Mass media content is created for audience consumption. Without at least a small audience, the communication process remains unilateral and incomplete. Despite its relevance for media production, regulation, and marketing, data on media use is systematically collected only in a few (mostly western) countries of the world. Hence the international comparison of media use patterns remains fragmentary. Evidence provided by global research agencies is often difficult to interpret because a standardized definition of media use is lacking. In some cases, data on the distribution of media offerings (e.g., circulation figures) replaces genuine data on media use because the latter is not recorded. With usage patterns changing over time, this overview focuses on the description of valid sources rather than presenting research results that might soon be outdated. Nevertheless, the picture drawn for purposes of exemplification refers to the data available as of 2006.
Factors Influencing Media Use
Globalization of the media as a core issue in academic discourse includes the assumption that even remote areas of civilization are characterized by a substantial amount of media use. However, individual usage patterns always develop within a framework of societal boundaries. Usage patterns depend on several factors that influence the conditions under which media can be used at all, and apply differently to nations worldwide.
Among these is, first, the system of government. Constitutions of nations in the western hemisphere enshrine freedom of speech. Other political systems hold a different perception of media regulation, including censorship or access barriers, while their cultural or religious background may enhance the tendency to self-censorship among communicators. This may limit the range of media available for use. Communication style in a society affects media use. Cultures are characterized by different rules and social conventions regarding how media are used, which media are used and for what purpose. For example, religious practices may inhibit media use in certain situations. Also, societies based on mutual respect and courtesy may force their members to use media appropriately. Media use depends also on access to the media, which have different prerequisites for proper distribution (infrastructure for distribution). Newspapers and magazines require physical transport and so roads, boats, airplanes; audiovisual media require technical equipment such as broadcasting stations or satellite transmission.
Beyond technical considerations, access is constrained by individual predispositions, particularly by individual prosperity. Print media as well as pay-TV stations and Internet providers charge their customers for media use. The amount people are able (and willing) to spend for media varies with individual living conditions. Media use is pointless when users are unable to understand the meaning of the offerings. When illiteracy is widespread in a society, media based on written text will not be very popular compared to audiovisual media relying on the power of the image or the spoken word. Beyond the mere decoding of the content, making sense of it becomes an issue as well: understanding media coverage requires a fundamental knowledge among potential audience members for a meaningful interpretation of messages.
Digitalization and mobility also play a role. Media use always occurs in a particular situation with its own spatial arrangement. If using a certain medium requires a special device (like a TV set or a computer) the opportunity for its use is limited by how much time and which times those devices are available or accessible for. Wireless devices such as mobile phones exploit the digital revolution and provide ubiquitous but expensive access to sources. At the same time, online database technologies allow for individual consumption of content according to one’s own schedule.
The analysis of media access and media use in different countries should avoid two misinterpretations. The first is that the diffusion of “new” media inevitably follows a linear process that ultimately leads to a saturated audience. From this point of view, regions with a lower distribution wrongly may be perceived as laggards compared to more advanced regions. The second misunderstanding refers to the assumption that the use of a certain medium has the same meaning or influence in different cultures. Moreover, the use of a certain medium and its meaning develop in a process of appropriation and domestication (Morley & Silverstone 1990).
Use Of Different Types Of Media
Despite an increasing media convergence (“media meshing”; see European Interactive Advertising Association 2006), media use patterns can still be described following a segmentation of media types. Moreover, the data available are organized accordingly; the countries mentioned in this section serve as examples, as the list of potential instances is long. Detailed information on nation-specific media use patterns can be found in Johnston’s (2003 –) Encyclopedia of international media and communications and in “The world factbook” in the category on “communications” (CIA 2006).
Infrastructural preconditions for TV access as well as program supply differ substantially between different parts of the world. Data on the role of television in more than 35 countries (based on local surveys) is collected by the annual international key facts study (IP International Marketing Committee 2005).
In western democracies such as the US or European nations (see Interview-NSS 2006), but also in technically more developed parts of Asia (Japan, South Korea, and even China), 95 percent and more of households are equipped with a TV set. On the other hand, India (44 percent) and South Africa (68 percent) are examples of the larger group of countries in which television-equipped households are much less prevalent (data for 2002). Television diffusion may even vary between different areas within the same country, notably rural and urban environments. An important factor is marked by the technical basis of TV distribution – by networks or cable or satellite channels. While the latter allow for the reception of a broad variety of channels in several languages, terrestrial broadcasting is usually limited to a smaller range of channels. Another difference is marked by the availability of additional pay-TV programs within a system.
On the basis of time devoted to TV use, the leading role of television as a dominant mass medium is confirmed for most countries. Average time spent in front of the screen exceeds 4 hours in some cases (e.g., Macedonia, US, Poland, Italy), with a large proportion of national mean values ranging between 3 and 4 hours (including Japan, China (Beijing), Germany, and most other EU countries). In poorer and densely populated areas such as parts of India and Southeast Asia, average viewing time may drop to 2 hours and below, but the same is true for the highly developed South Korean audience. In the Arab world, too, TV has taken the role of the most relevant and most influential medium in society. Satellite television has introduced liberal entertainment programs and, with Al Jazeera, a leading outlet for political information, according to surveys in these countries. The USA holds the pole position with adults viewing TV for 297 minutes per day on average. US digital TV reception exceeds 85 percent of all households nationwide, while 70 percent of the population can choose from 100 channels.
With its ubiquitous availability and its limited technological requirements, radio has established its role as an unobtrusive companion in the daily life of a global media audience. Daily coverage reaches more than 80 percent in many countries, with a listening time that often exceeds that of television (see IP International Marketing Committee 2002). The popularity of radio is closely tied to its subsidiary use characteristic: Demanding only limited attention, radio programs can easily be listened to while pursuing other activities, even in the workplace or in a car. As a consequence, a substantial part of radio use takes place outside people’s homes and while doing other things. Mobility has always been an important factor of radio use.
Beyond this general description, national differences in usage patterns should not be neglected. Taking Europe as an example, use in the workplace peaks in Finland while the share of radio consumption in the private home reaches almost 90 percent in Belgium, against the worldwide trend toward out-of-home use. Other differences refer to the daily routines of listeners, with radio serving as a complement to TV use. In some countries, radio use peaks early in the morning, followed by a steady drop-off during the day and almost negligible figures in the evening when TV prime time begins (e.g., in the UK or in Germany).
While the general level of radio use is equally high throughout Europe, dissimilarities can be observed in other regions of the world. Looking at Asia, access still is an issue, with 15 percent or less of inhabitants owning a receiver in, e.g., Myanmar, Cambodia, or Laos. It should mentioned that in some areas it is still common to attach speakers to high trees or poles to play music and to read out newspaper articles in order to provide a radio-like program. Although in Japan and South Korea, there is an available receiver for every person, the actual use figures rank only third after TV and the Internet (e.g., Japan: 94 minutes per day in 2004). In the Arab world, radio is rated higher due to the strong oral traditions in these cultures. Recently, religious content has become increasingly important, with listeners being confronted now with prayers outside the mosque, and, as a sideline, female users accumulating religious knowledge, which contributes to strengthening women’s civil rights to a certain degree.
Newspaper And Magazine Use
The use of daily newspapers is related to audience literacy and thus varies heavily among nations. At one end of the range, in countries such as Cameroon, only one newspaper copy is available for 1,000 inhabitants on average, but nevertheless intense sharing means those papers reach 19 percent of the population (data for 2000). At the other end, in Scandinavian countries, Sri Lanka, Singapore, and the UK almost 90 percent of the population look into a newspaper at least once a day. Furthermore, the informational basis for these figures differs substantially. For example, Norway’s high reach is caused by 23 different newspapers available per 1 million inhabitants, while the same number of Japanese and Chinese readers has only one newspaper on average to choose from. Few newspapers in these countries show an extremely high circulation (World Association of Newspapers 2005).
The global downward trend of newspaper use has continued unchanged in recent years, although for newspaper use statistics the insight is particularly true that figures may tell a different story according to what is considered to be a newspaper (see also Schneider & Schütz 2004 in detail). The tradition of subscribing to a newspaper is not common in every media system, although the permanence of a newspaper delivered to one’s home increases the probability of newspaper use, as well as daily routines including newspaper use (such as the morning breakfast, commuting periods, or work breaks). For rural areas in Africa, reliable distribution is a major obstacle, combined with widespread illiteracy, lingual fragmentation, and poverty. Therefore newspaper use is limited almost exclusively to larger cities. A completely different situation can be found in Latin America, where the press has always played an important role in political conflict.
Related to the newspaper market is the field of magazines, though differing in that there is a positive trend in audience interest and China is the world leader in production (8,135 different titles in 1999). In all regions of the world, the number of magazine titles is steadily increasing, while the total number of copies sold, indicating users’ interest, remains rather stable, reducing the audience of a single outlet permanently (Distripress 2006). Thus, more than any other, the field of special interest magazines is dominated by the production of similar formats in different languages for similar target groups in different countries (see below).
Since the mid-1990s, the Internet in general and the world wide web in particular have attracted an increasing audience worldwide (UCLA Center for Communication Policy 2003). Closely tied to an efficient technical infrastructure, dynamics have been more intense in developed countries. Penetration rates (2005) peak where 75 percent and more of the population report that they have used the Internet within the last week, such as in Scandinavian countries, the Netherlands, South Korea, or the US (Eurostat 2006, 186). Due to the technical requirements, Internet use in developing countries in Africa and Asia is still considerably lower, with mobile technologies opening an option to overcome the dependency on cost-intensive landline cables.
Although the share of Internet users among the population is low in China and India, they already contribute substantially to the estimated more than one billion users worldwide. Given the high population growth rates especially in China, it is expected that English as the lingua franca of the Internet will soon be complemented by Chinese. Recent technical innovations and the emergence of the so-called “Internet 2.0” have changed usage patterns dramatically: Individual blogging of content, peer-to-peer exchange of data, and interactive gaming have intensified the traffic on the global net and, at the same time, increased the hardware and software standards (European Interactive Advertising Association 2006).
Individual use patterns differ according to the places where access is available – in countries with low diffusion rates, public access points (e.g., Internet cafés) are more important than in countries with a high penetration rate, where the personal home is the dominant access point. Still, the workplace and/or educational institutions (schools, universities) are important access providers, and they are also used for private purposes. Data from the Nielsen Internet Panel (including 11 countries) suggest that in late 2006, the average Internet user had 34 private Internet sessions with about 30 hours of Internet use in total, which equals a 1-hour-session per day.
Use Of Mobile Communication Devices
In 2004, more than 1.7 billion mobile phones were distributed worldwide, most of them in Asia (41 percent) and Europe (33 percent). The availability of prepaid phone-cards contributed substantially to the diffusion of mobile devices. Penetration is highest in European countries, where each person owns (on average) more than one mobile phone. Due to technical constraints and a different billing system, penetration is lower in the US and in Australia (International Telecommunications Union 2006). For this type of media, it is highly relevant to distinguish between distribution of devices and their actual use: In Norway, for instance, 102.4 mobile phone contracts were registered among 100 inhabitants, but still more than 10 percent of the population does not use mobile phones at all. On the other hand, studies from Tanzania suggest that more than 85 percent of the population actually use mobile phones by sharing them, while only five contracts can be found among 100 persons.
In the case of mobile phones, the term “use” covers a whole range of different activities. Calling and answering the phone represent only a small portion of activities. In 2004, sending and receiving text messages cumulated to more than 35 billion within three months. Other multimedia functions include Internet access, photography, making short films, playing music or video games, and of course sending and exchanging data files (Kearney 2005). In fact, current mobile devices have become portable microcomputers that accelerate the process of convergence between different media application. Moreover, the distinction between mass media and individual communication gets increasingly blurred, and the same is true for public and private use of media applications.
Cross-National Media Formats
With regard to media content, international use can also be generated by cross-national distribution of the same or similar products. On the level of entire channels, transnational television is a common phenomenon in Europe. Beyond simple cross-border broadcasting, which seems unavoidable for territorial reasons, several channels expressly address a transnational audience. According to Chalaby (2005), such channels can be classified as (1) ethnic, (2) multi-territory, (3) pan-European, and (4) networks. The example of Al Jazeera mentioned above illustrates the relevance of satellite TV for making content accessible to cross-national audiences. Although few studies are available, this type of content is ideal for an international comparison of media use.
Furthermore, economic globalization also implies trading with successful media products and formats. Two different business practices are dominant in this field and can best be explained for the TV market: First, producers simply sell their program to a channel in another country, where it is dubbed, subtitled, or broadcast without modification. The global distribution of serialized fiction programs (predominantly from the US) such as Dallas or Dynasty, or more recently Emergency Room and CSI, follows this strategy.
Second, national broadcasters buy the idea of a specific format and adapt it to their national audience with major or minor changes. This concept is pursued in the case of, e.g., Big Brother or Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, and more generally in the field of nonfiction entertainment. Nevertheless, the plots of successful telenovelas or soap operas are also sold and copied worldwide. The result remains the same: a global audience (which might reach a size of 110 million people watching the different local versions of the Idols-shows) confronted with a roughly similar media offering.
Comparative Academic Research On Media Use
Most of the empirical evidence presented earlier was collected by market research agencies interested in commercially relevant data on the success of media offerings. Academic institutions have contributed only marginally to the level of knowledge in the field, as cross-national research is costly and national grants are often only allowed if funding from different countries is available.
According to the standards of scientific argumentation, international comparisons of media use should be developed against the background of a theoretical approach including or explaining media use as a factor. For example, the “digital divide hypothesis” proposes, among other things, national differences in the use of online media with an emphasis on the dynamics of the process (Norris 2001). However, access figures should not be confused with use and usage patterns, which depend heavily on the media literacy of users.
Comparative empirical studies are mostly limited to the audience analysis of one media application in some selected countries. For example, Jensen (1998) compiled evidence on TV news viewing in seven states: Belarus, Denmark, India, Israel, Italy, Mexico, and the USA. Obviously, substantiating the selection is crucial for the significance of the results: as the sample is not random, but each country stands for a larger set of nations, one could argue that often international research on media use in fact is cross-cultural, with nations as indicators for the culture they represent.
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