The Medium Vanishes?

The Resurrection of the Mass Audience in the New Media Economy

How to Cite

Downes, D. M. (2000). The Medium Vanishes? The Resurrection of the Mass Audience in the New Media Economy. M/C Journal, 3(1).
Vol. 3 No. 1 (2000): Audience
Published 2000-03-01


The recent AOL/Time-Warner merger invites us to re-think the relationships amongst content producers, distributors, and audiences. Worth an estimated $300 billion (US), the largest Internet transaction of all time, the deal is 45 times larger than the AOL/Netscape merger of November 1998 (Ledbetter). Additionally, the Time Warner/EMI merger, which followed hard on the heels of the AOL/Time-Warner deal and is itself worth $28 billion (US), created the largest content rights organisation in the music industry. The joining of the Internet giant (AOL) with what was already the world's largest media corporation (Time-Warner-EMI) has inspired some exuberant reactions. An Infoworld column proclaimed:

The AOL/Time-Warner merger signals the demise of traditional media companies and the ascendancy of 'new economy' media companies that will force any industry hesitant to adopt a complete electronic-commerce strategy to rethink and put itself on Internet time. (Saap & Schwarrtz)

This comment identifies the distribution channel as the dominant component of the "new economy" media. But this might not really be much of an innovation. Indeed, the assumption of all industry observers is that Time-Warner will provide broadband distribution (through its extensive cable holdings) as well as proprietary content for AOL. It is also expected that Time-Warner will adopt AOL's strategy of seeking sponsorship for development projects as well as for content. However, both of these phenomena -- merger and sponsorship -- are at least as old as radio. It seems that the Internet is merely repeating an old industrial strategy.

Nonetheless, one important difference distinguishes the Internet from earlier media: its characterisation of the audience. Internet companies such as AOL and Microsoft tend towards a simple and simplistic media- centred view of the audience as market. I will show, however, that as the Internet assumes more of the traditional mass media functions, it will be forced to adopt a more sophisticated notion of the mass audience.

Indeed, the Internet is currently the site in which audience definitions borrowed from broadcasting are encountering and merging with definitions borrowed from marketing. The Internet apparently lends itself to both models. As a result, definitions of what the Internet does or is, and of how we should understand the audience, are suitably confused and opaque. And the behaviour of big Internet players, such as AOL and MSN, perfectly reflects this confusion as they seem to careen between a view of the Internet as the new television and a contrasting view of the Internet as the new shopping mall. Meanwhile, Internet users move in ways that most observers fail to capture.

For example, Baran and Davis characterise mass communication as a process involving (1) an organized sender, (2) engaged in the distribution of messages, (3) directed toward a large audience. They argue that broadcasting fits this model whereas a LISTSERV does not because, even though the LISTSERV may have very many subscribers, its content is filtered through a single person or Webmaster. But why is the Webmaster suddenly more determining than a network programmer or magazine editor?

The distinction seems to grow out of the Internet's technological characteristics: it is an interactive pipeline, therefore its use necessarily excludes the possibility of "broadcasting" which in turn causes us to reject "traditional" notions of the audience. However, if a media organisation were to establish an AOL discussion group in order to promote Warner TV shows, for example, would not the resulting communication suddenly fall under the definition as set out by Baran and Davis?

It was precisely the confusion around such definitions that caused the CRTC (Canada's broadcasting and telecommunications regulator) to hold hearings in 1999 to determine what kind of medium the Internet is.

Unlike traditional broadcasting, Internet communication does indeed include the possibility of interactivity and niche communities. In this sense, it is closer to narrowcasting than to broadcasting even while maintaining the possibility of broadcasting. Hence, the nature of the audience using the Internet quickly becomes muddy. While such muddiness might have led us to sharpen our definitions of the audience, it seems instead to have led many to focus on the medium itself. For example, Morris & Ogan define the Internet as a mass medium because it addresses a mass audience mediated through technology (Morris & Ogan 39). They divide producers and audiences on the Internet into four groups:

  • One-to-one asynchronous communication (e-mail);
  • Many-to-many asynchronous communication (Usenet and News Groups);
  • One-to-one, one-to-few, and one-to-many synchronous communication (topic groups, construction of an object, role-playing games, IRC chats, chat rooms);
  • Asynchronous communication (searches, many-to-one, one-to-one, one to- many, source-receiver relations (Morris & Ogan 42-3)

Thus, some Internet communication qualifies as mass communication while some does not. However, the focus remains firmly anchored on either the sender or the medium because the receiver --the audience -- is apparently too slippery to define.

When definitions do address the content distributed over the Net, they make a distinction between passive reception and interactive participation. As the World Wide Web makes pre-packaged content the norm, the Internet increasingly resembles a traditional mass medium. Timothy Roscoe argues that the main focus of the World Wide Web is not the production of content (and, hence, the fulfilment of the Internet's democratic potential) but rather the presentation of already produced material: "the dominant activity in relation to the Web is not producing your own content but surfing for content" (Rosco 680). He concludes that if the emphasis is on viewing material, the Internet will become a medium similar to television.

Within media studies, several models of the audience compete for dominance in the "new media" economy. Denis McQuail recalls how historically, the electronic media furthered the view of the audience as a "public". The audience was an aggregate of common interests. With broadcasting, the electronic audience was delocalised and socially decomposed (McQuail, Mass 212). According to McQuail, it was not a great step to move from understanding the audience as a dispersed "public" to thinking about the audience as itself a market, both for products and as a commodity to be sold to advertisers. McQuail defines this conception of the audience as an "aggregate of potential customers with a known social- economic profile at which a medium or message is directed" (McQuail, Mass 221). Oddly though, in light of the emancipatory claims made for the Internet, this is precisely the dominant view of the audience in the "new media economy".

Media Audience as Market

How does the marketing model characterise the relationship between audience and producer? According to McQuail, the marketing model links sender and receiver in a cash transaction between producer and consumer rather than in a communicative relationship between equal interlocutors. Such a model ignores the relationships amongst consumers. Indeed, neither the effectiveness of the communication nor the quality of the communicative experience matters. This model, explicitly calculating and implicitly manipulative, is characteristically a "view from the media" (McQuail, Audience 9).

Some scholars, when discussing new media, no longer even refer to audiences. They speak of users or consumers (Pavick & Dennis). The logic of the marketing model lies in the changing revenue base for media industries. Advertising-supported media revenues have been dropping since the early 1990s while user-supported media such as cable, satellite, online services, and pay-per-view, have been steadily growing (Pavlik & Dennis 19). In the Internet-based media landscape, the audience is a revenue stream and a source of consumer information. As Bill Gates says, it is all about "eyeballs". In keeping with this view, AOL hopes to attract consumers with its "one-stop shopping and billing". And Internet providers such as MSN do not even consider their subscribers as "audiences". Instead, they work from a consumer model derived from the computer software industry: individuals make purchases without the seller providing content or thematising the likely use of the software. The analogy extends well beyond the transactional moment. The common practice of prototyping products and beta-testing software requires the participation of potential customers in the product development cycle not as a potential audience sharing meanings but as recalcitrant individuals able to uncover bugs. Hence, media companies like MTV now use the Internet as a source of sophisticated demographic research. Recently, MTV Asia established a Website as a marketing tool to collect preferences and audience profiles (Slater 50). The MTV audience is now part of the product development cycle. Another method for getting information involves the "cookie" file that automatically provides a Website with information about the user who logs on to a site (Pavick & Dennis).

Simultaneously, though, both Microsoft and AOL have consciously shifted from user-subscription revenues to advertising in an effort to make online services more like television (Gomery; Darlin). For example, AOL has long tried to produce content through its own studios to generate sufficiently heavy traffic on its Internet service in order to garner profitable advertising fees (Young). However, AOL and Microsoft have had little success in providing content (Krantz; Manes). In fact, faced with the AOL/Time-Warner merger, Microsoft declared that it was in the software rather than the content business (Trott). In short, they are caught between a broadcasting model and a consumer model and their behaviour is characteristically erratic.

Similarly, media companies such as Time-Warner have failed to establish their own portals. Indeed, Time-Warner even abandoned attempts to create large Websites to compete with other Internet services when it shut down its Pathfinder site (Egan). Instead it refocussed its Websites so as to blur the line between pitching products and covering them (Reid; Lyons). Since one strategy for gaining large audiences is the creation of portals - - large Websites that keep surfers within the confines of a single company's site by providing content -- this is the logic behind the AOL/Time-Warner merger though both companies have clearly been unsuccessful at precisely such attempts. AOL seems to hope that Time- Warner will act as its content specialist, providing the type of compelling material that will make users want to use AOL, whereas Time- Warner seems to hope that AOL will become its privileged pipeline to the hearts and minds of untold millions. Neither has a coherent view of the audience, how it behaves, or should behave. Consequently, their efforts have a distinctly "unmanaged" and slighly inexplicable air to them, as though everyone were simultaneously hopeful and clueless.

While one might argue that the stage is set to capitalise on the audience as commodity, there are indications that the success of such an approach is far from guaranteed. First, the AOL/Time-Warner/EMI transaction, merely by existing, has sparked conflicts over proprietary rights. For example, the Recording Industry Association of America, representing Sony, Universal, BMG, Warner and EMI, recently launched a $6.8 billion lawsuit against -- an AOL subsidiary -- for alleged copyright violations. Specifically, is being sued for selling digitized music over the Internet without paying royalties to the record companies (Anderson). A similar lawsuit has recently been launched over the issue of re- broadcasting television programs over the Internet. The major US networks have joined together against Canadian Internet company iCravetv for the unlawful distribution of content. Both the iCravetv and the cases show how dominant media players can marshal their forces to protect proprietary rights in both content and distribution.

Since software and media industries have failed to recreate the Internet in the image of traditional broadcasting, the merger of the dominant players in each industry makes sense. However, their simultaneous failure to secure proprietary rights reflects both the competitive nature of the "new media economy" and the weakness of the marketing view of the audience.

Media Audience as Public

It is often said that communication produces social cohesion. From such cohesion communities emerge on which political or social orders can be constructed. The power of social cohesion and attachment to group symbols can even create a sense of belonging to a "people" or nation (Deutsch).

Sociologist Daniel Bell described how the mass media helped create an American culture simply by addressing a large enough audience. He suggested that on the evening of 7 March 1955, when one out of every two Americans could see Mary Martin as Peter Pan on television, a kind of social revolution occurred and a new American public was born. "It was the first time in history that a single individual was seen and heard at the same time by such a broad public" (Bell, quoted in Mattelart 72). One could easily substitute the 1953 World Series or the birth of little Ricky on I Love Lucy.

The desire to document such a process recurs with the Internet. Internet communities are based on the assumption that a common experience "creates" group cohesion (Rheingold; Jones). However, as a mass medium, the Internet has yet to find its originary moment, that event to which all could credibly point as the birth of something genuine and meaningful. A recent contender was the appearance of Paul McCartney at the refurbished Cavern Club in Liverpool. On Tuesday, 14 December 1999, McCartney played to a packed club of 300 fans, while another 150,000 watched on an outdoor screen nearby. MSN arranged to broadcast the concert live over the Internet. It advertised an anticipated global audience of 500 million. Unfortunately, there was such heavy Internet traffic that the system was unable to accommodate more than 3 million people. Servers in the United Kingdom were so congested that many could only watch the choppy video stream via an American link.

The concert raises a number of questions about "virtual" events. We can draw several conclusions about measuring Internet audiences. While 3 million is a sizeable audience for a 20 minute transmission, by advertising a potential audience of 500 million, MSN showed remarkably poor judgment of its inherent appeal.

The Internet is the first medium that allows access to unprocessed material or information about events to be delivered to an audience with neither the time constraints of broadcast media nor the space limitations of the traditional press. This is often cited as one of the characteristics that sets the Internet apart from other media. This feeds the idea of the Internet audience as a participatory, democratic public. For example, it is often claimed that the Internet can foster democratic participation by providing voters with uninterpreted information about candidates and issues (Selnow). However, as James Curran argues, the very process of distributing uninterrupted, unfiltered information, at least in the case of traditional mass media, represents an abdication of a central democratic function -- that of watchdog to power (Curran). In the end, publics are created and maintained through active and continuous participation on the part of communicators and audiences.

The Internet holds together potentially conflicting communicative relationships within the same technological medium (Merrill & Ogan). Viewing the audience as co-participant in a communicative relationship makes more sense than simply focussing on the Internet audience as either an aggregate of consumers or a passively constructed symbolic public.

Audience as Relationship

Many scholars have shifted attention from the producer to the audience as an active participant in the communication process (Ang; McQuail, Audience). Virginia Nightingale goes further to describe the audience as part of a communicative relationship. Nightingale identifies four factors in the relationship between audiences and producers that emphasize their co-dependency. The audience and producer are engaged in a symbiotic relationship in which consumption and use are necessary but not sufficient explanations of audience relations. The notion of the audience invokes, at least potentially, a greater range of activities than simply use or consumption. Further, the audience actively, if not always consciously, enters relationships with content producers and the institutions that govern the creation, distribution and exhibition of content (Nightingale 149-50).

Others have demonstrated how this relationship between audiences and producers is no longer the one-sided affair characterised by the marketing model or the model of the audience as public. A global culture is emerging based on critical viewing skills. Kavoori calls this a reflexive mode born of an increasing familiarity with the narrative conventions of news and an awareness of the institutional imperatives of media industries (Kavoori). Given the sophistication of the emergent global audience, a theory that reduces new media audiences to a set of consumer preferences or behaviours will inevitably prove inadequate, just as it has for understanding audience behavior in old media. Similarly, by ignoring those elements of audience behavior that will be easily transported to the Web, we run the risk of idealising the Internet as a medium that will create an illusory, pre-technological public.


There is an understandable confusion between the two models of the audience that appear in the examples above. The "new economy" will have to come to terms with sophisticated audiences. Contrary to IBM's claim that they want to "get to know all about you", Internet users do not seem particularly interested in becoming a perpetual source of market information. The fragmented, autonomous audience resists attempts to lock it into proprietary relationships.

Internet hypesters talk about creating publics and argue that the Internet recreates the intimacy of community as a corrective to the atomisation and alienation characteristic of mass society. This faith in the power of a medium to create social cohesion recalls the view of the television audience as a public constructed by the common experience of watching an important event. However, MSN's McCartney concert indicates that creating a public from spectacle it is not a simple process. In fact, what the Internet media conglomerates seem to want more than anything is to create consumer bases.

Audiences exist for pleasure and by the desire to be entertained. As Internet media institutions are established, the cynical view of the audience as a source of consumer behavior and preferences will inevitably give way, to some extent, to a view of the audience as participant in communication. Audiences will be seen, as they have been by other media, as groups whose attention must be courted and rewarded. Who knows, maybe the AOL/Time-Warner merger might, indeed, signal the new medium's coming of age.

Author Biography

Daniel M. Downes