15.1 Technological Advances: From the Printing Press to the iPhone

Learning Objectives

  1. Summarize the technological advances of the print, audiovisual, and Internet and digital media ages.
  2. Identify key effects of various mass media on society.
  3. Discuss how mass media adapt as new forms of media are invented and adopted.

It is only through technology that mass media can exist. While our interpersonal interactions are direct, our interactions with mass media messages are indirect, as they require technology or a “third party” to facilitate the connection. As you’ll recall from Chapter 1 “Introduction to Communication Studies”, mass communication involves transmitting messages to many people through print or electronic media. While talking to someone about a movie you just watched is interpersonal communication, watching the Academy Awards on a network or in clips on the Internet is mass communication. In this section, we will trace the development of various forms of technology that led to new channels (media) of communication and overview the characteristics of some of the most common mass media.

As we trace the development of different forms of mass media, take note of how new technologies and competition among various media formats have made media messages more interpersonal and personalized. In short, the mass media that served large segments of the population with limited messages evolved into micromedia that serve narrow interest groups (Self, Gaylord, & Gaylord, 2009). The brief discussion here of these recent changes in how media operate in our lives will be expanded more in the following chapter on new media and communication. It is also interesting to note the speed with which technologies advanced. As we move closer to our current digital age of media, we can see that new media formats are invented and then made available to people more quickly than media that came before. For example, while it took 175,000 years for writing to become established, and about 1,000 years for printing to gain a firm foundation as a medium, audiovisual media (radio, television, and movies) penetrated society within a few decades, and digital media gained prominence in even less time (Poe, 2011).

Print Mass Media

The printing press and subsequent technological advances related to paper manufacturing and distribution led to the establishment of print as the first mass medium. While the ability to handwrite manuscripts and even reproduce them existed before the print revolution, such processes took considerable time and skill, making books and manuscripts too expensive for nearly anyone in society except the most privileged and/or powerful to possess. And despite the advent of many other forms of mass media, print is still important as a channel for information and as an industry. For example, in the United States, about 3.1 billion books, 1,400 daily newspapers, and 19,000 magazines are published a year (Poe, 2011). Let’s now look back at how we progressed from writing to print and trace the birth of the first mass medium.

The “manuscript age” is the period in human history that immediately predated the advent of mass media and began around 3500 BCE with the introduction of written texts and lasted until the printing revolution of 1450 CE (Poe, 2011). Of course, before writing emerged as a form of expression, humans drew cave paintings and made sculptures, pottery, jewelry, and other forms of visual expression. The spread of writing, however, as a means of documenting philosophy, daily life, government, laws, and business transactions was a necessary precursor to the print revolution. Physical and technical limitations of the time prevented the written word from becoming a mass medium, as texts were painstakingly reproduced by hand or reproduced slowly using rudimentary printing technology such as wood cutouts. The high price of these texts and the fact that most people could not read or write further limited the spread of print.

The German blacksmith and printer Johannes Gutenberg, often cited as the inventor of the printing press, didn’t actually invent much, as most of the technology needed to print, such as movable type, already existed and had been in use for many years. In fact, the mass reproduction and distribution of texts began in East Asia around 700 CE, more than 700 years before Gutenberg, as the Chinese used a wood-block printing method to mass produce short Buddhist texts (Poe, 2011). However, Gutenberg’s use of a press to mash the paper against the typeset, as opposed to the Chinese method of manually rubbing the paper against the typeset, made the process faster and more effective. Additionally, the rise of printing in East Asia didn’t become a “print revolution,” because the audience for the texts was so limited, given low literacy rates.


Although the technology needed to print mass quantities of text had existed for many years, increasing literacy rates in Europe created more of a demand for printed text, which led to the “print revolution.”

Increasing literacy rates in Europe in the two centuries before Gutenberg undoubtedly contributed to the success of his printing efforts, since literacy creates a market for printed texts. The impact of the printing press, as introduced to Europe by Gutenberg starting with his first printing shop in 1439, should not be underestimated. His press helped usher in the Age of Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution that swept Europe during the 1600s. This spread was aided by aristocratic and religious leaders who turned to the printing press as a way to both spread Christian thought and seek to improve society by educating individuals. In 1454, Guttenberg’s famous forty-two-line Bible was the first book that was mass produced by modern methods and not transcribed by hand, which had been the practice for thousands of years. With this, the “print age” began, which extended from 1450 to 1850 and marked the birth and rise of the first mass medium (Poe, 2011).


The explosion of printing following 1450 definitely proves that print was the first mass medium. Books of the time were often shorter than today, but they were still the earliest form of communication to be distributed to the masses, which led to significant cultural and social transformation. Between 1454 and 1500, 30,000 books and pamphlets were published in Europe. In the 1500s, between 150,000 and 200,000 separate titles were printed. Remember, these numbers represent each separate book and not the total copies of each of those titles that were printed. The total number of copies is much more staggering. Between 1450 and 1500, 20 million individual books were printed. During the 1600s, between 150 and 200 million books were printed in Europe. Given that Europe’s population at the time was only 78 million, that’s about three books for each person (Poe, 2011). Of course, books weren’t evenly distributed, since most people couldn’t read or write and had no use for them. At the same time, though, cheaper, shorter materials were printed that included content that catered more to the “common” person. These early publications were similar to tabloids in that they were sold as news items but featured stories about miracles, monsters, and other sensational or fantastical events. Although not regarded for their content or positive effect on society, these publications quickly grew into what we would recognize today as newspapers and magazines, which we will discuss later.

The printing and distribution of books led to cultural transformation, just as radio, television, and the Internet did. The rise of literacy and the availability of literature, religious texts, dictionaries, and other reference books allowed people to learn things for themselves, distinguish themselves from others by what they read and what they knew, and figuratively travel beyond their highly localized lives to other lands and time periods. Before this, people relied on storytellers, clergy, teachers, or other leaders for information. In this way, people may only be exposed to a few sources of information throughout their lives and the information conveyed by these sources could be limited and distorted. Remember, only a select group of people, usually elites, had access to manuscripts and the ability to read them. Publishers still acted as gatekeepers, just as mass media outlets do today, which limited the content and voices that circulated on the new medium. But despite that, the world was opened up for many in a way it had never before been.

Demand for books quickly expanded in the United States in the late 1700s and early 1800s. Technological advances in the manufacturing of paper and cheaper materials for binding books—for example, using cloth covers instead of leather—helped reduce the cost of books. Dime novels were very popular in the United States in the mid to late 1800s. These books, also called pulp fiction, had content that was appealing to mass audiences who enjoyed dramatic, short fiction stories. During this time, publishing became more competitive and profit driven—characteristics that still apply to the industry today. While radio and magazines flourished in the first half of the twentieth century, the book industry didn’t fare as well. Many people turned to these new media over books, since radio and magazines were generally cheaper and provided more timely information about major world events like the World Wars and the Great Depression.

The book industry today caters to a variety of audiences and markets. The following are the major divisions of book publishing and their revenue from 2009, which is the most recent Census data available:[1]

  • Textbooks (K–12 and college)—$9,891,000,000
  • Children’s books—$2,522,000,000
  • Reference books—$625,000,000
  • Professional, technical, and scholarly books—$3,838,000,000
  • Adult fiction, nonfiction—$5,862,000,000

These numbers show that the book industry is still generating much revenue, but books, like other forms of media, have had to adapt to changing market forces and technologies. Whereas local bookstores used to be the primary means by which people acquired new and used books, the expansion of chain bookstores and the advent of online book purchasing have led to a dramatic decline in local and independent booksellers. Well-known independent bookstores in larger cities—for example, Tattered Cover in Denver, Colorado; Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon; Strand Book Store in New York City; and Left Bank Books in St. Louis, Missouri—compete against national chains to attract customers. The closure of nearly four hundred Borders bookstores in 2011 after the company filed for bankruptcy also shows that even chain bookstores are struggling. In terms of technological changes, many book publishers have embraced e-books in the past few years as a way to adapt to new digital media and devices such as e-readers, but they have also had to develop new ways to prevent unauthorized reproduction and “pirating” of digital versions of books. In 2011, for the first time, e-books became the number one format for adult fiction and young adult titles, surpassing print (Sporkin, 2012). Despite this fact, brick-and-mortar stores are still the primary channel through which books are sold—but for how much longer?


Newspapers, more than books, serve as the chronicle of daily life in our society, providing regular coverage of events, both historic and mundane, and allowing us to learn about current events outside of our community and country. While radio, television, and online news serve that function for most people now, newspapers were the first mass medium to collect and disseminate such information. The first regularly (weekly) published newspaper emerged in Paris in 1631, and others popped up in Florence, Rome, and Madrid over the next few decades. The first daily newspaper was published in Leipzig, Germany, in 1660. In just a little over a hundred years, in the late 1700s, large European cities like London and Paris had around two hundred newspapers, some published daily, some weekly, and some at other intervals. Not surprisingly, literacy rates also increased during this time (Poe, 2011). Also around 1700, newspapers were published in the colonies that would later become the United States. The following timeline marks some of the historical developments in newspaper publishing from colonial times to the Internet age.

Timeline of Events in Newspaper Publishing (Breig, 2012; Campbell, Martin, & Fabos, 2007)

  • 1690. First newspaper in North America is published in Boston. Due to its anti-British tone, it is banned after the first issue is printed.
  • 1704. The Boston News-Letter is the first newspaper in the colonies to be published regularly. Its content is not timely, since its focus on European events means the information is weeks to months old by the time it is published.
  • 1721. James Franklin, Benjamin Franklin’s older brother, publishes the New England Courant in Boston, which caters to business and political leaders.
  • 1729. Benjamin Franklin runs the Pennsylvania Gazette, which is well respected for the quality of its contents and also generates revenue through advertisements.
  • 1784. The first daily newspaper is published in the United States—The Pennsylvania Packet and Daily Advertiser.[2]
  • 1833. Benjamin Day, founder of the New York Sun, changes the pricing, distribution, and content of newspapers by cutting the cost of the paper to one penny per issue and selling them individually on the streets and through vendors rather than through subscriptions, which are cost prohibitive for many people. The Sun focuses more on “human-interest stories,” which attracts readers and begins a surge of other competing “penny papers” using a similar model.
  • 1848. The Associated Press is formed when six New York City papers agree to share incoming information from dispatched reporters and other news sources far away. The news is transmitted through telegraph and other cable/wire services—the label “wire service” or “news wire” is still used today.
  • Late 1800s. Many newspapers practice “yellow journalism” to be competitive, meaning they publish sensational news items like scandals and tragedies and use attention-getting (in terms of size and wording) headlines to attract customers. The New York Times begins to distance itself from yellow journalism and helps to usher in a period of more factual and rigorous reporting and a split between objective and tabloid publications that begins in the early 1900s and continues today.
  • 1955. The Village Voice is published in Greenwich Village, New York, which marks the beginning of the rise of underground and alternative newspapers.
  • 1980. The Columbus Dispatch is the first newspaper to publish content online.
  • 1982.USA Today is launched, which challenges long-standing newspaper publishing norms and adopts a more visual style. The size, layout, use of color and images, and content is designed to attract a new newspaper audience, one used to watching television news.
  • 1998. The Drudge Report, an online gossip and news aggregation site, gains national attention when it breaks a story about Newsweek magazine delaying the publication of a story about then-president Clinton’s affair with intern Monica Lewinsky (Rogers, 2012). Although online news sites have been around for years, this marks the beginning of the rise of Internet-based news gathering and reporting by people with little to no training in or experience with journalism. Traditional journalists criticize this practice, but such news outlets attract millions of readers and begin to change the way we think about how news is gathered and reported and how we get our news.

Newspapers have faced many challenges in recent decades—namely, the increase of Internet-based news, leading to a major decline in revenue and readers. In recent years major papers like the Rocky Mountain News have gone out of business completely, and others like the Seattle Post Intelligencer have switched to online-only formats. Additionally, major newspapers like the Chicago Sun Times and the Minneapolis Star Tribune have declared bankruptcy due to heavy debt burdens (Grabowicz, 2012). To deal with these financial issues, papers have laid off employees, cut resources for reporters, closed international bureaus, eliminated rural or distant delivery, reduced frequency of publication, and contracted out or partnered on content. This last strategy received national attention recently when it was found out that hundreds of newspapers were using the services of a company called Journatic to create hyperlocal content for them to publish (Sheffield, 2012). Hyperlocal content includes information like real-estate transactions, obituaries, school lunch menus, high school sports team statistics, and police activities, which are a considerable drain on already strained newsrooms. However, readers and media critics were surprised to learn that Journatic was paying people in the Philippines to write this content and then publish it under fake names. After news of this spread, many papers announced that they would go back to generating this content using their own resources (Folkenflik, 2012).


Although newspapers were the first record of daily life in the United States, magazines were the first national mass medium, reaching people all over the growing nation of the late 1700s and into the 1800s. Although the reach of magazines made them the first national medium, they were generally unsuccessful, and the content of the early magazines was not highly regarded.


Magazine publishers had a difficult time finding success, since postal carriers either refused to deliver magazines because of their weight or charged high postage rates that limited subscribers.

The high cost of transportation and delivery made magazine subscriptions unaffordable for most people, and the content consisted mostly of stories reprinted from newspapers with the occasional essay on the arts or current events. Toward the middle of the 1800s, magazines began to play a more central role in society. At the time, magazines devoted more content to important issues such as slavery and women’s right to vote (Campbell, Martin, & Fabos, 2007). Magazines as a mass medium overcame early challenges to enjoy a period of relative success in the early 1900s and then met one of their biggest challenges, the rise of television, in the mid-1900s. The following timeline traces some of the most important developments and changes in magazines (Campbell, Martin, & Fabos, 2007).

Timeline of Events in Magazine Publishing

  • 1741. Colonial magazines are published. As with colonial newspapers, Benjamin Franklin plays a central role getting them started. Unlike newspapers, magazines face more challenges in terms of postage rates and finding an audience. Over the next thirty years, about one hundred magazines are published and go defunct.
  • Early 1800s. The number of magazines increases to about one hundred in circulation by 1825. Although they generate some revenue through advertising, they still face financial struggles. Most magazines serve a specific community or area and still consist of content that is mostly reprinted from other sources.
  • 1820s. Specialized magazines catering to niche audiences begin to emerge. For example, literary magazines feature the writing of people like Mark Twain and Ralph Waldo Emerson, and magazines focus on specific professions or topics such as farming, law, education, or science.
  • 1821. The Saturday Evening Post is founded and becomes the longest-published magazine in the United States and the first general-interest magazine to be successfully marketed to a national audience.
  • 1828. The first women’s magazine, Ladies’ Magazine, is founded and marks the beginning of the trend toward targeting women as a distinct audience.
  • 1850s. Magazines pioneer the use of images in printed texts, reproducing high-quality illustrations and sketches, though not photographs.
  • 1865. The Nation is published, which focuses on political opinion and caters toward a more educated and liberal readership.
  • 1879–early 1900s. The Postal Act of 1879 is passed, which lowers the cost of postage for magazines. This, along with improvements in rail transportation and mass-production printing, leads to a surge in the number of magazines and the number of subscribers. These changes attract more advertisers, which allows magazine publishers to drop the price per issue below what it actually costs to produce the magazine. This attracts more readers, which attracts more advertisers and allows publishers to make up the loss between subscription and production rates with ad revenue.
  • 1900–1960. This is a peak time for magazine success. The early 1900s sees a rise in investigative journalism that goes into much more depth than newspaper coverage. The 1920s and 1930s see the rise of general-interest magazines such as Reader’s Digest, Time, and Life. Magazines play a key role in providing in-depth coverage of the World Wars and start to cover the cultural revolutions of the 1960s when they run into new challenges.
  • 1960s and 1970s. As television explodes as the new mass medium of choice, national magazines lose advertisers to the new audiovisual medium. Audiences (now viewers instead of readers) turn to nightly news programs to follow the civil rights movement, the sexual revolution, and the Vietnam War.
  • 1970s–present day. Magazines adapt to changing times by devoting pages or entire publications to the covering of television and movies. Magazines like People, launched in 1974, provide news on a wide range of celebrities. Magazines also adapt by becoming more specialized, trying to appeal more to niche rather than general-interest audiences.

While television forced magazines to adapt to an increasingly popular visual medium, radio and magazines coexisted relatively well. But the clash between print, audio, and visual media in the early 1900s marks an interesting time in the history of mass media. The growth and spread of print as a mass medium took hundreds of years, which seems like an eternity when compared to the spread of audiovisual media. The lack of and resistance to literacy made the printed medium spread less quickly than audio and visual media, which is not surprising from an evolutionary perspective. Humans evolved to talk, look, and listen, as evidenced by the fact that we have body parts/organs that help us do these things. We did not evolve to read and write, which is why the process of teaching those things is so difficult and time consuming (Poe, 2011). In general, people enjoy watching and listening more than reading and writing. While we had to adapt our brains to decode written language and our arms, hands, and fingers to be able to produce written text, the turn to listening to the radio and watching and listening to television and movies was much more comfortable, familiar, and effortless.

Sound Mass Media

The origins of sound-based mass media, radio in particular, can be traced primarily to the invention and spread of the telegraph (Campbell, Martin, & Fabos, 2007). The telegraph was invented in the 1840s and was made practical by Samuel Morse, who invented a system of dots and dashes that could be transmitted across the telegraph cable using electric pulses, making it the first nearly instant one-to-one communication technology. Messages were encoded to and decoded from dots and dashes on either end of the cable. The first telegraph line ran between Washington, DC, and Baltimore, Maryland, in 1844, and the first transcontinental line started functioning in 1861. By 1866, we could send transatlantic telegraphs on a cable that ran across the ocean floor between Newfoundland, Canada, and Ireland. This first cable could only transmit about six words per minute, but it was the precursor to the global communications network that we now rely on every day. Something else was needed, though, to solve some ongoing communication problems. First, the telegraph couldn’t transmit the human voice or other messages aside from language translated into coded electrical pulses. Second, anything not connected to a cable—like a ship, for instance—couldn’t benefit from telegraph technology. During this time, war ships couldn’t be notified when wars ended and they sometimes went on fighting for months before they could be located and informed.

Wireless Sound Transmission

As the telegraph was taking off around the world, the physicist Heinrich Hertz began to theorize about electromagnetic energy, which is measurable physical energy in the atmosphere that moves at light speed. Although Hertz proved the existence of this energy all around us in the atmosphere, it was up to later inventors and thinkers to turn this potential into a mass medium (Bittner, 1996). Hertz’s theories fascinated Italian-born Guglielmo Marconi, who in his late teens began capitalizing on Hertz and others’ theories of electromagnetism to inform and further his own experiments. By 1895 his work had enabled him to send a wireless signal about a mile and a half. With this, the wireless telegraph, which used electromagnetic waves to transmit signals coded into pulses and was the precursor to radio, was born. Marconi traveled to England, where he received a patent on his wireless telegraph machine in 1896. By 1901, Marconi successfully sent a wireless message across the Atlantic Ocean. Marconi became extremely successful, establishing companies in the United States and Europe and holding exclusive contracts with shipping companies and other large businesses. For example, the Marconi Telegraph Company had the communications contract with White Star Lines and was responsible for sending the SOS call that alerted other ships that the Titanic had struck an iceberg. For years, Marconi essentially had a monopoly on the transmission of wireless messages. His success at adapting the already existing system of Morse code to wireless transmission was apparently satisfying enough that Marconi showed little interest in expanding the technology to transmit actual sounds like speech or music.


Although the wireless telegraph machine was the forerunner to radio broadcasting, its inventor did not envision the possibility of sending speech or music instead of Morse code.

After Marconi, the road to radio broadcast and sound-based mass media was relatively short, as others quickly expanded on his work. As is often the case with rapid technological advancement, numerous experiments and public demonstrations of radio technology—some more successful than others—were taking place around the same time in the late 1800s and early 1900s. This rapid overlapping development has created debate over who first accomplished particular feats. Although working separately, Nathan B. Stubblefield, a melon farmer from Kentucky, and Reginald A. Fessenden, a professor from Pittsburgh, paved the way for radio as a mass medium when they broadcast speech and music over a wireless signal in the 1890s (Bittner, 1996). Although these men were able to transmit weather updates and music, their equipment was much too large and complicated to attract a mass of people eager to own it. Inventions by J. Ambrose Fleming and Lee de Forest paved the way for much more controlled and manageable receivers. Lee de Forest, in particular, was interested in competing with Marconi by advancing wireless technology to be able to transmit speech and music. Despite the contributions of the other inventors mentioned before, de Forest patented more than three hundred inventions and is often referred to as the “father of radio” because of his improvements on reception, conduction, and amplification of the signals—now including music and speech—sent wirelessly. His improvements on the vacuum tube made the way for radio and television and ushered in a new age of modern electronics (Campbell, Martin, & Fabos, 2007). Since the technological advances that paved the way for radio and television happened during this time, we can mark this as the beginning of the “audiovisual age” that spanned the years from 1850 to 1990 (Poe, 2011).

The Birth of Broadcast Radio

As the technology became more practical and stable, businesses and governments began to see the value in expanding these devices from primarily a point-to-point or person-to-person application to a one-to-many application. It wasn’t until 1916 that David Sarnoff, a former Marconi telegraph operator, proposed making radio a household necessity. He suggested that his new employer, the Radio Corporation of America (RCA), invest in a household radio that contained all the necessary parts in one box. His pitch was made more appealing by his suggestion that such a device would make RCA a household name and attract national and international attention (Bittner, 1996).

Sarnoff’s plan to make radio a centerpiece of nearly every US American household was successful, and the still relatively new medium of sound transmission was on its way to becoming the primary means of entertainment and information for many. With the technology now accessible, other key elements of radio as a mass medium like stations, content, financing, audience identification, advertising, and competition began to receive attention.

Timeline of Developments in Radio (White, 2012)

  • 1909. First commercial radio station signs on the air as an experimental venture by Dr. Charles David Herrold in San Jose, California, which he primarily uses to advertise for his new School of Radio.
  • 1919. First noncommercial radio station goes on the air at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.
  • 1920. KDKA, the station often credited as signaling the beginning of the age of commercial broadcast radio, receives financial backing from Westinghouse (a major company) and gains much national attention for airing election returns following the 1920 presidential election.
  • 1921. The US Commerce Department licenses five radio stations.
  • 1922. The first broadcasting network is created by New York station WEAF to give advertisers a discount and allow them to reach a larger audience at once.
  • 1923. More than 600 commercial and noncommercial radio stations are in operation and about 550,000 radio receivers have been sold to US consumers.
  • 1925. 5.5 million radios are now in use in the United States, making radio a powerful mass medium.
  • Late 1920s. The National Broadcasting Company (NBC), the largest radio network, begins to form affiliate relationships with independent stations that will broadcast NBC’s content to supplement their own programming (a practice that is still used today by radio and television networks). The network/affiliate model allows major networks to concentrate news broadcasting, acting, singing, and technical talent in one place and still have that programming reach people all over the country, which saves time and money.
  • 1927. 25–30 million people listen to a “welcome home party” for Charles Lindbergh, who had just completed the first solo transatlantic flight, making it the largest shared audience experience in history until that point.

How Radio Adapted to Changing Technologies

The 1920s boom in radio created problems as radio waves became so crowded that nearly every radio had poor or sporadic reception. The Radio Act of 1927 and the Federal Communications Act of 1934 helped establish some order and guidelines for frequency use and created a policy that stated any broadcaster using the now government-owned airwaves had to act in the public’s interest. As reception became more reliable, programming content became more diverse to include news, dramas, comedies, music, and quiz shows, among others, and radio entered its “golden age.” During the 1930s and 1940s, the radio was the center of most US American families’ living rooms. Later, as television began to replace the radio as the central part of home entertainment, radio was forced to adapt to the changing marketplace (Campbell, Martin, & Fabos, 2007). For example, during the 1950s, radio technology had advanced to the point that it could now be made portable. Since radio was being forced outside the home, radio capitalized on its portability by marketing pocket-sized transistor radios that could go places television could not. Radio also partnered with car manufacturers and soon became a standard feature in new automobiles, something that was very uncommon before the 1950s. Radio also turned to the music industry to replace the content it had lost to television. Stations that once aired prime-time dramas and comedies now aired popular music of the day, as the “Top 40” format that played new songs in a heavy rotation was introduced. Talk radio also began to grow as radio personalities combined the talk, news, traffic, and music formats during the very popular and competitive “drive time” hours during which many people still listen to the radio while traveling to and from work or school. Even more recently, radio stations have turned to online streaming and podcasts so their content can still make its way to computers and portable devices such as smartphones. Just as radio caught on quickly, however, so did television and movies. In the end, the combination of audio and visual offered by these new media won out over radio.

Visual Mass Media

Humans like to both watch and listen to something at the same time. For at least 140,000 years, humans have been entertained and informed by watching and listening to the things going on around them (Poe, 2011). But whether it was watching other humans or listening to the sounds of the forest, it had to happen in the moment, as there was no artificial way to convey images or sounds. It wasn’t until about 40,000 years ago that we know our ancestors first began to explore visual media including drawings, paintings, and sculptures. We later know that performing arts became a popular visual medium in societies like ancient Greece, for example, where plays were an important but still relatively new and controversial form of entertainment. Plato’s early critiques of theater mirror those that have been targeted toward television and movies more recently.


Although not a mass medium, ancient Greek theater as a visual medium was critiqued for its content much like movies and television have been in more modern times.

Plato decried the fact that playwrights seemed to focus their plots on the most unpleasant and unrefined aspects of society, such as lust, greed, and violence. What Plato may not have realized was that the Greek playwrights were continuing a theme that started with the earliest producers of visual media. The drawings, paintings, sculptures, and plays produced until that point shared some human themes—namely, sex, food, drink, wealth, and violence. I’m sure Plato would not be pleased to learn that these themes continue today in more modern forms of visual media like television and movies. Although we can see that visual media have long been a part of human history, they didn’t constitute a mass medium until the late 1800s and early 1900s with the advent of motion pictures and television.

Technology Leading to Visual Mass Media

As with the birth of any mass medium, technological advances had to take place to move us from interpersonal or group engagement with visual media to mass engagement. In the 1830s, the technologies needed to create photographs were put together in Europe, and photos were in regular circulation by the 1840s. By the late 1800s, photographs could be mass-produced and included in existing print-based mass media like books, newspapers, and magazines. As soon as photographic technology began to circulate, people began to experiment with its limits to see what other potential it held. In the late 1870s, experiments with serial photography were under way, which was the precursor to motion pictures (Dirks, 2012). In the 1890s, Thomas Edison commercialized film, creating a motion picture company and demonstrating the new technology at expos and fairs and inviting guests to come watch short movies of people doing mundane things—for a fee, of course. At the same time, advances in sound recording and wireless transmission of sound were occurring, which was essential to bring together the audio and visual elements of modern movies and television. Movies became the first mass medium to combine audio and visual electronic communication. Movie technology developed more quickly than television because it didn’t have to overcome challenges presented by electromagnetic transmission and reception.

As was the case with radio, several people were simultaneously working to expand the technology that would soon be known as television. The earliest television was mechanical, meaning that it had to be turned or moved rather than relying on electronics. In 1884, Paul Nipkow invented a mechanical television-like device that could project a visual image of the then famous Felix the Cat. It took a while for this crude version of a television to be turned into a more functional electronic version. In 1923, Vladimir Zworykin improved on this technology, followed closely by John Baird and Philo Farnsworth (Poe, 2011). Collectively, these men are responsible for the invention of television, which was the first mass medium capable of instantly and wirelessly transmitting audio and visual signals.

Timeline of Developments in Television Technology (Federal Communications Commission, 2012)

  • Late 1800s. The cathode ray tube is invented, which serves as the basic picture tube for later televisions. Paul Nipkow invents a scanning disk that separates a picture into small pinpoints of light that can be transmitted line by line and decoded to recreate a rough (low-resolution by the standards of early television) image.
  • 1923. Vladimir Zworykin develops the iconoscope, the first television camera tube capable of converting light rays into electrical signals. At the same time, Philo Farnsworth patents an electronic image dissector tube and John Baird improves on Nipkow’s disk. Baird, working in Great Britain, transmits the first live moving pictures in 1926, and Farnsworth, working in the United States, transmits a picture (of a dollar sign) in 1927.
  • 1935–39. Public demonstrations of television capture the attention of people around the world, culminating in the famous demonstration of television by RCA at the 1939 World’s Fair.
  • 1940. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) adopts standards for television transmissions that help commercialize and turn television into a mass medium.
  • 1940s–70s. Television is in its “golden age,” dominating the visual medium market.
  • Late 1970s–80s. Satellite and cable providers challenge network television’s dominance.

Television’s Golden Age

Television’s initial success as a mass medium came largely from formats and programming strategies already tested and used by radio stations. From the perspective of successful radio stations, television stole the best ideas from radio, including prime-time programming and show ideas and even the stars of the shows. For example, the radio show Candid Microphone became the television show Candid Camera, and radio stars like George Burns became even larger television stars (Campbell, Martin, & Fabos, 2007). Television also secured advertising and sponsorship from many of the same sources as radio, which started a fierce competition between radio and television.

Television’s rising popularity and its effect on other forms of entertainment are documented in many ways. For example, in the late 1940s and early 1950s, cities with television stations saw a drop in nightclub attendance, radio listening, and library book circulation, as well as a 20 to 40 percent drop in movie ticket sales (Campbell, Martin, & Fabos, 2007). By 1951, television’s status as the most important mass media of the time was cemented, as sales of television sets surpassed radios for the first time. From the mid-1950s until the cable and satellite boom of the 1980s, broadcast television was in its “golden age.” Television was made more prominent with the advent of color broadcasting, which by 1966 was standard for the prime-time lineup at the three major networks (NBC, CBS, and ABC). The rush to include color programming is just one of many examples of the intense competition among the three major networks.

During the golden age of television, the major networks aired very similar types of programs, all aimed at gaining higher ratings and audience shares than the others. Programming was primarily divided into two main categories: information and entertainment. In terms of information, the three big networks viewed their nightly news programs as flagships that helped establish their credibility as a network and helped attract a loyal viewer base. Even today, the networks’ news programs are among some of the highest-rated programs on network television. In addition, to meet the requirement by the FCC that stations serve the public interest and offer more informational programs, the networks offered newsmagazines as a more dramatized source of news. These programs, including Nightline, Dateline, 60 Minutes, and 20/20, are still important features of the network lineup that draw in large audiences.

Since the major networks broadcast to the whole country and the three options (NBC, CBS, and ABC) needed programming that appealed to mass audiences, television producers and executives were sometimes reluctant to stray from proven models of success. The typical lineup of sitcoms, hour-long dramas, news programs, sketch comedy and variety shows, and soap operas persisted from the 1950s until the 1980s. During this thirty-year period, the three main networks accounted for 95 percent of prime-time viewership, which meant that almost everyone in the country watching television was watching one of these three networks (Campbell, Martin, & Fabos, 2007). The days of only having three options was about to change, however, and network television saw its influence decline starting in the 1980s. The introduction of FOX as a fourth network signaled a programming change as the new network tried to appeal to a more specific audience with some of its shows. Adult-oriented prime-time cartoons like The Simpsons and more diverse sketch comedy shows like In Living Color shook up the rather predictable lineup of the other three networks. The networks soon had more than three channels to compete with, however, as cable and satellite became more accessible and affordable and offered many more programming options.

Time Warner Cable TV iPad App

Cable and satellite television offered customers many more channel choices, for a fee, and forced broadcast networks to rethink their programming and business model.

Cable and Satellite Television

Network and broadcast television was forever changed by the growth of cable and satellite technology. Although the mass medium is still the same (moving images sent from one place to many television sets), the increased competition led to further development and changes to how we, as users, interact with and experience the medium (National Cable and Telecommunications Association, 2012). Until the early 1970s, the major networks had lobbied the FCC to control and regulate cable television to reduce the potential for competition. Although cable television technology had been around for thirty years, it wasn’t until the FCC changed policies in 1972 that cable got the green light to compete directly with the networks. Time, Inc. (which is still a part of Time-Warner Cable) launched a satellite to relay its HBO signal in 1975, and cable magnate Ted Turner launched a satellite for his WTBS station (still on cable as TBS) in 1976. Turner’s Cable News Network (CNN) also competed with the networks’ monopoly on televised news coverage. Cable television then grew steadily and quickly for the next several years, and many more channels were quickly introduced. Cable was especially attractive to people who lived in mountainous, hilly, or rural areas that had difficulty receiving the broadcast channels’ signals. Many people were also happy to give up ugly rooftop antennae that required readjustment for each channel change or to compensate for other signal interference. The price for the access and convenience, however, was a monthly cable charge, which was a big change from the public and free broadcast channels. As cable’s subscriber base and channel options grew, different pricing options helped make cable an “easier sell” to potential customers. Additionally, cable companies and satellite television providers compete fiercely with each other, which helps reduce cost. In 2012, 90 percent of US households with televisions subscribed to cable, satellite, or fiber-optic television.[3] Although this number makes it clear that the days of broadcast networks entering viewers’ homes free over the airwaves are over, there is a growing trend of people who are turning back to the free airwaves as a primary source of television. The “Getting Plugged In” box discusses this new phenomenon of “cord cutters” and broadcast television’s growing popularity over cable among a new generation of television viewers.

“Getting Plugged In”

Cord Cutters and the New Challenge to Cable Television

For the past few years, cable companies have grown increasingly nervous about a new trend in television-viewing habits. The practice of cord cutting refers to people who cancel their cable television packages and rely on broadband Internet service and traditional broadcast television signals to watch the programming they used to receive through monthly cable subscriptions (Rogowsky, 2012). Although the number of television households in the cord-cutter category increased by approximately one million in 2011, they still only account for about 5 percent of total television households.

Age as a demographic category is key to understanding this phenomenon. There is a generation of television viewers that grew up on free broadcast television, didn’t get cable or satellite when they became popular in the 1980s and 1990s, and still doesn’t pay for television and never will. Market analysts note that this segment of the market is elderly and will not be around for much longer. Many baby boomers who saw the advent of cable and satellite and have long enjoyed the diverse programming their subscriptions offer view their monthly bills as a standard utility and will likely continue subscribing until they die. Generation Xers, who are currently in their thirties and forties, are caught in the middle. Many of these people are technologically savvy and know how to access (and occasionally do access) online television and movies. Many of them may also find their monthly cable or satellite bills annoying but acceptable. This group of people will likely keep their subscriptions as well, out of convenience, but could be tempted to cut the cord if they hit a financial hardship and/or the process of going to an online-only viewing model became easier. Last, we have a generation of people who are in college or are recent graduates who happen to be coming of age during a harsh economic crisis. They have also spent much of their lives watching online videos, television shows, and movies. The thought of committing to a monthly cable or satellite bill that would likely run them upwards of $100 a month when money is tight and they know how to access their entertainment elsewhere doesn’t sound like a winning proposition. In a time when we can get unlimited streaming on Netflix and Hulu Plus for about $8 a month each, a la carte access to programs through iTunes or Amazon Streaming, or illegal downloads of shows through torrent services, cable and satellite have to face challenges that many of us couldn’t have imagined just ten years ago. Even though 98 percent of television viewing still occurs through traditional means (cable, satellite, broadcast, or telephone company), 9 percent of US Americans have cut the cord to rely only on online viewing content, and an additional 11 percent are considering doing the same, which points to the fact that this practice is only going to increase over the coming years.[4] Luckily for the cable and satellite companies, many subscribers don’t cut their services completely, since they may also rely on the company to provide the Internet access they need to switch to online-only viewing.

  1. How do you access your television shows and movies? What is your preferred way? How do you think your age group/generation feels about monthly cable/satellite subscriptions?
  2. Do you think cable and satellite companies have a future in providing television programming? Why or why not? As we have learned in this chapter already, many forms of media have to adapt as technologies change and competition increases. How might cable and satellite adapt to these changing forces?

The Internet and Digital Media

The “Internet and digital media age” began in 1990 and continues today. Whereas media used to be defined by their delivery systems, digital media are all similarly constructed with digital, binary code made up of ones and zeros. Instead of paper being the medium for books, radio waves being the medium for sound broadcasting, and cables being the medium for cable television, a person can now read a book, listen to the radio, and access many cable television shows on the Internet. In short, digital media read, write, and store data (text, images, sound, and video) using numerical code, which revolutionized media more quickly than ever before (Biagi, 2007).

Just as technological advances made radio and television possible, the Internet would not have been possible without some key breakthroughs. The Internet is a decentralized communications and information network that relies on the transmission of digital signals through cables, phone lines, and satellites, which are then relayed through network servers, modems, and computer processors. The development of digital code was the first innovation that made way for the Internet and all digital media. Surprisingly, this innovation occurred in the 1940s, leading to the development of the first computers. Second, in 1971, microprocessors capable of reading and storing electronic signals helped make the room-sized computers of the past much smaller and more affordable for individuals. Last, the development of fiber-optic cables in the mid-1980s allowed for the transmission of large amounts of information, including video and sound, using lasers to create pulses of light. These cables began to replace the copper cables used by telephone, television, cable, and satellite companies. Because of these advances, information now travels all around us in the form of light pulses representing digits (digital code) instead of the old electrical pulses Campbell, Martin, & Fabos, 2007).


The information that speeds around us through fiber-optic cables, satellites, and wireless signals is made up of binary code—also called digital code because it is made up of zeros and ones.

The birth of the Internet can be traced back to when government scientists were tasked with creating a means of sharing information over a network that could not be interrupted, accidentally or intentionally. More than thirty years ago, those government scientists created an Internet that was much different from what we think of as the Internet today. The original Internet was used as a means of sharing information among researchers, educators, and government officials. That remained its main purpose until the Cold War began to fade and the closely guarded information network was opened up to others. At this time, only a small group of computer enthusiasts and amateur hackers made use of the Internet, because it was still not accessible to most people. Some more technological advances had to occur for the Internet to become the mass medium that it is today.

Tim Berners-Lee is the man who made the Internet functional for the masses. In 1989, Berners-Lee created new computer-programming codes that fixed some problems that were limiting the growth of the Internet as a mass medium (Biagi, 2007). The main problem was that there wasn’t a common language that all computers could recognize and use to communicate and connect. He solved this problem with the creation of the hypertext transfer protocol (HTTP), which allows people to make electronic connections or links to information on other computers or servers. He also invented hypertext markup language (HTML), which gave users a common language with which to create and design online content. I actually remember learning HTML code and creating my first (very simple by today’s standards) website in 1996. Learning HTML code wasn’t something that the masses were going to rush to do, but new software programs and webpage building programs emerged that allowed people to build web content without having to know the code. As if inventing HTTP and HTML wasn’t enough, Berners-Lee also invented the first browser, which allowed people to search out information and navigate the growing number of interconnections among computers. Berners-Lee named his new network the “World Wide Web,” and he put all his inventions into the public domain so that anyone could use and adapt them for free, which undoubtedly contributed to the web’s exploding size. The growing web was navigable using available browsers, but it was sometimes like navigating in the ocean with no compass, a problem that led to the creation of search engines. Yahoo! launched in 1995 and became an instant phenomenon. I remember thinking how cool I was when I got my first yahoo.com e-mail address in 1996! Yahoo’s success spawned many more tech companies and the beginning of the “tech bubble” of the late 1990s and early 2000s. The following timeline provides an overview of some of the key developments related to the Internet:

Timeline of Developments in the Internet

  • Late 1960s. The US Defense Department’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) begins to develop a communications network called ARPAnet (“the Net” for short) with numerous points of connection (rather than a message coming from one place and going to many) for military and research use that was not as vulnerable to failure related to a technical malfunction, natural disaster, or planned attack.
  • 1970–82. The Net is in its developmental stage, being used primarily by academic and government researchers to send text-based information using e-mail and bulletin boards. Bulletin boards contained information on specific topics such as computer programs, historical events, and health issues (Campbell, Martin, & Fabos, 2007).
  • 1982–93. The Net is in its entrepreneurial stage after an investment by the National Science Foundation is used to create a high-speed communications network with connection points all across the country. The collapse of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s brings an end to the military uses of ARPAnet. By that time people with computer know-how outside of the military had already begun to create many thousands of new connections on the Net, which meant ARPAnet couldn’t ever be turned off (finally fulfilling its original purpose).
  • 1993. The Net has now developed to the point that pictures, video, and sound (in addition to text) can be transmitted. The rapid growth of the Internet during this time is something that none of the developers could have imagined. The number of Internet users doubled each year during the 1990s.
  • 2005. Web 2.0 is realized as the Internet use becomes more social and communal, as evidenced by the popularity of such platforms and websites as Flickr, YouTube, Wikipedia, and Facebook that encourage and enable the creation and sharing of user-generated content.

From the beginning, the Internet was a mass medium like none other. The majority of the content was user generated and the programs needed to create and navigate online content were in the public domain. This fusing of free access to information and user creativity still forms the basis of digital “new media” that are much more user controlled and personal. Demand for Internet access and more user-friendly programs created the consumer side of the net, and old media companies and regular people saw the web as another revenue generator.

A major source of revenue generated by the Internet goes to Internet service providers (ISPs), who charge customers for Internet access. The more reliable and fast the connection, the more expensive the service. Interestingly, old media providers like cable companies (who were competing against satellite companies) and phone companies (who were also struggling after the growth of cell phone and e-mail communication) are the largest providers of high-speed Internet access. In the late 2000s, these companies were bringing in more than $30 billion a year from these services (Biagi, 2007).

Many others make money from the web through traditional exchanges of goods or services for money or by selling space to advertisers. These methods of commerce are not new for any mass media, as they were used in print, radio, and television. Online auction sites like eBay and online stores like Amazon simply moved a traditional commercial exchange to the realm of cyberspace. Advertising online, however, is quite different from advertising in other media. Old media advertisers measure their success with ads based on a corresponding increase or decrease in sales—a method that is not very precise or immediate. Online advertisers, on the other hand, can know exactly how many people see their ads based on the number of site visitors, and they can measure how effective their ad is by how many people click on it. This can allow them to revise, pull, or buy more of an ad quickly based on the feedback. Additionally, certain online environments provide even more user data to advertisers, which allows them to target advertisements. If you, for example, search for “vacation rentals on Lake Michigan” using a search engine, ads for lake houses or vacation spots may also show up. The social networks that people create on the Internet also create potential for revenue generation. In fact, many people have started to take advantage of this potential by monetizing their personal or social media sites, which you can read more about in the “Getting Real” box.

“Getting Real”

Monetizing the Web: Entrepreneurship and Digital/Social Media

The “Getting Real” boxes in this book have focused on how the concepts we are learning relate to specific careers. Although you might not make a whole career out of being a web entrepreneur, many people are turning to the Internet as an extra source of income. People have been making money off the web for decades now, but sites like eBay really opened people’s eyes, for the first time, to the possibility of spinning something you already have or already do into some extra cash. Anyone can establish a web presence now, whether it’s through starting your own website, building a profile on an existing website like a blog-hosting service, or using a space you already have like your Facebook or Twitter account. Next, you need to think about what it is you’re offering and who it is that might want it. For example, if you have a blog that attracts a regular stream of readers because they like your posts about the weekend party scene in your city, you might be able to utilize a service like Google’s AdSense to advertise on your page and hope that some of your readers click the ads. In this case, you’re offering content that attracts readers to advertisers. This is a pretty traditional way of making money through advertising just as with newspapers and billboards.

Less conventional means of monetizing the web involve harnessing the power of social media. In this capacity, you can extend your brand or the brand of something/someone else. To extend your brand, you first have to brand yourself. Determine what you can offer people—consulting in your area of expertise such as voice lessons, entertainment such as singing at weddings, delivering speeches or writing about your area of expertise, and so on. Then create a web presence that you can direct people back to through your social media promotion. If you have a large number of followers on Twitter, for example, other brands may want to tap into your ability to access that audience to have you promote their product or service. If you follow any celebrities on Twitter, you are well aware that many of their tweets link to a product that they say they love or a website that’s offering a special deal. The marketing agency Adly works with celebrities and others who have a large Twitter audience to send out sponsored tweets from more than 150 different advertisers (Friel, 2011). Two movie studios now include in actors’ contracts terms that require them to make a certain number of social mentions of the project on all their social media sites. Another online company, MyLikes (http://www.mylikes.com), works with regular people, too, not just celebrities, to help them monetize their social media accounts (Davila, 2012).

  1. How do you think your friends would react if you started posting messages that were meant to make you money rather than connect with them?
  2. Do you have a talent, service, or area of expertise that you think you could spin into some sort of profit using social or digital media?
  3. What are some potential ethical challenges that might arise from celebrities using their social media sites for monetary gain? What about for people in general?

Internet access is also following people away from their home and work computers, just as radio followed people into their cars. Smartphones and the development of cell phone networks capable of handling data traffic allowed cell phone providers to profit from the web. The convergence of the Internet with personal electronics like smartphones and the use of the Internet for social purposes are key parts of the discussion of personal media and social media that we will take up in Chapter 16 “New Media and Communication”.

Key Takeaways

  • Technological advances made possible newer forms of media that displaced others.

    • The Print Age. The development of the printing press in Europe around 1450 was the key technological advance that moved us from the manuscript era to the print era. As paper and bookbinding materials became cheaper, books spread around the world and literacy rates increased. Cheaper paper, more advanced printing presses, and faster and more reliable transportation technologies also contributed to the rise of newspapers and magazines as print media.
    • The Audiovisual Age. Wireless telegraphy paved the way for radio and television broadcasts. Advances in signal transmission and reception as well as vacuum tube technology made televisions and radios more reliable and compact. Cable and satellite television began to compete with broadcast television, as they provided access to more channels and service in areas where broadcast signal reception was unreliable.
    • The Internet and Digital Media Age. The development of digital code, microprocessors, and fiber-optic cables were key technological advances that made the Internet and digital communication possible. Rapid developments around 1990, such as the creation of HTTP and HTML coding and Internet browsers, created what we know today as the World Wide Web.
  • Each form of mass media affected society in important ways. Books allowed people to educate themselves and be more selective about the information to which they were exposed rather than relying solely on teachers or clergy. Newspapers chronicled the daily life of societies and provided a public forum for information sharing and debate. Magazines were the first medium to make major advances in the mass printing of photographs, which brought a more visual medium to their audience before the advent of television. Radio allowed masses of people to experience something at the same time, which helped create a more unified national identity and also brought entertainment and news programs into people’s homes. Television copied many of radio’s ideas and soon displaced the radio as the centerpiece for entertainment in people’s homes. The Internet brought a new decentralized and communal form of media that could not be controlled by any one government or business and allowed for the creation of user-generated content.
  • Electronic media especially has had to adapt as new forms of media are invented. Radio, for example, lost much of its advertising revenue to television, which led radio to adapt its programming from news and entertainment to broadcasting music. Radio also took advantage of new technologies to become portable and follow people out of their house. Broadcast television had to diversify its program lineup as cable and satellite providers offered many more channels. All these media, even print, had to adapt to the advent of the digital age. Copyright violations—pirating—become a problem when old media content is digitized, which makes it more easily reproducible and sharable.


  1. Getting integrated: Discuss how technology affects your communication in various contexts including academic, professional, civic, and personal. Also discuss how your engagement with technology changes from context to context. For example, do you use online technology more in one context than another? In what contexts/situations might you prefer “old media” like phone, written letter, or even face-to-face communication?
  2. Print and broadcast media have been struggling to survive in a digitized world. Do some research on one of these media to see what some of the current issues are. Why are they struggling? What do you think they could do to remain profitable and relevant?
  3. As more media products become digital, issues of ownership and copyright get more attention. Identify some pros and cons of limits on sharing digital media and stricter copyright laws.


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This is a derivative of Communication in the Real World: An Introduction to Communication Studies by a publisher who has requested that they and the original author not receive attribution, which was originally released and is used under CC BY-NC-SA. This work, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.