Popular media in the United States underwent swift change during the 1980s. Old ways and old institutions changed almost without warning. MEDIA ETHICS appeared fifteen years ago, as change opened a path to new media and reshaped media. This glance at the 1980s is to remind us of what was changing when MEDIA ETHICS began.
Economic change in daily newspapers during the eighties saw continued slow loss of overall circulation per capita. But, below the surface, this was due to a quick loss in circulation per capita of evening dailies and a nearly equal rise in that of morning papers. Morning dailies in 1985 topped evening dailies in circulation per capita. Morning papers stayed on top by a widening margin thereafter.
Another big change in economics of newspapers was to Sunday papers, which ended the decade with circulation per capita equaling that of dailies for the first time. The nineties would see Sunday circulation per capita larger than daily.
Television's big three broadcasting networks got much more competition in the eighties. Cable television expanded its base of homes rapidly, delivering a covey of national cable networks. This covey included Cable News Network (CNN), beginning in June, 1980. Employment in cable television tripled during the eighties.
Home video offered little revenue to distributors of motion pictures in 1980. From 1986 onward home video brought to distributors more revenue than did theatrical exhibition of motion pictures in the United States.
Home video games grew rapidly from 1985 to 1990. By 1991 Nintendo's yearly profits from home video games were greater than profits of all major Hollywood film studios taken together. Readers and viewers shifted attention from newspapers, broadcast television, and films shown in theaters, to cable television, home video, and home video games.
Television broadcast networks reached an economic crossroad in 1986. All changed leadership, ownership, or both. Out went many workers, prerequisites, and frills. In came stricter attention to profits. Some observers said all of this came late, as did Ken Auletta in Three Blind Mice (1991), referring to the three large networks in his book's title.
Federal regulators responded to economic and political changes, which in turn grew with changed technologies during the years before the rise of the Internet. Broadcasting stations, both radio and television, under supervision of the Federal Communications Commission grew in number by some 20 percent in the eighties, totaling more than 12,000 in 1990. Service to listeners and viewers required revenues, which were more and more divided among the growing number of media of communication. Economies of scale were seen as a way in which to preserve service. Stations could reduce costs by combining staffs while not allowing stations to go silent or dark. The number of stations permitted to one owner was raised in 1985. Group ownership of stations flowered.
The Department of Justice and a federal court did their parts to permit broadcasters to have more advertising. Beginning with radio in 1939 and television in 1952 the National Association of Broadcasters offered codes of best practices to which its member stations and networks were asked to adhere. The codes seemed to be ways in which to minimize federal regulation of advertisements and programs. In 1982 a decision by a federal court struck down limits on amount of advertising permitted by the codes. Then the NAB agreed with the Department of Justice to forego the codes entirely as a way to avoid penalties for restraint of trade. Both the advertising provisions of the codes and the program standards ended.
MEDIA ETHICS came to life amid these changes. Fewer owners would be directing more broadcasting stations in the United States. Self-regulation of television and radio broadcasting stations and networks would be without the old codes of practice. Attention to older media would be shared with cable television, home video motion pictures, home video games, and, later, the Internet. Newspapers would not be raising circulation to match or exceed the rise in population. Sunday papers would rise to equal, and then outdo, dailies in circulation per capita. Morning dailies would all but replace evening papers.
New practitioners would come to new media and old, serving new readers, listeners, viewers, and owners. New public servants would weigh media on the scales of justice, fairness, good will, and decency. All of these people might welcome another look at media ethics.
MEDIA ETHICS arrived as the Cold War departed. Most waited for their "peace dividend," while few foresaw that new media would change their daily lives more than the grand recessional of the Cold War.
The above article was published in Media Ethics , Fall 2003 (15:1), p. 5.