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Forces that Shaped American Culture, Development of Mass Media

In the late 19th century, Americans who enjoyed the arts usually lived in big cities or had the money to attend live performances. People who were poor or distant from cultural centers settled for second-rate productions mounted by local theater troupes or touring groups. New technologies, such as the motion-picture camera and the phonograph, revolutionized the arts by making them available to the masses. The movies, the phonograph, and, somewhat later, the radio made entertainment available daily and allowed Americans to experience elaborately produced dramas and all types of music.

While mass media made entertainment available to more people, it also began to homogenize tastes, styles, and points of view among different groups in the United States. Class and ethnic distinctions in American culture began to fade as mass media transmitted movies and music to people throughout the United States. Some people criticized the growing uniformity of mass culture for lowering the general standard of taste, since mass media sought to please the largest number of people by appealing to simpler rather than more complex tastes. However, culture became more democratic as modern technology and mass media allowed it to reach more people.

During the 20th century, mass entertainment extended the reach of American culture, reversing the direction of influence as Europe and the world became consumers of American popular culture. America became the dominant cultural source for entertainment and popular fashion, from the jeans and T-shirts young people wear to the music groups and rock stars they listen to and the movies they see. People all over the world view American television programs, often years after the program’s popularity has declined in the United States. American television has become such an international fixture that American news broadcasts help define what people in other countries know about current events and politics. American entertainment is probably one of the strongest means by which American culture influences the world, although some countries, such as France, resist this influence because they see it as a threat to their unique national culture.

 

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