Television started to make its way into people’s homes in the 1950s. There were very few channels. Audiences shared roughly the same news, commentary and entertainment outlets. By most accounts such unitary media sources helped reinforce social habits and opinions. Amongst its many effects, mass media tended to put citizens on the same page, with the same cultural reference points.
To be more precise, according to media theorist James Carey writing in the 1980s, television as a mass medium provided a means by which “shared culture is created, modified and transformed” (33).
Not least, people watching the same tv channel in the evening would have something in common to talk about the next day as they stood around the water cooler, a pastime less usual now with the asynchronous consumption of streamed media (and bottled water).
Up until the 1980s, program content had to be acceptable to the community at large. That’s the assessment of media commentator James Poniewozik in his recent book Audience of One. He characterises this tv era as the “offend-no-one, Least Objectionable Program Model of Twentieth century broadcasting.”
TV producers were reluctant to innovate or cater to niche markets as just about everyone was watching the same shows. The mass media was nothing if not polite — offend no-one.
I don’t think Poniewozik refers to this, but from the earliest days, non-commercial, free-to-air broadcasters such as the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), the Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC), and the USA Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) catered to educational, science, arts and niche programming. But reliance on public money imposed similar pressures to “offend no-one.”
Early subscription services also exerted an influence, at least in the USA. Poniewozik explains how the Home Box Office (HBO) service launched in 1972 focussed on “boxing matches and uncensored feature films.” That’s a far cry from its association now with high end programs: Sex and the City, Six Feet Under, Game of Thrones, etc.
The start of the 1980s saw the widespread adoption of a multitude of channels that really fragmented mainstream television audiences, notably with the launch of the 24-hour news channel CNN.
“The second thing that would break up the mainstream TV audience was cable …. CNN had been in business for only two months. MTV would go on the air a year later. As cable spread, it would transform a mass experience into a customized one. If broadcast networks began with the idea of TV for everyone, cable channels were by definition TV for some, and only some.”
Specialised channels for sports, music, news, business and weather emerged, in some cases accommodating divergent political views. For Poniewozik, this meant that tv could become more diverse, edgy, and even offensive.
The Internet provided the next wave of media fragmentation, specifically Web 2.0. Until about 2004, the Internet was the preserve of enthusiasts, hobbyists and hackers. I’ve been reading Edward Snowden’s recent book Permanent Record. Helpfully, he describes this earlier phase as a medium for sharing and exchange.
“Whatever Web 1.0 might’ve lacked in user-friendliness and design sensibility, it more than made up for by its fostering of experimentation and originality of expression, and by its emphasis on the creative primacy of the individual. … Computer science professors and systems engineers, moonlighting English majors and mouth-breathing, basement dwelling armchair political economists were all only too happy to share their research and convictions — not for any financial reward, but merely to win converts to their cause.”
In so far as it’s possible to generalise about this multi-faceted medium, the Internet subsequently lost its liberal, radical, left-leaning and care-oriented innocence. Content became professionalised and monetised.
Instead of peer-to-peer exchange, the medium was characterised by customisation and the proliferation of packaged, templated and monetised user-generated content on sharing platforms such as Youtube, Twitter, Instagram, WhatsApp and Facebook.
The Internet and social media provided the opportunity for narrowcasting, direct messaging from corporate and individual broadcasters to targeted groups and individuals. The medium made it even easier to offend people, and to identify and target victims — hence, trolling.
From one audience to an audience of one
This trajectory of media developments aligns with some remarkable social phenomena, not least the rise and fall of political demagogues and their influence. Evident from the title of his book, Audience of One, Poniewozik wants to show what happened in the media landscape that enabled someone like D.J. Trump to rise to prominence. The book puts store on easy phrases such as “Trump won the election, but tv became president.”
Poniewozik turns in detail to the content of 1980s tv, and the creation of the anti-hero, referencing Breaking Bad (2008-20013) that invokes sympathy for illicit drug manufacturers and dealers, and All in the Family (1971-1979) (based on the UK Till Death Us Do Part) that ambiguated and gave legitimacy to right-wing bigotry. Archie Bunker was “Trump’s sitcom John the Baptist.”
According to Poniewozik, audiences were primed for Trump, “a braggart who lived large and said that it was O.K. to want things” and to fight to get them.
“That life is a constant, zero-sum competition, and if you are not beating someone then someone is beating you. (The lesson of sports and game shows.) That the best response to any controversy or crisis is to heighten the conflict. (The lesson of TV news.) That people perform best when set to fight against one another for survival. (The lesson of The Apprentice.) That there is no history or objective truth beyond your immediate situational interests, and that reality resets with every tweet or click of the remote.”
Media fragmentation means that if you don’t like the morality or the politics of a channel’s offerings then you can change channel. That’s the libertarian defence: if it offends you then don’t watch it.
Media fragmentation and narrowcasting provided a means for people to be offensive, and even encouraged people who thrive on conflict and offence into positions of power.
With media convergence it is as if anyone can be an audience of one, receiving and transmitting media content, opinion, comment, creating individualised media bubbles that eventually reform and coalesce into airy froth or toxic troughs of goo [my phrase].
In summary, Poniewozik references airline disasters and a notorious cruise liner in which the engines failed and the toilets overflowed.
“Trump was a plane that crashed every day, a Poop Cruise in perpetuity … He was a one-man solution to the problem of what to do when there was no breaking news.”
The term “trump” serves as a sump for receiving and delivering offence — even set to music. Now we have TikTok. If you have an account, search “trump,” “impeach,” “brexit,” …
- Carey, James W. 1989. Communication as Culture: Essays on Media and Society. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul
- Poniewozik, James. 2019. Audience of One: Donald Trump, Television, and the Fracturing of America. London: Norton
- Quinn, Annalisa. 2019. ‘Audience Of One’ Aims To Show How TV Shaped Donald Trump — And Led To His Rise. NPR, 11 September. Available online: https://www.npr.org/2019/09/11/759016509/audience-of-one-aims-to-show-how-tv-shaped-donald-trump-and-led-to-his-rise?t=1573908429095 (accessed 16 November 2019).
- Shteyngart, Gary. 2019. Which Came First, Trump or TV? The New York Times, 6 September. Available online: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/06/books/review/audience-of-one-james-poniewozik.html (accessed 16 November 2019).
- Snowden, Edward. 2019. Permanent Record. London: Macmillan
- Picture of televisions was taken at the National Science and Media Museum, Bradford, England. The second image is a screenshot from TikTok.
- Some of the quotes above are from audiobooks. So it’s not possible to specify page numbers.
- On the subject of offence, I’ve just read the first few chapters (for free) of Donald Trump Jr’s book Triggered: How the Left Thrives on Hate and Wants to Silence Us. We know that the accused often turn the charges levelled against them on their accusers. This book draws on what I assume is scant and selective evidence — it’s swaddled in grievance. The accuser deploys indignity and insult throughout: “I kept up the heat on television and on Twitter, calling out all of the lies Adam #FullofSchiff was telling about me.” Trying to align the Democrats with tin-foil hat wearing conspiracy theorists he declares: “If you really want to see aliens, the first place I’d look would be in Nancy Pelosi’s office.” His maternal grandmother fled communism in Czechoslovakia. He was keen to see her weaned off CNN: “back in the Czech Republic, you pick up CNN early, like a drug addiction. Soon she’ll be watching Fox with the rest of the sane people in the world.”
Trump, Donald Jr. 2019. Triggered: How the Left Thrives on Hate and Wants to Silence Us. New York, NY: Center Street.