Broadcast Media Theory

Lekth Nath Pandey



Concept of mass communication has established first half of the 19th century. While news media, especially newspapers have gone in mass circulation; the word “mass” coined. It was the time when penny press came into existence in 1830s. Yellow Journalism of late 19th century further proved it. 

While newspaper has become mass circulation in the western world, it was believed media has great power. During the First World War there were massive misuse of printing media, and even radio technology to defend the national interest and attack the enemy countries. There was no regular radio broadcasting. After the war, beyond print media- radio also debut its regular casting. And, communication research has begun by western scholars, especially focused on power of mass media. In another word, the concept of media propaganda came into existence.


Radio and television have, respectively, an eighty-plus- and fifty-plus-year history as mass medium, and both grew out of pre-existing technologies-telephone, telegraph, moving and still photography. According to R. Williams cited in McQuail’s Mass Communication Theory”, “Unlike all previous communication technologies, radio and television were system primarily designed for transmission and reception as abstract processes, with little or no definition of preceding content.” However, both came to borrow from existing media, and most of the popular content forms of both are derivative from film, music, stories, news and sport. 

So, there is no special and distinctive theory for broadcasting. For instance, a hypodermic needle or magic bullet theory was based on wartime propaganda, covered by the print and electronic media as well. There is no special theory for print propaganda and propaganda through broadcast media such as radio and television. So, McQuails points out that “mass communication has no special theory or models for broadcasting or printing media.” There are hundreds of concepts, theories and models related to mass communication channels and it’s functioning. None of the scholar and theorist has assessed mass communication channels like print-radio and television, separately for establishing its specific theory.


However, Marshall McLuhan, Geroge Gerbner are the leading figures among the scholars who tried to make distinction in broadcasting media effects. McLuhan, a Canadian professor of English who took degrees on all human sciences except mass communication, and established some controversial theories and concepts about that subject he was not master. Critics comment he didn’t establish any theory but only the concepts that become all the time controversial and utopian. But, time has proved his thought “Global Village” that proved him as a visionary communication scholar. 

‘Hot’ and ‘Cool’ Media

In McLuhan’s terms a hot medium refers to “one that extends a single sense in high definition: it provides all the necessary data.” And a cool medium “extends multiple senses in low definition, or with little information.” Hot media include print, an extension of the eye. He said radio as an extension of hearing, in which all of the information is provided by the audio transmission and photographs, which are high definition deceptions that extend our sense of sight.

But cartoon is a cool medium. Because, he argued, “It has low definition: it provides only a minimum of information from which the viewer tries to fill in the missing parts to make sense of the whole” (Clarifying Communication Theories, 2003 London). The hot vs. cool distinction is a continuum. For example, a movie shown in a theater is a hot medium. Although it extends the senses of sight and sound, and perhaps other bodily senses such as heart and pulse rates, tears or laughter. McLuhan considers film is hot because it is a high-definition medium. Movies are like reading a novel: an individual experience with the medium providing all the data. Raymond Gozzi Jr. comments in his review ‘Hot and cool media’ (1992, ETC: A Review of General Semantics p. 49), “film and the documentary are hottest media ever because of its great audience attention.”


Television medium is considers as a cool medium. Because, “it has nothing in common with film or photo” argues Gerald Stone, a communication professor of Southern Illinois University at Carbondale in a compiled book, Clarifying Communication Theories, 2003, ”Insted of being the rendering of light on film, as is a movie, television is light on a screen composed of about three million dots flashing per second in electronic lines.” The television viewers select the several dozen each instant to compose an image. The electronic dots represent television a low-definition medium, one that requires viewer participation to make sense of the image. 

Simply, we can reach the conclusion that the medium, which attracts the higher audience’s attention, that is hot. And which attracts the lower degree of audience’s attention that is cold medium. In this respect, print medium is the hot and the television is cool media. Radio lies in between. This concept appears to force media into binary categories. However, McLuhan’s “hot” and “cool” exist on a continuum: they are more correctly measured on a scale than dichotomous terms.

Brain Hemisphericity


The concept of Brain Hemisphericity- the psychological term that McLuhan borrows to correlate human cognition (mind) and the media also supports the thought of hot and cold media.


Psychologists find the evidence that left side of human brain controls speaking, reading and math (the more logical processing functions), while the right side control intuition, visual images and spatial relations (the more creative or imaginative functions). Study showed that television viewing is related to right-brain processing with low involvement, while news newspaper reading is related to left-brain processing with high involvement. Herbert E. Krugman comments in his book, “Memory without recall, exposure without perception-1997, p 201”, “So, McLuhan wrote about these findings that fit his theory about hot and cool media.”


Medium is the Message


Perhaps the strongest statement in Mcluhan’s retinue, this is the theme that covers all of his writings. He adopted the term “massage” to denote the effect each medium has on the human sensorium, inventorying the “effects” of numerous media in terms of how they “massage” the sensorium.


In the Medium is the Message, he also rehashed the argument that media are “exteension” of our human senses, bodies and minds. Finally, McLuhan described key points of change in how man has viewed the world and how these views were changed by the adoption of new media. “The technique of invention was the discovery of the nineteenth century”, brought on by the adoption of fixed points of view and perspective by typography, while “the technique of the suspended judgment is the discovery of the twentieth century” brought on by the bard abilities of radio, movies and television.


McLuhan claims that not only are the “ages of civilization” a phrase that he coined to describe the human civilization, determined by the prevailing medium but also that each medium has a power that far exceeds content. Actually, while he does use media content in examples to further his pronouncements, his single, overriding theme is that content should be ignored as critics evaluate the impact on society made by the advent of media.


McLuhan for Reviewers


Denis McQuail tagged his concepts are the most influential on electronic media ever. In his book, “Clarifying Communication Theories” Gerald Stone argues that “critics charge McLuhan was far too exotic in his conjectures; that his substantiating examples were exception rather than the rule, that juxtaposing art, religion and architecture with communication theory was a forced marriage at best; and that his statements are vague, distorted and beyond proof.”


Certainly, the last of these criticisms seemed to be true. Although very few researchers tried to test his theories, little support was found for any of McLuhan’s hypothesis.


Time Proved His Concept


Despite those who would ridicule McLuhan’s theories, some of his ideas have not only stood the test of time, but time seems to have conferred more proof than the research.


His concept of “Global Village”- the term he used four-decade before- 1964, contemporary events lend credence to the idea of a shrinking world brought about through the electronic media. Google Earth is a vivid image that proved McLuhan’s concept through Internet. Now, the world unites in watching the Olympics. Previous United States of America dominance of the flow of information and entertainment has given way to international exchanges. Because of technological revolution, that McLuhan predicted- makes contra-flow of information against North American and Western Europe’s domination.


Cultivation Theory


Apart from McLuhan, George Gerbner, an American researcher on media effects, also established a concept on television that is called Gerbner’s cultivation theory. He argues, on the basis of several decades of research and data collection that television is central to American culture, and that heavy viewers of television tend to perceive the world in terms of “TV reality”(Narula, 2000). 


Cultivation, for Gerbner, means that television teaches a common worldview to its audience. For example, one result of the predominance of police and crime shows, and other violent fare is that heavy viewers tend to overestimate the likelihood of being crime victims and have a greater sense of insecurity than light viewers of television. Gerbner calls this view of heightened risk and violence the “mean world” syndrome. His research has shown that in the “TV world” people in lower socio-economic classes are significantly under-represented, the white females are 17 times more likely than white males to be crime victims, and villains are disproportionately Latino (Latin American males) or foreign males (Stone et al. 2003).


All of the television violence, Gerbner argues, leads people to perceive that violent behavior is normal, which in turn means citizens are more willing than ever to grant the state more police power and to increasingly support the death penalty. With all violence and public approval of stern countermeasures, fascism is an ever-present threat. And that completes the circle, returning to Gerbner’s experiences with fascism in his earlier days. “Even in his retirement, Gerbner calls himself a ‘part time-researcher, full time agitator’, mentioned Virginia P. Richmond, a mass communication professor of West Virginia University at Morgantown in his paper “Gerbner’s Legacy.”


Contemporary research since the 1970s is seeing the pendulum swing back to some of the earlier conclusions about the powerful influence of the media. One reason for this is the growing presence and popularity of television; recent research also has looked at the pervasiveness of films (particularly on videocassette) and the Internet. The current assumption is that the media should not be dismissed as having little influence. Rather, they have a powerful but long-term cumulative and collective effect.


Catharsis Theory and Media Effects


Brad Bushman presented such view that is binary opposite of what Gerbner has presented. He argued that viewing violence in media especially television and movies become cathartic. The word catharsis comes from the Greek word katharsis, which literally translated means “a cleansing or purging.”


The first recorded mention of catharsis occurred more than one thousand years ago, in the work Poetics by Aristotle. Aristotle taught that viewing tragic plays gave people emotional release (katharsis) from negative feelings such as pity, fear, and anger. By watching the characters in the play experience tragic events, the negative feelings of the viewer were presumably purged and cleansed. This emotional cleansing was believed to be beneficial to both the individual and society.


Catharsis theory did not die with Aristotle. The ancient notion of catharsis was revivd. Many directors and producers of violent media claim that their products are cathartic. For example, Alfred Hitchcock, director of the movie Psycho, said, “One of television’s greatest contributions is that it brought murder back into the home where it belongs. Seeing a murder on television can be good therapy. It can help work off one’s antagonism.” More recently, in 1992, Paul Verhoeven, director of the movie Total Recall, said, “I think it’s a kind of purifying experience to see violence (Cited in Stone et al. 2003. “Effects of Televised Violence on Aggression.”


The producers of violent computer games, like the producers of violent films, claim that their products are cathartic. For example, Sega Soft has created an online network containing violent games that claims to provide users an outlet for the “primal human urge to kill.” In promotional materials for the fictional CyberDivision movement, the imaginary founder Dr. Bartha says, “We kill. It’s OK. It’s not our fault any more than breathing or urinating.” Dr. Bartha claims that aggressive urges and impulses can be purged by playing violent video games. “It’s a marketing campaign,” said a SegaSoft spokesperson, “but there is some validity to the concept that you need an outlet for aggressive urges.”


Some people who play violent computer games, such as the following thirty-year-old video game player, agree: “When the world pisses you off and you need a place to vent, Quake [a violent video game] is a great place for it. You can kill somebody and watch the blood run down the walls, and it feels good. But when it’s done, you’re rid of it.”


Catharsis theory is elegant and highly plausible, but it is false. It justifies and perpetuates the myth that viewing violence is healthy and beneficial, when in fact viewing violence is unhealthy and detrimental. After reviewing the scientific research, Carol Tavris (1988) concluded, “It is time to put a bullet, once and for all, through the heart of the catharsis hypothesis. The belief that observing violence (or ‘ventilating it’) gets rid of hostilities has virtually never been supported by research.”


Medium as Problem or Scapegoat


Media is taken as the forth estate of nation-state. It is believed that it has social responsibility functions including educate, aware, persuade, convince, and inform the greater mass of the society, In another word, it is taken as a immense tool for national development and image building weapon even in developing, capitalist and socialist world as well.


However, new ills have also been found to lay at the door of the media, especially such phenomena as violent political protest and demonstration, xenophobia and even the supposed decline of democracy and rise of political apathy and cynicism. Individual harms now include references to depression, obesity and lack of confidence. The most recent object of such waves of alarm has been the Internet, suspected of encouraging pedophilia, violence and hate as well as aiding terrorist organizations and international crime. Same things could happen even through television rather than any other electronic medium  (except Internet) or printing materials.


McQuail defines it as a “moral panics” relating to the media. He argues, “Paradoxically or not, it has usually been the media themselves that have highlighted and amplified many of these alarmist views, perhaps because they seem to confirm the power of media, but more likely because they are already popularly believed and help to ‘sell newspapers or programmes’ to the larger number of audience.”




We can reach the conclusion that there is no special theory for television and radio. Some communication scholars, however, have assessed broadcasting media differently because of their functioning. McLuhan, Gerbner and Bushman are among them who argued electronic media (excluded Internet) have impact differently to it’s audience. That’s true but as Stone argued “only effects don’t shape any model/theory” mentionable. So their arguments are more “concepts” rather than especially theory or model. Accroding to McQuail, author of one of the most cited communication books, “Mass Communication Theory”,  the theory and models of media is more based on geo-political system of nation states rather than its effects.



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