience’s viewing activity should not be considered as leisure time, but as ‘work’ for capitalism to extract. This reminds me of the slogan from the late 19th century workers’ rights movements - “Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, eight hours for what we will!

I like the almost petulant vagueness of “eight hours for what we will!” The phrase not only stakes out the right for leisure time, it refuses to give any details of what that leisure might involve. It’s almost as if these workers knew that the 20th Century would increasingly surveil them, even in their leisure time, and they were pre-emptively turning themselves into ghosts. By the time Dallas Smythe writes about communications being the ‘blind spot’ of Western Marxism in the 1970s, the game is up, and capitalism already knows too much about what we do in our leisu

This leads to the second way of thinking about audiences - as a commodity produced by the act of measurement itself. In this reading, audiences are not a specific group of people, but are rendered as a set of data, used to facilitate the sale of advertising between broadcasters and brands. This reading puts the emphasis not on the activities of the audience, but on the politics of the measurements themselves - the metrics, not the masses.

Most Western countries use an independent agency to do this, like BARB in the UK or Nielsen in the US. The independence and continuity of how this data is produced is important to everyone involved in buying and selling advertising. If the methodology is questioned, it threatens the trust everyone must have to make the market function. I’m researching a couple of interesting moments when this trust was questioned in the US, such as the 1963 Harris Committee on broadcast ratings, and the 2004 PeopleMeter controversy. This last one is a particularly juicy story, involving Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp; the Nielsen Company; Hilary Clinton; a lobbying group who also worked for Al Gore and Michael Bloomberg; and a pseudo grass-roots organisation called ‘Don’t Count Us Out!’ who argued that TV ratings undercounted minority audiences.

This in turn leads to a third reading - measuring TV audiences gives the public a ‘voice’ that can be used by broadcasters and governments as a proxy for public opinion. As I explored in an earlier newsletter, the invention of broadcast media ratings in the early 20th century happened alongside other new techniques for measuring the public, like George Gallup’s invention of opinion polling.

For public service broadcasters in particular, ratings were not about rendering audiences as data for advertisers, but to create a ‘public’ that they could consider in programming and scheduling discussions. This feels familiar from when I worked at the BBC, where the audience research team regularly used ratings research to create composite personas of the BBC audience for BBC execs. Later on, when I worked at Channel 4, the commissioning team would meet every Thursday lunchtime to go through the last week’s TV schedules, and ratings were often invoked to discuss what ‘the audience’ had liked or ignored that week.

The issue with this third reading is that ratings are samples - they do not measure everyone equally. There are voices and opinions that aren’t represented by the ratings - in fact, one chapter in Bourdon and Méadel’s book looks at TV ratings in India, which only measures the ‘A’ group of India’s caste system, which is less than 10% of the total population. If ratings are used to indicate what ‘the public’ like or don’t like, then who does this ‘public’ include, and who is left out?

The story of TV ratings in the 20th century is the story of these multiple and competing readings of what an audience actually is, and who gets to decide which is most important. Does measuring our attention turn our leisure into yet another form of ‘work’ for capitalism to commodify? Or is it an abstract representation that needs to be agreed and trusted so that the advertising market can function? Or does it create a representation of the ‘public’ that can be used as a proxy for decision making by broadcasters and governments?

The tension between these three readings was one of the reasons why the job of measuring ratings was given to independent bodies. Ratings were too important to leave to either the broadcasters, the advertising industry, or the government alone. They need to be kept at one remove, so everyone could share the same illusion that they were true, honest and impartial.

In the 21st century, this tension finally started break, as Google and Facebook created advertising markets in which they were simultaneously the creators, the measurers, and the sellers of audiences. The digital platforms of the last few decades have profoundly broken the illusion that measuring audiences can be an impartial and arms-length act.

In doing so, they’ve broken Bourdon and Méadel’s three readings of the idea of an ‘audience’ and created a new hybrid definition. Our leisure time is no longer invisible to capitalism - instead, it’s the core resource for new forms of platform (or surveillance) capitalism. There is no longer a single metric for our attention, it is now a commodity that can be bought and sold in endless fractal formations to highly-targeted advertisers. And they’ve shattered the idea of a ‘public’, using our attention data to instead present the world back to us in individual, personalised streams curated by their algorithms.

We are no longer ghosts, but I don’t think we’re an audience or a ‘public’ either. We need to find a new language to describe what we are when we use digital platforms, or risk other people doing it for us.

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