Media Sociology

Discussions of media in sociology are generally concerned with mass media and, more recently, new media. Mass media are defined as communication systems by which centralized providers use industrialized technologies to reach large and geographically scattered audiences, distributing content broadly classified as information and entertainment. Media reaching mass populations emerged in the late nineteenth century – newspapers, magazines, the film industry – and expanded to include radio from the 1920s and television broadcasting from the 1950s. A range of ‘‘new media’’ developed from the 1980s, including video, cable and pay TV, CD ROMs, mobile/cellular phones, and the Internet. In twenty first century societies media are pervasive and integral to modern life. Even in less developed societies they are widespread, although disparities in access remain. Economic profitability is also seen as a defining feature of modern media, reflecting the importance of commercial considerations to media institutions.


Development of Mass Media

The newspaper press was the first ‘‘mass medium.’’ In the late nineteenth century social and economic change (industrialization, growing urban populations, expanding education and rising literacy, changing patterns of work and leisure), technological developments (telegraph, telephone, printing technologies, the spread of railways), and policy changes such as the abolition of stamp duties that had restricted newspaper circulation, opened the way to development of newspapers attracting a mass readership. Changes in economic organization were crucial: the rise of advertising made it possible to sustain a cheap popular press; and the development of newspaper (and magazine) chains achieved economies of scale. Powerful owners (‘‘press barons’’) such as Lord Northcliffe in Britain and William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer in the US built large scale press enterprises and fostered journalistic styles that appealed to mass audiences, in turn attracting advertisers whose expenditure ensured profitability.

Throughout the twentieth century, wide circulation, mass produced newspapers (‘‘quality’’ newspapers/broadsheets and popular tabloids) remained significant. Advertising revenue sustained newspaper enterprises. Concentration of ownership, already apparent by the 1920s (Northcliffe and his family owned numerous newspapers and magazines in Britain), has persisted (Murdoch’s global News Corporation is an outstanding contemporary example). News papers have overcome competition from emerging popular media (radio, television, the Internet), adapting to change. Some deplore the lowering of journalistic standards in the face of commercial pressures, but ‘‘quality’’ news papers have survived (offering more sophisticated services via Internet websites); prestige dailies and tabloids continue to provide a cheap, easily distributed, and portable means of disseminating information and entertainment to a mass readership.

Film also emerged as a medium of mass entertainment in the late nineteenth century, drawing on inventions and technological developments in the US, Britain, France, and Germany (the application of electricity, developments in photography and celluloid film, invention of the motion picture camera, new projection techniques). Initially an urban, working class entertainment, in the early twentieth century film became ‘‘respectable,’’ appealing to middle class audiences as film’s potential to tell stories was exploited, permanent movie theaters were built, and more efficient distribution methods introduced. The luxurious picture palaces of the 1920s attracted growing audiences and increased film stars’ popular attention. The Hollywood studio system developed: the ‘‘big five’’ – Paramount Pictures, 20th Century Fox, Warner Brothers, Loew’s (Metro Goldwyn Mayer was its production subsidiary), and RKO (Radio Keith Orpheum) – dominated the market, achieving vertical integration (con trolling production, distribution, and exhibition), with Universal, Columbia, and United Artists also important. The appeal of cinema was enhanced when the introduction of sound ended the era of silent movies in 1927.

Hollywood enjoyed a golden age in the 1930s and 1940s: the film industry adjusted to changing circumstances (the Great Depression, another world war) and film was a major source of mass entertainment within the US and inter nationally. From the 1910s American companies came to dominate world cinema, due partly to their domestic success and ability to make substantial investment, partly to the diversity and high production values of American film. Success provoked criticism – of sex and violence on the screen, of depictions of national or racial groups, and of the use of cinema to promote consumer products and ‘‘Americanization.’’ The industry succeeded in avoiding external censorship or regulation, adopting a Production Code in 1930 which influenced content over several decades. The industry faced its greatest challenge in the 1950s with the advent of television. In the US this came at a time when the Hollywood studios were weakened by a 1948 Supreme Court decision compelling them to cease involvement in exhibition and when the industry was affected by Cold War anti communism that led to blacklisting of industry members after the investigations of the House Un American Activities Committee.

By the 1960s the Hollywood studios had been absorbed into large conglomerates (Paramount purchased by Gulf and Western, Warner Brothers by Kinney National Services, United Artists by Trans America), and in later decades they became part of transnational concerns (20th Century Fox part of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation in 1985, Columbia taken over by the Japanese electronics firm Sony and MCA Universal by Matsushita in 1990). Nonetheless, the film industry survived, developing mutually beneficial arrangements with television and increasingly involved in cross media content provision and promotion. It remains a major source of mass entertainment in the twenty first century. US cinema has remained dominant, even though film production has been internationalized (co productions aimed at international audiences, investment in foreign films). Other national and regional cinemas have also achieved a measure of international success (including film industries in the Indian subcontinent – ‘‘Bollywood’’ – and South America).

Radio developed as a mass medium in the 1920s. The US Navy was an early user of wire less telegraphy; technological developments contributed to the development of radio broad casting, as did the pioneering work of individuals (Gugliemo Marconi from Italy, Lee De Forest in the US) and enthusiastic experimentation by amateurs with crystal sets. Building on technical developments during World War I, radio rapidly gained popularity in the 1920s, bringing information and entertainment into the home at a time when there was increasing emphasis on the private sphere in industrialized societies, and when other changes such as the spread of electricity made it possible to use radio sets.

Two contrasting institutional forms of radio broadcasting emerged in the US and Britain: commercial and public service broadcasting. These provided models for the development of sound broadcasting systems elsewhere, as well as the framework for the establishment of television as a mass medium in later decades.

The US model reflected the needs of commercial interests, with radio broadcasting seen as a source of profit (the companies General Electric, Westinghouse, and American Telephone and Telegraph formed the Radio Corporation of America/RCA). Networks were established and became enduring features of American radio and, later, television broadcasting: the National Broadcasting Company/NBC in 1926, Columbia Broadcasting System/CBS in 1927, the American Broadcasting Company/ABC in 1943. There was limited regulation of radio (and telephone and later television) by the Federal Radio Commission (the Federal Communications Commission/FCC from 1934). Financially, the US networks relied on selling time to advertisers who made or sponsored programs. The development of mass media and the growth of mass advertising and of consumer culture in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were integrally connected. Radio (and newspapers and television) reached mass audiences; the advertising industry grew rapidly, developing techniques to persuade potential customers to acquire the expanding range of consumer products. Advertising has remained fundamental to commercial media. Its importance underlies the emphasis on entertainment programming appealing to mass audiences, and explains the importance of services such as audience ratings.

A different radio broadcasting model was adopted in Britain: a public service model, with the British Broadcasting Company licensed by the Post Office to begin transmissions in 1922. Rather than relying on advertising revenue, British radio relied on revenue from license fees and royalties from the sale of wireless sets. In 1927 the Company became the British Broad casting Corporation (BBC), established by royal charter as a national institution with a responsibility to ‘‘inform, educate, and entertain,’’ with guaranteed income from licenses and editorial independence. The contrasts with the US situation were marked: in Britain the BBC had a monopoly; it did not rely on advertising or sponsorship, but received public funding; and its charter set out public service responsibilities. The public service ethos was confirmed by Sir John Reith, who led the Company and Corporation until 1938. He stressed the BBC’s educative role and importance as a leader of public taste and national culture.

The 1920s and 1930s are considered the golden years of radio, when a rich variety of program genres developed. Music was central to early radio, and this had an immense impact on the music industry. Broadcasters employed live bands and orchestras, then incorporated recorded music into programming as gramophone records became popular. A high level of dependence between radio and the music industry has continued, through technological change (tape recordings superseded records, which were superseded by compact discs) and changing patterns of audience consumption. In addition to music, other programs evolved: radio drama, comedy and variety shows, Westerns and detective programs, soap operas (soap manufacturing companies were major sponsors), and quiz shows. The broadcasting of sporting events became an important component of radio programming. Radio was also used for political purposes (President Franklin D. Roosevelt broadcast ‘‘fireside chats’’ to national radio audiences in the US, Adolph Hitler used radio to deliver Nazi messages within and beyond German borders in the 1930s).

By the late 1930s radio had fundamentally changed home entertainment, offering mass audiences immediacy and a rich variety of programs. Arrangements for commercial broadcasting gave advertisers easy access to vast markets of listeners as consumers, a basis for expanding commercialism. Although radio declined as television gained in popular appeal, new forms were developed (portable transistors, car radios), and broadcasters successfully identified niche markets and particular ‘‘demographics’’ (continuing to attract relevant advertisers). By the late twentieth century radio, like other mass media, was subject to the effects of greater deregulation, economic concentration (with large corporations controlling many stations), and considerable emphasis on maximizing profits.

Limited television broadcasting began in the 1930s in Germany, Britain, and the US, but the outbreak of war in 1939 delayed its development, and it was not until the 1950s that television developed as a mass medium. It too drew on various developments (in electricity, telegraphy, photography, motion pictures, radio) and the work of inventors (including John Logie Baird in Britain and the Russian born Vladimir Zworykin in the US on scanning devices).

In the US growth was rapid, with the radio broadcasting model adopted for the new medium (privately owned companies dependent on advertising revenue, with limited government regulation by the FCC). The existing networks – NBC, CBS, and ABC – dominated television, as they did radio broadcasting. The medium quickly became popular with advertisers. After initial competition, a profitable collaboration was established with Hollywood, films became a staple of programming, and the studios produced popular television series. By the 1970s the American networks were very profitable, paying attention to audience ratings in their quest for substantial advertising revenues; a fourth network, Fox (part of the Murdoch media empire), was added in 1986. A Public Broadcasting Service was established in 1967, but its role in commercially dominated US television has been minor.

In Britain, too, the radio broadcasting model was used as television developed. The BBC initially enjoyed a national monopoly, with no advertising and no direct government control, funded from the sale of radio and television licenses. Programming conformed to public service values, emphasizing the cultural and educative role of television. In 1954 a commercial service was added, Independent Television (ITV), dependent on the sale of advertising spots but with higher levels of regulation and less scope for commercial pressure than in the US. With a second public service channel added in 1964 and the introduction of color in 1967, British television programming in the 1960s and 1970s was varied and of high quality. From 1982 Channel 4, a commercial channel regulated by the Independent Broadcasting Authority and catering to minority audiences, added diversity. By the turn of the century the BBC had survived as a significant public service broadcaster, despite two decades of deregulation and declining government support, alongside Britain’s commercial but regulated channels.

Television development in other countries sometimes followed the US commercial model, sometimes adopted a hybrid of public service and commercial broadcasting, and in many cases was subject to high levels of state control. Television remains a powerful mass medium, although affected by changing contexts and pat terns of ownership – the strength of free market ideologies, deregulation, and the quest for profits by the conglomerates that absorbed the net works. The influence of commercial interests has encouraged a blurring of the distinction between advertising and programs (product placement in entertainment programs is an example) and a proliferation of popular talk and ‘‘reality’’ shows with low production costs.

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Development of New Media

A range of new media developed from the 1980s. Again, technological innovation was essential, with the expansion of digital technologies allowing the convergence of previously separate media and more sophisticated links between traditional media and new information and communication technologies (ICTs). The expanding range of new media includes video recorders, home videotape players, pay TV delivered by cable and satellite, direct broadcasting by satellite, multimedia computers, CD ROMs, digital video discs (DVDs), the Internet and World Wide Web, mobile/cellular phones, and various handheld devices (the latest ‘‘generation’’ of these technologies offers not only telephone and messaging services but also commercial and personal video, photographs, and graphical information services). These have revolutionized communication, introduced opportunities for convergence of media content, and expanded audience choice and opportunities for interactivity.

Global take up of the Internet is a note worthy feature of new media development. Originating in US Cold War defense concerns to develop a distributed, indestructible communications system in the 1950s, the Internet was used by academic and research institutions in subsequent decades; commercial concerns became involved in the 1980s and 1990s through Internet service provision and growing use of the new medium for advertising and e commerce; and development of the World Wide Web in the 1990s enabled use of the Internet as a public, global communications medium. Powerful corporations such as Bill Gates’s Microsoft achieved prominence, and there was speculation, a rise and then fall in the profitability of ‘‘dotcom’’ ventures in the final years of the twentieth century. In the new millennium the Internet remains the most significant of new media, allowing for rapid information retrieval (through search engines such as Google) from ever expanding resources, for interpersonal communication (through email) and for advertising and global commerce.

In a ‘‘media landscape’’ that has changed fundamentally through rapid global adoption of new media (as well as email, SMS and MMS, text and image messaging using mobile telephony, are proving immensely popular), traditional media have adapted to change. News papers, the film industry, radio, and television provide enhanced services and reach global audiences via websites. Commercial interests have been quick to exploit evolving media: the diversion of advertising business to the Internet is an example. For audiences, new media have provided greater choice and more control over how they receive information and entertainment. They have also introduced new problems such as piracy (the music industry has tried to curb free downloading of music via the Internet through litigation) and greater invasion of privacy; concerns about the relationship between media content and public morals have focused on the volume of, and easy access to, porno graphic content on the Internet.

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Theoretical Approaches

There has been debate about the relationship between media and society, especially since mass media developed in the late nineteenth century. Various theoretical approaches have been employed, drawing on different disciplines and areas of study. Fundamental to media research has been an understanding of human communication, with basic questions about who, says what, using which ‘‘channel,’’ to whom, with what effect, underpinning different perspectives.

‘‘Mass society’’ approaches have been influential in media studies. Early critics (T. S. Eliot, F. R. Leavis) deplored the effects of mass media, seeing ‘‘packaged’’ popular culture as inferior; their views reflected ‘‘critical anxiety’’ about the media, apprehension about mass society that grew as media industries developed. The Marxist Frankfurt School (Adorno, Horkheimer, Marcuse) saw the mass media as industries used to control the masses. The media contributed to the survival of capitalism by encouraging the working class to be passive recipients of the dominant ideology, allowing social control and maintenance of capitalist values. Other advocates of an ‘‘ideological control’’ approach (for example, Louis Althusser) saw media or their messages as supporting those in power (conveying a false view of reality, encouraging passivity and acceptance of the status quo). Theorists have pointed to the use of media in totalitarian societies to gain support for the ideology of those in power, and in democratic states to foster powerful consumer cultures. Mass society approaches became less influential in the late twentieth century as the concept of mass society lost ground and media institutions and patterns of ownership changed. Nonetheless, notions of media and the reproduction of ideology, linked to analysis of audience interpretations and reception of media messages, remained influential in late twentieth century cultural studies.

‘‘Effects research’’ (reflecting sociological and psychological interests) shifted attention from the impact of media on mass society to audiences and their ‘‘uses’’ of, and responses to, mass media. Some research derived from negative assumptions and fears (moral panics) about the impact of media (the effects of on screen violence on children, or of sex and violence on public morals). There is growing consensus that it is difficult to reach firm conclusions about the effects of mass media. Such research has, however, introduced useful concepts. The idea of the ‘‘active audience,’’ selective rather than passive, draws attention to ways in which audiences make sense of media communication, stressing pluralism and responsiveness, ‘‘uses and gratifications’’ (rather than a ‘‘hypodermic syringe model’’ whereby the media simply ‘‘inject’’ messages). Effects research also encouraged recognition of the many factors affecting audience reactions to mass media over the long term, encouraging research on cumulative and generalized effects (of forms of stereotyping, of omnipresent consumer culture images and values).

Approaches that concentrate on media con tent/messages have been influenced by disciplines such as literary and textual analysis and semiotics, as well as cultural studies. Here the emphasis is on what the media produce, leading to detailed analysis of images and meanings to determine how media represent or stereotype, particularly with respect to class, gender/sexuality, and race/ethnicity, but also raising more general questions of power. Cultural and social cultural approaches (drawing on the 1970s work of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies in Birmingham) paid attention to both messages and audiences, examining the role of popular culture for particular social groups.

Growing interest in the political economy of the media stimulated late twentieth century research that highlighted the importance of economics, institutional forms, and issues of ownership and power. This focus remains important in the context of globalization. Interest in the structure and dynamics of media organizations led to consideration of professional norms and expectations (of journalists and broadcasters) and their impact on media content (including ‘‘agenda setting’’ and ‘‘gatekeeping’’). In a broad sense, concern with the political economy of the mass media embraces issues such as media hegemony and cultural imperialism (building on 1970s concerns about media in the context of dependency approaches to third world development), the implications of highly concentrated ownership, the relative importance of market forces and public service values, and globalization and more standardized media products. Debates about media imperialism have gained new momentum with diffusion of the Internet and questions about its potential for local empowerment as opposed to globally homogenizing tendencies.

Specialized areas of study, such as various streams of feminism (liberal, radical, socialist, and postmodern), have used different theoretical perspectives to investigate aspects of media: effects research, content analysis, and political economy approaches to the impact of media representations on equality, the extent and power of gender stereotyping, the marginalization of women’s activities such as sport, the role of media in creating a democratic public sphere in which women feel comfortable to participate, and so on.

There is growing appreciation of interdisciplinary perspectives that give due weight to the complexity of the issues relating to media, whether in modern nation states or at the global level. These complexities include varying economic, cultural, and social contexts, the varieties of audiences and their interpretations of media products, recognition of the pervasiveness of media systems in contemporary societies, and the effects of convergence.

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Current Emphases

Contemporary media studies has vast scope, and many examples illustrate interest in the ways media influence or reflect social or individual experiences. Examples include the relationship between media and politics; the relationship between media and military during war and (a related issue) the use of media as propaganda tools; and the impact of media on sport.

It is generally accepted that mass media have had a profound impact on politics. They provided new means of communicating with national audiences. They assumed a significant role in agenda setting by selecting and interpreting information and helping to deter mine the issues that dominate public debate. Critics point out that television emphasizes image and ‘‘packaging’’ at the expense of issues and policies (the 1960 US presidential campaign television debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon was an early illustration of the importance of ‘‘image’’). Contemporary media are seen as giving lower priority to traditional news values, with a decline in investigative journalism and ‘‘serious’’ current affairs programs; the lines between public affairs and entertainment have become blurred, with ‘‘infotainment’’ pervasive. Partly because of media involvement, political campaigns require enormous funds (the US is the prime example), thus limiting the range of political candidates. The advent of new media has provoked debate about their role in politics. On the one hand, new media afford greater access to information, with possibilities of enhancing individual empowerment, participatory democracy, and perhaps ‘‘civic reinvigoration.’’ On the other hand, there is concern about high levels of image management (and ‘‘spin doctoring’’) across traditional and new media by governments, politicians, and public relations agencies; about the continuing ‘‘digital divide,’’ with great disparities in media access in industrialized and developing countries; and about the ‘‘reality’’ in political terms of ‘‘virtual communities.’’

Another area in which the role of media has been controversial is war. Relationships between mass media, the military, and governments during war have a long history, from the growing importance of war correspondents in the late nineteenth century through the Great War of 1914–18 and World War II in 1939–45. The relationship attracted increasing attention during the 1960s/1970s Vietnam War, when the media (particularly television) were blamed for the US defeat. Although historians argued that factors apart from television were important, in conflicts in the 1980s (the Falklands War, US invasions of Grenada and Panama) the British and US military exerted greater control over media during military operations. In the 1990s technological and institutional change (satellite broadcasting, global news services such as CNN) enabled media to provide ‘‘saturation’’ coverage of war to global audiences. To forestall adverse effects on public opinion, the military employed strategies of ‘‘media management.’’ The US used a ‘‘pool’’ system during the Gulf War of 1991 and ‘‘embedded’’ journalists with military units during the Iraq War of 2003. Technological change challenges the extent to which media can be ‘‘managed’’ during war – it is difficult to control individual journalists’ use of mobile and satellite communication and to regulate Internet communication. For western governments, the rise of new global broadcasters such as the Arabic television news channel al Jazeera has also meant that global audiences have access to different perspectives. While global and national media are considered vitally important during both war and peace, there is continuing debate about the extent to which they shape or mirror public opinion.

A related issue is use of media for propaganda purposes. During war, media have been used to bolster patriotic and nationalist sentiment, to sustain morale at home, and to wage psychological warfare against the enemy (sometimes using blatant ‘‘demonization’’). Totalitarian states’ overt use of mass media for propaganda purposes is acknowledged (Hitler appointed Josef Goebbels as Minister for Public Enlightenment and Propaganda), although there is debate about the effectiveness of propaganda relative to methods of terror and repression. Democratic governments have also used media to persuade, ‘‘inform,’’ and ‘‘educate.’’ ‘‘Psycho logical warfare’’ using mass media has attempted to persuade populations to support particular causes. The Cold War (from the late 1940s to the 1980s) saw US and Soviet governments use media at home and abroad to disseminate their respective ideologies. In the US led ‘‘war against terror’’ that followed the events of ‘‘9/ 11’’ (September 11, 2001) media largely reflected nationalist and patriotic values, but coverage of the war against Iraq has demonstrated that not all media images are likely to provoke sympathy for western policies. The role of media in war and the relationship between war reporting, public opinion, and support for government policy remain controversial.

With respect to sport, there is an integral relationship between media and sport. Sporting events are vital ‘‘commodities’’ for media, which in turn provide huge national and international audiences. Sport has responded to media requirements: it has become increasingly professionalized; there have been changes in game rules, sports attire, and the scheduling of events. The economics of sport has been transformed by mass media. The enormous amounts demanded by successful sportspersons, the sums paid for broadcasting rights to major international events such as the Olympic Games, and the relationships between international advertisers and sports personalities illustrate this point. Relationships of dependence link media organizations, sportspersons, sporting organizations, advertisers, and sponsors.

‘‘Bigger questions’’ about media in the con temporary world also remain. They include the interrelationships of technological, cultural, economic, social, and political change. The technological determinist view was convincingly challenged by Raymond Williams in the 1970s, but debate continues on the extent to which economic conditions, social and cultural dynamics and preferences, and policy decisions affect the manner in which new media technologies are developed and adopted.

There is broad agreement that contemporary media give far greater weight to entertainment than to information and that traditional expectations have not stood the test of time. An example is the idea that media should fulfill a ‘‘watchdog’’ role in democratic societies, based on a perception of the newspaper press as the fourth estate. The development of giant media corporations in the late twentieth century (News Corporation, AOL Time Warner, Disney) confirmed that media were big businesses driven by profit imperatives for whom old notions (such as investigative journalism or role in the nation state) had little relevance.

Although media have expanded in type and reach, critics claim there has not been any corresponding expansion in media content or diversity – programming offers ‘‘more of the same,’’ increasingly dominated by cheap for mats (such as reality TV). Linked to this is debate about the extent to which both traditional and new media globally disseminate images of western consumer culture and influence audiences’ attitudes, lifestyles, and values over the longer term. The history of traditional media in the twentieth century demonstrated the power of commercial interests, and the use of new media by advertisers in the twenty first century indicates continuing commercialization. Linked with interest in the importance of consumer society values are perennial questions about cultural hegemony and forms of ‘‘imperialism’’ in new guises (‘‘Americanization’’ or the influence of global corporations). Recent research has pointed to the limits of US domination and the importance of local or regional cultural and social contexts (as well as individual reactions to media content), but the longer term effects of control of media by profit driven global corporations remain to be seen.

A notable feature of media history has been the adaptability and resilience of media forms. In an increasingly rich and diversified media world, traditional media – newspapers, the film industry, radio, television – remain important purveyors of entertainment and information despite rapid changes. However, it is noteworthy that Google, the Internet search engine, has, in a relatively short period, become the most used information source in the world.

Future research on media will build on existing areas (including work on established media – newspapers, cinema, radio, television) and expand into new realms. On particular topics such as media and politics, the impact of new media on public affairs, virtual communities, and citizens’ participation is already attracting attention. Broader issues such as the relationship between media, consumption, and lifestyle continue to attract attention, now encompassing cyberspace and the multiple modes and means of delivery of advertisers’ messages. The role of media in ‘‘digital lifestyles’’ and the implications of mobile, individualized access to a wide range of media products are areas for further research – work on the sociology of the mobile phone is already applying theories of social capital, net working, social atomism, and virtual walled communities. Research on other aspects of media and globalization will include political economy, content, and sociocultural impact. Continuing convergence (of services, products, and content) invites research on the implications for individuals, communities, societies, and globally of linkages between the media sector, ICTs, and telecommunications companies.

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