A Perspective: The Myth of Audience Fragmentation

‘Our audience is fragmenting!’ I hear that again and again from traditional publishers and broadcasters. They lament their ‘fragmenting’ readership, listenership, or viewership. But it’s untrue, merely a figment of their traditional perspective.

Viewership, readership, and listenership, have always been fragmented.

Each individual listener, viewer, or reader is, and has always been, a unique mix of generic interests and specific interests. Although many of these individuals might share some generic interests, such as the weather, most, if not all of them, each have very different specific interests. And each individual is a truly unique mix of generic and specific interests.

Until about 30 years ago, the average American hadn’t access to any medium that could satisfy each of their specific interests. All they had was the mass medium, which could somewhat successfully satisfy many of their generic (i.e., ‘mass’) interests.

Then media technologies evolved in ways that started to satisfy their specific interests. During the 1970s, improvements in offset lithography led to a bloom of specialty magazines; no longer were there a dozen or two magazines on newsstands, but hundreds, most about only specific topics. Proliferations of first analog cable television systems during the 1980s, then digital ones during the late 1990s, increased the average American’s number of accessible TV stations from four to hundreds, mostly specialty channels (Home & Garden TV, the Golf Channel, the Military Channel, etc.) Then the Internet because publicly accessible during the 1990s and the average individual quickly had access to millions of websites, most of those sites about very specific topics.

The result was that more and more individuals, who had been using only (the generic) mass medium because that’s all they had, have gravitated to these speciality publications, channels, or websites rather than continue to use only mass medium publications, channels, or websites. More and more use the mass medium less and less. And more and more will soon be most.

The individual’s haven’t changed, they’ve always been fragmented. What’s changing is their media habits. They’re now simply satisfying the fragmented interests that they’ve always had. There are as many fragments as there are individuals. Always has been and always will be.

So, the audience hasn’t fragmented. Traditional publishers’ and broadcasters’ illusion has.

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