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Media and Culture

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Media and Culture

The issue of the relationship between the mass media and the popular culture has always been a controversial issue in social sciences. While the political economists insist on the role of the media industry in the creation of this phenomenon of the twentieth century, its advocates such as John Fiske argue that popular culture is actually the creation of the populus itself, and is independent of the capitalist production process of the communication sector. Basing his argument on the immense interpretive power of the people, Fiske believes that the audience are able to break all the indented meanings within a media message, and by giving new meanings to that specific message they can oppose the power bloc that is trying to impose its ideology to the public. Consequently, this anarchistic activity of the audience creates the popular culture as a defense mechanism.

Even when we accept Fiske's ideas, we can not disregard the manipulative power of the media and its effects on cultural and social life. Everyday, we are exposed to millions of different visual messages which tell us what to eat, what to wear, what to listen and what to watch. No matter how hard we try to avoid being influenced by these directives, only up to a certain point we can protect ourselves, and after that, no interpretive power can be helpful. Media, then leads us to a path that ends up in the same department store with our neighbor, with whom we have probably never talked before, but holding the same pair of socks or CDs, and we might never want to recall the TV commercial that had opened the gates of this path.

United States is the biggest economical power in the world today, and consequently has also the strongest and largest media industry. Therefore, it is essential to take a look at the crucial relationship between the media and the popular culture within the social context of the United States for a better understanding of the issue.

For a simpler analysis of the subject we shall divide the media industry into three main branches: Entertainment, News and Commercials (which is the essential device for the survival of the industry, and shall be considered in integration with Entertainment).

Researches have shown that the most popular reason behind TV viewing is relaxation and emptying the mind. Therefore, the entertainment programs, being the only choice for relaxation, are the most effective tools of influence, since during these programs the viewers are least busy with conscious mental activities.

The TV series (mostly soap operas) are the most popular programs within the entertainment group. The easiness of viewing them is the reason behind their popularity. Each of them is created for a certain type of audience profile: housewives, working men, teenagers, children etc. Within these categories they are also divided according to social and economical bases. While Dallas would appeal to any average American, Thirty-something would mostly be popular among the yuppies, and Young and Restless among the housewives. However, this distribution is not intended to satisfy the viewer, but to satisfy the advertisers. Since, lets say an importer of French vines, is sure that mostly the viewers with high income and luxurious tastes would be watching Thirty-something, he can confidently advertise in the commercial breaks of this program, rather than of Married with Children.

However, the most striking characteristic of the series does not come from their commercialist structure and their power of encouraging consumerism, but from the cult that they create. In November 1980, 70 million Americans turned on their televisions to learn the murderer of J.R in the Dallas series, and after the show, 150 TV stations 3500 professional and 2500 amateur radio stations announced the murderer in the news headlines and broadcasted commentaries about the issue. During the specific episode of the series, a one minute commercial was sold for 500 000 US dollars (Senyap'l', 112). The fate of an imaginary character had become the most important subject of discussion in the United States. In other words, 70 million Americans were not able to interpret nor change the message of the series, and while back in the February of the same year, 30 to 50 thousand people in Washington were protesting the reestablishment of the registration for the draft, now they were mostly curious about J.R (Vietnam and America, 301).

On the other hand, a TV channel that was fully established on the purpose of entertainment, MTV, took a mission that was totally not expectable. In 1992 the channel started two campaigns called "Chose or Loose", and "Rock the Vote", in order to increase the voting rate among the young generation. The result was highly positive; polls taken in late October showed that 75% of the 18 to 29 age group said that they would vote, compared to the 40% in 1988. In addition the votes were heavily in favor of Clinton who had accepted to present himself on MTV, unlike Bush (Edelstein, 110). Although the picture may look positive at first, with a deeper perspective it becomes dramatic. The only way of appealing to the young generation seems to be through a music channel, which is based on the creation and consumption of a popular culture. They get interested in politics only when their idols tell them to do so. Their free thinking ability is limited with the mediated message that appeals to them, and they act mechanically according to these messages, highly contradicting with the "free your mind" slogan of MTV. When we talk about the successes of TV campaigns, we shall always consider the inverse process that can also easily take place. Therefore, the picture can be viewed more critically.

At this point a question comes to mind. Why are we so much influenced by TV; How can it ever be such a powerful device? To understand this, we shall consider Festinger's theory on social influence: "If one believes that a sheet of glass is fragile, one can test that belief by hitting it with a hammer. The subjective validity of this belief depends on physical reality testing. However, a belief like socialism is the way forward for humanity can not be tested the same way. Such a belief is correct, valid and proper to the extent that it is anchored in a group of people with similar beliefs, opinions and attitudes" (Turner, 19). This hypothesis by Festinger is supported by three additional points: 1) If other people agree and share our attitudes, then we are more likely to consider them as subjectively valid. 2) We prefer to join groups of people with whom we agree, which in the end causes a stronger agreement of a specific issue. 3) And finally, the less we are able to make physical testing the more important becomes the agreement of similar others to validate our beliefs (Turner, 20).

To get to a point where television takes its place as an instrument of conviction, we shall add a final hypothesis about influence. According to Deutsch and Gerard, informational influence is influence to accept information from another as evidence about objective reality. Conformity is motivated by the desire to form an accurate view of reality and to act correctly, and is increased by the uncertainty about the correctness of one's judgment and the ambiguity of the stimulus situation (Turner, 34). We always have a considerable amount of uncertainty about our decisions, and always look for conformation from a friend or an authority. The role of the television at this point is its being the collection of all possible organs of conformation.

It is obvious that when we take two newspapers, say The Guardian and The Daily Mirror, we are more intended to believe the news covered in The Guardian. However, as Giddens puts it, according to a research, if a news report on TV differs from a newspaper account, more than twice as many people will believe the televised version as the newspaper one (Giddens, 79).

The listeners of the Nixon- Kennedy debate on the radio saw Nixon as the obvious winner. However, the ones who watched the debate on TV were sure that Kennedy would become the new president of the United States (Hughes, 4). The TV viewers were right, but what made them think that way if it was the ideas that mattered?

According to Giddens, if the current trends in TV watching continue, by the age of 18 the average child born today will have spent more time watching TV than in any other activity except sleep (Giddens, 449). In 1947, there were 170 000 TV sets in US homes, by the year 1991 the number reached to 750 million, and considering the fact that an average 18 year old American is exposed to approximately 350 000 TV commercials, the picture becomes more dramatic (Coupland, 182).

The persuasive affect of the television, therefore follows two steps. First it is the synthesis of video and audio, which means that it involves action and sound as the most realistic forms of communication making it the most popular electronic device ever prodced. We are more likely to accept what it tells us as the truth than any other medium. It is in the most respectful corner of our living rooms, where once our grandfathers use to tell fairy tales. It is a member of our family, that holds some ...

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