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Over the past few decades, media audiences have experienced fragmentation in many countries such as the United Kingdom, the United States, and Australia partly because of increase in media choices. Audience fragmentation and media polarization are common in today’s generation dominated by technology and the new media.
Audience fragmentation is caused by media proliferation, which makes the broadcast opportunities more diverse posing a challenge to media providers and advertisers. The media proliferation means that the media content, once a preserve of specific outlets such as public broadcasters, is now available in all platforms, which results to a more participatory and fragmented audience.
While this may be good for democratic development, it presents major challenges that affect mainstream media financially (Benkler 32). Society and audiences in many countries are changing in line with the developments in media technology, the new media, and the internet.
In Australia, the audience is increasingly becoming fragmented particularly with regard to television viewing. In 2009, about 84% of all Australian households were audience of free-t-air TV, which, however, was shared with three other major stations (FreeTV 12).
Audience fragmentation in Australia has arisen due to increase in the number of commercial channels. By the end of 2010, the number of free-to-air channels grew sharply with the licensing of six additional government-sponsored and commercial television channels further contributing to audience fragmentation (FreeTV 9).
Public broadcasters have responded quite positively to the changing media environment. Radio stations, television networks and other content providers have rapidly shifted their services to involve the internet. At the same time, public broadcasting has adopted more personalized services and products to meet the diverse needs of the consumer in a fragmented society (Murdock 54).
Despite the stiff competition occasioned by media proliferation, public broadcasting is best suited in delivering and receiving content that informs, entertains, and educates a fragmented society through the new media and the internet in line with its original mission and therefore public broadcasting is still necessary even in the face of audience fragmentation and proliferation of media outlets.
Principles of Public Broadcasting
The commercial broadcasters often offer programs that propagate their commercial interests. In contrast, public broadcasters’ mission is to offer a balanced programming that focuses on public and governance affairs while being politically neutral and non-commercial (Tomaselli 31). However, with the recent advancements in technology and the emergence of the new media, which has led to audience fragmentation, public broadcasters appear to compromise their initial mission.
Among the principles of public broadcasting is its quest to be universally accessible and have a universal appeal (Tomaselli 34). By integrating technology like digital Audio broadcasting (DAB) into public broadcasting, public broadcasters have been able to increase their reach in most countries.
In Australia, DAB digital radio is broadcasted in five major metropolitan areas with the community radio sector shifting to digital broadcasting to increase accessibility (Free TV 12). Public service broadcasting should be available to everyone regardless of his or her geographical location. In Australia, a digital community radio was launched on May 2011, to offer a broad range of digital content and increase accessibility of public broadcasting (CBAA).
Unlike commercial broadcasting, which is governed by commercial and advertising interests, public service broadcasting plays a crucial role in dissemination of unbiased information to the public. It offers a forum for public debate on issues affecting the people, which enable people to make informed choices.
In this way, public service broadcasting allows people to express their opinions on contentious issues and in the process fosters cohesion in the society. Public broadcasting also empowers citizens owing to its programs that cover governance and political issues (Tomaselli 39).
This phenomenon enhances the quality of life of individuals and social groups can participate in issues affecting their economic and social lives. Public broadcasting, therefore, offers actual and unbiased information, which promotes free opinion formation as compared to other commercial broadcasters and this trend makes public broadcasting necessary in the society even in the wake of audience fragmentation and media proliferation.
Public service broadcasting also takes into account the interests of the minority within the society with an intention of promoting social cohesion. The central issue, however, is whether public broadcasting can be detached from government interests given its source of funding.
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Public broadcasters are expected to exercise independence from political interference or commercial interests. However, absolute independence is often difficult in practice. In addition, the public broadcasters need to emphasize on quality programming instead of multi-channeling, which is common in commercial broadcasting to support the programs.
The Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) increased the number of channels, which has affected the quality of its programming and stretched its resources (Frangopoulos Para. 2).
Public Broadcasting and the New Digital technologies
The technological developments have made it easier for both the media providers and the users to move across the media platforms. Digital technologies have led to the new media commonly referred to as “social media”, which also has contributed to audience fragmentation.
These include social networks like Face book, video sharing media such as You Tube and search engines such as Google and iTunes (Webster 371). The social media, unlike the traditional media, aim at increasing their popularity and in the process attract more audience.
To achieve popularity, many of the social media compete for audience by offering attractive user-friendly options to attract the attention of the users. Unfortunately, the attention of the public is limited and scarce. The focus of the new media is to catch the attention of the audience as the prerequisite for attaining their social and economic objectives (Davenport and Beck 65) and this has led to the proliferation of the social media further contributing to audience fragmentation. However, integration of public broadcasting and social media allows the public to debate on national issues more effectively.
The media users also contribute to audience fragmentation as they usually choose the media products they prefer. The user preferences are reflective of their attitudes, their needs, or tastes. The audience can opt to remain loyal to a particular genre provided by a given media or sample a diverse range of media genres.
Users preferring a particular genre especially with regard to news lead to a highly focused audience known as “gated communities” or “enclaves”, which lead to audience fragmentation (Iyengar and Hahn 112). The users are expected to understand the media environment in which they operate.
However, the proliferation of the media outlets especially the digital media makes perfect understanding of the digital marketplace almost impossible. In addition, the diversity of the media products makes informed user choice difficult. Users cannot even be sure of which brand would provide the desired gratification and therefore have to sample different media outlets.
Public broadcasting offers better means through which the public perceives and addresses public affairs through digital technology and the new media forms, partly because public broadcasting, owing to its focus on public affairs, enjoys a higher level of public trust than the commercial broadcasting. In addition, public broadcasting focuses on universal accessibility and therefore, the new technologies offer a platform to increase its reach in line with its mission.
Forms of Media Fragmentation
The proliferation of media outlets like channels and websites or media products as music or movies play a significant role in audience fragmentation termed media-centric fragmentation. Under media-centric fragmentation, the media providers are arranged from the most popular to the least popular using data derived from monthly visitors or total sales reached in a month conducted by independent providers (Anderson 54).
In media-centric fragmentation, the audiences are spread across many media outlets. In Australia, rationalization of the audience is high and continues to increase because of restrictions that prevent multi-channeling. By 2009, free-to-air TV (FTA) had an estimated audience of 84%, which it shared with three other commercial TV stations (FreeTV 16). In 2011, three national TV channels, three more channels that are commercial and Pay TV have entered the market.
However, government restrictions prevent multi-channeling involving FTA broadcasting (FreeTV 13). This has contributed to audience fragmentation as users and advertisers migrate to other media including the new media. Despite the continued fragmentation of the audience, public broadcasting remains a reliable means of promoting social cohesion while promoting diversity of culture.
The public broadcasting works is even more useful in a fragmented society as the individual needs of social groups and community public service broadcasters address minorities more effectively.
Fragmentation at micro-level involves the distribution of each individual’s use of media across many providers. People become specialized in their patterns of media use by becoming concentrating on a certain class of media products or media outlets that deliver the desired services.
In addition, under the micro-level fragmentation, the characteristics of the audience e.g. age or gender is common. The audience relies on subsets of the available media, at a micro-level, on a daily basis to obtain relevant information in the complex media environment. The public broadcasters through its range of educative and informative programs can attract all different segments of audience as they discuss political, economic, and social issues affecting their lives.
Another form of audience fragmentation relies on a macro-level way of perceiving audiences based on the media they use. This approach can identify the audience for a particular media outlet and by doing so; it is easier to determine how the public attention is spread across the media environment.
The macro-level fragmentation can evaluate channel loyalty and audience flows within the media environment (Napoli 67). According to Webster, analysis of the media environment which indicates that users do not spend a lot of time in gated communities but rather sample a variety of media products to satisfy their needs (378).
The Future of Audience Fragmentation
In spite of audience fragmentation caused by interactions between media providers and users, public broadcasting remains an important source of media products. According to Webster, most media users do not spend much time in niches or gated communities nor does typical users consume particular media products only, rather most of them range widely across the media outlets as they search desired media products (381). The audiences may appear highly fragmented but they do not stay long within the niches or gated communities.
Majority of the users have rather varied media repertoires, which are specialized subsets of media that provide desired media products at particular times. This implies that the micro-level and macro-level fragmentation have no much impact on the consumption patterns of the audience.
In fact, the public prefers to associate and debate public affairs. The public broadcasting offers an ideal platform for citizens to be informed on national issues and contributes to national development. Moreover, despite relying on different media repertoires, users can still get the same products and the traditional media remains a preferred source of quality media content.
The popularity of the media providers is fundamental to the future distribution of audiences across the media environment. Anderson beliefs that the many media offerings or choices offered would contribute to audience fragmentation in the future (181).
Frank and Cook, on the other hand expect that high concentration of the audiences will continue to be experienced in the digital media as compared to other forms of media (56). Moreover, in the digital media, because of differential quality of the digital media products, there will be less audience fragmentation. Due to the diversity of the digital media products and the social nature of the digital media, it is likely that the digital media will become more popular than the traditional media.
Audience fragmentation is not likely to be high in digital media as the quality of media products is not normally uniform. Assuming the prices are fairly the same, the audience choices would gravitate towards the digital media that offers high quality choices.
As Caves notes, most content providers and the users alike tend to prefer high quality media products if they can afford them (33). Digital media provides a platform for providers and the users to access high quality services on demand, which effectively reduces the available choices and concentrates the audiences around the best media options thus reducing audience fragmentation.
The social nature of the digital media consumption makes digital media more desirable. Through social media networks like Facebook, You Tube, and Twitter among others, few programs, or sports events contribute to live audience debates on various topics, which the public broadcasting service can use to propagate its mission.
The social networks also allow simultaneous media use especially alongside television viewing. Twitter and Facebook allow conversations on a virtual space, which concentrates the audience on these networks as they discuss topics they find noteworthy. Since the digital media products are more diverse, the users rely on recommendation systems that guide their consumption.
While the media recommendation systems may vary across the media environment, they are mostly directed at promoting the popular media products or media outlets relying on the information on what other have chosen (Webster 389). Nevertheless, the digital products, the media outlets, or their content only varies slightly.
The major concern about audience fragmentation is its economic impact on advertising as companies find it difficult to reach the intended market due to audience fragmentation. Contrary to these concerns, fragmentation, and the large number of media channels actually allows practitioners to reach a large number of audiences and can even provide access to additional audience. In order to maximize reach, advertising should be carried out across multiple media channels (Ephron 19).
A study conducted by Newstead to establish the strategies of maximizing reach to the Australian market, found out that, extending the media coverage coupled by distribution over a wide range of media during advertising increases reach efficiency of between 2-46% (Newstead 76). Despite the proliferation of media outlets, the media outlets offer more or less similar content, which makes public broadcasting even more reliable as a source of information.
It is evident that the proliferation of commercial media outlets has influenced public broadcasting in many ways. However, public broadcasting in many countries remains the appropriate means of promoting public interaction. Due to competition from commercial broadcasters, public broadcasting has adopted different broadcasting methods involving introduction of diverse programs tailored for specific social groups, more interactive programs that make use of the new media, and introduction of appealing media content.
In addition, public broadcasting has made use of digital technologies to promote accessibility in line with its mandate. All this has translated to public broadcasting playing an important role particularly with regard to promoting social cohesion. In conclusion, public broadcasting is still necessary even in the wake of recent proliferation of media outlets and audience fragmentation.
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