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Communications Essay 'Does the internet signal the death of broadcast media'

Communications Essay 'Does the internet signal the death of broadcast media'


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Justin Beck 18552439 0401081595


From 1955-1985 television broadcasting thoroughly dominated mass communications and culture throughout the western world (David:629). In the 1990’s however a communications medium with a different architecture was developed. The rapid changes brought by the internet and its network architecture were heralded by theorists as a ‘second media age’, and prompted Gilder to declare ‘Television is a tool of tyrants… [Its] overthrow is at hand (Gilder:49)’. The purpose of this essay is to argue that the broadcast communications architectures authority may be dead, but broadcast itself is far from dead. Instead, broadcast and network architectures have integrated into a new, multi media environment. To show this I will (1) present the ‘Second Media Age’ thesis. Then (2) give reasons for rejecting the second media age thesis, including (3) a (short) case study of television’s integration into the internet. Before (4) concluding that broadcast and network architectures share a conjunctive relationship. The ‘Second Media Age’ thesis holds that the emergence of new communications technologies in the late 20th century, exemplified by the internet, fundamentally shift the nature of communications, and therefore the structure of society. The defining feature of this new environment is that communications occur within a networked architecture. This can be juxtaposed against the previous broadcast communications architecture, which is exemplified by television. The orthodox view for social theorists is that the emergence of networked communications constitutes a communications revolution; it signals the death of the broadcast era and delivers us into the ‘network society’. As we can see this assumes a disjunctive relationship between network and broadcast communications architectures: Networked architectures are decentralised; information is sent and received by numerous interconnected nodes. This allows for a large number of producers of messages and a large number of receivers of messages. The many speak to the many in a horizontal fashion (Holmes 2005:p10). Furthermore new communications networks are digitised. That is, information (text, audio, graphics and video) is sent, stored and received in bits, allowing it to be sent near instantaneously across time and space, and across media (Barr:p29). Digital communication networks are characterised as facilitating universality, high levels of interactivity and a more liberal flow of information (Holmes 2005:p10, Levy:p91). In contrast, broadcast communication architectures are centralised; few producers broadcast messages ‘down’ to a large number of receivers. Few speak to the many in a vertical fashion (Holmes 2005:p10). Communication has a hierarchical structure, where many receivers have little power to speak back to the few with the power to speak. Consequently, broadcast communications are characterised as master slave architectures, and television as being the catalyst for docile, mass, consumer society (Gilder:p40, Adorno:1993). Gilder sees ‘television as squeezing the consciousness of an entire nation through a few score channels’, having a detrimental effect on freedom, culture and morality (Gilder:p46). While Adorno argues that television is a culture industry: not only does it create

The Second Media Age Thesis


Justin Beck 18552439 0401081595

products (such as image’s) that have potentially unlimited demand, but it indoctrinates the audience with the prevailing capitalist ideology, manipulating them into a mass of consumers (Adorno1993, Holmes 2005:p23). Simplistically we can identify two reasons why Second Media Age theorists argue network communications, embodied by the internet, eclipse broadcast communications: network renders broadcast socially obsolete and network renders broadcast technically obsolete. Rheingold (1993), Negroponte (1995), Poster (1997) and Van Dijk (1999) all argue that digital and networked communications architectures and new communications technologies have utopian potential. They provide a virtual community (Rheingold), a mode for strengthening the public sphere and democracy (Poster), free flow of information (Negroponte), and increased levels of interactivity. Furthermore, new networked communications media supersede older media technically. Broadcast media typically send information through scarce low-bandwidth analog channels, severely limiting the number of production centres and the quality and quantity of information (Gilder:38-40). The internet and digitalisation on the other hand allow for cheaper, more efficient, higher capacity, two way modes of communication. In stark contrast to the dystopian picture of a broadcast society described by Adorno and Gilder, and according to Second Media Age theorists, the network society is a fundamentally better realisation of the ‘good society’. It signals the death of the broadcast era. Rejecting the Second Media Age Thesis Despite the fantastic claims of the Second Media Age, there are strong grounds upon which to reject the thesis. Firstly, we may refute the technical distinction that is made between typical broadcast technologies (ie television) and the internet. Then secondly, we may cast further doubt on the Second Media Age thesis by questioning the claim that broadcast and network architectures are mutually exclusive, instead positing Holmes’ view that they are mutually constitutive. Marvin warns that ‘the phenomenon of mass broadcast media lies like a great whale across the terrain of our intellectual concern (Marvin:p4).’ Indeed it is a mistake to think that any particular electronic communications medium has a monopoly over, or is restricted to a specific form of communication. Telephone, print, television and the internet may all potentially be used in a many-to-many (distributed network), one-to-many (broadcast) or one-to-one fashion. Furthermore, and contrary to Gilders criticisms, all are capable of using digital technology and high-bandwidth to carry a superior signal. Cable television is perhaps the best example of how a “broadcast” technology is capable of two-way communications. On the other hand, the internet is capable of being a mass medium (Morris:p39). Take the example of the millions of hotmail members all receiving a generic newsletter email every month, or the number of internet users who have their homepage set to Nine MSN. The technological capacity of a medium does not solely shape its use. Economic, social and political factors are also important in determining whether that technology is utilised in a one-way or in an interactive fashion. In the instance of cable television, the ability it has to send messages both ways, from producer to audience, and from audience back to producer, is only just being realised. Products like Foxtel digital, where the


Justin Beck 18552439 0401081595

user is empowered with the ability to manipulate content are often suppressed because they are not economically viable, or there is not supervening social necessity 1 (Winston: p6, 12). It is simplistic to proclaim the death of particular media, such as television, without examining the political, economic and social conditions underlying its use. As we will show later, television is far from dead and is far from just a broadcast medium. Holmes (2005) diminishes the broadcast-network distinction even further. He argues that broadcast and network architectures are mutually constitutive: both are capable of being interactive, both architectures individuate their audience members, both presuppose the same economic logic and finally the same content is reproduced across both architectures. Broadcast can be considered interactive in a number of ways, we readily forget that avenues such as talk-back radio, letters to the editor, sms competitions and even ratings give audience members opportunities to talk back to broadcast producers. However audience is interactive in another important way. Because broadcast can send the same message to a large number of dispersed individuals, individual audience members can form horizontal bonds between each other based on the shared meaning they receive. A broadcast is like an invisible meeting. For instance Cathy Freeman’s gold medal run at Sydney 2000 develops a conscience collective: any individual who watched it may interact with any other individual on the basis of the shared meaning they received from that event. Contrary to this however, both network and broadcast architecture have the ability to individuate their audience and diminish their horizontal bonds. Adorno argues that the centralised flow of information individuates audience members because they become dependent on the media as a source of cultural production and abandon their horizontal networks. Likewise new networked media diminishes the need for face-to-face interaction. We can buy groceries, hand in assignments, do work from home, entertain ourselves all through networked media. We increasingly withdraw to ‘techno-shells’, interacting only with the interface of our PC, mobile phone, discman etc (Holmes 2005:p91). The reproduction and overlapping of content between broadcast and network architectures is however the most vivid evidence that the two architectures are not distinct. Nancy Baym’s case study (Baym:p1) of rec.arts.tv.soaps, an electronic network bulletin board distributed through the internet, shows how broadcast content, in this case soap opera’s, transcends the broadcast architecture. In her case study, a soap-opera community depends on broadcast to provide the shared content, and the network to enable many-to-many speech within the community. Television content interlinking with the internet is widespread. Television content has spawned millions of websites (Deary:p163). From official television show sites such as www.bigbrother.com.au, to fan sites such as www.thesopranos.com, to online journal articles about television, to online discussion forums that directly follow from television programming such as the Four Corners Forum2. In this way, Holmes argues network architectures are ‘parasitic’ on broadcast architectures3 (Holmes 2005:ch4).

The shutdown of Napster is an example of how the internets capacity for networked communication has been suppressed by the commercial interests of record companies. 2 http://www2b.abc.net.au/4corners/forum/default.htm 3 Particularly on the images and icons created by broadcast media.


Justin Beck 18552439 0401081595

Televisions integration with the internet

The integration of broadcast and network is best shown by a short case study of the Windows XP Media Center, which details television, the archetypical broadcast medium’s integration into the internet, the archetypical network medium, to create a multi-media environment that incorporates both architectures. The Windows XP Media Center4 represents the evolution of home PC’s into digital media hubs, that bring together your television, radio, music system, internet access, computer software and also the digital storage of photo’s, video’s and other data. This system allows you too capture television broadcast signals from cable, satellite or antenna, and then display them either on your television screen or on your computer. Furthermore it is connected to the internet enabling you not only too record TV shows onto your computers hard disk, but to record them remotely from any computer with an internet connection5. This multi-media system is an example of how the new media environment incorporates broadcast and network media into an enhanced system that has the capacity to communicate in a multitude of forms, it is a hybrid communications architecture. Instead of seeing the Second Media Age as a communications revolution that is fatal to the broadcast architecture, we should view network and broadcast architectures as having a conjunctive relationship. As Poster so aptly explains: ‘“The second media age”... does not engrave lines of division in the streets of everyday life. [Rather it should be seen as] a folding in of one structure upon the other, a multiplying of different principles in the same social space. Periods or epochs do not… replace but supplement one another, are not consecutive but simultaneous (Poster 1995:p21).’ The Second Media Age is a new, multi-media environment which integrates both network and broadcast technologies. The Second Media Age does signal the death of the authority of broadcast media, and this is precisely because it not longer makes sense to talk of broadcast independent of network in this new environment. As we have shown through the overlapping of broadcast and network architectures, and the integration of television into the internet, the Second Media Age does not signal the death of broadcast altogether.

4 5

See www.microsoft.com/windowsxp/mediacenter/evaluation/default.mspx MSN for instance provides a website dedicated to TV listings, which can be accessed via the multimedia center, shows can then be queued for recording. (See tv.msn.com/tv/guide).

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