Discover the Dazzling, Daunting World of Mass Communications.
In the very beginning of late night television, “The Tomorrow Show” followed “The Tonight Show” on NBC. The peacock arranged its programming in a natural progression that linked tonight and tomorrow to the early-morning “Today Show,” providing media historians with the first working definition of “the 24-hour news cycle.”
A not-so-well-known colleague and contemporary of Walter Cronkite and his rivals Huntley and Brinkley, Tom Snyder hosted “The Tomorrow Show,” marking the transition from his introduction to the first commercial break with the expression, “We are sending words and pictures through the air on the NBC television network.” His expression still serves as the perfect definition of “mass communications.” Using paper, radio waves, telephone lines and coaxial cables, people use the media to send words and pictures around the world.
Power and purpose
All media serve three purposes—to inform, to persuade, and to entertain. In newspapers, radio, and television, the so-called “traditional” media, the functions have remained clearly separate; readers, listeners or viewers clearly can discern where the informational content ends and the promotional material begins; features have their own place between news and commercials. Of course, every student who ever endured a literature class understands that “the classics” deliberately obscure the lines between and among educating, arguing and entertaining; in fact, “classics” often earn their distinction on the strength of their arguments rather than their value as entertainment. The Internet further has blurred the boundaries. E-books sell products as they explain just enough of their subjects to beguile would-be buyers. On the Internet, opinion frequently masquerades as fact, and entertainment prevails over information and persuasion because Internet viewers have short attention spans.
Mass media in the post-modern age
Telecommunications tools proliferate at the speed of light, and their users become more sophisticated as the devices themselves become more interactive and intuitive. Ironically, “mass” communications tools increasingly work to personalize people’s media experiences; just about every new tool comes with the capacity to store a user’s preferences and sort incoming messages according to those preferences. However, despite the abundance of new tools, the four basic forms of mass communication persist:
• print media Although most newspapers and magazines are struggling through the process of going digital, their on-paper versions still fill shelves in 7/11. Many major cities no longer support regular daily newspapers, but USA Today and national editions of The New York Times and The Washington Post (almost) fill the breach. Dedicated print journalists have clarified their role in response and relation to cable and Internet news. Recognizing that their medium cannot keep pace with instant reporting on television and the worldwide web, print journalists now capitalize on its slower pace by seizing the opportunity for deliberate analysis and reflection. Media analyst Erika O’Quinn suggests that print media now naturally complement broadcast media, “supplying the thoughtful dimension broadcast news cannot deliver, and preserving the place of well-written prose among the various uses of language.”
• radio When television first came of age, soothsayers foretold radio’s demise; they were wrong, of course. Radio has evolved in rhythm and harmony with other broadcast media, becoming the nation’s prime purveyor of political discourse, its principal source of emergency information, and by far its No. 1 source of new music. Although every new car comes equipped with advanced multi-media players, the radio remains most drivers’ first choice for amusement and companionship along the roadways.
• television and film In the early ‘90s, moviemaker Oliver Stone suggested, “Film will emerge as the literature of the post-modern age.” History has proven the wisdom in Stone’s prophecy. Although television remains the nation’s principal source of news and information, it also remains what screenwriter Rick Holtzman calls, “the insatiable story box.” Holtzman abandoned a promising career as a novelist for screenwriting because “the box always needs more good stories, and a lot more people will recognize me from the television credits than ever will know me from the bookstores.” Just as importantly, the biggest grossing films in the last several years have come from young adult literature.
• digital media In 2009, sales of video and computer games surpassed gross movie revenues for the first time. Since then, they have opened up a substantial lead over both television and film, and some Nielsen studies suggest that, among males aged 16 to 24, no movie or television program ever will garner greater audiences than “World of Warcraft” and other multi-player web-based games. Digital development companies have prospered throughout the Great Recession, and art school professors report that some of their most promising protégés have abandoned “the fine arts” for work in digital media.
• media integration via the Internet Erika O’Quinn and the majority of her fellow media analysts acknowledge “media convergence and integration via the Internet. It’s inevitable,” O’Quinn says, “because the Internet adds choice and interaction to television’s magnetic, hypnotic synaesthesia.” Gazing into her crystal ball, O’Quinn predicts, “Traditional media will continue clarifying their specialized roles and become more proficient at playing them, but in the same way that cyberspace is infinite so the Internet’s communicative powers probably defy the bounds of our imaginations.”
Substance versus speed and style.
Many journalism and creative writing professors worry that the urgency and immediacy digital media bring to mass communications give priority to speed and style over substance. However, recent developments in internet television suggest their worries, like rumors of Mark Twain’s death, may have been greatly exaggerated. Hulu.com has produced both critically acclaimed new dramas and hard-hitting, award-winning documentaries, and the new programs have triggered sharp spikes in book sales. The world of mass communications apparently can diversify without endangering any of its native species.
Trish Levy writes for several higher ed blogs. If you’re interested in going into the communications field, several universities offer a master of mass communication that may help you break into or further your career in communications.