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Fall Course to Explore How Media Audiences Form

This is the continuation in a series on faculty teaching in the MS in Leadership for Creative Enterprises program.

By Jacob Nelson

At first, a weatherman predicting rain may not sound too different from a website predicting what movie you should watch. Both are using a lot of data to make an educated guess.

Jim Webster would argue otherwise.

“The social world is very different from the physical world,” Webster said. “Measurement has the power to alter the social world in a way that weather predictions couldn’t alter the weather.”

He would know, too. A Northwestern professor in the School of Communications, Webster has been researching and teaching within the subject of audience formation and metrics for years. This fall, he’ll be teaching a course this fall in the new MS in Leadership for Creative Enterprises program, a one-year program designed to help students develop the business skills and industry contacts needed to thrive in a creative environment.

“The central focus is audience formation,” Webster said about his upcoming class, “the forces that create audiences, loyalties, fragmentation.”

Modeled around his upcoming book on the subject, The Marketplace of Attention, the course takes what Webster refers to as an “audience-centric” approach to examining media industries. There’s a virtually unlimited supply of media in the world, but without an audience, Webster argues, that media doesn’t matter much. So, the question the class will examine is, how do audiences form?

“What are their preferences, and predispositions? What role do their social networks play?” Webster asked. “What types of things do the public want?”

A large part of exploring media audiences means exploring how media industries measure those audiences.

“For a number of years, dating back to 20th century, media organizations have relied on metrics to see, authenticate and manage audiences,” Webster said.

Without companies like Nielsen, which measures television ratings amongst other things, and ComScore, which measures web traffic, media companies “are essentially blind.”

However, the advent of digital media has brought with it the ability for media companies to collect huge amounts of information about its users, which are then used by many to make recommendations for what media users would most like. “Big data analytics is at the center of interface between audiences and media providers,” Webster said.

“They’re never neutral: they privilege and obscure.” The course will dive into the relationship media companies have with audiences, and how big data plays into that relationship. Then, it’ll dive deeper, grappling with what Webster refers to as the “broader implications.” “What does it mean, not just for media industries but for the culture generally?” Webster asked. Then, he joked, “It’s everything you ever wanted to know in one ten week course.”