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Media Freedom and Pluralism

Beata Klimkiewicz

Section 3: structural regulation: media pluralism, concentration, diversity of content and services

Chapter 9. Audience resistance: Reasons to Relax Content Regulation1

Péter Bajomi-Lázár

Texte intégral

9.1. The puzzle of rhetorical unpopularity vs. practical popularity

  • 1 The first version of this paper was published in the May 2007 issue of the Hungarian monthly Beszé (...)

1Commercial television is unpopular and popular. It is unpopular in the sense that audiences tend to despise it for its “low quality,” “sensationalism,” and “disrespect” for privacy. And it is popular in the sense that it has a high audience share. In fact, more people watch commercial television channels than their public service counterparts in nearly all European countries (open society institute, 2005).

  • 2 The term “classic public service obligations” is used here to denote the approach originally culti (...)
  • 3 For example, the Broadcasting act of Hungary prescribes that “the [commercial] broadcaster shall p (...)

2The contradictory nature of the public’s position on commercial television is also mirrored in broadcasting regulation, which, in most of Europe, allows commercial broadcasters to operate, yet seriously limits their activity. Policymakers and lawmakers tend to consider commercial television a kind of “necessary evil.” in order to protect citizens from the assumed negative impact of commercial television, they engage in positive and negative censorship. On the one hand, broadcasting regulation imposes classic public service obligations2 upon commercial broadcasters, such as offering news regularly. On the other hand, it restricts the airing of particular content such as violence, hate speech, and pornography (open society institute, 2005).3 As a general rule, broadcasting regulation in Europe places public service broadcasting first. Even the regulation of commercial television is rooted in a normative perspective that is based upon the public service broadcasting ethos.

3What explains the puzzle of rhetorical unpopularity and practical popularity that commercial television enjoys? Why do many viewers say that they despise commercial television and keep watching it? In this chapter, I will recall theories that might help to answer these questions. Reviewing previous research on how viewers receive television programs, I will argue that audiences are resistant to what is generally believed to be “harmful” content, which makes restrictive content regulation unnecessary.

4Liberal media policy analysts put forward various arguments for the relaxation of content regulation imposed upon commercial television channels. some note that commercial broadcasters tend to sabotage public service obligations: either the programs they air fail to be real public service programs and meet purely commercial purposes (such as their infotainment magazines disguised as news programs), or they do not broadcast public service programs at all but choose to pay a fine. This makes regulation senseless and regulatory authorities ridiculous (Kertész, 2006). Others say that the “self-correcting processes” of the media market regulate content sufficiently and adequately; that is, private interests ultimately meet the public interest. Programs that fail to meet the expectations of the audiences leave the small screen quickly. For example, the reason why most commercial television channels do not show hardcore violence and pornography is that there is no massive demand for such programming; viewers use the remote to communicate their wishes. Competition, i.e., the Smithian “invisible hand of the market,” makes regulation by the state a useless and hence a senseless venture (cf. Keane, 1991). Yet others point out that national regulation is easy to ignore in the era of global mass communications. all investors have to do is register their television channels in a country not regulated by the target territory, and transmit programs via satellite or cable to their destination, or just use the internet to reach their audiences (cf. Bajomi-Lázár, 2006). In this chapter, I will use another approach to argue for the relaxation of content regulation: one that contrasts traditional media policy principles with theories of audience resistance.

9.2. Critiques of the commercial media

5Critics have focused their attention on the commercial media in at least three successive waves. The first wave of critique was voiced in the mid-20th century. Based on earlier works by Karl Marx and Karl Bücher, Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno of the Frankfurt school used such terms to describe the popular mass media (at that time, newspapers, cinema, and radio) as “commercialization” and “commodification,” pointing out that cultural goods had become products to sell. They introduced the concepts “culture industry” and “knowledge industry,” claiming that the media were able to shape audience tastes negatively (cf. Frith, 1997; McQuail, 1994).

6The second wave of critique was launched in the 1960s, when commercial television reached a mass audience in the United States, and fears of the media’s negative impact were on the rise. In this spirit, George Gerbner published his cultivation theory in 1969, claiming that heavy viewers of television have a biased perception of reality, as they apply the information gathered from the virtual reality of television to the real world. He further argued that, in addition to television’s negative impact on people’s opinions and attitudes, television also affects their behavior negatively. For example, heavy viewers are more likely than light viewers to support such violent resolutions of conflict as the death penalty (Gerbner, 1969).

7The third wave of critique emerged in the 1980s and 1990s, when

  • 4 The first European country to have a commercial television network was the United Kingdom in 1955. (...)

8u.s. television channels began to air such programs as Cops, The Jerry Springer Show, and The Osbournes, and when commercial television reached continental Europe.4 These new programs offered a mixture of fiction and reality and had unprecedentedly high ratings, even though critics called them “junk TV” or “trash TV” (Hammer, 2006). A version of this line of critique was the thesis commonly referred to as cultural imperialism, media imperialism, or television imperialism. It suggested that geopolitical centers, and especially the United States, use the mass media, rather than the army, to conquer the peripheries. The media, it said, are a means of economic and cultural colonization (also referred to as “Coca-Colanization” or “Dallasization”) designed to globally enhance the symbols of U.S. culture and thus to create a global market ideal for the American economy (e.g., Schiller, 1973; see also Ang, 1995; Frith, 1997; Bajomi-lázár, 2000). In a similar spirit Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky published in 1988 their framing theory, (whose roots go back to the 1970s), claiming that the modern mass media are controlled by the political and business elites, and promote the ideology of liberal capitalism (Herman and Chomsky, [1988] 1994).

9Critics of the commercial media have a wide range of targets, including tabloid news programs. They claim that information has given way to entertainment, i.e., “human interest stories” rule over “public interest stories.” as a result, citizens are unable to make informed political choices which, in the end, may bring down popular sovereignty and the democratic system (Kunczik, 2001; Bourdieu, 1999; see also Császi, 2003a; Rigó, 2007). Television shows, especially talk shows and reality shows, are also a target, partly for their “disrespect” for privacy, and partly because, stressing their roots in reality but widely using fiction, they “misguide” viewers (cf. Császi, 2005). Violence and pornography are also a prime target: The political elites and the mainstream of the public think they have a negative impact as they offer “models” for misbehavior, presenting “deviation” as the norm to follow (cf. Szigeti, 2005).

10Critiques of the commercial media by the elite intelligentsia have made it, through the school, the church, the quality press, and the public service media, to the public. Quite paradoxically, even tabloid newspapers and commercial broadcasters tend to despise and criticize tabloidization and commercialization. Currently, the widely shared and largely vulgarized version of the critical positions above states that commercial broadcasters deliver mass-produced, repetitive, cheap, and poor-quality content to the audiences. Their ideology is commonly described as “consumerism,” and their end result as the production of “consumer idiots” on a massive scale. The mass media, it is said, suggest that consumption is the only way to happiness: The more you buy, the more you spend, the happier you are. People under the impact of commercial television are believed to search for happiness in private life, to ignore public matters, and to let political decision-makers decide for them. The commercial media turn “citizens” into “consumers,” not only with the commercial advertisements they broadcast, but with the totality of the content they air, as ads tend to structure their entire programming. The commercial media harms good morals and good taste; they do bad to people—especially to minors who, because of their young age, are considered more vulnerable than adults (cf. Keane, 1991; McQuail, 1994).

11The widespread nature of such views is attested to by many commonplaces regarding television, such as “television equals power,” “people must be taught to select among television programs,” “television is a weapon,” and “television is the real opium of the people” (see Hernádi, 1995; Dessewffy and Gayer, 1999). Such commonplaces portray television as an agent of power, and portray viewers as victims unable to protect themselves.

12Although many researchers have contested these three waves of critique, critiques of the critiques have barely left the realm of low-circulation media and communications journals and are almost completely unknown to the public. The allegations made by the Frankfurt school were questioned on the ground that most media products bring no profit. For example, out of ten music records, nine make a loss. Moreover, most of the media’s popular “stars” were first discovered by local audiences, and only then promoted by media professionals. These examples allow Simon Frith to conclude that “…on the one hand, the public does not want most of what is offered to it, on the other, the biggest profits tend to come from books and films and records which create their own, unexpected audiences, which ‘cross over’ (thus creating a new taste map, a new blueprint for formulaic production” (Frith, 1997, p. 170; first emphasis added). In other words, it seems that the “culture industry” or “knowledge industry” does not significantly shape public taste.

13Cultivation theory, which was based on quantitative research methods, has been criticized for failing to analyze the actual messages of television texts, even though the meaning the viewer actually associates with them is determined by the context, as well as the receiver’s state of mind and social status (Morley, 1992). For example, a man’s death on the small screen may either be a murder, or the outcome of an act of self-defense or the result of an accident, depending on the circumstances. Furthermore, the alleged correlation between the amount of time devoted to television and the inclination to accept aggressive behavior is unclear. As Pierre Bourdieu notes, the poor and the uneducated spend more time watching television and are more ready than the better-off and the higher educated to engage in aggression (Bourdieu, 1973). It may be the case that the correlation perceived by Gerbner is a spurious one, as both of the variables above—i.e., being a heavy viewer and being aggressive—are explained by a third, independent variable, namely social status (Bajomi-Lázár, 2006).

14As for the theories of cultural imperialism, critics note that there are a number of “filters,” such as the adaptation of global media format and content to local needs, that lessen the estimated impact of media globalization upon national cultures and values (Croteau and Hoynes, 2000). Furthermore, they note that the terminology of colonization is unwarranted, to the extent that the use of the media is “self-chosen and not the result of imperialism” (McQuail, 1994, pp. 115–116). as regards framing theory, one can make the objection that it is largely selective in that it ignores well-known instances of the mass media being an agent of change, rather than of continuity (for instance, during the McCarthy hearings). Such instances demonstrate that the media may also speak for the general public, not just the political and business elites. In the case of McCarthy, Ed Murrow of the mainstream television network CBS largely contributed to the fall of the militant anti-communism that was then a key element of official state ideology (Bajomi-lázár, 2006). Also, framing theory ignores instances of citizen journalism. an example of this is the “Rathergate case,” when independent bloggers revealed that the so-called Killian documents, presented by Dan Rather on CBS and questioning President George W. Bush’s integrity, had been faked (cf. Rowbottom, 2006).

15The critiques of the commercial media have infiltrated not just the scientific and the public discourses, but also the media policy and the political discourses. The fact that the critical approaches are widely shared by the populace provides media policymakers and lawmakers with symbolic ammunition when imposing restrictive regulations upon commercial broadcasters. Of course, the private media are, both as potential agenda setters and watchdogs of democracy, a major rival to the political elites. Popular fears of the negative impact of the commercial media offer an excuse that is easy to communicate to the public when political decision-makers seek to control their broadcasting rivals by imposing rules and sanctions upon them.

9.3. A new media landscape: the rise of neotelevision

16With commercialization from the mid-1950s onwards, the television landscape has been transformed in Europe. The monopoly of public service broadcasters was over once and for all. The very essence of television broadcasting has changed: To use the terms Umberto eco introduced in 1983, this is the era of neotelevision (neotelevisione). Its distinguishing features, as compared to ancient television (paleotelevisione), are as follows:

  • Contact: The primary function of television is no longer the representation of reality but, in an effort to raise and hold attention, the maintenance of permanent contact with viewers.
  • Self-referentiality: The traditional, static programming structure of ancient television, composed of separate program items, is now over. Today, television offers a dynamic flow of programs linked to one another like a chain, and creating a self-referential system. a series of self-promoting slots refer to forthcoming programs in order to permanently maintain viewers’ curiosity.
  • Hybridization: in an effort to maintain viewers’ attention, neotelevision entertains on a permanent basis. The result is the airing of various hybrid programs such as edutainment and infotainment magazines and reality shows.
  • Interactivity: in an effort to improve public responsiveness to television, editors seek to involve audiences in the production process. Viewers appear on the small screen in both internal shots (as the audience in the studio) and external shots (as “people on the street”). Interactivity has also been promoted by digitalization, a development unforeseen by eco: viewers’ feedback has been significantly improved by such new technologies as the sending of e-mail and SMS messages.5

17As a result of these changes, television, an “empty” medium which, for a long time, only reproduced other means of cultural production such as the theater, cinema, radio, and even the school and the church, now produces programs specifically designed for the small screen and has created a new language and new genres (for the concept of neotelevision, unused in the english literature, see Jenei, 2005, in Hungarian).

18To eco’s concept of neotelevision, Lajos Császi adds that of the “neomedia,” arguing that the specificities above apply to a variety of media outlets today, including the print press, radio, and the internet (Császi in Neotelevízió, 2006). Many of the quality newspapers have been tabloidized (hybridization), tabloid newspapers interview “people on the street,” lifestyle magazines publicize an increasing number of readers’ letters (contact, interactivity), weekly magazines’ tables of contents now include an illustrated promotion of what is inside, and webpages redirect readers to their previous writings (self-referentiality).

19The concept of neotelevision/neomedia may be considered a general framework of interpretation that allows theorists contesting the above critiques of commercial media to describe how commercial television operates.

9.4. A critique of the critique

20The critical approaches to commercial television described above are rooted in two normative assumptions. First, they are based on the Habermasian concept of the public sphere, which defines the mass media as a means of information transmission as well as a sphere for critical and rational debate among adult and equal citizens on matters of public interest. It is this rationality argument that ultimately serves as a normative basis for public service broadcasting. And second, they are based on a firm belief that the mass media are a powerful means to shape public opinion and behavior. It is this effect argument that ultimately justifies state intervention, i.e. restrictive content regulation.

21Both of these assumptions, however, seem to fail to hold, and the approach based upon them does not explain how commercial broadcasters operate. The rationality argument lacks empirical evidence: it is most contestable that people make (political or other) choices on a rational basis and that, as it should follow, the populace must become informed via the mass media in order for the democratic system to operate. The perception of media messages is largely selective: in an effort to reduce cognitive dissonance, people search for media content that complies with their own concepts of the world, and avoid those that conflict with their views (Klapper, 1960). In fact, modern political communication is based on an assumption that defies the rationality argument: People are believed to make political decisions on an emotional basis—hence the short and predominantly visual messages that modern spin doctors like to operate with (cf. Navracsics, 2005). It is very likely that people rationalize their decisions after they have made them. In short, there might be other uses of the media that just do not fit into the Habermasian model (Jenei, 2005).

22The effect argument is even more contestable. There is no room here to summarize a long tradition of media effects research and reception studies. Let us simply say that empirical evidence suggests that, at least in a plural media landscape and social environment where audiences are exposed to a variety of socializing agents such as the family, friends, the school, the church and the workplace, the media have only a limited impact upon public opinion and behavior. As David Morley sums up in his classic case study on how people watch television,

“[W]hat one may find interesting may bore another. One person may respond positively to the government spokesman’s latest announcement about economic policy while another may feel like throwing the cat at the television. [...] Because we all bring to our viewing those other discourses and sets of representations with which we are in contact in other areas of our lives, the messages that we receive from the media do not confront us in isolation. They intersect with other messages that we have received—explicit and implicit messages, from other institutions, people we know, or sources of information we trust. Unconsciously, we sift and compare messages from one place with those received from another. Thus, how we respond to messages from the media depends precisely on the extent to which they fit with, or possibly contradict, other messages, other viewpoints that we have come across in other areas of our lives” (Morley, 1992, pp. 76–77).

23Critics of commercial television say that commercial broadcasters do not transmit cultural and societal “values”—that is, they expect them to behave like agents of socialization and meet public service functions, and evaluate them accordingly. What is “valuable” and what is not is, however, a matter of definition, that is, a matter of power. It is a function of which of the competing social groups are capable of positioning their own personal or subcultural values as cross-society values. While in a monopoly position, public service television channels broadcast programs that were a reflection of the modernist value-concept of the intellectual elite, that is, values that “stand the test of time.” This concept was based on the unspoken premise that there is but one reality that can be empirically discovered or, in other words, there are absolute values. The public service media was rooted in the belief that the meaning of a message is a given and self-evident and that, consequently, the media can transmit values and thus turn chaos into order; i.e., the (public service) media were believed to be able to provide audiences with the one and only “adequate” understanding of the world. By contrast, the inherently plural commercial media are a post-modern phenomenon, the product of an era that no longer believes in one single reality and hence is open to a multitude of competing values and alternative understandings of the world—that is, the relativity of values (see also Keane, 1991; Ang, 1995; Fiske, 1997).

24In this context, supporters of commercial television frequently argue that critics are elitist and paternalistic. They say that promoters of the public service media use broadcasting regulations to impose their own values and tastes upon commercial outlets and their audiences, i.e., in the end, they defy the very rules of the game that democracy is based upon. Critics such as media mogul Rupert Murdoch argue that “[a]nybody who, within the law of the land, provides a service which the public wants at a price it can afford is public service” (quoted in Keane, 1991, p. 125), suggesting that “true” public service programming would be provided by market-based commercial outlets. If citizens are free to choose the laundry detergent or the political party that suits them best, then they should also be free to choose the television program they prefer, the argument goes.

  • 6 In Hungary, for example, the national radio and Television Board has two agents to watch for poten (...)

25State intervention into the media, and hence the primacy of the public service broadcasting ethos, is rejected on the ground that it treats citizens like minors, even though political decision-makers have no mandate to decide on matters of value and taste. or, to put it more radically: media regulation authorities that impose content regulation upon commercial broadcasters and sanction its non-observation behave like a censorship commission or the taste police.6 Policymakers and lawmakers who defy the principle that the state should stay neutral defy the political equality of citizens, as they prefer the values of some citizens over those of others.

  • 7 In the United States, public service broadcasters in the European sense of the term (i.e., educati (...)

26The ideology of commercial broadcasting, at least in Europe,7 is the negation of the ideology of public service broadcasting. Thus it is no wonder that it met widespread resistance among supporters of the public service media. According to Császi, this resistance is a sign of frustration with the intelligentsia, provoked by the fact that intellectuals have lost their traditional hegemony in defining societal values, and fostered by the fact that commercial broadcasters speak the language of non-elites and address issues that are of interest, mainly, to non-elites (Császi in neotelevízió, 2006). The intelligentsia’s loss of hegemony in defining societal values may, in the end, bring into question the very legitimacy of many of the intellectual professions.

27The situation, I believe, is even more complicated than the one Császi describes. The normative approach that is a reflection of the intellectuals’ vision of society and of the mass media still determines the public discourse (while the audience share of public service broadcasters has been steadily declining and that of commercial ones increasing over the past decades). rhetorically, non-elites identify themselves with the elite position questioning the legitimacy of commercial television, the vehicle of their very own (popular) culture, while they spend most of their non-working hours watching commercial broadcasters. The “masses” speak and act differently. There is a contradiction between publicly spoken opinion and privately adopted behavior. The rhetorical unpopularity and the practical popularity of commercial television yields collective hypocrisy that is institutionalized in media regulation.

9.5. The act of reception

28Researchers who contest the critical approaches to commercial broadcasters and search for an explanation for the success of commercial broadcasters/neomedia theorize in the context of the postmodern, that is, in the context of the freedom to create meanings. They focus upon the act of reception, and study why and how people use mass communication.

29Jay G. Blumler and Elihu Katz’s uses and gratifications model of 1974 was a milestone in this research field. They argue that people are not passive consumers of media content but active and selective users who “use communications […] to satisfy their needs and to achieve their goals” (Blumler and Katz, 1974, p. 22), i.e., among other things, to get information, to have a basis for social contact, and to escape from real-life problems (see also McQuail, 1994). This theory yielded a paradigm shift in that research no longer focused on the impact the mass media have upon the audiences (as the normative approach would suggest) but on how the audiences receive messages (as the new, interpretative approach suggests; see also Jenei, 2005).

30It was in the spirit of this interpretative approach, as well as the polysemy theory put forward by Valentin Volosinov in 1975, that the encoding/decoding model, most frequently linked with Stuart Hall’s 1980 writing, was given birth. This theory states that messages have multiple readings, and viewers are free to either accept or reject or negotiate the preferred meaning of a message; the key term thus being audience resistance (see also Geraghty, 1997).

31Another milestone in this research field was Daniel Dayan and Elihu Katz’s 1992 theory of media events, which states that the live broadcasting of salient historic events attracts viewers not only because they seek information about them but also because they can feel they are more than just witnesses: They are part of them. The concept of audience participation implies that television viewers collectively and interactively participate in the construction of meanings, which thus contributes to the establishment of consent and the integration of society.

  • 8 The etymology of the term communication confirms this approach. The original meaning of the Latin (...)

32Based on works by Emile Durkheim and especially James Carey, Tamás Terestyéni argues that the classic model of mass communication needs to be reconsidered. Traditionally, the mass communication process was interpreted in the framework of the communication-astransmission model; this normative approach conceived of mass communication as the vehicle of information (i.e., television would be a “mirror,” or “window to the world,” see also Geraghty, 1997). Mass communication was primarily described as a one-way flow of information, as was the case with public service broadcasters/ancient television. The way commercial broadcasting/neotelevision operates, however, is better described in terms of the communication-as-ritual model, an interpretative approach that states that (mass) communication is primarily about participation, that is, participation in social life and hence in the construction of commonly shared norms and values. Accordingly, mass communication is not just a vehicle of information, but rather an instrument contributing to the construction of community (Terestyéni, 2006; see also Ang, 1995; Istvánffy, 2005).8

33Ágnes Jenei argues that commercial television channels, and especially talk shows, create a new kind of democratic public sphere, in that they involve viewers in social communication and the construction of norms:

“The reason why commercial television is popular is not that it pro-vides viewers with information about the world. It is successful because it helps us to be a part of that world and to feel good in that world. It is successful because it effects our emotions, because it uses an understandable and popular language, and because it presents the important issues and the possible meanings […] of life in such a way that it allows audiences to question the very allegations it makes. It offers a multitude of truths, values and roles that viewers are free to select from” (Jenei, 2005, p. 17; emphasis added; my translation—PBL).

34Jenei suggests that the secret of commercial broadcasters/neotelevision, as opposed to public service broadcasters/ancient television, is that they no longer speak as if from “above,” nor do they seek to share great “truths” with their audiences. On the contrary, unlike traditional public service broadcasters, whose authority went unquestioned, commercial television channels enable viewers to “talk back,” i.e., to create their own positions (Jenei, 2005). Whereas public service broadcasters were engaged in a monologue, commercial broadcasters seek dialogue. neotelevision does not pretend to be objective but offers a variety of knowingly subjective positions. To these positions, viewers can react: They are free to associate themselves with or dissociate themselves from them.

35At the same time, it needs to be noted that, since the rise of commercial television, public broadcasters in many European countries have gone commercial in the sense that they offer, just as their private counterparts do, a wide range of infotainment, edutainment, politainment, and other hybrid programs. Hence the concept of neotelevision may also apply to the “new generation” of public service broadcasters; that is, the way how audiences perceive public service broadcasting may have changed.

9.6. Infotainment, talk shows, violence, and porn

36Researchers have devoted several case studies and analyses in the spirit of the communication-as-ritual model to the most frequently criticized genres of commercial television, namely tabloid news programs, talk shows, violence, and pornography.

37The critique of infotainment magazines is rooted in the communication-as-transmission model. It states that tabloid news programs are supposed to provide viewers with adequate information of the real world but fail to do so. By contrast, the communication-as-ritual approach suggests that tabloid news not only informs but, first and foremost, offers various frameworks of interpretation of the events covered: real-life events are depicted as part of a gigantic struggle between Good and evil, and thus neotelevision leads viewers from Chaos into order. it offers viewers an opportunity to take a position, i.e., to morally accept or to reject or to negotiate the preferred meaning of the events depicted, and thus to play an active role in the construction of reality. In order to do so, commercial broadcasters cover issues that are of interest to the masses, that is, issues that “common people” can relate to, and thus yield high ratings (Carey, 1988; Császi, 2002).

38A similar explanation seems to hold for the success of talk shows. Such programs also cover issues that are of interest to all. István Síklaki points out that talk shows cover social relations and that

“[…] it is a base psychological need for one to be involved in social relations. Some 80 percent of our daily conversations deal with social relations. […] Talk-shows cover such issues in 90 percent of their air-time. […] What really happens is that traditional gossip, once physically located in the marketplace or the workplace, becomes [through the mass media] a massive interactive game and, because we all are responsive to such issues, it generates high viewership rates” (síklaki in neotelevízió, 2006, p. 46; my translation—PBL).

39Síklaki argues that the practical popularity of neomedia lays in the opportunity of control that they offer to viewers: By sitting in talk-show studios, sending SMS messages or home videos to the broadcaster, they feel like they are taking an active part in the editing process (Síklaki in neotelevízió, 2006).

40Public service television traditionally addressed the “citizen,” while commercial broadcasters focus—as Jenei notes—on the private individual. Public service television covers public issues, neotelevision deals with private ones. Commercial broadcasters seek to reach everyone, not just the intellectual elites who are, as regards profitability, relatively weightless. This is why they put those issues on the agenda that are familiar to and important for all, and that everyone has an opinion about, namely sex, love, marriage, and the transgression of social norms (Jenei, 2005).

41As regards the practical popularity of programs displaying violence and pornography, Stanley Cohen’s 1973 theory of moral panics may offer an explanation. According to Cohen, the reason why tabloid newspapers and commercial broadcasters extensively cover negativity and “deviance” such as prostitution, drug abuse, and the like is that audiences like to reconsider social norms and to redraw the line separating Good from evil. In other words, the outcome of the transgression of norms is either the consolidation or the loosening of those norms. Audiences like to decide for themselves, i.e., to either negatively or positively evaluate the transgression of norms, and commercial broadcasters meet this need. Similarly, violence and pornography on the small screen are not simple behavior models to follow, but offer viewers a chance to dislike and despise them (Kitzinger, 2000; Császi, 2003a; Szigeti, 2005).

42Thus the reason for the puzzle of rhetorical unpopularity vs. practical popularity probably lies in the fact that the neomedia do not require audiences to identify with their messages. On the contrary, the content the neomedia offer to viewers allows audiences to formulate their own positions and to voice their aversions. The aversions provoked by the content that the neomedia deliver are projected to the vehicle of this content: the commercial media. This is why people despise and keep watching commercial outlets.

9.7. A critique of the critique of the critique

43Theories seeking an explanation for the high ratings of commercial broadcasters implicitly or explicitly contest the critiques of the commercial media and hence the imposition of restrictive content regulation upon commercial broadcasters. They do legitimize the commercial logic; they do not imply, however, that all regulation is unnecessary.

44The fact that broadcasters are costly to operate and investments bring profit, but only in the long term, distinguishes the media market from many other industries. Commercial broadcasters serve only those niches of the audiences that can afford to pay through commercial advertisements. The “invisible hand” of the media market communicates the expectations and needs of the masses, and only them. Commercial broadcasters may cover issues that are of interest to every viewer, but do not cover every issue that is of interest to viewers. The particular values, needs, and interests of the various minorities that are underrepresented in both the political and the economic institutions, are not given a voice in the commercial media. Commercial broadcasters do not serve all.

45If the market does not cater to all, the state must do so, which makes a certain deal of regulation necessary. Regulation must correct market imperfections, and in particular make sure that minorities are given a voice. Therefore community and public service media outlets need to be given certain privileges (such as access to terrestrial radio and television frequencies) and be protected from market pressures.

9.7. Conclusion

46Critical approaches to the commercial media are normatively based in the public service broadcasting ethos. Public service broadcasters were expected to “elevate” people: to deliver morality, good taste, and knowledge to the homes of viewers, i.e., to have an impact upon society. The fact that some researchers approach commercial broadcasters from this normative perspective, rather than analyzing them in their own terms, may seriously hinder the understanding of how they operate and, consequently, their function in social communications.

47The critical approach to the commercial media may be summed up like this: The neomedia have a negative impact upon society, and therefore they need to be regulated restrictively. Because the market does not regulate content adequately, the state must act. However, taking into consideration theories and empirical findings that help to ex-plain commercial broadcasters/neotelevision’s high ratings, one must conclude that the media are, primarily, a follower, not a leader of public taste and opinion: They do not manipulate, but meet public expectations. it is not the media that “use” people (or more precisely, it is not the political and business elites operating the media that use the masses manipulated by the media to meet their own purposes), but viewers who use the media (to meet their own needs and goals).

48Unlike the ancient media, the neomedia do not offer a one-way, downward flow of information but two-way and interactive communication that provides those “below” with the opportunity to take positions of resistance, participation, and control. In the era of multi-channel television and diverse content, traditional media policy principles positioning viewers like minors are contestable, as they deny them the chance to autonomously decode—that is, accept, reject, or negotiate—media messages.

49The usual argument underlying the strict regulations imposed upon commercial broadcasters is that freedom of speech can be limited only in the event that some higher value—in this case, the protection of citizens from harmful content—makes it necessary. Theories and evidence of audience resistance question this argument and make restrictive content regulation unwarranted.


1 The first version of this paper was published in the May 2007 issue of the Hungarian monthly Beszélő under the title “Népszerűtlen népszerűség” (unpopular popularity). The research summarized here was funded by the Hungarian Press Freedom Center. I wish to thank Angelika Erdélyi, Krisztina Kertész, Róbert Kotroczó, and Áron Monori for their valuable remarks and comments.

2 The term “classic public service obligations” is used here to denote the approach originally cultivated by John Reith, first director general of the British Broadcasting Corporation, who advocated the “education and elevation” of the masses as the primary function of public service broadcasters.

3 For example, the Broadcasting act of Hungary prescribes that “the [commercial] broadcaster shall provide public service programme items in at least twenty-five percent of the daily programme time. These items shall be placed in prime time so that their weekly average will reach twenty percent. […] Programmes which are harmful for the personal developments of minors, especially those which show violent actions as a model or depict sexuality without human aspects shall only be broadcast between 23:00 and 05:00 hours” (Para. 129. (4) a) and 2. (19) Act I of 1996 on radio and Television, as amended by act XX of 2002).

4 The first European country to have a commercial television network was the United Kingdom in 1955. Commercial television reached the rest of Western Europe between the 1970s and the 1990s, and east Central and Eastern Europe in the 1990s.

5 In addition to the widespread use of the remote control, viewers can shape content by, for instance, talk shows in which they can ask questions of the shows’ guests, or reality shows in which they can decide via SMS-voting which character stays and which goes.

6 In Hungary, for example, the national radio and Television Board has two agents to watch for potential violations of content regulation: the Monitoring and analyzing service and the Complaints Commission. The former monitors news programs on a regular basis, while the latter investigates cases in the event complaints are submitted. The authority may impose fines on broadcasters whose news programs break the rule of internal pluralism or show “violence as a model” or, by way of sanction, obliges them to suspend broadcasting (see also footnote 2; for details on content regulation in Hungary and the sanctioning thereof, see Bajomi-Lázár, 2005, pp. 806–812, 817, 839–840).

7 In the United States, public service broadcasters in the European sense of the term (i.e., educational or non-commercial or public broadcasters in the U.S. terminology) were never in a monopoly position, and their audience share has always been negligible (Engelman, 1996).

8 The etymology of the term communication confirms this approach. The original meaning of the Latin verb communico, -are was “sharing something” or “uniting with somebody,” i.e., to have something in common with somebody, or to create a community with someone (cf. Kiss [1997] qtd. in Nyíri, 2001, p. 7).


Péter Bajomi-Lázár is professor of communication at the social Communications institute of the Budapest Business School and, starting in October 2009, senior research fellow at the Department of Politics and international relations of the University of Oxford. He earned his Phd in political science at the Central European University in 2004. His book A magyarországi médiaháború (The Hungarian Media War) won the Pulitzer Memorial Award in 2002. E-mail:

© Central European University Press, 2010

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