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.