Audience Evolution: New Technologies and the Transformation of Media Audiences
reviewed by Giacomo Poderi - March 29, 2011
Title: Audience Evolution: New Technologies and the Transformation of Media Audiences
Author(s): Philip M. Napoli
Publisher: Columbia University Press, New York
ISBN: 0231150350, Pages: 248, Year: 2010
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The contemporary media environment is undergoing tremendous changes. The proliferation of TV channels, the dawn of Web 2.0 and the user-generated content phenomenon, together with the diffusion of several content-delivery platforms (e.g. tablet PCs, mobile phones, Digital Video Recorders), all contribute to the redefinition of how content is produced, distributed, shared, and used. Traditional media strive to integrate and to adopt the capabilities offered by new technologies while completely new media emerged (mainly over the Internet) which provide people with previously-unknown ways of interacting with content and the media themselves. Much has been written about how people engage with these new media, but little is known about how the media industry is coping with these changes. Napoli's book attempts to fill this gap.
By building on the institutionalized concept of audience, namely: "the audience as socially constructed by media industries, advertisers, and associated audience measurements firms" (p. 3), Napoli makes the book's explicit goal to "develop a deeper understanding of how these social constructions of media audiences change over time, of how technological and institutional forces can effect such change, and how such changes are negotiated and resisted by the stakeholders involved in attracting and monetizing media audiences" (p. 3). Audience Evolution well accomplishes the goal by means of the arguments included in the five chapters.
The first chapter contains an historical and theoretical overview on media evolution and rationalization of audience that is how media industries and media analysts conceive the consumers and reduce them to measurable numbers. The second chapter addresses the key concepts of media and audience fragmentation, and it details how these fragmentations influence the development of the long tail phenomenon: a well known retailing strategy that relies on selling (or distributing) a large number of unique items in relatively small quantities. Media fragmentation refers "to the technological processes that increase the range of content options available to media consumers" (p. 55), while the audience fragmentation relates to the fact that audiences attention is dispersed across a wide range of content options. Therefore, we are in front of "millions of audiences of hundreds instead of hundreds of audiences of millions" (p. 57). This has repercussions on the audience's long tail and on how content providers market their products. Indeed, "An increasingly fragmented media environment allows the tail of audience attention to continue to lengthen, diminishing the audience for each individual content option" (p. 66). Basically, the number of channels increases while the audience per each channel decreases. Therefore, content providers drastically reduce investments for the production of the content for each channel.
Chapter three extends the issue of fragmentation to the audience information systems (i.e. the set of techniques, technologies, measurements, variables, data, and procedures that are used by media industries and content providers to understand their audiences). By highlighting the nuts and bolts of these systems, the chapter illustrates their foundations, their objectives and the challenges they are facing in relation to the fast changing and heterogeneous media environment. The fourth chapter analyses the evolution in media technologies and audience information systems in their broader and institutional context. It addresses issues of negotiations amongst stakeholders for the construction, legitimation and adoption of new information systems. The conclusive chapter elaborates on the main arguments analyzed in Chapters Two, Three and Four, and it extends their implications for media industries, policy makers, and researchers. Each chapter, together with each major section, is introduced by an outline of the key arguments developed in the previous one and ends with brief critical reflections in preparation of the forthcoming chapter. This is of great help for the reader who always has a reference point not to lose him/herself in the wide range of information and concepts that are discussed.
Audience Evolution: New Technologies and the Transformation of Media Audiences is an excellent and comprehensive work with the ambitious goal of describing the changes pervading a whole industrial sector. I found many strong points which make this book a valuable source of knowledge; nonetheless, I also experienced a couple of minor disappointments. Given the word "audience" in the title, when I first approached the book, I expected to read something about the people who constitute this audience. Already in the introduction, Napoli clarifies that my expectation would fall short. The choice of using an institutionalized view of audience and, therefore, to look at the phenomenon only from the perspective of media industries, analysts, advertisers, and policy makers, is clear from the beginning and never disregarded. However, the fact that an audience's (as people) perspective is barely mentioned in sections that specifically address privacy issues (pp. 144-147) or resistance and negotiation amongst stakeholders (pp. 15-22, pp. 123-131) is, at least, puzzling. Another issue relates to the examples provided throughout the book. On the one hand, they represent a big plus of this work. Napoli always offers a quick reference to a well-known case helping the reader to understand the arguments. On the other hand, the breadth of arguments touched in the book does not leave room for entering into the details of these examples. For instance, the case of the digital video recorder TiVo is mentioned several times (p. 16, p. 101, pp. 124-125) in passing. However, considering the lively debate that TiVo provoked during its early diffusion due to legal and privacy concerns, it might have deserved more space. The "YouTube vs. Viacom" lawsuit is a similar example (p. 29, pp. 126-127).
Coming to the strengths of this book, the clarity of the language and of the arguments can easily impress the reader. The complexity of the subject matter, its evolving nature and the reliance on concepts for media experts could have rendered the book difficult to read. It is not the case here. Napoli unravels the arguments, providing them with linear and simple wording, without trivializing the phenomena under analysis. Together with its clear style, the book also comes with a manageable number of (end-) notes that does not make it impossible to go back and forth to the end of the book, when needed. Moreover, it provides an incredible number of references. Throughout the book, each key statement and argument is well referenced and connected with existing works, building up to a reference list 45 pages long.
All said, Philip Napoli delivers a sound work that coherently frames heterogeneous technologies, media, and industry sectors under the phenomenon of "audience evolution." Due to the institutionalized perspective used for "audience" and the niche aspects that are treated (e.g. media fragmentation, audience information systems evolution), the book is probably tailored to better suit the needs of media experts (both scholars and practitioners) than the ones of the wide public. However, its clarity, simplicity, and systematic narrative make it appealing and useful for both.