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The Rise and Fall of Mass Communication


William L. Benoit and Andrew C. Billings

Mass communication theories were largely built when we had mass media audiences. The number of television, print, film or other forms of media audiences were largely finite, concentrating people on many of the same core content offerings, whether that be the nightly news or a popular television show. What happens when those audiences splinter? The Rise and Fall of Mass Communication surveys the aftermath of exactly that, noting that very few modern media products have audiences above 1–2% of the population at any one time. Advancing a new media balkanization theory, Benoit and Billings neither lament nor embrace the new media landscape, opting instead to pinpoint how we must consider mass communication theories and applications in an era of ubiquitous choice.
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Introduction: The Rise and Fall of Mass Communication



On February 28, 1983, Americans tuned in to what was later dubbed “a watershed moment in the history of American pop culture” (Freeman, 2018, para. 1). The CBS series M*A*S*H was completing its 11-year run and people flocked to witness the fates of Hawkeye, Houlihan, Klinger, and the rest of the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital. The audience was epic (106 million viewers), swelling to 121.6 million if including all who watched at least six minutes of the finale (Campbell, 2019). America (population 233 million) experienced a shared cultural moment, discussing it the next day and referencing it for years to come.

Thirty-six years later, America (now with an extra 98 million in population) tuned in again for what was, without question, the most viewed and beloved comedy program of the decade. Chuck Lorre’s CBS series The Big Bang Theory was completing a block buster run in 2019, being the highest-rated-situation comedy for seven of its 12 years of existence, including the 2018–2019 broadcast season. The finale, hailed by most critics as both satisfying and fun, was a capper that most fans could support. Deadline’s Geoff Boucher (2019) dubbed it a “picture perfect landing” with “satisfying surprises for all of the core characters” (para. 1). There was just one demerit to place on the series finale: it was not, even remotely, watched by a mass audience commensurate with M*A*S*H or other beloved sitcoms of the past, with just 18...

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