Media, Technology, and Leisure

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The last decade of the nineteenth century, and the whole of the twentieth century, saw a revolution in the use of time for leisure, from live events to technology-related entertainments. More and more time was devoted first to attending movies and listening to recorded sounds—either on radio broadcasts or on phonograph records—and later to watching television, and, during the final years of the twentieth century, listening to digital-quality recordings and watching telecasts delivered by cable and satellites, along with watching videos and DVDs and playing video games. By the close of the twentieth century, the middle-class American had a plethora of media entertainment options available, and devoted increasing amounts of leisure and recreational time to electronicallybased amusement.

Since the 1890s, these mass media technologies have increasingly served as a substitute for live, "in-person" leisure-time activities. Indeed, more people have seen and heard the average prime time television program on one night in one hour than attended the hit play Oklahoma! over its then record-breaking Broadway run. Depending upon one's values, this extensive use of technology has had a good or bad impact on live entertainment, expectations of viewers and listeners, and quality of leisure. Yet as people devote more of their time to media technology, one can assume they are voting their preference for this form of leisure and recreation.


While all forms of mass technological media are popular, the top one in terms of its world impact must be the films produced by Hollywood. Before the advent of the cinema, there was a vast array of live entertainment. The reduction of live entertainment did not come instantly, but became discernable with the first showings of films in the late 1890s, and accelerated after World War I when Hollywood coalesced and its productions began to dominate the world market. Hollywood would continue its domination through the rest of the twentieth century.

The production and distribution of cinema since the 1920s has been dominated by eight or fewer giant Hollywood studios. These vast multinational enterprises created films that were presented in virtually every technologically-advanced country in the world, frequently capturing a major share of the business in those countries, despite competition from nationally-made and distributed motion pictures. Almost continuous technological change—led by the Hollywood oligopolists—did not lessen Hollywood's industrial power, and other film industries sought to mimic Hollywood's continuous success. The addition of sound and color, the innovations of cable TV and home video simply extended Hollywood's influence, and increased its profits and presence.

Hollywood's grip on leisure time has not been lessened by world or regional wars, the Great Depression, and the innovation of a variety of television technologies. Indeed, with the explosion of home video during the final fifth of the twentieth century, Hollywood has gained more power, and its films dominate a world culture as no other medium ever has.

The enhancement of sound to movies during the late 1920s solidified control by four studios over the world cinema market, names still familiar as the twentieth century ended: Paramount Pictures, MGM, Twentieth Century Fox, and Warner Bros. Led by Paramount through the 1930s and 1940s, Hollywood perfected its first "Golden Age" based upon control of movie theaters. Paramount represented the most profitable, powerful, and traditional business-like Hollywood company. More than any of the others, Paramount relied on its chain of more than 1,000 theaters to maintain its corporate might. Not surprisingly, it was a former theater operator, Barney Balaban, who stood at the top of this corporate colossus, hiring more lawyers and MBAs than movie stars. MGM ranked second, technically functioning as a successful unit of Loew's, a theater chain. MGM, more than any other studio, relied on the star system, producing films from its massive Culver City, California-based "factory" of twenty-seven sound stages and a 168-acre back lot.

Twentieth Century Fox and Warner Bros. ranked just behind Paramount and MGM. These four tolerated some competition from RKO, Universal Pictures, Columbia Pictures, and United Artists through the 1930s and 1940s. What changed the studio system was the suburbanization of the United States after World War II. Suddenly Hollywood's U.S. customers lived miles from the downtown picture palaces. Later, television enabled Universal, Columbia, and United Artists to prosper. Warner Bros. began its transition into what became AOL Time Warner when in 1956 the founding brothers sold out, and a series of new owners embraced television production. Paramount was re-invented as a part of the conglomerate Gulf and Western Corporation.

Whoever owned these studio colossuses, their management figured ways to accommodate, and even dominate television. The transition saw Hollywood producing fewer films, but most were produced with an eye toward their becoming potential blockbusters. In 1962, NBCTV's "Saturday Night at the Movies" began the transition to television as the dominant delivery system of Hollywood's feature films. The surprise hits of Jaws (1975) and Star Wars (1977) moved Universal and Fox to the top of the Hollywood studio hierarchy.

The architect of this re-invention of Hollywood was Universal's longtime president Lew Wasserman. Starting in 1961, Wasserman transformed the former minor studio into a television and film powerhouse. Universal ascended to the top of the Hollywood movie and television studio hierarchy as Wasserman innovated the made-for-TV movie, and released the first true modern film blockbuster, Jaws. Wasserman tied Hollywood closely to TV production, and by the 1980s it became clear that Hollywood and television would merge. By 1999, Disney owned the ABC television network, Paramount owned the CBS television network, and Twentieth Century Fox owned the Fox network. Only NBC, owned by General Electric, remained "independent" of the new, even more "golden" Hollywood studio system.

As the twentieth century ended, despite all the social, technological, and industrial changes, the major Hollywood companies alone continued to be able to distribute films around the world. At considerable expense, all maintained offices not only in the United States, but in every region of the world. Owners of theater chains knew the Hollywood majors alone could continuously deliver popular films, and so even theater owners outside the United States preferred Hollywood films to native productions. The Hollywood studios' record at the box office satisfied theater owners—a conservative lot with most of their assets invested in real estate. Economies of scale prevented rivals from building and maintaining equal world distribution networks.

Through the final quarter of the twentieth century, the Hollywood oligopoly learned to generate profits from creations that premiered with blitz TV advertising, which in turn was married to a multi-revenue generating machine to sell musical sound tracks, novelizations of the stories, "action figures" from movie characters, and video. Each movie aspired to become a smash hit, because if it succeeded, the feature turned into a "product line," designed to fill all entertainment needs and desires, from toys to theme park rides to campaigns to sell more McDonald's hamburgers.

The blockbuster strategy, in turn, led to everescalating costs of production, so it became more difficult for rivals to compete with the exclusive Hollywood club. By the close of the twentieth century, the average Hollywood feature cost in excess of $50 million to produce, and half again that amount to publicize. Titanic doubled those averages, but then earned in excess of $2 billion in revenues. Potential filmmakers knew that if they aspired to ever have a world audience see their creation, and to attain undreamed-of wealth, they needed to be "green lighted" by one of the major Hollywood studios.

Alone, Hollywood could keep the revenues flowing year after year—particularly from home video. While theaters still premiered new films, it was "downstream" on video where the bulk of the profits were generated. The theater functioned as the "voting booth" where hits were made, and necessary publicity generated. But once the film had fully milked the box-office it went into release on cable TV and home video, which created more than two-thirds of the average film's total revenues. Hollywood executives carefully planned—in classic price discrimination fashion—to drain all possible revenues from each of these release venues, only releasing it to home video when they calculated that all the monies movies from theatrical and then cable TV had been procured. Each window in this sequence was an exclusive; a new window opened only when all value of the previous window had been captured. This exploitation of video represented Hollywood's newest advantage in the film industry.

Globally, only in the rare nation does Hollywood not capture more than half the business. But other nations did try. During the 1920s, European nation-states—led by the United Kingdom, France and Germany—sought to build their own studio systems, and were successful for short periods of time, until their leading filmmakers left for Hollywood. Meanwhile, the new Soviet Union tried to build an alternative national cinema industry under Communism. The 1930s saw an end to most of these experiments, though many propaganda films and sentimental stories were made. At the close of the World War II, the focus shifted to state-sponsored television, and in Japan and India, studio systems did succeed, even while conceding to Hollywood a vast share of the monies paid for cinema attendance.

Hollywood has long maintained an influential trade association: the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). Best known in the early 2000s for ratings of films, the MPAA has long been far more influential around the world for lobbying to smooth the way for Hollywood's domination of international distribution. The MPAA worked closely with the U.S. State Department to keep cinema trade "free" so as to permit the Hollywood studio oligopoly to continue pulling billions in revenue from the foreign market. While globalization seems like a new concept, Hollywood has been practicing it for three-quarters of the twentieth century.

Recorded Sound and Radio

Since the creation of the phonograph in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, people have been able to listen to recorded sounds—first on cylinders, then on records, then audio cassettes, and, as the twentieth century ended, compact discs (CDs) and MP3 computer files. A library of recorded music is part of many people's possessions. Recordings actually led to an increase in live performances, as stars were discovered on recorded media, and then people wanted to see these stars in person. Technological media reduced live amateur music making, but did little to dampen the desire to see and hear celebrity musicians play in person.

Since about 1920, people have also had the ability to listen to sounds—principally musical—via radio broadcasting. Because of their reliance on music, radio and recorded sound have been closely linked. In times of economic slowdowns, particularly during the Great Depression, people listened to free radio broadcasts as a substitute for purchasing music. It may have been Al Jolson in the 1920s, Benny Goodman in the 1930s, Bing Crosby in the 1940s, Elvis Presley in the 1950s; but whatever the decade, radio broadcasts held a prominent position in developing twentieth-century entertainment. Music listening, whether on radio or through one's one technical apparatus, has become a constant presence, and recordings have made all the difference. As the twentieth century ended, for example, country crossover diva Patsy Cline had been dead for twenty-seven years, but she still "lived" through her recordings and radio play, enabling young listeners to discover her, and older listeners to continue to buy her recordings in numbers measured in the millions.

Since the early 1930s, radio has been a ubiquitous mass medium, in nearly every home and automobile. In the 1990s, the average household—because of the low price of radio receivers—had access to more than five radios. In a typical week, radio broadcasting reached nearly all possible listeners, at least for a few moments. During the 1930s the average person listened three hours per day. That figure dropped as television entered the scene in the 1950s, but radio advertisers targeted a diverse set of listeners—all ethnic groups, age groups, and income classes. Blending together certain musical formats seems to attract certain specific audiences. As the twentieth century ended, listening crested at "drive time," or "rush hour" in major cities. And the choices, particularly in major cities, numbered fifty to a hundred different stations.

Because of radio promotion, music sales were being measured in the billions of dollars as the twentieth century ended. This came in the form of compact discs (CDs), CD singles, audio cassettes, cassette singles, long playing vinyl records, vinyl singles, and music videos. In 1997, the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI) pegged world music sales at around $40 billion, of which the United States represented about a third. The key difference between the radio and music recording industries is that music sales are dominated by five companies. As of the commencement of the twentyfirst century these were AOL Time Warner (U.S.–based), EMI (British), Universal (French), Bertelsmann (German), and Sony (Japanese). All were among the largest corporations in the media business, indeed in the entire corporate world. Again using Patsy Cline, her recordings are principally controlled by Universal, and help substantiate that company's vast catalog. All Patsy Cline sales flow to the bottom line, as production costs have long been paid off.

As new technology improved, and CDs became pure renditions of music making, and as FM radio replaced AM broadcasting as the dominant medium, the sound could be broadcast in digital quality. As the century ended, direct radio broadcasting via satellite seemed to be the latest technological innovation in radio broadcasting, seeking to reformat the radio industry as the CD had the recorded music industry in the 1980s and 1990s.


Television broadcasts from towers fundamentally changed the use of mass media technologies more than any other medium since the rise of Hollywood after World War I. When TV was introduced in the United States during the late 1940s and early 1950s, people cut back on other leisure time pursuits and began to use television as their principle leisure time activity. Survey after survey demonstrated that once a local station went on the air, the evening hours were nearly always devoted to television watching by the majority of available viewers. By 1960, television became the primary leisure time activity for persons in the United States. By the close of the twentieth century, the average home in the United States had the television on some seven hours per day.

The United States television industry has grown into an economic force generating mass media's greatest revenues, costs, and profits. In the United States, the production, distribution, and broadcasting of television (and later cable casting, and delivery directly by satellite) has long been dominated by a few vertically integrated networks—which produce much of their own programming, and often own broadcast stations, cable systems, and satellite-to-home divisions. While a variety of state-controlled or semi-independent publicly-funded television systems have existed around the world, by the end of the twentieth century more and more TV industries in other countries were deregulated—that is, privatized—and began to look more like the commercial model of the United States.

From its introduction after World War II to the mid-1980s, in the United States three national systems of interconnection or networks dominated the TV business: the American Broadcasting Company (ABC), the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS), and the National Broadcasting Company (NBC). Then came cable TV's 100-plus networks, and in the 1990s, even more offerings through satellite and digital cable. Yet this seeming plethora of TV choices is actually produced by seven conglomerates, all built around organizations producing programming allied with other parts of the same company. In most cases, the entertainment programs were made in Hollywood, in a deal with a studio such as a Disney or Paramount. These corporations also own TV networks that broadcast, cablecast, or deliver programming via satellite to the home. Executives with the same company make programming decisions either aimed at mass audiences (the so called traditional networks such as Disney's ABC), or, increasingly, to niche networks, such as Disney's growing number of cable channels.

By the close of the twentieth century, all the networks—save NBC—were tied directly to Hollywood-based companies. Broadcast television became a classic case of vertical integration. Except for live sports and news, their Hollywood parents were creating all forms of programming, from comedies to dramas, from reality shows to news magazine programs. They produced the show, distributed it through their own networks, and then much of the nation watched it on one of their networks. The Australian media baron Rupert Murdoch innovated the Hollywood vertically integrated TV network system when in 1985 he bought a studio—Twentieth Century Fox—and then launched the first new TV network in thirty years: the Fox Television Network. During the 1990s, Viacom followed Murdoch's lead and fashioned its United Paramount Network (supplied by its Paramount studio), and the Time Warner corporation created the Warner Bros. network. Disney underscored the importance of this new broadcast network economics when in 1995 it acquired ABC. In 1999 Viacom purchased CBS, and in doing so became the owner of two broadcast networks.

As late as 1980, most viewers in the United States watched solely broadcast TV, but more and more households began to subscribe to cable television. As the twentieth century ended, about two-thirds of Americans paid monthly fees to a local cable monopoly. After the passage of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, which further deregulated the TV and radio industries, cable franchises consolidated, and in 1998 AT&T acquired cable franchises representing about a third of all customers in the United States. AT&T's CEO Michael Armstrong bet his corporation's future on cable, based on three principles. First, cable was a legal monopoly, reminding Armstrong of the old phone company. Second, Armstrong saw that cable's broadband wires could offer not only television, but also Internet access. Finally, through his corporate partner Liberty Media, he controlled the Discovery Channel (in its five variations), The Learning Channel, Black Entertainment Television, and a host of other cable networks. Armstrong then sold this package to the fourth largest cable company, Comcast Cable.

But not all cable networks were controlled by these vertically integrated vast media conglomerates. As an alternative tactic, a few Hollywood moguls reasoned that it was not necessary to spend billions of dollars to wire local cable franchises, but simply produce desirable programming, and TV viewers would find and pay for those channels, regardless who was their local monopoly cable franchise. Disney, Fox, and Viacom executives, for the three leading examples, concentrated in creating programming to feed cable networks such as ESPN, The Family Channel, and Music Television (MTV), respectively. They did not vertically integrate.

In sum, cable networks added no dominant new owners to the list of traditional Hollywood and television corporate powerhouses. Indeed, to think of broadcast TV as distinct from cable TV industries no longer makes sense from an ownership perspective. The longtime Hollywood companies dominate, in partnership with a couple of cable TV giants. So HBO may have been famous for programs such as The Sopranos and Sex in the City as the twenty-first century commenced, but they were simply small divisions of the AOL Time Warner media megacorporation. The programs were meant to shock, but were directed to an audience who first had to pay for cable access, and then extra for a "premium" channel.

The 1990s saw a whole new means of gaining access to television: satellite-to-home direct delivery. By 2000, one in ten households in the United States had signed up. Paying even higher fees than for cable TV service in some cases, satellite subscribers could access up to twice as many channels, principally pay-per-view movies and sports broadcasts from all regions of the United States and around the world.

As the twenty-first century began, the major TV conglomerates relied more and more on exporting programming around the world. Yet Hollywood-made TV by no means monopolizes the world's television. For example, Brazilian and Mexican TV industries succeeded in exporting TV programming in Latin America. In Europe, French and German companies did the same. Still, overall, Hollywood functioned as the leading maker and exporter of TV entertainment. Its influential trade association—the MPAA—smoothly paved the way for export by lobbying both the United States Department of State and governments worldwide to keep TV trade open and unrestricted. (Note that Hollywood and the television industries were represented by the same trade association.) Foreign governments resented U.S. pressure, and formally and informally struggled to protect their domestic TV industries.

Social Influence of Media

The impact of the movies was not truly felt until the latter days of the 1910s. With Hollywood, the white establishment took control of media, technology, and leisure time. African Americans, Asian Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans did not own the means of production, distribution, or presentation. Even in the 1930s and 1940s, movie houses catering only to "Negro" audiences were most often owned by whites, and minority group images were stereotyped. So Native Americans were seen exclusively as fiery "Indian warriors" ever seeking to prevent the "proper" manifest destiny of European settlers taking the west for themselves. African Americans appeared primarily as servants or slaves—for comic relief. In 1930s Hollywood there were a few African American stars, such as Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, Hattie McDaniel, Stepin Fetchit, and Willie Best. Hattie McDaniel won an Oscar for her powerful supporting role in Gone with the Wind (1939), but far more popular with white audiences were Stepin Fetchit and Willie Best, playing the role of the "shufflin' lackey coon."

Change commenced during World War II as the federal government pressured Hollywood to fashion films with realistic African American characters. During the 1950s, from motion pictures such as Carmen Jones, Island in the Sun, and Take a Giant Step, movie audiences finally saw African Americans as leading actors and actresses. In particular Sidney Poitier became a big star and won an Oscar. By the 1970s, there was even a genre with black action heroes—Jim Brown and Richard Roundtree—as well as positive images effected in Sounder, Claudine, and The Wiz. During the 1980s came independent African American film makers making powerful and widely distributed films. No more famous film maker emerged during this period than Spike Lee, with his She's Gotta Have It, School Daze, Do The Right Thing, and X: The Story of Malcolm X, distributed by Time Warner, then the largest media conglomerate in the world.

This same historical cycle—negative stereotyping, followed by slow transformation and acceptance—played out in the images of Hispanics as well. The "Mexican greaser" image was a minor stereotype found in films of the 1920s and 1930s, principally westerns. This only changed after World War II as the U.S. government, seeking better relations with neighbor nations to the south, pressured Hollywood to offer positive images. Momentarily such films as Jaurez set positive images. But after the war this pressure abated and it would take many more years until films such as La Bamba entered mainstream Hollywood.

Female filmmakers operated under severe constraints as well. Women have always been among the most popular of performers, but precious few have had any power behind the camera or in Hollywood's boardrooms. Only early star Mary Pickford has helped create a major studio—United Artists. But through years, except for their roles as stars and supporting actresses, it was more likely to find a woman as a screenwriter (for example, Frances Marion, Anita Loos, or Bess Meredyth, to name three) or as an editor such as Margaret Booth and Dorothy Arzner.

It was not until the 1980s that one could locate more than the occasional working female Hollywood filmmaker. In 1980 the Directors Guild reported that during the previous thirty years only seven women had directed feature films in Hollywood—Elaine May, Claudia Weill, Martha Coolidge, Joan Miklin Silver, Amy Heckerling, and Susan Seidelman.

Much of the same script was followed by radio and recorded sound. This sector of the U.S. entertainment industry also began at the turn of the century and followed the same stereotypes that were employed in Hollywood. African Americans, Asian Americans, Hispanics and Native Americans did not own the means of production. But at the level of performance minorities could make their way. And none did so more than African Americans. It was during the final decade of the nineteenth century and the first two decades of the twentieth century that jazz as a separate musical form was fashioned. African American jazz defined white "Big Bands," and with soul music, gospel, rhythm and blues, and hip-hop, the popular music of the latter twentieth century was principally of African American origins.

During the 1950s, with the formation of rock and roll, the twin influences of white country music (based on Scottish American and Irish American music makers) and African American merged. But a white man,Elvis Presley, rather than an African American, Chuck Berry, was able to gain the greatest popularity, fame, and fortune. Indeed African American–inspired rock and roll, has always been primarily marketed to whites, with noted exceptions. African American Berry Gordy's Motown records stood as the rare example of an African American owned recording company. The Supremes and Temptations made Motown famous, and Gordy rich.

With radio tied to recorded music, the same trends were seen. Amos 'n' Andy may have seemed a black show, but its creators and actors were white. From a multicultural perspective there was little impact on radio through the network era of the 1930s and 1940s. Women were performers; Native Americans were invisible; other ethnic groups made rare appearances.

But with the rise of television, the era of network radio being dominated by a handful of stations in each city was soon over. Radio stations turned to different formulas for music and began to identify a "sound." As the twentieth century ended, stations catered to Hispanics, African Americans, Asian Americans, indeed all ethnic cohorts in the United States of America.

The television entertainment industry began with an extension of Hollywood stereotypes. There were precious few minorities (by any definition) behind the cameras. One report issued in 1980 stated that during the previous thirty years (the formative ones for television) only twenty-three women had been employed as directors of prime-time television. It was not until the late 1960s, with Bill Cosby in I Spy, that a major prime-time series character was portrayed by an African American. But in 1977, with Alex Haley's mini-series Roots, courageously backed by a Jewish American David Wolper, a new era commenced. Roots set ratings records and was followed by the 1980s hit The Cosby Show. The television era was fundamentally transformed during the late 1970s as cable TV entered millions of homes. By the end of the 1980s multicultural channels on cable TV were in place. In particular, Black Entertainment Television offered an African American owned and operated network of sports, movies, and original shows made and offered for persons of color. For Hispanics the all-Spanish network Univision provided Hispanics with twenty-four-hour Spanish language programs, from game shows to movies to soap operas. For females, Lifetime developed talk shows and movies and selected reruns aimed at female interests.

By 1990 there was a great deal of diversity and multiculturalism in media images on cable TV. However, in the early 2000s, progress still needed to be made. The ownership of these entertainment industry portraits continued to be controlled by whites. Critics on the left have long seen the television industry as an increasingly influential cultural industry no different from other industries in monopoly-driven capitalism. Like Hollywood, they see domination by giant corporations, and the lack of true alternatives that challenge the dominant political-economic structure. Even with the increasing number of cable channels, one strains to find any progressive alternatives to corporate voices that sing largely in unison. The dominant TV powers have continuously increased their influence as they fashion a global media presence. Yet it must be acknowledged that sales and rentals of video in both its forms—VHS and DVD—do offer increasingly diverse choices. There surely is more television than ever before, and more diversity as TV continues to dominate the mass technological media leisure activity.

See also: Movies' Impact on Popular Leisure; Radio Listening, Car and Home; Television's Impact on Popular Leisure


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Douglas Gomery

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