Module 2: Unit 8: Issues in the History of Mass Communication 1970 2005

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Module 2: Unit 8: Issues in the History of Mass Communication 1970 - 2005





Ken Ward


Department of Media & Communication Attenborough Building University of Leicester University Road Leicester, LE1 7RH




09 Feb 2010


1. Introduction
To study this Unit it will be of benefit to have read the book K, Ward, Mass Communications and the Modern World (1989) Palgrave Macmillan (ISBN: 0333372638 ). Having read the book you will have some idea of the development of the mass media in industrialised societies between c1870 and c1970. The aim of this unit is to carry the narrative further and to consider the ways in which the themes outlined in the book have been present in the last thirty-five years.
Activity One (Allow 15 minutes)
I hope you noted that one of my arguments was that the issues discussed in the book are still pertinent today. This is a view that I wish to assess in more detail in this unit, but before moving on I would like you to write down what you think these main issues to be. It may be helpful to skim very briefly through the book once more.
I hope you have noted down most of these points:

  • the question of finance - how expensive communication systems were to be funded and the implications of this for the content of the medium;

  • the nature of the technology - how this was developed and how it affected the content and nature of the medium;

  • the problem of regulation - how far the state should intervene in the organisation of forms of mass communication;

  • the moral and cultural debate - the question of the effect of the media upon audiences and the issue for censorship;

  • `cultural imperialism' - the role of the United States in the construction of a form of `international culture';

  • the continuing intellectual debate about the role of the mass media in society.

One further point which I hope you will have considered is that all of these issues are inter- connected, and one major problem for the historian lies in bringing them together into a coherent narrative structure. I am going to attempt to tie them together by writing a short analysis of the main developments over the last three and a half decades. Please remember that it is my own analysis and is in no way prescriptive. I hope that you will feel willing and able to criticise my views when you have finished the module.

2. General Overview
I want to start with an overview of the period since 1970 in order to provide you with a series of very general points.
The development of expensive satellite technologies for the transmission and reception of information and entertainment has further encouraged the growth of international corporations. There were possibilities of increased economies of scale but also a requirement for large scale investment at a level unknown in previous periods. It has also raised the question of the viability of state regulation of broadcasting and posed again the question of cultural imperialism since the United States continues to be the largest producer of televised entertainment. In the last decade there have been further changes in the opening up of mass media markets in developing countries, and the use of digital technology leading to the potential fragmentation of control.
This must also be seen within the context of fundamental changes within the international environment, most obviously the end of the `Cold War', the state of `managed confrontation' between the United States and the Soviet Union and the members of their associated political and economic blocs. There is no doubt that the mass media had a role not only in precipitating these changes but also in the construction of the new political communities which followed the dismantling of communist regimes in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. One analyst in the United States considered the end of the Cold War ideological confrontation and the demise of Communism to be the `end of history'. As any rational European could have told him, however, it was merely a new phase with a new set of tensions and unresolved problems and possibilities, not only in Europe but in the Middle East and Asia as well.
It seems to me that three politicians are particularly identified with the apparent success of western capitalism in the 1980s; politicians who, at the same time, recognised the crucial role of the mass media in society. The two obvious choices are Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher who dominated the politics of the United States and the United Kingdom respectively throughout the decade and utilised television effectively as a means of political communication. They were also concerned with the de-regulation of the communication industries as part of an ideological commitment to the restructuring of liberal and capitalist societies. The third politician is Mikhail Gorbachev who became General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in March 1985, and who sought to stabilise a regime in crisis by means of political and economic reorganisation and the opening up of Soviet society to criticism and analysis. Although he subsequently failed to preserve the hegemony of the Communist Party, he had substantial success internationally through his ability to construct a new image of the Soviet Union and Soviet leadership in the western media by the use of public relations and news management. The attempt by the Soviet Union to emulate the manipulative skills of western propagandists and advertisers serves to highlight the awareness by elite groups of the importance of global communication and information services by the mid 1980s.
There is still the question of the development of theories about the role of the media in society in this period and these have to be placed within the wider critical discussions about the nature of society which have developed since the 1970s. The growth of a feminist movement was one articulation of a challenge to dominant values in western societies and questions of culture and ethnicity became more insistent with the development of an integrated Western Europe and more vociferous minorities inside each society. The end of the Cold War and the demise of Soviet Communism (symbolised most forcefully, perhaps, by the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989) were not the `end of history' but they may have signalled the `end of certainties'. The fragmentation of political systems was paralleled in the media sphere by the fragmentation of audiences and advertising markets as more channels of communication became available. The theoretical outlook which may be seen to be part of, and to reflect, these changes has been called `post-modernism', although I use the term with some apprehension since it is difficult to find two commentators who would agree on the definition of this term.
In my view `post-modernism' is a concept which focuses on the range of responses to changes in a world where the optimistic `modernism' reflected in responses to the original political and industrial revolutions has no place. In the view of many theorists, debates about cultural standards and values are inappropriate in a `post-industrial, leisure' society where individuals have the capability of creating their own visual reality with the aid of video and computers. While this may be the exception rather than the rule the mixing of genres and cultural forms can be seen in all areas of the media, not least in television advertising. The description of the Persian Gulf conflict of 1991 as the `video-game war' was not only a comment on the graphics used by television news to illustrate the campaign but also a reflection on how far they distanced the viewer from the reality of the experience by presenting it as a video-game.
Whatever your opinion of social and cultural theorists they are important in providing an intellectual framework within which you might place the whole range of discrete events.
Activity Two (Allow 15 minutes)
a) Make a note for yourself of the `very general points' I have just mentioned.
b) Now consider three points in particular arising from my short narrative:
i) Since you are likely to have experienced, or at least been aware of, many of the changes I have outlined, where would your analysis differ from mine?
ii) Another way to consider this question would be to assess the impact of television, the computer, video and digital technology more generally on your own lives in the last decade, particularly on how you relate to the world around you. (A small example in my own case: my book Mass Communications and the Modern World was written - in the late 1980s - on a BBC computer with all the instructions having to be embedded in the text and the whole book printed as hard copy. This unit, by contrast, is written on a `user-friendly' Apple Macintosh and sent to the editor by e-mail or on a 3.5in floppy disk. Has this given me greater autonomy as a writer?)
iii) Do you have a clear theoretical outlook about the role of the mass media in society?
You may not be willing, or able, to respond to these questions at the moment. In asking them I am trying to emphasise the human and individual dimensions of the changes. It is impossible to generalise about these, but they are fundamental to our overall understanding of the function of the mass media in any society.
3. Technology and Society
What I would like to do now is to consider in more detail the character of technological changes in the development of the mass media. Technology has always been fundamental to forms of mass communication and the most important thing to remember is that technological change invariably arises out of the need of governments to preserve the security of states, and of industrial enterprises to make substantial profits. The political, economic and social impact of new technologies depends on their use within societies.
In considering new technologies we need to differentiate between those which are developments of existing forms and those which are completely new. The new technologies of mass communications in the 1980s, satellites and computers, were developed from those which originated in the 1960s - the difference was in the form and the wider use to which they could be put.
3.1 Computers
Computers of the 1970s were large main-frames used almost exclusively by government departments and business institutions for the organisation, collection and evaluation of data. The development of the silicon microchip was the catalyst for the change which led to cheap personal computers and the software which became more sophisticated and available to larger numbers of people. The results were as contradictory as any other `revolution' which impinged on all areas of human existence. At one level personal computing had a liberating effect, allowing an individual immediate access to information sources and control over the writing and publishing of his/her own work. This had to be balanced against fundamental changes in work practices where computing technology replaced large numbers of staff in business and public administration. This development was encouraged by the de-regulation and privatisation of many areas of public life in the United States and Britain in the 1980s, and the search for greater economies in order to make the new organisations economically viable. Personal computing also effected a revolution in the collection, storage and distribution of information at an international level. Whereas in the mid 1980s only those with a specialised interest in computers could have used them to communicate effectively with others, by the mid 1990s an ordinary computer user with a suitable modem could `navigate' the `information super-highway' with the minimum of effort.
The changes were categorised in popular terms as an `information revolution' which would have an effect as fundamental on the lives of individuals as the Industrial Revolution of the nineteenth century. The emphasis was on the liberating effect of the changes and the controlling aspects were often ignored. It was a `revolution' promoted by private capital and dominated by the United States of America. `Information' was a commodity and this raised questions about ownership of data, control of access, and copyright. The collection of personal information on computers raised the question of personal liberty and the rights of the individual in relation to the further development of bureaucratic state power in all developed societies. Moral concerns were expressed about the effects of computerised video games upon the behaviour of young people and subsequently about internet sites offering pornography, an echo of the concerns likewise expressed when films first became popular cultural forms of public entertainment and information. The `revolution' had, it appeared, merely reinforced the patterns of control and concern which already existed.
There are a number of ways in which the effect of the `information revolution' was more radical, not least in the organisation and reception of information in a domestic environment. Computer generated video-texts were one example of television sets being used in a different way. News and information, continually updated, have become accessible to the viewer, and with the development of an interactive system, using cable or telephone lines, the television receiver begins to take on the function of a computer screen. Simultaneously the computer screen can be used for television transmission and the replaying of video material linked to graphics and written information through CD ROM and DVD technology. The rapid growth of the Internet in the last ten years has opened up new forms of delivery to an even wider audience. The success of the BBC website, for example, as an information resource as well as a means of listening to and watching programmes bears witness to the coming together of a range of technologies.
3.2 Video and DVD
The use of video-recording changed both the production and reception of television in developed countries from the mid 1970s as well as further emphasising the importance of leisure within a domestic environment. This is another opportunity for you to examine your own experience over the last three and a half decades. For television companies, programmes of broadcasting standard could be made with more efficient use of studios, and news could be collected and edited more quickly. The `pop-video' became the mainstay of popular music programmes, becoming an `art-form' in its own right.
Domestic recording of programmes allowed `time-shifting' in viewing, selection of parts of programmes including fast-forwarding through the advertising, and the ability to collect one's own video library. By the late 1980s, film companies had recognised the importance of home- video distribution in their production budgets, and had found another means to exploit their film libraries. The Digital Video Disc (DVD) became the new form of recording and delivery by the turn of the century, offering better quality and an easier form of access to the material on the disc. It was suggested in 2004 that video recording and video-players would become a thing of the past, much as recording on vinyl had become by the 1990s.
Questions of censorship exercised producers and governments alike since the right to use videos and DVDs in the privacy of the domestic environment came into conflict with fears about the effects of explicit sex and violence upon susceptible individuals.
3.3 Cable and satellite communications
These two forms of communication need to be considered together since early satellite broadcasting was concerned with producing signals to be distributed on a cable system. These were particularly prevalent in the United States by the 1970s in localities where a satellite/ cable system could provide better reception of, and greater diversity than, terrestrial channels. Funded by subscription, a cable system offered opportunities for diversity in programme content outside the three main networks (NBC, CBS, ABC), as well as the opportunity to incorporate other consumer services, for example, home shopping and banking facilities. The American Telephone and Telegraph Company (AT&T) with its extensive telephone interests became a major player in the organisation of cable systems. The economic importance of cabling was not lost on the Thatcher government in Britain in the mid 1980s as the then state-owned British Telecom (BT) was prepared for privatisation. The enthusiasm of the government for cable systems was as much to do with potential profits for BT as with diversity and choice in entertainment. However, the initiative, quite literally, ran into the ground since terrestrial reception and programme quality were sufficiently good for consumers to spurn the cable subscription. The development of fibre-optic cables which offer greater speed, efficiency and numbers of channels as well as a wider range of potential services seemed to make it likely that the cabling of urban Britain in the mid-1990s would be more commercially viable. Whether that was the case would be worth considering in the light of technological developments over the last decade. Certainly, it allowed more entrepreneurs into the technology marketplace.
While cable communications combined `point-to-point' and `point-to-multipoint' distribution capabilities in the first instance, satellite communication was concerned with the former, not least the observation satellites with their clear military intelligence objectives. In discussing the development of radio, Raymond Williams emphasised the primacy of military need and the slower working out of a social role for broadcasting. I think satellite broadcasting provides a similar model, since it is difficult to disentangle the military and commercial aspects of satellite development in the United States. The first `sputnik', launched by the Soviet Union in 1957, forced the US into a competition for primacy in space paralleling the Cold War being `fought' on earth. Capability in such a conflict depended upon military intelligence and satellites offered this without fear of detection, unlike manned spy aircraft, one of which was shot down over the USSR in 1960 with major diplomatic consequences. What was required were `geo-stationary' satellites which could keep position at selected points above the earth providing not only continuous signals, but points from which to `bounce off' telecommunication signals from one point to another.
The technological requirements for this were a) sufficiently powerful rockets to place a satellite in geostationary orbit, b) miniaturization of the electronics, (which would lead to the development of microchip technology), and c) ground stations capable of picking up signals. The result of achieving all three was the launch of the Early Bird satellite in 1965 by Intelsat, a consortium of interested parties but dominated by the United States. Although on very low power it could transmit telecommunication signals from the US to Western Europe, and vice versa. It had 240 telephony circuits and one television channel.
Ten years later the link between satellite and cable systems in the United States was made by Home Box Office (HBO), a cable supplier, who used a satellite to transmit a movie service to cable operators for distribution. Hotels and bars in the US and Canada were soon erecting satellite receiving equipment in order to capture the signal without subscribing, and the market for direct broadcasting by satellite (DBS) had been established. The question would be how to finance DBS, whether through subscription, or by advertising. The effective networking of cable systems by satellite was an important incentive for specialist operators to enter the field, notably MTV (Music Television), a 24-hour popular music channel which would utilise videos, and CNN (Cable News Network), a 24-hour news channel established in Atlanta by Ted Turner. Both channels had world-wide coverage by satellite by the 1990s, and CNN subsequently became part of the Time Warner conglomerate.
From the mid 1970s it would be a further decade before the technology was powerful enough, and the receivers cheap enough, for wholesale domestic use, but by the late 1980s this had become a reality, not only in the United States but throughout Western Europe also with the launch of the European Astra satellite. By the mid 1990s satellite television was available throughout most of the world, either distributed via cable or DBS. Ten years on, the immediacy of television from, and in, virtually any part of the world is taken largely for granted.
3.4 Print technology
Press technology had hardly altered in the sixty years after the First World War, but the role of newspapers was changing substantially with the emergence of television as a primary source of information for the majority of populations in all developed societies by the 1970s. The primary costs of newspapers were labour and newsprint, and these continued to grow as potential advertising revenue seemed likely to decline. Attempts to cut labour costs by the use of new technology was invariably met by the intransigence of the technical printing unions faced with an undermining of their members' and their own position in the industry. The issue revolved around the use of computers for compositing instead of Linotype machines setting `hot-metal'. The new machines would produce material which could be photographed and etched onto a printing plate. It was potentially a faster and cleaner process. It would also mean that journalists could set their own copy and printing would primarily be an electrical operation.
Activity Three (Allow 15 minutes)
What particular aspects would you emphasise from this discussion of changes in communication technologies?
I will pick out three points. I am sure you will have others.

  • The inter-relationship of different forms of technology and the central role of computing in the development of all media technologies.

  • The commercial imperatives which underlay many of the developments.

  • The speed of the developments particularly after 1980. Are there any reasons why this should be so?

One answer to my last question might be the change in the political and ideological climate in much of Western Europe and the United States which encouraged entrepreneurial activity in the field of mass communication. Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister of the United Kingdom in 1979 with a clear right-wing radical agenda to open up many areas of British public life to `market forces' by undermining those institutions which she, and her advisers, believed would act as constraints on a radical programme. In the United States the election of Ronald Reagan as President in 1980 also heralded a move to the right of the political spectrum and an emphasis on a market-led economy, the cutting of taxation, and constraints on public spending. The fact that both economies went into depression in the early 1980s and then effected a recovery on a normal cyclical pattern did nothing to stem the belief of both leaders that they had discovered the `future' and it worked. The `free market' model of public communications was then carried forward in all industrial societies from the 1990s.

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