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Mass Media is a Fad

Mass media is a fad that arose because of the nature of media technology. It peaked in the twentieth century and is currently in decline. In the future, most media will be niche, appealing to and seen by small, limited audiences.

In the middle of the twentieth century there were three TV networks. TV was broadcast over the airwaves and there wasn’t enough spectrum available for more channels. Everyone in the US watched the same shows at the same times. This was the peak of the mass-media era.

Then came cable TV. Coaxial cable ran directly into the home meant households could now watch any of fifty, a hundred, and then five hundred channels. We had channels for comedy, drama, westerns, romance, action, music, and documentaries. Now we were watching any of a large number of things at the same time.

The rise of high-speed Internet availability enabled the next stage in the decline of mass media, the streaming era. Netflix could offer their entire catalog to their customers at anytime. Others followed, including Hulu, Max (née HBO Max), Disney+, and Paramount+. With a staggering array of options, viewers could chose nearly any movie or TV and watch it at any time.

The streaming era had its limitations. Some things were lost; there simply weren’t surviving copies available to digitize. More often media was stuck in legal limbo where it was too difficult or expensive to identify and secure the necessary rights for streaming distribution. More than a few were mothballed because they were offensive or embarrassing.

But the biggest limitation of the streaming era was that is it was limited to things created and owned by major media companies. The quantity of choice was staggering, but it will be dwarfed by the next era.

In the next era or media choices will be effectively infinite. According to an article in the Atlantic there are an estimated 14 billion publicly-visible videos on YouTube. That’s not including what is available on Instagram, TikTok, and elsewhere.

In the future, the overwhelming amount of media will be made for smaller and smaller audiences, just like it was in the past.

Since the twentieth century, it has been possible for media to be distributed nationally and globally. Before the Internet there was cable. Before cable there was broadcast. And before broadcast, movie reels were shipped to cities around the world.

But before that technology existed, media was not global, it was local. Before we had movie theaters we had theaters.

While I’ve spoken exclusively about audiovisual media above, music follows the same arc with only small differences in the technology and timelines. The same is true for audio media in general, as well as imagery.

Before we had recording technology our music came from musicians in our town and in our living rooms. Before we had printing presses our text came from local poets, lecturers, and criers. Before we had printing our imagery came from painters and visual artists working locally.

Before there was mass media, there was local media. Mass media arose as technology made it feasible for tiny amounts of media to be distributed to huge numbers of people. As these limitations disappear, media will become niche again, even though the niches no longer have to be geographic.