Broadcasting Theories

James Shanahan. Encyclopedia of Communication Theory. Editor: Stephen W Littlejohn & Karen A Foss. Sage Publications, 2009.

Broadcasting was undoubtedly the most important media development of the 20th century. First radio and then television developed into mass media that could command the attention of virtually the entire nation at times. Interestingly, however, communication theorists have—with some notable exceptions—developed relatively few theories that are specifically about broadcasting. Rather, most theories deal with media effects. Many of these theories are quite relevant to broadcasting but also deal with effects of other media, such as newspapers. Thus, to review broadcasting theories, one must first understand theories of media effects in relation to broadcasting as a medium; then one can examine some of the more specialized theories that are specific to broadcasting.

Theories of Media Effects and Broadcasting

Theories of media effects are predominantly a product of the 20th century. While some isolated studies on the effects of newspapers emerged around the turn of the 20th century, most theories were developed and tested as broadcasting emerged and spread as the dominant form of mass media. Traditionally, scholars consider that the first theories of media effects were working with the powerful effects hypothesis. Briefly, the hypothesis held that mass media had relatively powerful effects in terms of forming and changing beliefs and that the audience was relatively passive in terms of processing messages and accepting them. These concepts became prominent after World War I, when the propaganda used by all sides was eventually seen as a negative phenomenon; Americans began to question whether mass media such as newspapers could be too powerful, convincing people to engage in risky foreign ventures that they might not have undertaken. Harold Lasswell was an influential early figure who also developed the well-known model of communication: “Who says what to whom in what channel with what effect?” He was the first to study propaganda techniques and thus greatly influenced the study of media in general. Other influential figures on the early powerful effects theories were Edward Bernays (considered the “father” of public relations), Gustave Le Bon (a French theorist of crowd psychology), and John Watson (an important figure in behaviorism).

While we may now overestimate the extent to which early scholars viewed the media as having powerful effects, developments in broadcasting began to raise questions along the lines that the media might be too powerful. The rise of Fascism and Communism both relied heavily on propaganda. Hitler used radio and film as key elements of his propaganda policy. For U.S. Americans, the apparently all-too-easy submission of masses of people to totalitarian ideologies brought up queasy feelings about the “dark side” of mass media, especially broadcasting. The famous case of Orson Welles’s radio adaptation of H. G. Wells’s War of the Worlds, in which many Americans thought that a fictional account of an invasion from Mars was real, further heightened concerns. However, Hadley Cantril, in his study of the event—another milestone in mass communication research and one of the first to deal with broadcasting—showed that only a relatively small portion of people panicked; moreover, he was able to show that certain personality characteristics and other conditions predicted a panic reaction, which ran counter to the notion of powerful effects. However, it cannot be denied that developments in radio throughout the 1930s contributed to fears that broadcast mass media might have become too powerful. On the positive side, Franklin Roosevelt’s use of radio in his fireside chats was an example of the use of broadcasting to unite people around important issues and causes.

The powerful effects model was effectively struck down in the 1940s. Studies conducted by Paul Lazarsfeld and colleagues showed that people’s decisions about political candidates were not much affected by media; rather, people seemed to rely on those closest to them in forming their judgments. This model came to be known as personal influence, and it has also been described as a limited effects paradigm. By this time, radio was in ascendance as a broadcast mass medium, used widely for both entertainment and information. Thus, Lazarsfeld’s studies were seen by some as confirming that media—even broadcasting—were not so powerful that people could not make their own decisions or that democratic pluralism could not survive in an era of mass broadcasting. However, Lazarsfeld also introduced the notion of the two-step flow, in which opinion leaders would be more attentive to messages from the media and would use such information within their own primary social networks. Also, studies of the use of films to motivate soldiers during World War II seemed to show little effect. By the end of the 1950s, some scholars were pronouncing the end of communication research. In sum, while radio had been a dominant medium from the 1930s through the 1950s, few scholars had produced research that resulted in radio-specific theories; there was no unified theory of broadcasting. From today’s vantage point, however, we can see that broadcast radio was one of the most important developments of the 20th century, playing a role in all the important political, social, and cultural movements of its time.

Critical Theories and Broadcasting

Before examining theories of broadcasting and media effects as they evolved in the United States after the 1950s, it is instructive to look at critical theories of media, most of which came out of Europe from the 1930s onward. Much European research on media is grounded in or is a response to Marxism. Orthodox Marxist theory held that all cultural phenomena were formed by economic conditions (the so-called base-superstructure argument). However, European scholars, most prominently those from the Frankfurt School, found these formulations too simplistic. Theodor Adorno, a prominent member of the school, did research on radio. He thought that it could induce states near brainwashing. Adorno and others in the Frankfurt School, influenced by their experiences with radio, conceived of mass media—especially broadcasting—as a culture industry, in which art had been transformed from expression into a mass-produced product with exchange value. Adorno was most insistent in his belief that mass-produced broadcast radio culture devalued the experience of listening to music.

Other critical theorists continued this line of thinking that broadcasting transforms the production of stories, art, and culture into a mass-produced commodity. Herbert Marcuse found that media inculcated patterns of one-dimensional thought. However, other Marxist media scholars saw the media as a potential site for ideological struggle. Gramsci’s notion of hegemony permitted such a conception. Later scholars such as Stuart Hall and the Birmingham School continued this line of reasoning as the possibility of differing readings of media were accepted. All in all, these critical approaches were in large part responses to both the technological and the economic structures of broadcasting as institutionalized in the capitalist West. As such, they are theories of broadcasting in the broader sense. Todd Gitlin, an American sociologist, underlined the differences between the American limited effects school and the critical research by pointing out that much American research was done under an administrative model, serving the needs of the broadcast media, which in turn served the needs of corporate and political elites. However, American research moved beyond the simple polarity between powerful and limited effects, and broadcasting played an important role.

Later Theories of Media Effects and Broadcasting

After the pronouncement of the death of communication research (by Bernard Berelson), media scholars began to offer new theories that addressed concepts of media power that lay somewhere between limited and powerful effects. The theory most directly connected to television (and thus broadcasting) was cultivation, developed by George Gerbner and colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania beginning in the late 1960s. Gerbner felt that the many studies of television violence were too focused on trying to show that viewers would imitate violence that they had seen on television. While the hundreds of violence studies that have been conducted are also highly relevant to broadcasting, Gerbner conceived of television primarily as a storytelling medium. Thus, his theory was that viewers of television would be more likely to hold conceptions of the world that were congruent with what they had seen on television. Most famously, because heavy viewers of television would see many instances of violence, Gerbner hypothesized that they would also see the world as a more violent place. He called this phenomenon the mean world syndrome. Cultivation examined many other concepts in relation to television. For Gerbner, the importance of television was that it was a broadcast medium, dominating the storytelling industry from the 1950s onward. While other media could potentially have had cultivating effects, television was the most important because of its massive reach, a direct result of its broadcast nature.

Another theory that offered a perspective on the effects of media was agenda setting. This theory, also developed in the late 1960s, argued that media might tell people, not what to think, but what to think about. Maxwell McCombs and colleagues showed that the agendas of news organizations (including broadcast news) influenced the agenda of the public. Later developments in agenda setting found that exposure to news could prime audiences to receive information in certain ways, and that news frames are also important in influencing how audiences receive and interpret news. While agenda setting can apply to any journalistic medium, many of the studies within this theory have included television news. The power of television to set political agendas has been recognized since at least the 1960s, and research on agenda setting has confirmed this power time and again.

A third prominent theory of media effects developed after the emergence of television was the spiral of silence. Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann argued that public opinion was not just the sum of people’s individual beliefs. Rather, public opinion was also characterized by people’s beliefs about what others thought. Thus, she argued, people would be less likely to express opinions if they felt that others did not share that opinion. More important, she argued that people would derive their feelings of whether others shared their beliefs from the media; she called this the media tenor. Since spiral of silence theory was developed from the 1970s onward, naturally the power of television played a role in terms of its ability to portray opinions as normative to large, heterogeneous audiences.

Indeed, most current theories of media effects have been shaped by television’s power to distribute messages to large, heterogeneous audiences. From the 1950s to the 1990s, television’s dominance of the mass consciousness was virtually uncontested. Thus, for theories of media effects that were in one way or another informed by conceptions of mass society—a society of disconnected, anonymous individuals—television as a medium represented the apex of mass mediation. In this sense, almost any theory of media effects developed after the 1950s can be seen as a response to television and thus a theory of broadcasting. Not surprisingly, television was seen as a factor in relation to a number of social questions and issues.

Television Research

Most media attract the attention of social critics as the media develop and become important aspects of the culture. This was true of radio, film, popular music, comic books, and most other mass media at various times. However, television seemed to many to be so powerful that it attracted more than its share of criticism and thus the attention of researchers.

Without question, the dominant issue of concern has been television violence. In the 1960s, competition among the three broadcast networks resulted in television lineups that were increasingly filled with action-adventures, Westerns, and crime dramas. While such fare would probably seem tame by today’s standards, in comparison with the so-called Golden Age of television (which was characterized by live dramas, quiz shows, variety shows, and similar fare), the new action-oriented lineup was disconcerting to many. The Surgeon General of the United States issued a report in 1972 on television violence, concluding that exposure to television violence does result in a number of deleterious outcomes. The government expanded and updated these findings in 1982. Since then, the dominant view has been that television violence does result in negative outcomes such as desensitization to violence, imitation of violence seen, and acceptance of violence as a way to solve problems. While violence has always been a part of the storytelling landscape, the advent of television as a broadcast medium meant that violent images could now be seen by everyone at virtually any time, in increased vividness and realism. While the government considered regulating violence, not much has been done besides the establishment of a voluntary rating system by television broadcasters and the introduction in 1996 of the V-chip, which allows parents to block programs that they might deem too violent for their children.

Another concern can be found in television’s portrayal of minorities and other marginalized groups. Of most concern was the fact that television, especially in its early years, stereotyped groups such as African Americans and women. Research showed that African Americans were much less likely to appear on television programs when compared with their population percentages, and when shown, they were most often portrayed in stereotypical roles, often as either servants or criminals. Women were also shown less frequently, and mostly in “traditional roles,” such as mother, secretary, nurse, and so on. When not shown in those roles, they were shown as objects of desire. Much research from a variety of theoretical perspectives has shown that these portrayals did matter in terms of how people viewed the marginalized groups. However, television has proven able to adapt, at least partially, to social change. Blacks and women are now shown more frequently, and the range of roles they can inhabit has also broadened. A similar phenomenon can be seen in the portrayal of gay men and lesbians. Nevertheless, even with some improvements, there are other groups—such as Latinos and Asians—that remain underrepresented on television, and even the groups that have seen their portrayals increase can still make an argument that the dominant—even hegemonic—White male culture of television still has effects at the societal level.

Despite the demise of the powerful effects view of media, television has been blamed at one point or another for almost every social problem: drug abuse, unhealthy behaviors such as smoking or unhealthy eating habits, poor educational performance of children, lack of interest or knowledge in political matters, failure to practice safe sex, and so on. In all, thousands of studies have been conducted linking television viewing to a variety of negative effects. Most studies do show effects for the given variables studied, although effects directly attributable to television are almost always small to moderate when demographic and other factors are controlled for. Still, the simple frequency with which investigators have looked at television as a cause or symptom of social ills is evidence of the enormous power ascribed to television in everyday discourse. While researchers may have bypassed the notion of a hypodermic needle or magic bullet that could inject passive viewers with any desired message, there is little doubt that television has been viewed within society as the most powerful mass medium ever devised, at least since the 1960s.

Technological Theories of Broadcasting

It is interesting to note that television’s dominance as a mass medium has been challenged—beginning in the 1980s with the rise of cable television and VCRs and more recently with the rise of the Internet. Traditional broadcasting (epitomized by over-the-air broadcasts of television) has lost much of its share to new media. At the same time, watching television—in a variety of forms—is still the most common media activity in which people engage. But the rise of new media points to the fact that the form of a technology, in this case broadcasting, can also have important effects.

Modernization theory, popular in the 1960s and 1970s, argued that developing societies could pass more quickly from traditionalism into a modern state with the infusion of mass-mediated communication. Access to information from mass media would help the Third World bypass stages of development by replacing traditional outlooks with those characteristic of “advanced” capitalist democracies. The theory of diffusion of innovations also focused on technologies and their adoption as markers of modernity, although this theory also included interpersonal and community-level communication as important determinants of a society’s move toward modernization. Broadcasting’s technological features—especially its ability to reach illiterate audiences across wide distances—made it a logical candidate for experiments in technological innovation for modernization. The advent of satellite broadcasting made the power of broadcasting as a technology seem even more alluring. Experiments were conducted with the use of television in remote underdeveloped countries, and a variety of nations undertook broadcasting projects—either in radio or television—to advance economic, social, and cultural development. While there were some successes, critics argued that broadcasting would merely serve to transmit the values of dominant, Western capitalist powers. Fears of neo-imperialism or neocolonialism muted much of the hope for broadcasting’s power as a tool for positive social change. In any case, by the 1980s and 1990s, broadcasting was reaching more people, and local production was stepping up its output. For many countries where state-sponsored television had been the norm, new commercial outlets were springing up, often through cable and satellite. The fact that local media industries in countries such as India became very large and commercial seemed to confirm some aspects of both advocates of the modernization approach and its opponents. The technology was indeed powerful as countries’ economies changed, but broadcasting’s quality as the preeminent medium for carrying advertising also meant that the economic model of free-market capitalism was often part and parcel of the technological package. These trends have led to what we now call globalization.

Perhaps the most important, though controversial, theory of broadcasting as a technology was that of Marshall McLuhan. He saw media as extensions of human sense faculties, and he was far less concerned with the content of the medium than with its form. He famously said that the medium was the message, by which he meant that use of certain media tended to reorganize the way humans think. Most important for McLuhan was the transition from a literary or written culture (a culture of the “eye”) to a mediated, aural culture (a culture of the “ear”). While McLuhan was not the first to point out the importance of the development of writing as the advent of the very essence of modern, rational, scientific, Western thought, he popularized these notions to a very wide audience. Indeed, he became something of a media phenomenon in the 1960s. While McLuhan’s ideas were widely circulated, they did not gain much traction among communication theorists. Most commonly, his thoughts have been attacked with the critique of technological determinism—the idea that all the effects of a technology can be deduced from its form. Raymond Williams (Television: Technology and Cultural Form) is a prominent opponent of technological determinism, arguing that cultural, social, and political decisions affect how a technology will be used. In any case, as we have seen, most theories of broadcasting have been linked with theories of media effect, and thus content and form are inextricably linked.