communications industry

communications industry, broadly defined, the business of conveying information. Although communication by means of symbols and gestures dates to the beginning of human history, the term generally refers to mass communications. As such, it covers television and radio broadcasting, telegraphs, publishing, advertising, telecommunications, motion pictures, home videos, public relations, computer databases, and other information industries.

The origins of mass communications can be traced to the development of the printing press in 15th-century Europe; it allowed inexpensively produced newspapers and books to spread information to large numbers of people. Between the 16th and 19th cent., improved roads and faster ships allowed news to spread farther and faster, linking Europe with Latin America and Asia. The instantaneous transmission of information became possible with the building of the first telegraph system (1844) and the invention of the telephone (1876). Radio, which got its start when Guglielmo Marconi sent his first wireless message (1895), allowed rapid communication during World War I. The establishment of the first commercial radio station in 1920 and the creation of national radio networks allowed listeners all over a country to hear the same news, music, and entertainment shows simultaneously.

Following the invention of recorded sound in 1877, the popularity of phonographs in the early 20th cent. enabled listeners to enjoy musical performances at home, and the spread of popular music on radio allowed regional musical styles, such as ragtime, to reach mass audiences. Photographs in the 1830s and motion pictures in the 1890s transmitted images around the world, a development that played a key role in popularizing U.S. cultural values globally. Television, which was first demonstrated in the 1920s and developed commercially after World War II, combined all of these technologies into a new medium that could shape mass culture by delivering news, entertainment, and advertising to nearly all U.S. homes by the end of the 20th cent. The Internet, which originated in the late 1960s and grew commercially in the 1990s, provided another vehicle for such an interweaving of technologies.

In the United States and other free market economies, the rise of mass communications also provided a medium for selling and marketing products. The growth of U.S. advertising, which increased from $50 million in 1867 to $3 billion in 1925, to $19.6 billion in 1970, and to $308 billion in 1999, played a key role in financing the growth of new communications technologies, such as cable television and the Internet, and greatly contributed to the spread of existing media. Satellites have been used for long-distance telephone communications since the 1950s, and after the Olympics were broadcast live from Tokyo in 1964 via satellite, media scholars began talking of a global electronic village. However, national cultural tastes have proved to be remarkably resilient, and future advances in communications technology may tend to fragment rather than unite audiences.

Newer technologies have also motivated governments to loosen controls over the communications industries. In the 1980s, many commercial and satellite television stations were established in Europe, breaking the monopoly of government broadcasters, and in the 1990s the flow of information over the Internet made it easier to bypass government restrictions and censorship. Nonetheless, the enormous power of the communications industry remains controversial. The mass media has been widely criticized for its superficial news coverage, its power to affect public opinion, and the economic power it gives to advertisers and governments.


See M. McLuhan, The Gutenberg Galaxy (1969); M. De Fleur and S. Ball-Rokeach, Theories of Mass Communication (1981); S. Fox, The Mirror Makers (1984); J. Bittner, Fundamentals of Communications (1988); R. Douglas, Satellite Communications Technology (1988); G. Comstock, Public Communication and Behavior (2 vol., 1989); H. Vogel, Entertainment Industry Economics (1990); M. T. Poe, A History of Communications (2010).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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