of Uses and Gratification Theory
Lazarsfeld and Stanton (1944) pioneered the development of uses and gratification theory (UGT) during World War II and initially focused on radio serial programs (Infante, Rancer, & Womack, 1997). The theory has three specific objectives. First, UGT attempts to explain how specific viewers use mass media to meet individual needs. Second, researchers endeavor to discover a viewer's underlying motives for using the media. Finally, theorists want to identify the positive and negative consequences of an individual's mass media utilization.
Elihu Katz (1959) was the first researcher to employ the UGT approach by initially questioning what individuals do with mass media (Severin & Tankard, 1997). Katz named a Bernard Berelson (1959) study that examined a two-week newspaper strike, but from the individual reader's perspective. Katz found that while some readers felt compelled to do so for social or informative reasons, many individual readers used newspapers for diversion, relaxation, and entertainment. Katz also noted that Riley and Riley's (1951) study showed that children use media stories as premises for group play. Katz's work demonstrates that different individuals can "use" the media in contrasting ways.
Although UGT enjoys wide popularity among mass communication professionals, critics do not universally accept it (Infante, Rancer, & Womack, 1997). Critics maintain the theory does not adequately define the essential terms of "audience motives," "uses," and "gratification." The lack of global definitions delayed theoretical development. Additionally, critics charge that utilizing self-report surveys, the research method of many UGT studies, results in reliability and validity problems because respondents cannot accurately report feelings and behaviors. Finally, detractors charge that UGT focuses on the individual, while ignoring the larger social context. Despite criticisms of UGT, Lazarfield and Stanton's work has led to many follow-on studies.
Adams (2000) studied 12 focus groups, consisting of 93 participants of various backgrounds and demographics, between late 1996 and early 1997. About 80% of the viewers in the focus groups stated that television viewing was, in part, habitual. Participants disclosed no overt plan to view programs around the favorites, nor do participants modify other activities to watch favorite shows. A majority admitted subscribing to a viewing periodical such as "TV Guide" and claimed to regularly read parts of it. Several admitted to viewing a program featured in the programming guide, but claimed the magazines have no significant impact on television viewing behavior.
Follow-up questions suggest that participants are more active than a cursory look of the data may indicate (Adams, 2000). Adams states, "When participants said they viewed out of habit, it turned out that the majority meant they already had a strong mental image of the schedule and didn't need to look things up" (p. 85). Viewers know what programs are on television at particular times, and viewers tend to tune in with a particular program in mind. These ingrained mental images may explain why new programs have difficulty succeeding, because television viewers have not built any mental images for the new shows.
Needs and Values
McCarty and Shrum (1993) studied how the role of personal values influences an individual's distinct television viewing behavior. Values are the beliefs a person has about conduct and the end-of-life state that guide attitudes, actions, and judgements. Previous advertising research demonstrated how values influence specific purchases, leisure choices, and recycling behavior. This research persuaded scholars to give credence to the idea that values provide advertisers with information above demographic information alone.
Utilizing a stratified random sample of 532 adults in a heavily populated state, researchers attempted to discover how the values-behavior relationship effected television viewing (McCarty & Shrum, 1993). The study also attempted to see if the values-demographic relationship was significant, enough to discount demographics as the reason for any change in viewing behavior. The study indicates that the personal values of the target market may aid persuasive communication. Researchers caution that examining only values may be misleading. Researchers also warn that demographics can distort the true relationship between values and behavior.
While the bulk of UGT research focuses on the individual alone, some research blends mass media and social psychology approaches to examine the extent gratification is associated with social identity (Harwood, 1999). Researchers speculated that in spite of prior individual and interpersonal views, media use might also lead to social identities. Harwood asserts that people may actively use mass media to enhance individual perceptions of a particular social group, or to make the affiliation a more positive one. Blumler (1995) demonstrates that societal groups attach different significance to different gratifications, but also that the personal identity framework overshadows an individual's social identity.
Social identity, while part of the self-concept, is distinct from the personal identify (Harwood, 1999). Harwood attempted to measure the reliability of social gratification as a measure of social identity, as well as links between social gratification and viewing choices. With a sample of 235 undergraduate communication students from a large American university, researchers attempted to determine preferences for actual television programs and for experimentally manipulated, artificial television programs.
Noting a mean age of less than 20 years, researchers placed the experimental group in a "young" social classification (Harwood, 1999). Results show that when respondents prefer younger television programs, this results in increased age identification. The simple act of making television-viewing choices may enhance a sense of belonging to a particular group. Researchers admit actual viewing behavior may be a better predictor than planned viewing and may result in effects that are more substantial.
Gratification and Loneliness
Loneliness, a motive linked to UGT, is always a negative and unpleasant psychological state in which an individual feels a discrepancy between desired and actual interaction, support, and intimacy (Canary & Spitzberg, 2000). Paradoxically, lonely individuals who need social interaction are less likely to seek relationships to solve the loneliness problem, because doing so would exacerbate feelings of threat and anxiety. These individuals still have virtually the same information and entertainment needs of non-lonely counterparts. Since lonely individuals view relational interaction as an unsatisfactory coping strategy, research shows that some of the lonely turn to the media to gratify the needs left vacant by the lack of social interaction.
Some research provides empirical evidence that certain media are considered more useful than others in satisfying an individual's parasocial needs (Canary & Spitzberg, 1993). Media choices, however, differ in parasocial constructs. Rubin, Pearce, and Powell (1985) found that parasocial involvement takes many forms in the media: guidance seeking, seeing personalities as friends, imagination and fantasy, and desiring to meet media people. The studies that have researched the extent to which loneliness influences media interaction have yielded mixed results.
Canary and Spitzberg (1993) found chronically lonely people are likely to attribute loneliness to internal and enduring factors. For both chronically and situationally lonely individuals, research shows that escape gratification is more applicable in relieving loneliness. Lonely groups obtain more significant escape from the media than do non-lonely groups. Lonely individuals expect more information-based gratification from the media than the non-lonely, but lonely individuals acquire less surveillance gratification from the media.
Needs in a Multi-channel Environment
When Bruce Springsteen lamented "57 channels and nothing on," the singer crooned how broadband technologies like direct broadcasting satellite (DBS) and multichannel multipoint distribution systems (MMDS) have dramatically increased the channels viewers can watch (Youn, 1994). Industry analysts predict viewers will soon have 500 channel options, and researchers have tried to determine how viewers make selections from the plethora of choices. Research shows television viewing is not a planned, selective, attentive, or purposeful activity. Additionally, viewing is significantly associated with passivity in relation to audience motivation. The researcher looked at program type preference (i.e. news, sports, drama, comedy, etc.) to help predict which programs viewers will watch.
Researchers have also examined the uses and gratification of viewing television reruns to determine why viewers choose to watch something already seen (Furno-Lamude & Anderson, 1992). Reruns only aired during the 13 summer weeks in the 1950s. Now, with the addition of cable and independent channels, reruns make up more than 50% of viewing options. Cable channels like "Nick at Night" and "TV Land" are made up completely of reruns, and reruns in many cases have better ratings than first-run programming. Results show that more viewer motivation is required for rerun viewing with nostalgia and pure enjoyment associated as the reasons. Viewers just wishing to pass time generally show a preference for first-run programs.
The U.S. government requires American television stations to regularly determine the needs of the serviced community (Wulfemeyer, 1983). A major study in New York, published in 1978, found that three-quarters of survey respondents regularly watch television newscasts. Viewers tune in for various reasons, including to obtain information and to be entertained. Researchers found news stories of both entertainment items and unexpected events ranked equally high among survey respondents. A respondent's gender and age were insignificant in determining news content preferences.
Lin (1992) studied why audiences choose particular newscasts over others. In regards to news anchor selection, the researcher found that viewers do not prefer one gender to another or whether one or more anchors are used. In terms of newscaster preference, the study shows audiences prefer anchors with the attributes of knowledge, experience, professionalism, and pleasing appearance. Additionally, when comparing anchors from different stations, viewers did not display a distinct preference; this is possibly because anchors in the same market may employ similar styles.
Kepplinger and Daschmann (1997) examined how viewers process television news by comparing objective news content to the subjective meaning of news stories. Researchers studied four 15 to 30 minute newscasts on three German networks on May 11, 1993. German newscasts are commercial free and play an important information dissemination role in German society, but vary significantly in content and form when compared to the U.S. networks. Researchers utilized content analysis to examine news story content, and employed a viewer interview approach to determine the news story's subjective meaning.
The researchers asked viewers to list the most important story from a particular newscast (Kepplinger & Daschmann, 1997). Results confirmed the idea that viewers consider stories placed near the beginning of a newscast as being more important. Additionally, viewers tended to have the greatest recall of negatively portrayed events that ran near the start of the program. Next, researchers asked the viewers' opinion of what they thought was the main point of the story listed as most important in the newscast. Results show that the majority of respondents mentioned items that were unverifiable.
Recall was also inaccurate in that nearly all respondents added information about people, places, causes, or developments. While the added information makes sense to the individual viewers, researchers conclude the supplementary information added fits a story line or otherwise established patterns (Kepplinger & Daschmann, 1997). The supplemental information, often in a broader context than presented in the newscast, may come from other news sources, among them other television news programs and newspapers.
The UGT approach assumes that media consumers selectively fashion what they believe from the mass media encounter (Gunter, 2000). The approach also assumes that viewers control which media are utilized. Weaver, Wilhoit, and Reide (1979) found three common reasons for general media use: to know what is going on, to be entertained, and to pass the time. The authors note that demographic distinctions explain some of the general differences in motivation between individuals.
Television executives held onto beliefs of a viewer's network loyalty, even while the Big Three broadcasting networks simultaneously experienced primetime rating declines (Abelman, Atkin, & Rand, 1997). To compete with the haphazard second-guessing by television programmers and other network executives, academic researchers further modified the uses and gratification theory to monitor and explain viewing habits. The theory also attempts to predict a viewer's choice, pattern of viewing, and interpretation of content. There are three principles of the theory that attempt to explain and predict an individual's media use: goals direct a viewer's behavior; viewers actively utilize the media; and viewers select media to gratify their needs.
The theory suggests that viewers are aware of the individual media needs each person possesses (Abelman, Atkin, & Rand, 1997). Additionally, researchers have identified two basic needs the viewers use the media to fill. First, media fills ritualized needs in the habitual utilization of media for diversionary reasons. Secondly, media fills instrumental needs in goal-oriented behavior to satisfy information needs.
The Abelman, Atkin, and Rand (1997) study includes a survey of 30 statements utilizing a 5-point Likert scale with one corresponding to strongly disagree and five corresponding to strongly agree. The survey contained 10 uses and gratification theory areas with three questions under each area. The areas are as follows: relaxation, social interaction, companionship, habit, pass time, entertainment, information, arousal, escape, and moral support. Researchers analyzed the audience's viewing motivations by intercorrelating the items along with a principal factor analysis with oblique rotation. Results show that ritualized/habitual viewers and goal-oriented viewers exist.