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what’s lost when audiences diffuse

One of my professors at Penn, Elihu Katz, had a very interesting opportunity during his career. In the late 1960s, Katz was already an esteemed professor at Chicago when Israel asked him to lead the rollout of broadcast TV in that country. Though TV was obviously invented decades earlier and was a cultural phenomenon in the US 20 years earlier, Israel had resisted introducing the medium. (I’m not sure exactly why they waited, but I suppose you could dig around online and find out…) At any rate, by the close of the 60s enough TV was bleeding into the country from outside its borders that the state wanted to take control.


A golden age of TV ensued. In essence, and from my memory of Katz’s description, the initial broadcast environment was dominated by state TV that was carefully programmed to serve society. There was a mix of news and entertainment broadcasting, but there weren’t choices for the audience. By this I mean: there was essentially one channel and if you wanted to watch TV in Israel, you watched what it was showing. (I’m probably simplifying this a bit, pardon my bloggers license.) In other words, when the news was on, everyone watching TV watched the news.

In a way, pre-UHF TV in the US was similar: there were 3 networks/channels that all showed the news at the same time: if you wanted to watch TV at that time, you were watching the news. When 60% of a nation watches your broadcast, you don’t need to worry about having an effect. In Israel, during the early days, after the news hour, suddenly the whole nation had consumed the same slate of information. In the US, even though the 3 newscasts differed some, the general news agenda was about the same & the audience (even of different networks) had an idea of the days’ events. This was the golden age of TV news – and it left some indelible, iconic moments in history. There’s some debate among political scientists about whether or not anybody actually learned anything from this news, but…let’s set that aside for a moment. Presumably, having a population that shares a general foundation for conversation is a good thing because that talk can underpin collective action – something that we encourage in democracies.

Another Katzism (drawn from Tarde): news –> talk –> opinion –> action

Things are different today. On one hand, there’s more news than ever – at least in some ways. On the other hand, lots of this news is commentary and no single news program has a commanding audience. The news – and media – landscape is incredibly fragmented and there is an avalanche of information that washes over all of us….All of which is a long prelude to a question: Does news still serve its social function?This question occurred to me the other day while I read a piece about the new, overhauled Newhour on PBS. The new Newshour will be a TV and online operation – it will feature quicker responses to breaking stories, better graphics on the TV, Twitter-using digital journalists etc. etc. The operation’s content will be made available on TV, through the web, through iTunes, maybe even via Twitter. All of which is to say: we know that people aren’t just watching us on the TV anymore & we’re going to do everything we can to get them news wherever they are so that we’re relevant.

Kudos on the efforts – though, really, I’m pretty sure that commercial news operations have been rolling all these innovations out for years… My question is: so, you’ve got a fragmented audience all over the place that may or may not add up to something. How do you know whether the news is doing anything? Is it when Nielsen aggregates all of these outlets into one rating? Is it when you’re profitable? Is it when a media frenzy swarms over one topic and inundates the whole nation with it? Is it when the government, or whoever the object of the news is, responds to it? We know what it looks like when a story goes viral. And we know what it looks like when the object of news responds. But is this the best we can hope for from the news now? Sporadic bursts of intense focus generated by an unusually sensational story that force a reaction? What about the rest of the time? Do people talk about the news – other than the gossip of the moment – any more?

I’m not really touching on the issue of citizen competence here – what people learn about society, how they learn it, and how much this matters is beyond the purview of this post. I am interested in whether or not we can expect, or even hope, that citizens in a place can have a meaningful conversation about that place on a day-to-day basis. This was assured during the golden age of TV news…and now? Not hardly.

Over Thanksgiving, I visited my family in the part of Ohio that I was born in. While I was there, I spent some time asking various relatives about the area & the different cities they live in. I lived in a couple of these towns and wanted to know what was going on in them. Unfortunately, the conversations went nowhere. My relatives weren’t getting a paper, they weren’t receiving real news about their community in any other way, and conversation drifted back towards the tabloid story du jour & whatever their self-selected media habits brought them (sports, cars, knitting). I enjoyed my visit with my family, but I came home with no ability to explain the desolate streets of downtown Cleveland that I didn’t already have. All these news outlets, all of these channels of distribution, all of these people grazing on their own media diets. To what effect?

If news can’t lead to conversation, then the chain from news through action is broken. Even if the product is profitable, the occasional flare-up of attention to one issue isn’t enough to justify the production of a steady flow of news, is it? And if the bulk of the news profit is driven by tabloidism, should we expect the production of anything else? In other societies, news and politics is much more central to daily life than it is in America. (I’m thinking specifically of Lebanon here.) In some places, news & politics may actually be a matter of life or death in a given day. Life is pretty cushy for most people in the US – despite the unemployment rate, huge national debt, and so on. If the macro environment were different, perhaps the news would be more salient to people & conversation would ensue. Perhaps it could be shown that this did, indeed, happen last year during the presidential election / economic meltdown. Hopefully, the next time circumstances like that arise, the news media will still exist in a form that is able to respond effectively.

Bonus! My own Katzesque schema depicting the modern news environment:

Individual level: channel proliferation –> fragmented audiences –> loss of conversational capital –> inability to converse –> inaction

Institutional level: channel proliferation –> fragmented audiences –> loss of critical audience mass –> loss of relevance & economic capital –> end of existence

There are 2 Comments to "what’s lost when audiences diffuse"

  • pablo says:

    I think your insight about citizens ignoring their local political context is right on. The papers that do exist are often subpar and AM radio has been seized by right wing blather. It is of interest to me that state politics, which are also very influential in people’s lives, have been impossible to follow during my entire adult life–even when I lived in the state capitol. Here in BC the media cover city and provincial affairs more than federal. This is a reflection of Canada’s decentralized nature and what they call ‘western alienation.’ To see a great example of a TV program that covers provincial politics, see Vaughn Palmer’s ‘Voice of BC.’ This excellent program is not, to my knowledge, archived on the web.

    • lee says:

      It’s true that state politics have been hopelessly ignored/overlooked forever.

      I guess I’m concerned beyond politics, though, at this point. I feel like its very common for people not to be able to explain anything about their community: factory closings, restaurant openings, performances…people are completely detached from where they live. And this is not a good thing…

      I’ve been thinking more about this and will probably write some kind of follow up – maybe soonish.

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