Passive or Active? – Critical Essay

Media audiences have been persistently evolving along with media technology since the popularisation of the television set on the mid-1950s. Media theories such as Cultivation Theory focuses and ultimately relies on the passivity of the audience. On the other hand, theories including the Uses and Gratifications Theory clearly demonstrates an audience’s ability to engage actively with media.

Furthermore, it is now clear that audiences have developed a great deal of autonomy in their interaction with media due to the rise of social media and other technologies. Due to this vast and rapid change in media, it is also easy for some audiences to be misunderstood by media producers, falling out of this new relationship formed with a more autonomous audience. It is therefore important for media producers to work to understand the wants and needs of their audience that they are now ultimately serving. An example of this instance can be demonstrated in Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s film Birdman: The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance, in which protagonist Riggan Thompson struggles to understand his audience’s perception and expectations of him.

Media theorists argue that there are ultimately two states of being for audiences. A passive audience is one which blatantly and unquestioningly consumes and accepts what is delivered to them by the media. This also sets the subsequent expectation from media producers for audiences to be “well behaved spectators” (Wilson, 2009, p. 12), as they learn to rely on this Top-down relationship, with special focus on advertising and subliminal messages.

An active audience is the exact opposite, as the audience actively engages with content produced by the media. The active audience not only questions messages produced by media, but also picks and chooses what messages they consume or ignore. With an active audience, the media’s relationship with it’s audience becomes far more complex. There becomes a need for media producers to understand their audiences, and then to produce content that engages specific audiences or sub-audiences. Furthermore, the presence of an active audience increases the ability of the media producers to construct increased quality content with more frequency through its subsequent need to understand audiences.

A media theory that could be applied to passive audiences would be George Gerbner and Larry Gross’ Cultivation Theory. The theory states that a passive audience, having spent a large majority of their lives watching television, will develop the inability to differentiate between the real world and television world. The theory questions the effects of television, and its “independent contribution to viewers’ conception of social reality” (Shanahan & Morgan, 1999, p. 3).

Upon the theory’s foundation through the 1970s, television had also become mainstream, with a large variety and quantity of programming viewed by the majority of audiences. It is very likely that this theory and consequent studies (such as Griffin’s Mean World Syndrome) would have been successfully applied to audiences of this time period. The simple fact that virtually every household would have owned one or two television sets supported the theory, as audiences had instantaneous access to this kind of media, “despite the growth of new technologies…television remain[ed] the dominant purveyor of stories and messages” (Shanahan & Morgan, 1999, p. 21).

As well as the effects of television, Gerbner was also very concerned with the effects of media institutions and the messages that they transmitted to their audiences. He argued that the “mass production and rapid distribution of messages create[d] new symbolic environments that reflect[ed] the structure and fuctionings of the institutions that transmit them” (Potter, 2014, p. 1016).

In many ways, it is clear that Gerbner and Gross’ theory was successful in questioning the type of relationship audiences develop with media, and more importantly, the effects that this relationship can have on audiences. To a greater extent, the Cultivation Theory argues that audiences have the capacity to take messages and apply them to their lives, through “stable, repetitive, pervasive and virtually inescapable patterns and images of ideologies that television provides” (Shanahan & Morgan, 1999, p. 5). However, the Cultivation Theory relies absolutely on a passive audience that takes in media without question, and therefore leaves no space for variables and does not account for audiences that “do not watch isolated genres only, and that any ‘impact’ of individual program types should be considered in the context of the overall viewing experience” (Morgan & Shanahan, 2010, p. 354)

Despite the theory’s effort to highlight adverse media effects, the Cultivation Theory’s application is limited to a strictly passive audience, and further, an audience that engages in repetitive, specific viewing patterns. Much like the Hypodermic Needle Theory which relies on a drone-like audiences when delivering messages, the Cultivation Theory becomes obsolete when applied to an active audience, who, although could be subject to impressionability, ultimately maintains autonomy over what media they consume.

The Uses and Gratifications Theory is an approach that relies on an active audience, with a focus on the way in which the audience uses the media for their own gratification. As the theory assumes that the audience is actively engaged with media, “audience members … initiate the selection and use of communication vehicles” (Bryant & Oliver, 2008, p. 167).

Furthermore, the Uses and Gratifications approach states that the communicational behaviour of the audience “including the selection and use of media, is goal-directed, purposive, and motivated” (2008, p. 167). Therefore, the theory strives to understand the motives of an audience and their media usage.

Although the Uses and Gratification approach was applied as early as 1944 (West & Turner, 2010, p. 392), it is particularly useful when applied to today’s audiences. With the creation and subsequent boom in popularity of user-generated media (UGM), audiences are constantly interacting with media, that is, social media. Social media has changed the ways in which audiences communicate, as well as seek entertainment and information. Thus, with these new, more sophisticated audiences, there is high demand for media content of greater quality, with more frequency. A specific example of a form of social media which demands the Uses and Gratifications theory is Twitter. This social media platform relies on the constant activity of its user base, so much so that audiences form an almost habitual need for gratification, reinforcing this relationship between Twitter as the media form and its audience. Moreover, “gratification of the need to connect with others through the process of using Twitter is a para-social gratification, where people form ‘ritualised social relationships’ through media use” (Masullo Chen, 2010, p. 756).

Some criticisms of the Uses and Gratifications approach include some not dissimilar to those made of the Cultivation Theory. A main argument being that the theory demands an active audience that seeks and receives gratification from media. The theory does not account for and cannot be applied to sections of an audience who use media as passive recipients, rather than actively seeking gratification. Furthermore, due to the indiscriminate nature of the active audience, it becomes difficult for the Uses and Gratifications theory to assist in the predictions for future media usage. Lastly, although thoroughly accurate in describing the nature of audiences and their relationship with media, the Uses and Gratifications Theory does nothing to explain or account for the lasting implications that media use has on an audience, therefore leading the theory to be partisan as a theory that is really about the nature of media.

When it comes to describing the media audience of 2016, it is quite clear that audiences have been empowered by the now ever-present social media and therefore, audiences are now more active than ever. Even traditional media has changed, for instance, television is no longer a medium that is only watched live at home in the living room. With a higher demand for instantaneous, quality entertainment, Netflix has become the most lucrative streaming service, producing original content and personalising its audiences viewing experiences. Subsequently, cable and commercial television have shifted into the ‘on-demand’ sphere with services such as Foxtel Go and iView, as to cater to this new, more selective audience that watches television when and where they desire.

Furthermore, the presence of social media has evolved the ways in which audiences take in more traditional forms of media. If this new audience views something on television that they disagree with, goes against their beliefs or even offends them, they have a platform from which to voice their opinion.

A recent example of this new, active audience expressing dysphoria towards media producers using social media entailed the recent release and consequent backlash of Batman v Superman. Only days prior to to the release of Warner Bros. biggest 2016 release, fans who had seen the tent-pole film on early release were posting their complaints to Twitter, ultimately resulting in average opening weekend box-office earnings. However, criticism from fans were not ignored, as only weeks later, Warner Bros. ordered reshoots for the anticipated Suicide Squad movie in order to ensure a different, more enjoyable cinematic tone for fans.

Upon comparing and observing the evolution of audiences, it is clear that audiences have not always been active in their relationship with media. It can even be argued that with lesser access to technology, the media can domineer an audience and demand a degree of passivity as “well behaved spectators” (Wilson, 2009, p. 12). This however, does not lessen an audience’s reception to media texts and their messages. “In our silent gaze and recognition of a large screen authority we are appropriated by dominant cinema as spokesperson for the problematic, for concepts of the social world which are challengeable outside the doors of the movie theatre.” (Wilson, 2009, p. 12)

In Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s 2014 film, Birdman: The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance, actor Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton) struggles to break away from his superhero-actor past into the Broadway theatre scene, as he works to mount his own adaption of a short story by Raymond Carver for the stage.

Most commonly known to his audience for portraying superhero Birdman a decade ago, Riggan is blissfully unaware of his audience’s apathy at his desire to break into a new, more sophisticated and philosophical sphere, with a new audience to match. This is exemplified when Riggan is being interviewed by a group of reporters, one of whom he is most interested to talk to, as he represents a higher, more academically focussed sector of media and audiences. Upon attempting to respond to a question that quotes Roland Barthes, Riggan stammers as he compares Birdman to Icarus. Swiftly, this comparison is cut off by the reporter who dismisses Riggan’s artistic motives: “Are you doing this play to battle impressions that you’re a washed-up super-hero?”

Through the first act of the film, Riggan is lying to himself and ignoring all of the voices that question his actions. Most difficult to ignore is the voice in his head. The voice of Birdman himself. Birdman knows where Riggan truly belongs as a performer, and a producer of very popular media: “These people don’t know what you’re capable of”.

Riggan’s character developments ultimately come from the actions and developments of other characters.

The first is one of Riggan’s co-stars in his play, Mike Shiner (Edward Norton). Working through pure artistic expression, Mark stirs in Riggan a deep anger and frustration with roots of jealously for what Mark has succeeded in doing with his career, and ultimately his with his audience: “This isn’t a back-lot, Riggan, this is New York City…Tonight [the audience] will be laughing, tomorrow they’ll be tweeting”. Mark demands respect from his audience and critics alike, as he “lives” the art which he plays out and sells tickets doing so. Furthermore, Mark displays a deep understanding of his own audience through his ongoing and outspoken criticism towards Riggan’s play, subsequently turning on the audienceas he interrupts a preview performance: “You fucked with the period, you fucked with the plot… (to the audience) don’t be so pathetic, stop looking at the world through your cell-phone screens, have a real experience”.

Riggan’s twenty-something daughter Sam (Emma Stone), a recovering addict working as her father’s assistant. In one particular run-in, Riggan is confronted with not only his own ineptitude as a father, but also what his audience has become in his absence: “You had a career, before the third comic book movie…And let’s face it, you are not doing this for the sake of art. You are doing this because you wanna feel relevant again”. Sam also points out that Riggan actively ignores the new, social media-based audience that “has already forgotten about [him]”.

Upon the realisation of what he has become, “I’m the answer to a fucking Trivial Pursuit question”, Riggan breaks down, allowing Birdman to take over: “You saved people from their boring, miserable lives…Gravity doesn’t apply to you. This is where you belong, above them all”. Riggan’s world becomes surreal as he literally flies above his audience and what they expect from him, knowing that what he delivers as Birdman will be what they want.

It’s opening night and, having learned from all of the people around him, including his new, evolved audience consumed by viral videos and the “real”, Riggan loads a handgun for his finale. On stage, Riggan’s speaks his line, “I don’t exist” before pulling the trigger.

Riggan wakes up in a hospital bed, his face wrapped in bandages resembling a mask. His “real” performance was a triumph. He is shown the front page of the New York Times which describes Riggan’s play as the “blood that has been missing from the American Theatre”. Riggan has what he wanted – relevance. And he now understands how to please his audience – to give them what they want, rather than what he wants.

Birdman: The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance, when broken down, is accurate in its honest portrayal of what the audience has evolved into. Although played out to the extreme, it is clear that in Birdman, the projection of an experience, for example a viral video, is almost as significant as the experience itself, and that essentially, through the means of social media, these experiences can be felt globally.

Overall, it is clear that audiences, although once partially if not completely passive in their relationship with media, are now actively involved in their relationship with the media, empowered by social media use. When examining media use theories such as the Cultivation Theory and the Uses and Gratifications Approach, it is evident that both a study of media-audience relationships as well as understandings of long-term effects that media has on its audience is paramount in gaining an accurate perception of active and passive audiences. It is also apparent that in the 2016 media climate, it can be jeopardous for the media to misunderstand, underestimate or fail to engage their audiences, as displayed in Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s Birdman: The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance. Further, as social media becomes more interactive, it is evident that traditional media will follow, in order to understand this new, autonomous audience.



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Danesi, M., 2009. Dictionary of Media and Communications. s.l.:s.n.

Internet Movie Database, 2014. Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) Quotes. [Online]
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[Accessed 16 April 2016].

Jones, P. & Holmes, D., 2011. Key Concepts in Media and Communications. 1st ed. Los Angeles: Los Angeles: SAGE.

Masullo Chen, G., 2010. Tweet this: a uses and gratifications perspective on how active Twitter use gratifies a need to connect with others. Computers in Human Behaviour, 27(2), pp. 755-762.

Morgan, M. & Shanahan, J., 2010. The State of Cultivation. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 54(2), pp. 337-355.

Napoli, P. M., n.d. Audience Evolution – New Technologies and the Transformation of Media. s.l.:s.n.

Potter, J. W., 2014. Critical Analysis of Cultication Theory. Journal of Communication, 64(3), pp. 1015-1036.

Shanahan, J. & Morgan, M., 1999. Televsion and Its Viewers: Cultivation Theory and Research. 1st ed. Cambridge: University Press.

West, R. L. & Turner, L. H., 2010. Introducing Communication Theory: Analysis and Application. Boston: s.n.

Wilson, T., 2009. Understanding Media Users: From Theory to Practice. 1st ed. Sussex: Blackwell Publishing.


Written and assessed during Semester 1, 2016

Published by Ella Pace

Ella is a film critic currently working and studying in Melbourne, Australia.

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