Early in the web’s history, the term ‘audience’ was adopted by the emerging online advertising industry to refer to website visitors, with numbers of views and unique visitors per week used to determine advertising rates. In the Web 2.0 era of the mid-2000s, users were reimagined as both the producers of and audiences for user-created content platforms like YouTube, prompting a reconception of the relationship between advertisers and audiences. Audiences for traditional media such as radio and television have gradually integrated their media consumption practices with the internet, and now with social and mobile platforms.
Fans of media franchises like Star Trek, The Lord of the Rings and Buffy have long extended their ‘offline’ activities through online forums, virtual worlds and fan fiction—especially through platforms like LiveJournal—while fans and critics review and discuss films, television shows and music online on newsgroups and Bulletin Board Systems (BBS). More mainstream audience engagement has moved progressively online too, via the official websites of newspapers and the commentary in topical blogs, internet radio and, more recently, via ‘catch-up’ streaming or on-demand television services such as ABC iView (est. 2008). Such sites of audience engagement have progressively blurred the boundaries between the traditional media audience and the ‘internet audience’.
Audience practice offline is converging with social media use and social networking online via ‘second-screen’ activity, like live-blogging a television show from a mobile device while watching it on television in a traditional domestic setting. As Twitter was increasingly being taken up by Australian news and current affairs audiences in 2010, the collective live-tweeting of the ABC’s panel-style current affairs show Q&A (2008– ) via the Twitter hashtag #qanda became popular. The show responded by incorporating a curated on-screen feed of tweets containing the #qanda hashtag, as well as taking audience questions via video blog. Many ABC Local radio stations have equally active social media presences, with audience interaction flowing seamlessly between the talkback phone lines and the Twitter feed.
The media, advertising and audience research industries are now focusing on the revenue-generating opportunities of this convergent audience behaviour, labelling the phenomenon ‘social TV’ and pushing new mobile apps to facilitate it. Transmedia appeals to audiences have become common, with webonly mini-episodes (‘webisodes’), YouTube vlogs and social media-enabled smartphone apps like FANGO and zeebox all attempting to maintain and track audience attention beyond the timeslots of individual television shows. Hashtags, live tweets and SMS messages are now routinely built into the production logics of television and radio, and companies like Nielsen have integrated social media analytics into their regimes of audience measurement, while new players are entering the market in the bid to define, capture and monetise audience engagement.
The desires and practices of internet-enabled audiences have challenged industry and policy-driven temporal and national boundaries. In recognition of the audience’s desire to engage with content anywhere at any time, most television networks now offer their most popular programs not only via broadcast but also on iTunes, a catch-up website, a smartphone app or all of these. A combination of real-time social audience engagement and peer-to-peer filesharing has made it particularly difficult for the Australian television industry to continue to delay the Australian broadcast of highly popular shows like Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones, pushing both free-to-air and pay television networks to go to great lengths to make such shows available with minimal delay to an audience willing to download the latest episodes illegally rather than wait.
The rise of global social media platforms like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter has also dramatically expanded audience engagement with user-created Australian content. Australian YouTube channels have been consistently popular. As well as generating huge audiences for home-grown video bloggers such as Natalie Tran, YouTube has provided the means for audiences to collectively memorialise and revisit old television and music favourites. YouTube is the biggest museum of popular media culture the world has ever seen, with the most heartfelt moments from popular dramas like Neighbours and A Country Practice, gotcha moments and bloopers from news and current affairs shows like 60 Minutes and A Current Affair, and almost every performance from the ABC’s music show Countdown available there.
REFs: S. Harrington. ‘Tweeting About the Telly: Live TV, Audiences, and Social Media’, in K. Weller et al. (eds), Twitter and Society (2014); S. Turnbull, ‘Imagining the audience’, in S. Cunningham and S. Turnbull (eds), The Media and Communications in Australia (4th ed.) (2014).