Mass communication has revolutionized the modern world. In the United States it has given rise to what social observers sometimes call a media state, a society in which access to power is through the media. The term media, understood broadly, includes any channel of information through which information can pass. Since a democracy largely depends on public opinion, all those involved in communicating information inevitably have an important role to play. The print and broadcasting media not only convey information to the public, but also influence public opinion. Television, with access to virtually every American household, is a powerful influence.
On average, American viewers watch TV about six hours a day, usually tuned to one of the national commercial networks: ABC (the American Broadcasting Corporation), NBC (the National Broadcasting Company), CBS (Columbia Broadcasting System) or Fox Broadcasting Company. These stations attract about 98 per cent of TV audiences.
Theoretically, anyone in the United States can start a newspaper or a magazine, but to become a radio or television broadcaster one must be granted a portion of the limited radio-television spectrum by the government's licensing board, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). For the most part, the American broadcasting system has always been a commercial system. It is supported by money from businesses that pay to advertise goods or services to the audience. Advertising messages are usually presented as 15, 30 or 60-second commercial announcements before, during and after programs. During a sixty-minute TV program you can expect to see about twelve minutes of commercials.
Commercial broadcasting is a huge industry bringing in profits of about 1.8 billion dollars annually. The commercial networks broadcast a variety of shows: news, drama, soap operas, comedy, sports, music, movies, children's programs, game shows and talk shows. There are a lot of competitions for viewers, especially during prime time, from 7 to 11 pm.
PBS (Public Broadcasting Service), supported by government and private funding, is the only noncommercial network. It broadcasts more serious drama, performing arts, science, public- affairs documentaries and educational children's programs. Sesame Street, the most popular children's show on PBS, appears on TV stations all over the world. All five networks broadcast twenty-four hours a day.
Viewers whose tastes are not satisfied by the many offerings of network and local programs are now increasing their options by subscribing to cable television. About 35 million Americans pay a monthly fee for greater selection. There are up to 500 cable stations. Two well-known ones are HBO (Home Box Office), which shows movies, and CNN, which specializes in news.
Satellite TV was originally designed to offer a greater selection of programs to people in rural areas that could not easily be connected to the cable system. It now provides anybody who is ready to have a satellite dish installed in his or her backyard with the same programing as cable TV. Conventional television has had to struggle to retain its audience as people switch over to cable viewing, satellite TV or renting video cassettes.
Across the United States there are more than nine thousand radio stations. Almost all of them are commercial, except for
National Public Radio stations. Listeners can tune into all kinds of stations: pop or classical music, news, sport, or community radio. Talk radio shows are very popular. Listeners call in and ask the talk- show host or guests questions about anything from cooking or car repair to politics or health. Callers often get a chance to give their opinion on the air.
There's something for everyone to read with 1,700 daily and 6,300 weekly newspapers. Eight out of ten Americans read a tabloid or standard newspaper every day. Often newspapers are delivered early in the morning so people can read them before leaving home. Standard newspapers have long articles about local, national and international news, while tabloid newspapers include short news articles and a lot of photos, stories about famous people, advice columns and horoscopes. Most newspapers are regional rather than national, although some are distributed all over America. The New York Times, for example, is available in New York and in most big cities. The paper with the largest circulation is The Wall Street Journal, which specializes in business news.
Nowadays Americans consider television their most important source of news, and a majority ranks television as the most believable news source. Accordingly, newspapers have to cope with competition from radio and television.