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The Rise and Fall of Mass Communication

Series:

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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Chapter Three Not ‘Must See’ for Me: The Balkanization of Entertainment

CHAPTER THREE

Extract

Not ‘Must See’ for Me:The Balkanizationof Entertainment

In 1988, a genre-changing sitcom debuted to terrific ratings, instantly becoming the #2-rated comedy in all of television by garnering 38 million viewers per week. Named after its comedienne lead actress, Roseanne became a staple in the ABC comedy lineup, eclipsed in viewership only by NBC’s The Cosby Show. After completing a successful nine-season run, the show returned 30 years after its debut with similar ranked-metric success: Roseanne was again the #2-rated comedy show in all of television (this time surpassed only by CBS stalwart The Big Bang Theory) and was, once again, a cornerstone of ABC programming. The only difference: Roseanne now only had 14 million viewers; even when adding time shifted DVR and streaming totals, the number only reached 17.8 million viewers, less than half the viewership of Season 1 in 1988 (de Moraes & Hipes, 2018).

Of course, the Roseanne story quickly took a political turn as the actress offered what most dubbed a racist tweet (Koblin, 2018), leading to her firing and the retooling of the program into a new show without her, The Conners. However, the parallel case is useful for understanding the rise and fall of communal television. The same program with the same overall ranking could do so with less than half the viewers from three decades prior. The media touchstones people could previously count on for common languages, popular culture references, and shared understanding largely have splintered (see Webster &...

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