How were the 1980s an era of consolidation and change for American media?

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The 1980s was the decade that saw the great upheavals and change in history in regard to media.  From newspapers, magazines, and books to radio and television, Americans saw the way media was produced and consumed undergo drastic makeovers. 

Newspapers were one of the first sectors of media to get a new look.  In 1982, USA Today began publication. Unlike the ubiquitous black-and-white dailies of the past, this young upstart featured colorful graphs and charts as well as full-color photographs. “Legitimate” newspapers around the country poo-pooed the new paper.  They castigated USA Today’s short articles and leanings toward “lighter” fare, such as celebrity news and polls. However, in just four years, USA Today surpassed one million in daily circulation.  While this number was not earth-shattering, the competition took notice and began incorporating the new paper's techniques. However, because printing in color is  expensive, many older papers of the past could not afford the increased costs.  Around the country, long-established papers went out of business.  Smaller presses that survived but struggled were bought up by syndicates, like Gannet, who was responsible for producing USA Today.  By the end of the decade, syndicate-owned papers were the norm.  Fewer than four hundred daily independent papers were still being pressed while more than twelve hundred were produced by conglomerates.  

There were other changes in book publishing, too. In the past, publishers first published a work in hardback, then sold their rights to a paperback publisher. The new conglomerates, however, decided to keep more of their profits.  They both bought and started their own lines to reprint works in paperback, and, perhaps more importantly, began issuing first presses in paper rather than hardcover.  These new paperbacks were typically science fiction or romance novels, but the move proved to be quite profitable. 

In addition to new lines of paperbacks, the publishing industry also added new lines of audio books, software, and self-help texts, all of which further boosted the conglomerates' bottom line. Magazines also enjoyed a boom during the 80s. Specialized publications in parenting, computing, health, travel, and more seemed to appear like mushrooms after a rain. Many, or even most, of these upstarts have since folded, but some survive and are still profitable today, including Spin, one of the most widely-read music magazines.  

Radio, too, saw changes.  In the 1980s, there were some nine thousand radio stations across the country. AM, the once-preferred choice, saw a decline in listeners as far as music goes, because FM had a clearer signal, which most music listeners preferred. Because of this, many talk-based station claimed the AM bandwidth, and popular right-wing hosts, like Rush Limbaugh, migrated to AM stations. The liberal-leaning National Public Radio, however, chose to stay with FM.

Newspapers, books, magazines, and radio all experienced radical shifts in their business models, but perhaps the most seismic shift came to the television industry.  For decades, the airwaves had been dominated by three networks:  ABC, CBS, and NBC.  The availability of cable television changed all that.  Homes that typically had access to a maximum of about seven channels now had thirty, or more. Networks' shares of viewers declined by fifteen percent. The cable companies enjoyed the advantage of cheaper programming, as many of them showed primarily reruns and did not have to bear the cost of creating and producing new material.  HBO shook up the paradigm as well, with its edgy, new material that was too risque for traditional, family-oriented television. CNN was also born in the 80s and its twenty-four hour programming shook up the networks too.  The "big three" tried to respond by loosening standards, allowing more objectionable language and sexual situations to go uncensored, but they had lost ground, and would never recover it. All three networks went through buy-outs in 1985 and each had new owners in the space of just nine months. 

Source: American Decades: 1980-1989, ©1995 Gale Cengage. 

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On one level, the 1980s was a period of intense media consolidation.  "The Big Three" held a fairly strong chokehold on the media marketplace.  ABC, NBC, and CBS were the dominant networks.  Media consolidation was so strong that all other forms of media broadcasting were almost relegated to the level of local affiliates.  Consolidation in media affairs had been seen as part of the Status Quo extending as far back as World War II.  As expenditures for media began to increase and viewer consumption increased, the consolidation of the media market was a distinct aspect of the 1980s media scene.

While this consolidation was a distinct reality of the 1980s media marketplace, change was evident.  Cable television began to emerge in 1980s media.  Networks such as CNN and MTV began to offer a viable alternative to "the big three" of network television.  Cable television enabled a more significant element to emerge.  As the 1980s viewer sought to use newly- found wealth on consumable items, cable television became an attractive alternative.  At the same time, Rupert Murdoch's foray into changing the marketplace enabled the FOX network as a viable alternative to traditional network programming. The FOX network approached broadcasting with an anti- establishment approach.  This change in the media landscape could be seen in shows such as "The Tracey Ullman Show" with skits such as "The Simpsons,"  and "Married With Children."  Programming like this helped to change what viewers experienced in television of the 1980s.  These elements helped to create a media landscape where change and consolidation were definitive elements.

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