The Future of the Mass Audience

by Brent Hall


In W. Russell Neuman's book, The Future of the Mass Audience, the onset of new technologies within media poses a dilemma to those predicting their impact. Two opposing theories are raised: Orwell's totalitarianistic "Big Brother" theory, which bases its ideas on the Mass Society theory, and Bush's vision of the Memex, which is derived from the theory of communications and political development. However, Neuman assumes that the future of the mass audience must lie somewhere between totalitarianism and a pluralistic democracy. I believe that, despite the advanced technology, the audience of the future will take one of two directions. Depending on the funding of the new media, audiences will either be small and insignificant, or audiences will be controlled by corporate forces.

Neuman argues that the future of the mass audience lies in between complete government control and an active pluralist democracy. With the rise of new technologies that will allow a more horizontal, user-controlled media, the structure of society will be altered. Due to post-industrialism, which created separations within the community, people have sought a sense of belonging. With the rise of new media technology, people will be vulnerable to media control. This idea is contrasted with the belief that new media will be easily accessible and allow users to be educated. The audience will actively participate in a type of "town hall" marketplace of ideas, which is indicative of a true democracy. However, the push of technology will be countered by two forces.

Neuman believes that the onset of new media technology will be opposed by two forces. One involves the behavior of the mass communications audience. Throughout the communications revolution, media has not captured the attention of its active audience. Rather, the audience selectively participates in media. According to Neuman, "The force of the technological communications revolution will be significantly constrained by the partial attentiveness and limited energies of the mass audience." The second force involves the political economy of the American mass communications industry. The privately owned media demands profits. Because of this, the content of the new media will not differ greatly from traditional forms of media. Neuman's argument is that the combination of forces will lean toward Bush's ideal of the pluralist democracy. However, the length of time it will take to achieve this position is large. Neuman's future of the mass audience is optimistic, but I believe he has overestimated the power of technology and underestimated the power of the media's economy.

Neuman argues that there are many advantages to the new media, among which are decreasing costs, increasing extensibility, increasing volume, increasing channel diversity, and increasing interconnectivity. What Neuman neglected to mention was the cost that these advances will entail. He first discusses decreasing costs. True, the costs of media technology are decreasing due to technological advances. However, the past has proved that technology moves so rapidly that the equipment is continually being replaced by more advanced and more expensive forms. It is an endless cycle of the past's equipment being replaced by today's equipment, which gets replaced by tomorrow's equipment. Costs do decrease, but by this time the consumer runs the risk of his purchase being outdated by newer technology. This cycle is evident in computer, stereo, and video technology. This argument is countered by the increasing extensibility of technology. However, software is not immune from the cycles of technology and costs either. As newer and more advanced software is developed, existing software will become outdated. Thus, the cycle continues. Increasing volume, channel diversity, and interconnectivity will all cost money. Finding information takes time and effort, and it will cost money to search databases such as Nexis. New, diverse channels of communication must be purchased, much like cable television. The interconnectivity that allows traditional forms of media to be accessed through one medium does not mean that it will cost any less. Movies, magazines, and music must still be purchased. It appears that new media technology will cost more than Neuman predicted. Due to the many costs of new media, the future of the mass audience will head in one of two directions.

The key to controlling the content of the media is to look at who pays for it. There are two ways that the new media will be funded: either by the consumers or by advertisers. Both funding methods are utilized within existing media communications. Government funding is unlikely due to past precedent. Historically the government has left media in the private sector and plays a very limited role within media. However, whichever way the new media is funded, the result will be different from what Neuman predicts.

If the consumer funds the use of the new media technologies, a situation much like public television will be created. The new media will be viewer or audience-funded and depending on the medium, may only be available to those willing to pay. This will result in a limited audience who has spent a lot of money to utilize the technology. The content of information may be much more diverse and desirable to the audience than currently exists in traditional media. However, the amount of people who have access to it will be insignificant due to costs. In addition to the technological equipment costs, a unique situation may arise concerning the nature of information. Whereas television is cost-free to the consumer, this new media will not be. Thus, information becomes a commodity that must be purchased by the user. It will be similar to pay-per-view television in that one must pay for individual programs. Thus, if the user desires certain content, he will have to pay for it. The existence of a pluralist democracy may develop, but only within this small, elite group that has access to the media. Neuman acknowledges the limited access of the new media, but attributes this to the complexity of the technology and the lack of audience desire. However, it seems that the limited effects of new media communications will be due more to the high access cost. The Internet computer system, which gives users access to a wealth of information, is indicative of this new media. In order to use it, users must have access to a computer, a phone line, and own an account, all of which require money. For this reason, only a small percentage of the population has access to the Internet. It has been heralded as the electronic "town hall," but currently it is a very small and limited democracy. Consumer funding is the only way to guarantee content diversity, but the lack of an audience may result in a search for other funding for new media. The other direction that new media may take is towards corporate funding.

Corporate and advertiser funding of new media communications will allow the audience free access to the information, but this will result in homogeneous media content and subtler forms of media control. Television is an example of a corporate and advertiser funded medium. Neuman discussed the corporate structure of the media, which will hold true for this new media. Success is measured by audience size, and in order to achieve this media must appeal to mainstream interests. Despite technological advances within communications equipment, the content will remain as homogeneous as always. Corporate control, as well as advertising control, will be just as prevalent with the new media as it is with traditional media.

Neuman points to the increasing flexibility of technology that allows new media to be less economic focused by allowing the audience to skip advertisements and watch only what they desire. Advertisers are aware of this and have begun to devise alternative ways of advertising. Traditionally in media, there is a distinct line between ads and actual content. New media will result in a blurring of the distinction between advertising and information. This trend can be viewed in the traditional media form of television, as infomercials, which are advertising-funded programs, become prevalent. In new computer-based media, this trend will permeate the content of information. Because they are aware that users will only access desired information, advertisers will rely on this information to sell their products. There will be information about advertisers' products, as well as advertiser-sponsored information. The Internet's World Wide Web has many examples of this. Businesses have "home pages" where users can obtain information about their product. For example, Warner Brothers has a "home page" that has information about their music artists, movies, and magazines. Other corporations will choose to provide non-product related information, as long as the user knows who is sponsoring it. Miller Genuine Draft sponsors a page that lists popular restaurants in various cities across the country. Corporations will try to disguise their advertisements as information, which will result in corporate control of the audience. Perhaps this approach will be more successful for advertisers, because the economic influence is subtler and less obvious to the consumer. As opposed to propaganda, which blasts the message to the audience, this blurring of information and advertising may confuse users. What could result is corporate control. Though the audience believes they are in control, because they cannot discern ads from information, they are not. Neuman has allowed for the power of economic forces, but believes that the new technology will win out. I disagree.

Neuman believes that the new media will not be under the control of government or corporations. Rather, the audience will control it. However, media technology is not free. Costs will be high and someone will have to pay for it. If the trend is towards consumer-funded media, control will be in the hands of the people, which Neuman believes will happen. Unfortunately, the access to it will be expensive and in small demand. This may work for a time, but much like Warner Communication's QUBE, the new media may not have enough participation to make a difference. If funding is corporate-based, the future may be even less optimistic.

Neuman has allowed for the adaptation of the new media by the audience, but he did not allow for the adaptation of it by corporate forces. The corporate structure will ensure the homogeneity of programming, while the advertising structure will adapt to the new media. Rather than allow themselves to be locked out by the new technology that will be more user-controlled and information based, advertisers and corporations will simply devise new ways and perhaps more efficient means of consumer control.

All this sounds very disturbing when it comes to new media technology. However, I do not believe that the audience needs to be wary of the future media. One needs to only look at the history of mass communications. The majority of control has always been in the hands of economic interests. Despite Neuman and Bush's hopes, in essence, nothing will change as traditional forms of media give way to newer forms. This seems like the ultimate middle ground, one which Neuman did not present: the audience will not be any better off, but at least it will not be worse off.

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