The Audience Commodity in a Digital Age

Revisiting a Critical Theory of Commercial Media

by Lee McGuigan (Volume editor) Vincent Manzerolle (Volume editor)
©2014 Monographs XVI, 328 Pages
Series: Digital Formations, Volume 94


This edited collection comprises foundational texts and new contributions that revisit the theory of the «audience commodity» as first articulated by Dallas Smythe. Contributors focus on the historical and theoretical importance of this theory to critical studies of media/communication, culture, society, economics, and technology – a theory that has underpinned critical media studies for more than three decades, but has yet to be compiled in a single edited collection.
The primary objective is to appraise its relevance in relation to changes in media and communication since the time of Smythe’s writing, principally addressing the rise of digital, online, and mobile media. In addition to updating this perspective, contributors confront the topic critically in order to test its limits. Contextualizing theories of the audience commodity within an intellectual history, they consider their enduring relationship to the field of media/communication studies as well as the important legacy of Dallas Smythe.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the Editors
  • About the Book
  • Advance Praise
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • Foreword: Vincent Mosco
  • Chapter One. After Broadcast, What? An Introduction to the Legacy of Dallas Smythe: Lee McGuigan
  • On the Audience Commodity: Media, Consciousness, and Alienation
  • The Digital Labor Debate
  • Marxist and Institutional Approaches
  • Data and Digital Surveillance: A Factory in the Marketplace
  • Monopoly and Dependency Beyond the Capitalist Core
  • Advertising, Branding and Commodification of Human Experience
  • Critique of “Technology”
  • Critical Research on Communication Policy and Cultural Policy
  • Conclusion as Introduction
  • Notes
  • Part One. Foundational Texts
  • Chapter Two. Audiences, Commodities and Market Relations: An Introduction to the Audience Commodity Thesis: William H. Melody
  • Washington Connections
  • Audiences: Commodification During Consumption
  • Audience Commodities in Information Societies
  • Chapter Three. Communications: Blindspot of Western Marxism: Dallas W. Smythe
  • Notes
  • Chapter Four. Introduction to The Blindspot Revisited: Graham Murdock
  • Chapter Five. Blindspots About Western Marxism: A Reply to Dallas Smythe: Graham Murdock
  • Notes
  • Chapter Six. Introduction to “Ratings and the Institutional Approach”: Eileen R. Meehan
  • Notes
  • Chapter Seven. Ratings and the Institutional Approach: A Third Answer to the Commodity Question: Eileen R. Meehan
  • Cultural Production and the Commodity Message
  • Blindspot in Western Marxism?
  • Commodity Ratings
  • Towards an Integration of Commodities
  • Notes
  • Chapter Eight. Introduction to “Watching as Working”: Sut Jhally
  • Notes
  • Chapter Nine. Watching as Working: The Valorization of Audience Consciousness: Sut Jhally & Bill Livant
  • Metaphor and Reality: The Production of Watching Extra
  • From Use-Value to Exchange-Value: Breaking with Message-Based Analysis
  • What Is the Commodity-Form Sold by the Commercial Media?
  • Who Produces This Media Commodity and under What Conditions?
  • What Is the Source of Value and Surplus Value in This Process?
  • From Absolute to Relative Surplus Value
  • Watching and Labor
  • From the Formal to the Real Subsumption of Watching
  • Alienated Watching
  • Narrowcasting and Blurring
  • Conclusion
  • Notes
  • Part Two. Social Media, Audience Manufactrure, and the Work of Self-Marketing
  • Chapter Ten. The Institutionally Effective Audience in Flux: Social Media and the Reassessment of the Audience Commodity: Philip M. Napoli
  • Institutionally Effective Audiences and their Evolution
  • Methodology
  • Social TV Analytics in Context: The Evolving Television Audience Marketplace
  • Rehabilitating the Status Quo: Efforts to Preserve the Measurement and Valuation of Exposure
  • New Media, New Sources of Audience Value: The Rise of Social Media Analytics
  • Beyond Exposure: Exploring Social Media-Based Constructions of the Television Audience
  • Old and New Methods of Audience Representation (and Misrepresentation)
  • The Many Social TV Audiences: Differentiation Across Competing Audience Representations
  • Social TV Analytics Usage and Resistance
  • Resistance
  • Embracing
  • Conclusion
  • Notes
  • Chapter Eleven. Extending the Audience: Social Media Marketing, Technologies and the Construction of Markets: Jason Pridmore & Daniel Trottier
  • Social Media and Surveillance
  • Commoditizing the Audience, Engaging the Consumer
  • Watching and Listening to Users
  • Conversations with Users
  • Technologies of Collaboration—Audience Building and Clicks of Visibility
  • API Enrollment
  • Materialities and Audience Labor
  • Acknowledgments
  • Chapter Twelve. Capital’s New Commons: Consumer Communities, Marketing and the Work of the Audience in Communicative Capitalism: Detlev Zwick & Alan Bradshaw
  • The Real of Virtual Consumer Community
  • The Ideological Function of Consumer Online Communities
  • 1) The function to dispel the belief that marketers actually do the marketing.
  • 2) The function to establish the belief that marketers no longer control consumers.
  • 3) The function to dispel with the belief that marketers create value.
  • Conclusion
  • Note
  • Part Three. The Political Economy of Media Technologies: The Internet, Mobile Devices, and Institutions in Informational Capitalism
  • Chapter Thirteen. From Googol to Guge: The Political Economy of a Search Engine: Micky Lee
  • Google’s AdWords
  • Critical Studies of Google Since 2009
  • Political Economy as a Dialectical, Historical Materialist Approach
  • Are the New Media Really that “New”?
  • After Guge, What?
  • Notes
  • Chapter Fourteen. “Free Lunch” in the Digital Era: Organization Is the New Content: Mark Andrejevic
  • Chapter Fifteen. Technologies of Immediacy / Economies of Attention: Notes on the Commercial Development of Mobile Media and Wireless Connectivity: Vincent Manzerolle
  • The Era of Ubiquitous Connectivity
  • Materiality, Mediation, and the Infrastructure of Being
  • Mobile Media, Personal Data, and Digital Prosumption
  • Audience, Abstraction, Capacity
  • Technologies of Immediacy / Economies of Attention
  • Personalization, Democracy, and “Present-Mindedness”
  • Notes
  • Part Four. Toward a Materialist Theory of Commercial Media in a Digital Age
  • Chapter Sixteen. Commodities and Commons: Graham Murdock
  • Chapter Seventeen. Value, the Audience Commodity, and Digital Prosumption: A Plea for Precision: Edward Comor
  • The Audience Commodity and the Exploitation of Labor
  • The Influence of Autonomist Marxism
  • Marx on Value
  • Toward a Precise Analysis of Digital Prosumption
  • Conclusions
  • Notes
  • Chapter Eighteen. Dallas Smythe Reloaded: Critical Media and Communication Studies Today: Christian Fuchs
  • Introduction
  • The Disappearance and Return of Marx
  • Dallas Smythe and Marxist Media and Communication Studies Today
  • Critical Political Economy and Critical Theory of Media and Communication
  • Conclusion
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • List of Contributors
  • Index


We would be remiss to proceed beyond even one sentence without thanking Eileen Meehan and Janet Wasko, without whom this volume would not exist. We offer our sincerest thanks for their mentorship and generosity.

Thanks to everyone at Peter Lang, especially Steve Jones, editor of the Digital Formations series, for making this experience uniquely pleasant and painless, and Mary Savigar, acquisitions editor, for taking a chance on two greenhorns and shepherding us through the process. Jackie Pavlovic and the production teams also deserve thanks.

We thank the outstanding contributors for flattering us with their wisdom and making our jobs easy. These scholars have shaped our intellectual development, and we are truly honoured to call them colleagues.

Lee reserves special comment for Edward Comor and Robert Babe. If scholarship is a boat, Professor Babe taught me to build it and Professor Comor taught me to row (and then to swim when it capsizes). Most importantly, Lee thanks his family for undying (and undeserved) support. Parents John and Diane, brother Scott, Aunt Maureen, Janet and Mike, Margie and Jeff, Sheila and Ken, and Grandma Mona—you mean everything to me. Love, also, to passed grandparents: Jim McGuigan, and B.K. and Irene Lee. I work solely in the hope of making you proud.

Vincent thanks his loving and supportive partner Stacy Manzerolle. He also owes thanks to parents Donald and Gianna, sister Veronica, Uncle Ray and Aunt Jo, and to grandparents Clorinda Mamolo and Loretta Manzerolle. He dedicates his efforts here to Valmont Manzerolle and Ian Bruno who both sadly passed away during the course of this project. Despite their generational differences, they both lived their lives kindly, honourably, and with a profound sense of adventure.

Together, we thank the Faculty of Information and Media Studies at the University of Western Ontario, especially Sandra Smeltzer, Nick Dyer-Witheford, Daniel Robinson, Jonathan Burston, Keir Keightley and James Compton.

For allowing us to reprint materials vital to this collection, we thank Arthur and Marilouise Kroker, editors and publishers of CTheory and the Canadian Journal of Political and Social Theory; Taylor & Francis, publishers of Critical Studies in Media Communication; Peter Lang, publishers of The Spectacle of Accumulation: Essays in Media, Culture & Politics (by Sut Jhally). ← ix | x →

The following materials are reprinted with permission:

Dallas Smythe, “Communications: Blindspot of Western Marxism” was first published in the Canadian Journal of Political and Social Theory, Vol 1. No. 3, 1977

Graham Murdock, “Blindspots About Western Marxism: A Reply to Dallas Smythe” was first published in the Canadian Journal of Political and Social Theory, Vol. 2 No. 2, 1978.

Both the essay and the response are published with permission of the editors Arthur and Marilouise Kroker.

Eileen R. Meehan, “Ratings and the Institutional Approach: A Third Answer to the Commodity Question” was first published in Critical Studies in Mass Communication, Vol. 3 No. 4, 1986. Published with permission of Taylor & Francis and the author.

Sut Jhally and Bill Livant, “Watching as Working: The Valorization of Audience Consciousness” was previously published in The Spectacle of Accumulation: Essays in Culture, Media, and Politics, New York: Peter Lang, 2006. Published with permission of Peter Lang and the author.

Portions of the reprinted material have been altered to conform to stylistic guidelines; some portions have been left unaltered to preserve the integrity of the original compositions. ← x | xi →


Vincent Mosco

Emeritus Professor of Sociology

Queen’s University

Dallas Smythe had a profound impact on communications studies and helped to establish the foundation for a political economy of communication. So it is a great pleasure to see Lee McGuigan and Vincent Manzerolle produce this excellent volume that brings together key research in the history of debates over Dallas’s work and new scholarship that provides a reassessment of his legacy, particularly for the burgeoning field of digital labor studies. The time is certainly ripe to assess the importance of Dallas’s writing on the intersection of audiences and labor because scholars are increasingly documenting how digital technologies, and especially social media, blur the lines between what it means to consume and to labor in the media world. McGuigan’s introduction provides a fine map of Dallas’s work and a guide to how scholars have used it. I will limit this preface to a few personal reflections on my relationship with Dallas and follow this with a brief discussion of what I believe are his vital contributions to research, particularly in the field of political economy.

I first learned about Dallas’s work in 1978 when as a professor at Georgetown University I happened upon “Communications: Blindspot of Western Marxism” in the Canadian Journal of Political and Social Theory. Since I was doing research on the relevance of new forms of “Western” Marxism, including state theory, world systems theory, labor theory, and theories of alienation, for the expanding worlds of media and information technology, I had to track down this article. I searched widely but it was nowhere to be found in Washington, D.C., not even at the venerable Library of Congress. So I contacted Dallas who responded promptly with the article and included a note with a caustic and quite understandable reference to the utter irrelevance of Canada in American intellectual life, evidenced in the failure of one of the nation’s major research libraries to carry an important Canadian journal. I devoured the article and the ensuing debate, and made use of it in my research. It was wonderful to know that a leading Canadian scholar shared my interest in documenting the importance of Marxism for communication studies, at a time when most Marxists, of every tendency, ignored the significance of the media. Or when they did give it attention, it was only to see the media as the ideological reflection of an economic base. ← xi | xii →

A year later, I had the pleasure of meeting Dallas who was the featured speaker at a workshop on critical theory and communication studies that took place at the University of Illinois. The event also included several people who would go on to become key figures in the emergence of a political economy of communication. Dallas impressed me at the Illinois meeting and I left feeling that I had found my intellectual community. His work on the audience commodity inspired the chapter “Home Sweet Marketplace” in my book Pushbutton Fantasies and when an opportunity arose to actually work with Dallas, I seized it. Dallas had joined Janet Wasko, Dan Schiller, and John Lent at Temple University and it was wonderful to spend however brief a time with these and other remarkable critical media scholars. At Temple, Dallas was a great teacher in everything he did. For example, we were all deeply impressed, and not a little bit concerned, by his decision to live in a residence on the Temple campus because it was one of the most dangerous in the United States, located in a neighborhood that suffered from decades of government neglect. We were therefore not surprised when Dallas was injured in a mugging but, as always, impressed that he lectured on the political economy of the occurrence. Dallas and I had countless discussions as he brought Dependency Road to completion and he provided important counsel as we formed the Union for Democratic Communication and published our own work in political economy.

When in 1983 I chaired the annual Telecommunications Policy Research Conference that brought together communication policy professionals and academics in the Washington, D.C. area, of course I asked him to give a major talk. Few people could match his ability to connect serious theoretical reflection with practical policy advice. Never fearful, he also enjoyed attacking Canadian policy makers for what he saw as obsequious pleading to their American counterparts for some understanding of the Canadian need to protect its national culture.

Dallas and I remained in contact when we both left for Canada, me to Queen’s University and Dallas back to Simon Fraser. We had a memorable reunion at an ICA meeting in Honolulu in 1985. Living up to his reputation as someone intensely keen to argue the world, whatever the time of day or night, he asked if we could meet at dawn every morning to walk the beach and debate the state of political economy. A year later I hosted his visit to Queen’s where, never shy of controversy, he gave a tour de force seminar on the topic “The State is a Myth.” By that time Dallas had become active in the peace and anti-nuclear movements and in one of the most memorable dinners I had the honor to host, my partner and I welcomed Dallas to our home to meet Canadian Major General Leonard Johnson who was courageously leading Generals for Peace and Disarmament. ← xii | xiii →

We honored Dallas at the 1991 International Communication Association conference by presenting him with the festschrift papers written in his honor by what had become, with his help, a genuine community of critical political economists. At 79 and in declining health, Dallas nevertheless took the time to send contributors a critique of their contributions. The resulting published book demonstrated not only our wish to honor him but his desire to honor us with his detailed recommendations for chapter improvements.

I had one more significant encounter with Dallas before his passing when about a year before his death he agreed to meet me for a series of interviews about his life, his work, and the fields of political economy and communication studies that I used in the first edition of The Political Economy of Communication. Viewing political economy as a governing paradigm for all the social sciences, he started with a definition of the field, “the study of control and survival in social life,” and we proceeded to discuss and debate for about twelve hours. These sessions proved invaluable to the book and to my future work in the political economy of communication.

Dallas would find me remiss if I made no mention of our disagreements about such issues as the merits of Western Marxism, the meaning of monopoly capital, and the limits of institutional political economy. But all of these were overshadowed by three profound qualities that have lived on in my thinking well after his passing in 1993. For the first person to teach a course in the United States on the political economy of communication there was a great deal of work to be done. So we could let it pass if Dallas had focused only on the communication power structure that was mobilizing to control the media and telecommunications industries in the post-World War II period. His work on U.S. hegemony in world media, and particularly on its relationship to his native Canada is well documented. But Dallas was consistently committed to a dialectical analysis of communication and power and therefore did not stop at domination and exploitation. One of the primary examples is the relationship between consumption and labor, a key theme in this collection. There was nothing especially novel in demonstrating that the audience was the primary commodity in the media business. Given his experience as an economist for the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), Dallas would be familiar with the regular pitches that broadcasters made to advertisers about the ability of this or that program to capture a particular slice of the demographic pie. The trade press was filled with ads promising to deliver men ages 18–49 to your brand’s car, beer, or cigarette. His work was conceptually significant because it situated the audience in the dialectical triangle between advertisers and media companies and because it documented the ways audience activity could be characterized as labor. It is evidence of Dallas’s conceptual vision that his position attracted considerable ← xiii | xiv → debate and criticism. This is to be expected from someone who wanted to do more than just apply an off-the shelf theory to an empirical problem. Dallas was committed to changing both the shelf and its contents. In doing so, he constantly searched for the contradictions inherent in the exercise of power that might bring about social transformation, whether this was the peasantry in China developing its own technological solutions or peace movements in North America facing down the military-industrial complex.

A second characteristic that is essential for understanding Dallas’s work is his commitment to internationalism, the belief that you cannot understand society or change it without comprehending and working on the complex global forces that directly or indirectly shape the world. As a Canadian, Dallas understood clearly that his own society was incomprehensible without an intimate knowledge of the elephant next door. Drawing on his commitment to the dialectic, Dallas was careful to document both U.S. domination and the struggles of Canadians to build their own cultural, media, and telecommunications networks. Concepts, like nationalism, are important, but quite shaky substitutes for the constant fluidity of domination and resistance that resulted in the tenuous border between the two societies. Important as was the Canada-U.S. relationship, Dallas also recognized that new bases of power were emerging, especially in Asia. In fact, long before most media scholars paid any attention to China and well before it became fashionable to visit, Dallas travelled to China and wrote extensively about Mao’s revolution, the role of technology and mass media, and the prospects for a challenge to U.S. hegemony. It is hard to say how Dallas would respond to the new China, probably by reiterating the admonition to take the long view, but one of his many remarkable attributes was a fearlessness and tenacity to take on an issue that practically no one in the West dared to address. He demonstrated similar qualities when the prospects for democratic socialism in Chile led him to that country to do what he could to provide advice on media reform to the government of Salvatore Allende. Given that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) had already developed a file on him, with information provided by faculty at the University of Illinois, Dallas had to be concerned about the implications of visiting a nation whose government the United States was actively working to topple. But nothing got between Dallas and his principles, especially not the American security establishment.

Dallas’s work in Chile displayed another characteristic of his research and his life. From the time he worked as an economist with the FCC, Dallas demonstrated the importance of praxis or the unity of theoretical reflection and practical action. Unlike many academics who build a wall around their professional lives so as not to risk “tainting” it with political activity, Dallas welcomed activism, saw it as intimately connected to his scholarly work and ← xiv | xv → supported it in his students and colleagues. There were times when this was demonstrated in his policy analysis and advice, as when he served as the first economist hired by the FCC. Then there were occasions when he demonstrated this in his academic activism, such as his work to help establish the political economy of communication at the International Association for Media and Communication Research. Dallas also demonstrated praxis with his involvement in the peace and anti-nuclear movements, as well as in his work for organizations genuinely committed to media democracy.

Dallas Smythe was an extraordinary scholar, policy advisor, and activist. I am honored to have been his friend. My only regret is that he is not with us to join the debate that this excellent book will undoubtedly inspire. ← xv | xvi → ← xvi | 1 →


After Broadcast, What? An Introduction to the Legacy of Dallas Smythe

Lee McGuigan1

Annenberg School for Communication
University of Pennsylvania


XVI, 328
ISBN (Hardcover)
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2013 (May)
culture economics intellectual history Dallas Smythe mobile media audience commodity
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2014. 328 pp., num. ill.

Biographical notes

Lee McGuigan (Volume editor) Vincent Manzerolle (Volume editor)

Lee McGuigan is a PhD student in the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. His research has been published in the Journal of Communication Inquiry and Television & New Media. Vincent Manzerolle (PhD, University of Western Ontario, Canada) is a lecturer in the Faculty of Information and Media Studies at the University of Western Ontario, Canada. He has published articles in Ephemera, Surveillance and Society, and Triple C: Communication, Capitalism, and Critique.


Title: The Audience Commodity in a Digital Age
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