Making of American Audiences: From Stage to Television, 1750-1990
The interplay between performance artistry and its audience gets a thorough investigation in this book, for which Richard Butsch, professor of sociology at Rider University, was awarded the International Communication Association Best Book Award as well as the Cawelti Book Award from the American Culture Association. The awards seem merited; Butsch's scholarship is beyond thorough, despite the breadth of his topic. Essentially, his conclusions about the creation of American audiences rest on several points: the relationship between passive and active viewing; the pendulum swings of class and expected deportment in relationship to the high and low culture of the entertainment media he studies; the power dynamics involved in how an audience and its entertainment develop. Ultimately, his conclusions are couched in the discourse of private viewing vs. public or communal viewing.
Although Butsch does not cover every possible form of performance media, he traces a clear line through 200 years of influence as each primary genre of entertainment develops out of the previous genre and affects the growth of the next. Beginning with the privileged audience and colonial theatre in 1750, Butsch moves through minstrel shows, vaudeville, nickelodeon theatre, radio, and television, at each step presenting his research into the characterization of audiences. For instance, reminding us that actors in 1750 were classed as "vagabonds" needing warrants for their behavior before they could perform, Butsch comments that this "culture of deference" to those who could supply letters of reference tended to encourage actors to "call upon each of the principal inhabitants of the town to solicit their attendance at the theater" [p. 21]. As the middle-class and female audiences developed, and theater owners were forced to "grow" their offerings or lose this increasingly valuable audience, Butsch points out how variety show managers catered to the desirable clientele: "reduced admission prices […] door prizes of hams, turkeys, and dress patterns […] barrels of flour, tons of coal, clocks, and most popular of all, silk dresses" [p. 105]. His research seems flawless, and he appears to have uncovered several pieces of empirical evidence that lie directly at odds with the public discourse about theatre and audiences; in other words, Butsch has divided reality from public perception.
As valuable as the details are for scholars of audience consumption and for historians of the genres (and they are—it is probably for his provision of these details that the book awards were given), for the general reader the final chapters are probably the most relevant: the discussions about the impact of television and the effect of those revolutionary devices known as the remote control and the VCR.
By the time Butsch arrives at this point in his history he has described a complex dance of influence and power between privileged audiences, entertainment venues, developing and enduring social mores, and an increasing struggle for control over the dollars spent at the theatre-like venues. At some entertainments, rowdy groups of young men would treat the performance as mere background detail while they went about the business of drinking, gaming, and talking back to the stage. In fact this sort of scene prevails throughout the entire book, changing only in the details of whether the young men were upper-class or middle-class, whether the behavior was accepted or frowned upon, and how the backtalk reflects a sense of entitlement about the entertainment one takes in. At separate points in this history, according to Butsch, it was considered the done thing to interact with the performers, throw rotten fruit, sit calmly, be separated into gendered, raced, and classed groups, respond to inveiglements from prostitutes, or passively stare at a stage in a darkened room. The only changes in these behavior patterns are due, Butsch argues, to class and racial differences and the pressures of social position and financial status, and so they may well be slightly inaccessible to a more generalized audience of readers.
The television, however, is not a part of our forgotten history; it is still our lived culture, and all readers have been impacted by it. Butsch's several inspired insights are to me most notable in these final chapters, as are what seem to be biases. For instance, he points out with great care and no small sarcasm that television has been assumed to be a drug since its first days, an assumption nobody made about previous entertainment media. There were never any warnings issued about how to "manage" one's theatre going. Most telling, as Butsch points out, is that
It's the passivity of television watching that seems most troubling to cultural critics, and Butsch rightly points out that researchers into the passivity of television viewing "assumed a correlation between amount of viewing and susceptibility. Hidden in this is a prejudice that heavy viewers, who tend to be working-class, are dumb, naive, gullible, and thus susceptible" [p. 263] to whatever poisons are assumed to be in the airwaves. In direct contrast to the heavy listener to radio, who was assumed to be somewhat more socially acceptable, the heavy viewer of television is assumed to be indiscriminate in his or her tastes and can be treated with a good amount of disdain.
Butsch does point out these flawed assumptions, noting that calling someone a "heavy viewer" carries the assumption that the person is sitting glued to the screen and inhaling even the commercials with rapt attention. And he reminds us, again quite rightly, that the reality is often that the television is merely on "in the background" as viewers are doing other things: playing cards, folding laundry, having a family meal, and so forth. In fact, much like the young rowdies of the upper classes who were acting appropriately when they played cards and ate meals during staged performances.
However, I have to wonder whether he has carried through his insights. It seems to me fairly clear that when television, such a pervasive bit of electronics, is moved into the background, "heavy viewers" have freed themselves from passive dependence on it and in essence have exerted the sort of control over it—and consequently perhaps other forms of media—that has helped to define the current audience as a crowd of channel clickers. When viewers surf to find something they like, they will stop to watch something appealing, will tend to surf aimlessly for only so long, and will ultimately, if frustrated, pop in a movie or go find something else to do altogether, thus choosing their media entertainment in a conscious way. Certainly the confluence of the VCR, which plays havoc with demographic studies (since timeshifting, the most popular use of the machine, destroys the advertisers' model of what will sell during a particular time of day or night) and the remote control (which prevents commercial distraction, allows surfing, and is obviously a subversive bit of technology) has had a tremendous influence on the marketing that forms so large a part of television and media in general. And Butch is right to point out that the saturation levels of television are high enough that we cannot simply ignore the impact of effectively subliminal programming.
It's here that his (few) biases are revealed, I think, when he resists the idea that viewers of television are using the media in conscious ways in favor of his own idea that the media's power is undeniable. And it certainly is—but I don't think that precludes the notion that generations of increasingly savvy kids, frequently ingesting entertainment meant more for their parents than for themselves, have ultimately created a generation not immune to media influence but certainly not nearly as susceptible to it as is often assumed. Butsch's own arguments here seem not to be entirely carried through; his critical approach to theoretical work is valid, but he seems not to be examining his own critical approach with so fine toothed a comb. One wonders what he will make of TiVo and of the wireless capabilities, only now showing their impacts on our continued creation as an American audience.