The medium is not the only message

Media is the plural of medium. So radio, for example, is one medium whereby certain individuals can disseminate their ideas and thoughts to a willing audience. Radio, television and newspapers are three different media, each capable of disseminating ideas, views and opinions.

The mass media are those media which have access to mass audiences. Popular television channels fall most easily into this definition, followed perhaps by, high-circulation newspapers and easy-to-read magazines. As the number of channels available over cable and from satellites increases, the competition among these channels for an audience is increasing. However, as satellite TV comes to maturity, the era of the national mass media is ending and we are entering the era of global mass media. CNN and MTV are the closest we have to global media, and each of these adapts its output to the different time zones and cultures around the world, creating sub-channels within the main channel.

The above simplistic definition, however barely goes any way toward explaining the hidden power of the phrase. Those two words, “mass media” often carry with them the additional implication: “the influence of the mass media” And this is a whole different subject.

Get what we deserve

Broadly, in free societies, we get the media we deserve. Those who control programming and editorial content are strongly encouraged to deliver what their audiences want. Their job is to attract a large, desirable audience, which might be receptive to advertisements. Period.

That is how the world's mass media works today. On TV, the programming is designed to bring in the largest possible audience, in order to satisfy the advertisers. Mass-market magazines are designed to appeal to the largest audience and that, in turn attracts high-value advertisements.

Most TV programmes are produced to last 50 minutes or 25 minutes, to take up a 1-hour or half-hour slot in the schedules. That leaves a few minutes at either end (or in the middle) for adverts to be shown. This time in between the programming is sold to advertising agencies and their clients. The fee is based on the size, make-up and spending profile of that audience. The sale of this time is the major source of income for any TV station and most large-circulation magazines. Most governments restrict the amount of time TV channels can devote to advertising, though some countries allow more time than others.

Advertising and programming

The money to make the programmes comes directly from advertising agencies and their clients. Over the last 20 years, this has become an absolute fundamental truth of the mass media. It is vital to understand the relationship between programming and advertising before attempting any analysis of what the media offer, or fail to offer.

A few channels choose to use the advertising revenue from their more popular and profitable programmes to make other programmes that appeal to smaller, less lucrative audiences. In some countries, this cross-subsidy is a condition of their broadcasting licence. But as the television world gets more competitive, fewer channels are prepared to do this, and where they law requires them to do it, lawyers increasingly find ways to bend the rules.

On the whole, making programmes is expensive, whereas buying them is relatively cheap. If you want to make a TV programme, it is cheapest to make a game show, sitcom, or other programme filmed entirely in a studio with minimal investment in scenery, research, or acting talent. Watch daytime TV and you will see a great deal of cheap programming.

Cheap programming

Of particular note in today's television world are the programme ideas, such as Millionaire, Big Brother, and Weakest Link which can be adapted to local culture and participants. These proven successes can be very lucrative for the original programme developers and for each licensed programme maker. Even though the programme might be expensive to produce, the backers are more willing to put up the money if they know the programme has already generated good returns in another country.

Thus, in any country where the granting of licences is open and free, where the markets are free to set their own standards, and where the technology is available to deliver many channels, the TV stations will, almost inevitably, descend to a low common denominator of what is cheap to produce and brings in the maximum advertising revenues. The USA is a perfect example of this kind of market. Some series have become very popular—and profitable: Friends, Frasier and a few other long-running shows, are perhaps the more acceptable face of this industry. Jerry Springer and imitators constantly push the boundaries of acceptability, and have succeeded in broadcasting images and words which a few years ago would have breached taste and decency laws.


The UK is often held by the chattering classes as an example of a place where TV can successfully deliver high quality mass-market programming. The broadcasting rules in the UK have for many years been very restrictive, with few channels available, and tight rules governing the granting of broadcasting licences by the government.

In recent years, as broadcasting has embraced the digital world, and relied increasingly on satellites, rather than terrestrial radio masts, the quality of UK programming has declined, while even the publicly-funded channels, such as the BBC have turned to much more commercial programming philosophies (see dumbing-down).

However, other countries continue to resist the commercialism of broadcasting. In France, the language is an asset, as the authorities limit the proportion of foreign-language broadcasting in the country. Though many French viewers have turned to satellite channels in an attempt to get more international programmes. In Scandinavia, some countries insist that a significant proportion of broadcast time be on local and regional issues. Again, the satellite companies have been doing well in all these countries.

Governments in free countries are powerless to prevent their citizens from buying satellite reception equipment and using it to watch the programmes coming down from the satellites. Furthermore, as governments encourage the installation of broadband fibre-optic networks to get their populations on-line, they are also creating an infrastructure for cable TV.

Satellite channels and Cable TV both have very high infrastructure costs, and they need to recoup their investments quickly. In almost every case, this leads to intensely commercial programming, with cheap programmes interspersed with long advertising breaks.

The Mass Media in Sociology

The mass media form an important sociological institution, playing an increasingly important role in the development of our identity, norms and values. Recently, the role of the mass media has increased considerably, as new technologies and wider availability means we spend more time in contact with them. This can be seen in our increased reliance on television, arguably the most influential medium in developed countries.

The majority of the mass media involve very little audience participation. What liee there is through "Letters to the Editor" or phone-ins is normally edited in some way. This, along with the fact there are relatively few media organisations in comparison with a huge audience means that those who are in control of the media wield significant power.

Trends in ownership

As the media have grown, noticeable trends in ownership can be seen which have implications for their influence on society.
Often cited as the most worrying trend, this involves smaller media companies being swallowed up by larger ones. For example, the News Corporation owns a large proportion of the UK's national and local newspaper market and Clear Channel Communications now owns a very big share of the USA's radio stations.
Vertical Integration
The ownership of many or all stages of production and distribution in order to maximize profit. For example, a newspaper mogul could own a sawmill, a paper mill, newspaper offices, a printing house, lorries and newsagents. Such an extreme example doesn't happen very often, but less dramatic integration does.
When a company has interests in non-media companies. For example, Vivendi Universal, which is largely a media company has environmental and waste management interests. This means that when something economically bad happens, like a bubble bursting, the company has other means to support itself.
Cross-media ownership
Media conglomerates have ownership of companies in more than one medium. Examples include most of the big media companies like the News Corporation. This can provide some of the economic stability of diversification as when one medium does badly, another can go some way to cut the company's losses *cough*.
Transnational Ownership
The spread of a company's control over national borders. This leads to speculation (mostly in countries that aren't the USA) that local and national productionis being undermined.
Technological Convergence
As technology converges, media companies that previously existed in distinctly separate sectors now have the opportunity to merge together. Many do, such as AOL and Time Warner.


Various sociologists have developed theories as to how the mass media affect society as a whole. For the purposes of this node, I will focus on Marxist and Pluralist theories about the mass media, because they are suitably contrasting and are the only ones I know about.


Marxists, as is their wont, link the mass media to the imposition of social order and structure by bourgeois to support the domination of the ruling class. Marxists emphasise the way the media tend to (in their eyes) a conservative, conformist view of the world, promoting the established ideology of the capitalists. This creates a "false consciousness" to keep the proletariat's minds away from the harsh realities of capitalism.

The German Ideology, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels 1845
The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force.

Ralph Milliband's study "The State in Capitalist Society" (1973) gives an insight into a traditional Marxist view of the mass media. He dismisses the idea of pluralist diversity and suggests that:

The State in Capitalist Society, Ralph Milliband 1973 p198
Most newspapers in the capitalist world have one crucial characteristic in common, namely their strong, often their passionate hostility to anything further to the Left than the milder forms of social democracy, and quite commonly to these milder forms as well

Milliband argues that the media give some degree of impartiality but only so they remain in the limited sphere of "acceptability". There remains a stream of propaganda against views that fall outside the general consensus. The media reflect the viewpoint of the dominant group in society and give the impression that nothing is radically wrong with it. He also suggests that we should not forget that the majority of the media are privately owned.


Hegemonic Marxism

In response to the criticisms of traditional Marxism, some Marxists have instead developed a different theory. They believe that instead of the media's content being directly influenced by their owners, capitalist ideology is implicit in everything. The ruling class's view is taken as "common sense". The proletariat are happy to go along with this, aiding the continuation of this hegemony. This theory is hegemonic or neo-Marxism.

Hegemony, R. Bocock, 1986.
The convictions of people are ... Not something manipulated by capitalists or put into the minds of the masses by them, but rather flow from the exigencies of everyday life under capitalism. The workers, and others, hold the values and political ideas that they do as a consequence both of trying to survive and of attempting to enjoy themselves, within capitalism.

Hegemonic Marxists believe that one of the main methods of perpetuating the ideological views of the capitalist system is through the agenda setting of the media. The media present us with a narrow agenda for discussion. What David Beckham wore to go and visit his greatest fan is more discussed than the inequalities that exist within society. When the National Lottery was instituted in the UK, a survey was performed in which people were asked if they would rather have one big-ass prize or many smaller prizes but with greater odds of winning. Most, no doubt under the influence of the hegemonic capitalist belief that one should maximize profit, went for the former option.


Supporters of the pluralist or liberal theory believe that the media offer a wide selection of views, contributing to free and democratic society. If people do not like what the media show, they do not buy or watch it. The media have to play to the market or they go out of business. Pluralism emphasises the role that the media play in providing information and the opportunity for open debate. People are not victims of ideological hegemony, they can interpret and choose what they want.

Pluralists believe that the freedom that exists in setting up media ventures ensures that a range of opinions is represented and that editorial freedom and professional journalistic standards help to maintain effective media. Pluralists also believe that the limited audience participation in the media is nevertheless effective and allows individuals to express opinions and criticisms.

Pluralists tend to defend the media from Marxist criticisms. They point out that vertical integration is often frowned upon as a business practice (which is probably why it hasn't happened) and many countries have laws preventing cross-ownership and the proportions of imported content that are allowed. Furthermore, journalists and editors do not always heed the counsel of their bosses as there is a strong tradition of "investigative journalism". The best example of the benefits of such nosiness is Watergate.

As it goes, I tend to agree with the pluralist view, but it is a bit optimistic for my tastes. There is evidence of owners interfering in the content their companies produce in several cases. For example, when BSkyB was contemplating a greater stake in Manchester United, most newspapers opposed the move, with the notable exception The Sun and The Times, two News Corporation newspapers.

My Sociology notes
Paul Taylor et al, Sociology in Focus ISBN: 1873929218

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