How do they know I spend 4 hours on my laptop a day? How do they know that I spend 2 hours in front of the TV each day between 8 and 10pm? Ethnographic research, that’s how.
According to the Oxford Dictionary, ethnography is the scientific description of people and cultures with their customs, habits and mutual differences. So what is ethnographic research? Simple. Ethnographic research is the collection of ethnographic data- how people live their lives. It may be characterised by the use of participant constructs to structure the research, emphasis on natural setting, and purposely avoiding anything that may manipulate the results (LeCompte and Goetz 1982, p.32). Collecting such data assists broadcasters and advertising agencies in determining what programs should be played in particular time slots and to what audience.
Although ethnographic research is useful in this way, its results have been known to be unreliable and lack validity (LeCompte and Goetz 1982, p.32). Let’s examine TV ratings as an example. The season 5 premiere of Game of Thrones was apparently watched by 18.1 million people. But was it really? How many of these people actually watched the episode? There’s a good chance that many of these 18.1 million viewers had it playing in the background while they sat in front of the TV immersed in their laptops- a common practice! Additionally, this data excludes a significant portion of viewers- those who watched the episode online via streaming sites or illegal downloading sites. Game of Thrones was only aired on Foxtel in Australia. Consequently, those without cable TV resorted to watching the series online instead of waiting 6 months for the DVD to be released.
Due to the changing media scape, ethnographic research must be developed to accurately examine how people live their lives. The emergence of Netflix has seen changing demographic trends in the ways people watch television. Many younger people have turned to watch their favourite television shows not on the TV, but on their laptops or phones. Consequently, in order to achieve precise results, ethnographic research must include some sort of data collection of the habits of online viewers/users. Collaborative research will assist in doing this. Broadcasting companies may collaborate with data collectors such as OzTam, using quantitative and qualitative methods to gain a comprehensive understanding of the ways in which people use media in the home. It will be interesting to see how more accurate statistics are produced in the future.
LeCompte, M and Goetz, J, ‘Problems of Reliability and Validity in Ethnographic Research’, Review of Educational Research, vol. 52, no. 1, pp. 31-60.