1.3 The evolution of the media – understanding media and culture (2023)

learning goals

  1. Name four roles the media play in our society.
  2. Recognize events that influenced the introduction of mass media.
  3. Explain how various technological transitions have shaped the media industry.

In 2010, Americans could turn on their TV and find 24-hour news channels as well as music videos, nature documentaries, and reality shows on everything from collectors to models. Not to mention movies available on demand from cable providers, or television and videos available online to stream or download. Half of US households receive a daily newspaper and the average person has 1.9 magazine subscriptions (State of the Media, 2004) (Bilton, 2007). A study from the University of California, San Diego claimed that US households consumed a total of about 3.6 zettabytes of information in 2008 — the digital equivalent of a 7-foot-tall stack of books covering the entire United States — an increase of 350 percent since 1980 (Ramsey, 2009). Americans are exposed to media in taxis and buses, in classrooms and doctor's offices, on freeways and on airplanes. We can begin to navigate the information cloud by analyzing the roles media plays in society, examining their history in society, and looking at how technological innovations have helped get us where we are today .

What do media do for us?

Media fulfill several basic functions in our society. One obvious role is entertainment. Media can serve as a springboard for our imagination, a source of fantasy, and an outlet for escapism. In the 19th century, Victorian readers, disillusioned with the cruelty of the Industrial Revolution, were drawn into fantastical worlds of fairies and other fictional creatures. In the first decade of the 21st century, American television viewers got a glimpse of a conflicted Texas high school football teamfriday night lights; the violent drug trade in BaltimoreThe cable; an advertising agency from the 1960s in Manhattanmad Men; or the last surviving group of people in a distant, miserable future inBattlestar Galactica. By bringing us stories of all kinds, the media has the power to take us away from ourselves.

The media can also inform and enlighten. Information can come in many forms, and it can sometimes be difficult to separate it from entertainment. Today, newspapers and news-oriented television and radio programs provide stories from around the world, allowing readers or viewers in London to access voices and videos from Baghdad, Tokyo or Buenos Aires. Books and magazines provide deeper insight into a variety of subjects. The free online encyclopediaWikipediahas articles on topics from presidential nicknames to child prodigies to tongue twisters in different languages. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has published free lecture notes, exams, and audio and video recordings of courses on its OpenCourseWare website, giving anyone with an Internet connection access to world-class professors.

Another useful aspect of mediums is their ability to function as onepublic forumto discuss important issues. In newspapers or other magazines, letters to the editor give readers the opportunity to reply to journalists or give their opinion on current affairs. These letters were an important part of US newspapers even when the nation was a British colony, and have served as a vehicle of public discourse ever since. The Internet is a fundamentally democratic medium that gives anyone who can get online the opportunity to express their opinions, for example through blogging or podcasting - although whether anyone will hear them is another question.

Similarly, media can be used to monitor governments, corporations, and other institutions. Upton Sinclair's 1906 novelThe jungleexposed the abysmal conditions in the turn-of-the-century meatpacking industry; and in the early 1970sWashington PostReporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein uncovered evidence of the Watergate break-in and the subsequent cover-up that eventually led to President Richard Nixon's resignation. However, mass media providers may be tied to specific agendas due to political leanings, advertising dollars, or ideological bias, which limits their ability to act as watchdogs. Below are some of these agendas:

  1. Entertain and let your imagination run wild
  2. Enlighten and inform
  3. Serves as a public forum for discussion of important issues
  4. Acting as a watchdog for governments, corporations, and other institutions

However, it is important to remember that not all mediums are created equal. While some forms of mass communication are better suited for entertainment, others make more sense as a place for disseminating information. In terms of print media, books are durable and can contain a lot of information, but are relatively slow and expensive to produce; In contrast, newspapers are comparatively cheaper and quicker to produce, making them a better medium for the quick turnaround of daily news. Television offers far more visual information than radio and is more dynamic than a static printed page; It can also be used to broadcast live events to a nationwide audience, as in the US President's annual State of the Union address. However, it is also a one-way medium, meaning it allows for very little direct person-to-person communication. In contrast, the internet encourages public discussion of issues and allows almost anyone who wants to have a voice. However, the internet is also largely unmoderated. Users may have to sift through thousands of silly comments or misinformed amateur opinions to find quality information.

The 1960s media theorist Marshall McLuhan took these ideas a step further and coined the famous phrase “the medium is the message(McLuhan, 1964).' McLuhan meant that each medium conveys information in different ways and that content is fundamentally shaped by the medium of transmission. For example, although television news has the advantage of offering video and live coverage, making a story more vivid, it is also a faster medium. That means more stories are covered in less depth. A story told on television is likely to be more striking, less profound, and less contextual than the same story covered in a monthly magazine. As a result, people who get most of their news from television may have a certain non-television view of the worldcontentsfrom what you see but it isMiddle. Or, as computer scientist Alan Kay put it, "Each medium has a peculiar way of presenting ideas that emphasize certain ways of thinking and marginalize others (Kay, 1994)." Kay wrote in 1994, just as the Internet was evolving from an academic research network to an open one public system changed. A decade and a half later, with the Internet firmly entrenched in our daily lives, McLuhan's intellectual descendants are the media analysts who claim that the Internet is making us better, or more democratic, or shallower at associative thinking. But McLuhan's claims leave little room for individual autonomy or resistance. In an essay on television's impact on contemporary fiction, writer David Foster Wallace scoffed at the "reactionaries who view television as a malice inflicted on an innocent populace, eroding IQs and compromising SAT scores while... we're all sitting on bigger and bigger butts with little hypnotized spirals spinning in our eyes…. Treating television as evil is as reductive and silly as treating it like a toaster oven with images (Wallace, 1997). Nonetheless, media messages and technology affect us in myriad ways, some of which are likely to be weeded out for a long time to come.

A brief history of mass media and culture

Until Johannes Gutenberg invented the movable-type printing press in the 15th century, books were painstakingly handwritten, and no two copies were exactly alike. The printing press enabled the mass production of print media. Not only was it much cheaper to produce written material, but new transport technologies made it easier for texts to reach a wide audience. It's hard to overstate the importance of Gutenberg's invention, which helped usher in massive cultural movements like the European Renaissance and the Protestant Reformation. In 1810, another German printer, Friedrich Koenig, took media production even further when he essentially connected the steam engine to a printing press, enabling the industrialization of printed media. In the 1800s, a hand-operated printing press could produce about 480 pages per hour; Koenig's machine more than doubled that rate. (In the 1930s, many printing presses could print 3,000 pages per hour.)

This increase in efficiency went hand in hand with the rise of the daily newspaper. The newspaper was the perfect medium for increasingly urbanized 19th-century Americans, who could no longer get their local news solely through gossip and word of mouth. These Americans lived in unfamiliar territory, and newspapers and other media helped them navigate the rapidly changing world. The industrial revolution meant some people had more free time and more money, and the media helped them figure out how to spend both. Media theorist Benedict Anderson has argued that newspapers also helped forge a sense of national identity by treating readers across the country as part of a unified community (Anderson, 1991).

In the 1830s the major dailies faced a new threat from the advent of penny papers, which were cheap broadsheets that served as a cheaper, more sensational daily news source. They preferred news of murder and adventure to the dry political news of the day. While newspapers catered to a more affluent, educated audience, the penny press sought to reach a broad readership through cheap prices and entertaining (often scandalous) stories. The penny press can be seen as the forerunner of today's gossip-hungry tabloids.

In the early decades of the 20th century, the first major non-print form of mass media - radio - exploded in popularity. Radios, cheaper than telephones and widely available by the 1920s, had the unprecedented ability to allow large numbers of people to hear the same event simultaneously. In 1924, Calvin Coolidge's pre-election speech reached more than 20 million people. Radio was a boon to advertisers who now had access to large and captivating audiences. An early advertising consultant claimed that the early days of radio were "a great opportunity for the advertiser to spread his sales propaganda" because "a myriad audience, sympathetic, pleasure-seeking, enthusiastic, curious, interested, accessible in the privacy of their homes (Briggs & Burke, 2005)." The reach of radio also meant the medium could downplay regional differences and foster a unified sense of the American lifestyle—a lifestyle that was becoming increasingly defined and driven by consumer purchases. "Americans in the 1920s were the first to wear ready-to-wear, exactly sized clothes... to play electric phonographs, use electric vacuum cleaners, listen to commercial radio broadcasts, and drink fresh orange juice year-round (Mintz, 2007)." This consumption boom shaped the 1920s and also contributed to the Great Depression of the 1930s (Library of Congress). The consumerist impulse drove output to unprecedented levels, but as the Depression began and consumer demand fell dramatically, the excess output helped further deepen the economic crisis as more goods were produced than could be sold.

The post-World War II era in the United States was one of prosperity and the advent of an alluring new form of mass communication: television. In 1946 there were about 17,000 televisions in the United States; Within 7 years, two-thirds of American households owned at least one device. As United States gross domestic product (GNP) doubled in the 1950s and again in the 1960s, the American home became established as a unit of consumption; In addition to a television, the typical US household owned a car and a suburban home, all of which contributed to the country's thriving consumer economy (Briggs & Burke, 2005). Broadcast television was the dominant form of mass media, and the Big Three networks controlled more than 90 percent of the news programs, live events, and sitcoms watched by Americans. Some social critics have argued that television promotes a homogenous, conformist culture by reinforcing ideas about what "normal" American life is like. But television also contributed to the counterculture of the 1960s. The Vietnam War was the nation's first televised military conflict, and nighttime images of war footage and war protesters helped fuel the nation's internal strife.

Broadcasting technology, including radio and television, so gripped the American imagination that newspapers and other print media had to adapt to the new media landscape. Print media was more durable and easier to archive, and it allowed users more flexibility in terms of time—once a person bought a magazine, they could read it anytime, anywhere. In contrast, broadcast media typically aired programs on a fixed schedule, which allowed them to convey both a sense of immediacy and ephemerality. Until the advent of digital video recorders in the late 1990s, it was impossible to pause and rewind a live television broadcast.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the media world again faced drastic changes with the spread of cable television. In the early decades of television, viewers had a limited number of channels to choose from - a reason for accusations of homogeneity. In 1975, the big three channels accounted for 93 percent of all television viewers. By 2004, however, that share had fallen to 28.4 percent of total consumption, thanks to the spread of cable television. Cable providers offered viewers a wide range of choices, including channels tailored specifically for people who only wanted to watch golf, classic movies, sermons, or shark videos. However, until the mid-1990s, television was dominated by the three major networks. The Telecoms Act of 1996, an attempt to encourage competition by deregulating the industry, actually led to many mergers and acquisitions that left most control of the broadcast spectrum in the hands of a few large corporations. In 2003, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) relaxed regulation even further, allowing a single company to own 45 percent of a single market (up from 25 percent in 1982).

Technological changes shape the media industry

New media technologies emerge and cause social changes. Because of this, it can be difficult to neatly sort media development into clear causes and effects. Did radio fuel the consumption boom of the 1920s, or did radio become so popular because it appealed to a society already exploring consumerist tendencies? Probably a bit of both. Technological innovations such as the steam engine, electricity, wireless communications, and the Internet have all had lasting and significant impacts on American culture. As media historians Asa Briggs and Peter Burke note, each major invention has been accompanied by “a shift in historical perspectives.” Electricity changed people's understanding of time because work and leisure were no longer dependent on the daily rhythms of sunrise and sunset; wireless communication collapsed distance; The Internet has revolutionized the way we store and access information.

Figure 1.4

In 1858, the transatlantic telegraph cable made almost instantaneous communication between the United States and Europe possible for the first time.

Amber Case –1858 Transatlantic Telegraph Cable Route– CC-BY-NC 2.0.

Today's media age dates back to the electric telegraph, patented in the United States in 1837 by Samuel Morse. Thanks to the telegraph, communication was no longer tied to the physical transport of messages; it didn't matter if a message had to travel 5 or 500 miles. Suddenly, information from faraway places was almost as accessible as local news as telegraph lines began to stretch across the globe, creating their own brand of World Wide Web. In this way, the telegraph acted as a precursor to many of the technologies that followed, including the telephone, radio, television, and the Internet. When the first transatlantic cable was laid in 1858, enabling near-instantaneous communications from the United States to Europe, theLondon Timesdescribed it as "the greatest discovery since Columbus, a tremendous expansion...of the sphere of human activity".

Not long after, wireless communications (which eventually led to the development of radio, television, and other broadcast media) emerged as an extension of telegraph technology. Although many 19th-century inventors, including Nikola Tesla, were involved in early wireless experiments, it was Italian-born Guglielmo Marconi who is credited with developing the first practical wireless radio system. Many people were fascinated by this new invention. Early radio was used for military communications, but the technology soon made its way into homes. The burgeoning interest in radio inspired hundreds of applications for broadcasting licenses from newspapers and other news outlets, retail outlets, schools and even cities. In the 1920s, major media networks—including the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) and the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS)—were formed and soon came to dominate the airwaves. In 1926 they owned 6.4 percent of US broadcasting stations; By 1931 that number had risen to 30 percent.

Figure 1.5

Blown by the winddefeatedThe Wizard of Ozthe first color film ever to win the Oscar for Best Picture in 1939.

Wikimedia Commons– public domain;Wikimedia Commons- public domain.

In addition to breakthroughs in audio transmission, inventors made significant advances in visual media in the 19th century. The development of photographic technologies in the 19th century led to the later innovations of cinema and television. As with wireless technology, several inventors have simultaneously independently created a form of photography, including French inventors Joseph Niépce and Louis Daguerre and British scientist William Henry Fox Talbot. In the United States, George Eastman developed the Kodak camera in 1888 with the expectation that Americans would welcome an inexpensive, easy-to-use camera into their homes as they had the radio and telephone. Moving pictures were first seen around the turn of the century when the first US projection hall opened in Pittsburgh in 1905. By the 1920s, Hollywood had already produced its first stars, most notably Charlie Chaplin; In the late 1930s, Americans watched full-tone color films, includingBlown by the windandThe Wizard of Oz.

Television - which consists of an image converted into electrical impulses, transmitted via cable or radio waves, and then converted back into images - existed before World War II but gained general popularity in the 1950s. In 1947, 178,000 television sets were manufactured in the United States; 5 years later 15 million were made. Radio, cinema and live theater declined because the new medium allowed viewers to be entertained at home with sound and moving images. In the United States, competing commercial stations (including the radio powerhouses of CBS and NBC) caused commercial programming to dominate. In the UK, the government administered broadcasting through the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). Funding came from royalties rather than advertising. Unlike the US system, the BBC strictly regulated the length and character of commercials that could be broadcast. However, US television (and its increasingly powerful networks) still dominated. In early 1955 there were around 36 million television sets in the United States, but only 4.8 million across Europe. Major national events broadcast live for the first time spurred consumers to buy sets to catch the spectacle; Both England and Japan experienced a sales boom ahead of important royal weddings in the 1950s.

Figure 1.6

In the 1960s, the concept of a useful portable computer was still a dream; huge mainframes were required to run a simple operating system.

Wikimedia Commons- public domain.

In 1969, management consultant Peter Drucker predicted that the next great technological innovation would be an electronic device that would revolutionize the way people lived like Thomas Edison's lightbulb. This device would sell for less than a TV and "plugs in anywhere there is power and provides instant access to all the information needed for schoolwork from first grade through college." Although Drucker may have underestimated the cost of this hypothetical machine, he was aware of the impact these machines—personal computers—and the Internet had on education, social relationships, and culture in general. The inventions of RAM chips (Random Access Memory) and microprocessors in the 1970s were important steps into the internet age. As Briggs and Burke note, these advances meant that "hundreds of thousands of components could be placed on a microprocessor." The reduction of diverse content to digitally stored information meant that "print, film, sound carriers, radio and television and all forms of telecommunications were now increasingly thought of as part of a complex". This process, also known as convergence, is a force affecting the media today.

The central theses

  • Media fulfill several roles in society, including the following:

    • entertain and let your imagination run wild
    • enlighten and inform
    • serves as a public forum for discussion of important issues and
    • acts as a watchdog for governments, corporations, and other institutions.
  • The invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg enabled the mass production of media, which was then industrialized by Friedrich Koenig in the early 19th century. These innovations led to the daily newspaper, which unified the urbanized, industrialized population of the 19th century.
  • In the 20th century, radio enabled advertisers to reach mass audiences and helped fuel consumption of the 1920s—and the Great Depression of the 1930s. After World War II, television boomed in the United States and abroad, although its concentration in the hands of three major networks led to accusations of homogenization. The proliferation of cable television and subsequent deregulation in the 1980s and 1990s led to more channels, but not necessarily more diverse ownership.
  • Transitions from one technology to another have had a profound impact on the media industry, although it is difficult to say whether the technology caused or resulted from a cultural shift. The ability to make technology small enough and affordable to fit in the home is an important aspect of popularizing new technologies.


Pick two different types of mass communication - radio broadcasts, TV shows, websites, newspaper ads, etc. - from two different types of media. Make a list of the roles each of them fills, remembering that much of what we see, hear, or read in the mass media has more than one aspect. Then answer the following questions. Each answer should be at least one paragraph long.

  1. Which of the four roles played by the media in society does your selection correspond to? Why did the creators of these particular messages present them in this particular way and in these particular media?
  2. What events shaped the acceptance of the two types of media you chose?
  3. How have technological changes shaped the industries involved in the two types of media you selected?


Anderson, BenediktImagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, (London: Back, 1991).

Bilton, Jim. "The Loyalty Challenge: How Magazine Subscriptions Work",In circulation, January/February 2007.

briggs and burke,social history of the media.

Briggs, Asa and Peter Burke,A Social History of Media: From Gutenberg to the Internet(Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2005).

Kai, Alan. "The Infobahn is not the answer",Wired, May 1994.

Library of Congress, „Radio: A Consumer Product and a Producer of Consumption“, Coolidge-Consumerism Collection,http://lcweb2.loc.gov:8081/ammem/amrlhtml/inradio.html.

McLuhan, Marshall.Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964).

Mintz, Steven „The Jazz Age: The American 1920s: The Formation of Modern American Mass Culture“,Digital History, 2007,http://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/database/article_display.cfm?hhid=454.

Ramsey, Doug. "UC San Diego Experts Calculate How Much Information Americans Consume," UC San Diego News Center, December 9, 2009,http://ucsdnews.ucsd.edu/newsrel/general/12-09Information.asp.

State of the Media, Project for Excellence in Journalism,The state of the news media in 2004,http://www.stateofthemedia.org/2004/.

Wallace, David Foster „E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction“, inA supposedly funny thing I'll never do again(New York: Little Brown, 1997).


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