Comment on Movies as Mass Media

Why Movies are not Part of Mass Media Criticism


Richard F. Taflinger

for his Mass Media Criticism Classes

Some students apparently think that I've said that movies are not mass media, and for that reason are not a proper subject for mass media criticism. However, note I didn't say that movies aren't part of mass media -- they are different from mass media such as radio, television, newspapers and magazines.

A major purpose of mass media criticism is to examine how mediated messages affect their audiences. However, how audiences receive and perceive those messages differs radically depending on if they're watching a movie or getting them from mass media.

Movies require that their audiences make an affirmative decision to receive their messages. You have to make a decision to go to a movie, leave the house, pay for tickets, and interact with the presentation in a totally different way from mass media -- sit in a darkened room with a bunch of strangers, all concentrating on that one experience, watching the movie, from beginning to end without interruption. This is a totally different experience from television, radio, newspapers and magazines.

Mass media is often just a background to people's lives. How often have you had the radio or television on but done something besides listen or watch, such as cook or clean or read or write or hold conversations or make phone calls or . . .? Often, what is on is a matter of relative indifference: the old cliche of "50 channels and nothing to watch" is not only true, it doesn't stop people from having the TV on, tuned to what the industry calls the LOP ("least objectionable program"). Even if a person has made an affirmative decision to watch or listen to a particular presentation, the experience is completely different from a movie: rarely do you watch TV in a darkened room with a bunch of strangers, all concentrating on that one experience, watching the TV show, from beginning to end without interruption. Usually the room is lit, if there are other people they are relatively few and you know them, and the show is subject to constant interruptions, including conversations, phone calls, visitors, commercials, etc..

In addition, people select which elements of shows or newspapers or magazines they're going to watch or read. Rarely does one start with the front page headline or first page and read every word of a newspaper or magazine from beginning to end. Few people devote as much concentation to ads and commercials as they do those shows, articles or stories they choose to receive, chopping the experience into discrete and often unrelated segments.

The messages an audience receives from mass media are thus much more diffuse, personal and subconscious: diffuse because they are spread out over the hours of interaction with a medium with the messages interspersed with myriads of other messages; personal because the choice of presentation relates directly to one's interests and biases, with one changing to something else the instant the presentation and/or its message becomes boring, irritating, or contradictory to one's own wishes; and subconscious because so many of the messages received are not consciously perceived nor consciously processed due to the lack of attention most people give to a mass medium (just because you're not paying attention doesn't mean you can't hear or see or that your brain isn't working).

Thus, what separates movies from mass media is how it is used: movies require an affirmative action beyond that of the mass media: you decide which movies you want to go to and only go to those. The effect on the audience is much more concentrated and less subconscious, with fewer distractions or selection of which elements you're going to experience and which you're going to ignore.

The exception to movies being part of mass media criticism is when a movie impacts on other media and the general culture. For example, "Dinner with Andre" had no impact on any other medium (beyond reviews) nor impact (as opposed to affect) the general culture, and thus is a prime candidate for cinema criticism, but not for mass media criticism. On the other hand, "Star Wars" et alia has had a monumental effect, not only on other movies but on, in particular, television. The techniques of storytelling, from scripting to camera use, developed for and/or exemplified by "Star Wars" has influenced how television is done, including programming, and made themselves part of American culture ("May the Force be with you"). Other movies that have had that kind of effect include SHANE, HIGH NOON, ANIMAL HOUSE, RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, HOUSE PARTY, AIRPLANE, NETWORK, TERMINATOR et al., JURASSIC PARK (actually, just about anything by Spielberg), etc.. Thus, such movies, when related to mass media, are fertile ground for mass media criticism.

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