A system is an assemblage of individual elements that together constitute a whole, with each component interacting with the others and with the outer world. Using this approach, a media system may be seen as consisting of different publishing entities, such as news agencies, the press, or television, which relate to each other. To give an example, agencies provide news for the different media, such as the press and electronic media, which compete and cross-promote at the same time. There are also links between the media system or its entities and the outer world of other systems, like politics (e.g., broadcasting legislation and regulation), economics (e.g., conglomerate companies or advertising), society (e.g., as readership or audience), or culture (e.g., popular culture and entertainment).
The most common space for a media system is the nation state, where the central markets and most of the companies are based. But the center of activities could also be a small place, such as a locality with its mélange of local media. Also, in an increasingly integrating world, media actors may be active in a number of different markets of different states. In some respect, one may even talk about Europe as an emergent media system, which may be compared to other large systems, such as that of the US.
A media system may also be shaped by different levels of media activity, like the combination of national program producers and local affiliations. This may be found in the television network system of the US or the federal system in Germany, where broadcasting responsibilities rest with individual federal states. Another way to group media activities is by language spaces, e.g., the large world of English-speaking countries dispersed around the globe, the Spanish-speaking region consisting of Spain and Latin America, the Chinese-speaking region with China, Taiwan, and Singapore, or smaller regions such as the German space in the center of Europe, which besides Germany includes Austria, parts of Switzerland, and other bordering countries.
The Comparative Approach
It seems a natural approach to compare media systems across borders. Comparison is a method for obtaining evidence of causal effects by searching for similar or different elements between two or more systems. The British philosopher John Stuart Mill talked of the combination of a “method of agreement” and “method of difference” (Mill 1843/1972, 648ff.), meaning that every substantial comparison has to look for common and different features at the same time. Blumler and colleagues combine several aspects and argue that work is comparative, “when the comparisons are made across two or more geographically or historically (spatially or temporally) defined systems, the phenomena of scholarly interest which are embedded in a set of interrelations that are relatively coherent, patterned, comprehensive, distinct, and bounded” (Blumler et al. 1992, 7).
The final step of a comparative analysis is the designing of theoretical statements, which are created by separating individual differences from the things that are common to all. Out of the latter one may distill statements about common features that constitute models or types. This is how theories of convergence and divergence have been developed. Their special feature is that they describe developments in the course of time; they focus on a paradigm shift. A theory of convergence argues that media systems are collectively moving in the direction of increasing homogeneity.
Early Comparative Theories Of The Press
The comparative perspective reveals that media serve different functions, appear in different forms, and differ in many other ways. In 1956 Siebert and colleagues wrote an influential study on “four theories of the press,” looking at the relationship between press and society, based on the assumption that the media always take on the form and coloration of the structures within which they operate. The four theories are called “authoritarian,” “libertarian,” “social responsibility,” and “Soviet communism.”
The last of these has obviously disappeared, nearly totally. Authoritarian reflects the longstanding (mostly European) tradition of control over the media by repressive regimes. Libertarian stands for free enterprise and freedom from government interference, and social responsibility for a government that not merely allows freedom, but actively promotes it (Siebert et al. 1956). This approach represented an American perspective on the postwar world and reflected the polarization during the age of the Cold War, and has often been criticized for this. It devised a world shaped by divergence, as such reflecting facts and visions of the time the theory was developed.
Comparative Analysis And The Theory Of Convergence
Hallin and Mancini (2004), in their study on comparing media systems, start from the argument of the “four theories” and attempt to update it, mainly by looking at capitalist countries on both sides of the Atlantic. They find three models: a “liberal” model (the UK, Ireland, the USA), with relative dominance of market mechanisms and commercial media; a “democratic corporatist” model (northern continental Europe, including Germany), with a historical coexistence tied to social and political groups and a relatively active but legally limited role of the state; and the “polarized pluralist” model (Mediterranean countries of southern Europe), with integration of the media into party politics, a weaker position of commercial media, and a strong role of the state. So far they emphasize the differences between the three models, but see many common aspects inside each group.
But this is mainly a description of the present situation, which does not include developments on a longer time scale. Hallin and Mancini also look at long-term changes and see as a consequence of ongoing commercialization an overall process of homogenization. They argue that considerable convergence has taken place, primarily in the direction of the “liberal” model. They assume that this process will continue into the future, but also see limits, such as the tendency in society toward differentiation and individualization. The Internet, with its interactive qualities, is the obvious medium that supports this process. In general, the thesis of convergence is well argued and describes an important trend in international media. But it is only based on analysis of the western part of the world, and it refers primarily to the interrelationship between the media and politics.
Aspects Of Comparative Analysis Of Media Systems
Denis McQuail develops a scheme based on four models in his normative media theory. A “liberal-pluralist” or “market” model starts from the original “free press” (libertarian) model of Siebert et al. A “social responsibility” or “public interest” model includes the right to freedom of publication but is accompanied by a positive notion of freedom, including social purposes for the media. The “professional” model emphasizes the journalistic profession as the guardianship of standards for the quality media. Finally, the “alternative media” model includes a range of non-mainstream media with purposely different aims and origins (McQuail 2005, 185ff.). It allows for the definition of different types that show an emphasis on the “free” model (prototype: USA) or the “public interest” motive (prototype: the UK with the BBC). The professional as well as the alternative type may additionally be found in both. Important for this approach is that it looks for features inside each media system, emphasizes convergence of different normative principles, and asks that all models should be combined to secure diversity.
Another approach was adopted by Wolfgang Hoffmann-Riem (1996), who compared six countries concerning their system of licensing and regulation of electronic media. After searching for common features, he identified two groups of countries, one with a long tradition of a privately owned sector (US, Canada, Australia), where a “market” model was established, financed from the revenues of free enterprise, in particular advertisement or viewers’ subscriptions, which differs clearly from the second group, with a strong public-service tradition (the UK, Germany, France), where a “trustee” model evolved; here broadcasting is legally organized in trusteeship for the whole of society. Even though the past was shaped by a difference between the two models, he also recognizes a converging future, following a trend from “the trustee to the market model” (Hoffmann-Riem 1996, 340). He therefore supports the convergence thesis of Hallin and Mancini, even though his focus is quite different, as it is mainly based on legal analysis.
Most of these approaches lack a global focus, as they place western systems at the center of analysis and do not recognize the fact that models that first evolved in a transatlantic environment have spread around the world. In consequence, one could group world systems according to their attitude toward the public-service traditions (besides Europe, British Commonwealth countries including Canada and Australia, also Japan) as opposed to regions with an unrestricted commercial dominance (USA, later Latin America, parts of Asia). In other regions (like the Arab world, the states of the former Soviet Union, China) the controlling state is still the leading force. Taking this distinction, one may arrive at another framework in which control over broadcast media may be separated into “public,” “commercial,” and “state.” Also, combinations of these are possible, as in the case of Latin America, where state-controlled broadcasters are financed via commercial spots and not by a general fee. The convergence argument of Hallin and Mancini may also apply to these findings, as public service is endangered in many states and commercial homogenization is the leading tendency, especially if one includes the ongoing digitization of media.
Further Aspects Of Convergence
Yet another comparative approach would take the size of countries – based on territory, population, and market forces – into account. Obviously, nations of a continental size (the USA, Russia, China) enjoy much more autonomy in terms of media actors, content, and policy than small and vulnerable states (Austria, Scandinavia). The small states react by emphasizing a variety of active media policy measures to protect their identity.
Therefore, in small states public broadcasters tend to be stronger and receive more public funding than in larger states. An interesting example in this respect is Canada – a country of huge size but with a small population compared to the US – which invests heavily in supporting “Canadian content” in broadcasting and films. Based on this distinction, one may argue that convergence takes place more inside the cluster of large or small states, where the large ones tend to be global players, whereas the small ones stress the autonomy of their own media resources.
Convergence could also be interpreted as a policy goal that should be attained in the course of time. The European Union has practiced an active media policy since the 1980s, and its central goal is to create a common audiovisual space. The main instrument for this is the 1989 Directive “Europe without Frontiers,” which attempts to support pan-European media actors, as they are best prepared – in the eyes of the European Commission – to reach this goal. In this case, one could talk about convergence as an explicit policy goal that combines with elements of commercialization and self-regulation – as seen in the present media policy of the European Union. (McQuail & Siune 1998).
Designing general frameworks of the media that consist of different models always creates the problem of a limited perspective. Obviously, the less-developed world is often not represented in these models. A dichotomy like the theory of a “digital divide” shows a different world. In this perspective there is a deep gap between rich and poor countries concerning access to the Internet and other forms of new media as a distinguishing characteristic. The end result of this view is a world dominated by increasing divergence that might only in the long run converge, when the new technologies are universally available.
- Blumler, J., McLeod, J. M., & Rosengren, K. E. (eds.) (1992). Comparatively speaking: Communication and culture across space and time. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
- Esser, F., & Pfetsch, B. (eds.) (2004). Comparing political communication: Theories, cases, and challenges. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Hallin, D. C., & Mancini, P. (2004). Comparing media systems: Three models of media and politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Hoffmann-Riem, W. (1996). Regulating media: The licensing and supervision of broadcasting in six countries. New York: Guilford.
- Kleinsteuber, H. J. (2004). Comparing mass communication systems: Media formats, media contents, and media processes. In F. Esser & B. Pfetsch (eds.): Comparing political communications: Theories, cases, and challenges. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 64 – 86.
- McQuail, D. (2005). McQuail’s mass communication theory. London: Sage.
- McQuail, D., & Siune, K. (eds.) (1998). Media policy: Convergence, concentration and commerce (Euromedia Research Group). London: Sage.
- Mill, J. S. (1972). A system of logic. London: Routledge. (Original work published 1843.)
- Siebert, F. S., Peterson, T., & Schramm, W. (1956). Four theories of the press. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.