Audience Research for Fun and Profit: Rediscovering the Value of Television Audiences

Sheila Seles

Sheila Seles

The American television industry is in a moment of transition because of changes brought about by digital distribution and audience fragmentation. This thesis argues that the television industry can no longer adapt to the changing media landscape because structural relationships and business logics forged in previous eras do not allow for meaningful innovation. This project investigates how these relationships evolved and how they can be made more flexible to meet the challenges of digital distribution and digitally networked audiences. Legacy relationships, logics, and measurement methods have prevented the television industry from maximizing the value of increasingly fragmented television audiences. Publishers, advertisers, and measurement companies have historically been able to get around the limitations of their relationships to one another, but they are now faced with increasing competition from digital companies that understand how to make fragmented audiences valuable. This thesis argues that the methodologies and corporate ethos of successful online companies can serve as a model for the television industry, or they can be its undoing. This project also argues that the television ratings system is no longer serving the television industry, the advertising industry, and television audiences. The television industry has the opportunity to develop a system of audience measurement that maintains the residual value of television audiences while accounting for the value of audience expression. To leverage the true value of the television audience, the television industry must reconcile the commodity value of the audience with the cultural value that viewers derive from television programming. This thesis proposes that the cultural value of content should augment the commodity value of the audience. This project concludes that the television industry should reconfigure its economic structure by looking to other digital business, experimenting with new business models online, and actively exploring emergent sites of audience value.

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