WALLY'S WORLD: Digital age has reduced power of the mass media

Once upon a time many years ago, a few major Hollywood studios – MGM, Warner Brothers, Paramount, etc. – controlled what movies were made, who wrote them, who starred and who directed. Similarly, in the music industry, a few studios – Columbia, RCA, etc. – controlled what music was recorded, who wrote the songs and ultimately what bands and singers recorded them. And in the literary world, a few companies – Putnam, Random House, etc. – determined what novels would be published and what authors would be accepted. Then, to sell and promote these films, novels and music, the corporations enlisted New York advertising agencies.

The studio powers and Madison Avenue created superstars the like of which don’t exist today, Hollywood legends like Clark Gable and Humphrey Bogart. (This is not to say they were necessarily good actors.) There were authors like Hemingway and Fitzgerald and crooners like Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and the Andrews Sisters.

The number of stars created were quite limited given the hundreds of bands, authors and thespians who came down the pike. The genuinely renowned actors could be counted on two hands, the authors on one. Throughout the 10 years of the Great Depression, there were less than five or six really big, superstar singers: Bing Crosby, Kate Smith and a few others. (Though he wasn’t much of a singer, everyone – ages 6 to 86 – liked Crosby,)

Taken as a whole, the corporate powers on Madison Avenue and in Hollywood would eventually be known as the mass media. It exercised tremendous influence over public tastes and behavior. In many respects, it even dictated morality. Who can possibly estimate how many teenagers started to smoke owing to the films of Bogart and Bette Davis? How many people slid into premarital or extramarital affairs owing to films like “Casablanca” or novels like “The Sun Also Rises”? How many children were conceived during Sinatra’s rendition of “Bewitched”?

One of the results of such media power was the ability to establish and control a single list of the top popular songs each week. It was called “Your Hit Parade.” It was the final – in fact, the only – authoritative list and there was no debate or dissension concerning what recordings made the index. Teenagers and young adults eagerly checked the list and saved their nickels to buy the vinyl 78s or 45s (before compact discs, of course) because to be hip you had to have the latest hit songs.

Today, needless to say, the digital age has blown the mass media to smithereens and the power of what remains has been greatly diminished. What influence it retains is mostly over kids rather than the public in general. Several major Hollywood studios have collapsed and been replaced by hundreds of independent producers and directors, as confirmed by the Sundance Film Festival. There are now thousands of authors and thousands of publishers and, if for some reason the two don’t connect, an author can publish his own book. In the not-too-distant future, novels will be published by Amazon.com and distributed on the Internet without ever existing in hard-cover form.

And finally, today there are a thousand bands and singers and more “hit parade” listings than any one critic can keep track of. It’s a subject I’ll pursue further next week.

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