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Media Relations and Media Product: Audience Commodity

Union for Democratic Communications


Entire Issue 1 Critical Concepts Media Relations and Media Product: Audience Commodity Lee Artz O ver 50 years ago Dallas Smythe found the antidote. He was the first scholar to publish the scientific rationale for rejecting the ideological romanticism of U.S. mass communication research.1 Smythe insisted that the political economy of the commercial media—and their source of profits—best explained the processes and practices. After years as an FCC eco- nomic analyst of the radio and telegraph industry and several content analyses of television programming, Smythe observed that audiences were “products” that commercial networks sold to corporate advertisers. Smythe recognized that audi- ences were subjected to programming which was produced, distributed, and pro- moted to meet the interests of advertisers who ultimately funded private television and developed media technology for profit. These identifiable relations helped clar- ify much of the operation, and reception, of media in the United States. Smythe also spoke frequently at international conferences on media and tech- nology, offering valuable theoretical and practical observations in defense of cul- tural diversity and democratic access to the media and deserving of recuperation and reconsideration. However, although many of Smythe’s concerns have been championed and popularized in international communication discourse, his obser- vations regarding the function of audiences in the media process have been less visible. In fact, despite cogent argument and ample evidence, his perspective on the commodity audience has been institutionally shunned by academic departments across the U.S. for some fifty years—ironically indicating the need for a similar political economy of academe—and prompting this essay’s restatement and critique of his theoretical claims and his practical suggestions concerning audience-as- commodity. Although others have pursued the path laid by Smythe’s observations and several have even e

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