Skip to Main Content

Home Research Industries

Media and Entertainment

Defining Events

Numerous early inventions laid the foundation for the technology and methods used in the media and entertainment industry today. Six innovations that had a tremendous effect on print, radio, television, and film were the printing press, telephone, telegraph, cathode ray tube, the first motion picture capture, and the Internet.

The Printing Press

Mass communication, including book and magazine publishing, would not have been possible without the printing press. In 1440, Johannes Gutenberg, a German goldsmith and inventor, created a hand press with moveable and replaceable wooden letters. Ink was rolled over the letters and then pressed onto sheets of paper to create text. Prior to this invention, books were written by hand, as were their duplicates, making for a long and arduous production process. The printing press not only speeded up book production and reduced the cost to print materials, but because more books could be created in shorter amounts of time, it also helped educate and inform the masses rather than a select, privileged few. Gutenberg is also credited with using his printing-press method to create the first book ever to be printed, a 1,280-page Bible known as the Gutenberg Bible. About 180 copies were printed between 1452 and 1455.

The Telegraph and Telephone

The roots of early telecommunications are in the telegraph and telephone. Scientists were experimenting with electronic communication as far back as 1809, when Bavarian inventor Samuel Soemmering created a crude telegraph using gold-electrode wires in water. British inventor William Sturgeon created the electromagnet in 1825, which inventor Joseph Henry, five years later, used to demonstrate long-distance telecommunication by sending an electronic current over one mile of wire, triggering an electromagnet to cause a bell to ring. And American inventor Harrison Dyar succeeded in creating the first telegraph, in 1828, by sending electrical sparks through chemically treated paper to burn dashes and dots. But it was Samuel Morse who put everything together in 1835 to create a commercially successful telegraph. He invented Morse Code, which is pulses of current deflected by an electromagnet to create raised dashes and dots that were used as symbols for letters. He gave a public demonstration of his telegraph in 1838, but wasn’t able to demonstrate long-distance telegraph until 1844. By then Congress had provided $30,000 in funding to create an experimental telegraph line from Washington, D.C., to Baltimore, Maryland. In 1866, a telegraph line was laid across the Atlantic Ocean from the United States to Europe. Guglielmo Marconi experimented with wireless telegraph in the late 1890s, sending wireless radio signals over one and a half miles. The first patent for a radio device was granted to Marconi in 1896, and until his death in 1937, he continued to advance technology in other areas as well, including microwave radio technology and television transmission.

The telegraph was a standard form of communication until the telephone took over. In the 1870s, the Scottish inventor Alexander Graham Bell was trying to improve the single-line telegraph by creating multiple telegraph lines to send multiple messages at the same time. He experimented with sound, using music notes to create different signals. On March 10, 1876, Bell used his electrical device to call his lab assistant, who was in the next room. The first words ever spoken into a telephone were his: “Mr. Watson, come here – I want to see you.” Starting in 1877, telephone lines were constructed throughout the United States, and the first switchboard was established in Boston, Massachusetts. In 1880, there were about 49,000 telephones in use and pay phones appeared in 1889 in Hartford, Connecticut. In 1910, there were 5.8 million telephones in use; by 1980, there were more than 175 million telephone subscribers. Cell phones were introduced in the 1990s, and by 1995, there were 25 million cell phone subscribers. Today, many people have replaced their land lines with digital cell phones.

The Cathode Ray Tube

Without the cathode ray tube, television, as well as computer monitors, video game machines, video cameras, and ATMs, would not exist. A cathode ray tube (CRT) is a glass tube from which all the air has been removed. An electronic beam bounces off of its phosphorescent surface to create images. In television, an anode (positively charged terminal) concentrates the electrons into a tight beam, which then move quickly through the tube’s vacuum, hit the CRT’s screen and make it glow. German scientist Karl Ferdinand Braun invented the cathode ray tube with his cathode ray oscilloscope in 1897, which consisted of a tube with a fluorescent screen that displayed light when beams of electrons touched it. Russian scientist Vladimir Kosma Zworykin modified the cathode ray tube in the 1920s and created the iconoscope, which produced pictures by scanning images, and later the kinescope, which took those scanned images and reproduced them on a picture tube. He applied for the first patent for color television in 1929. Television got its nickname “the tube” because of the cathode ray tube. Today, the more compact and energy-saving liquid crystal display (LCD) television and computer monitors are replacing the cathode ray tube devices.

The First Motion Picture Capture

Legend has it that the first motion picture capture came about because of a bet. In 1872, former California Governor Leland Stanford—transcontinental railroad builder, Stanford University founder, and successful horse breeder—allegedly wagered $25,000 that horses could “fly.” He believed that when horses ran, they sometimes had all four hooves off the ground. The bet may have been a colorful tale, but what is certain is that Stanford hired British landscape photographer and inventor Eadweard Muybridge to prove his theory. Muybridge, known for his photographs of Yosemite and Alaska, and for being acquitted in the murder of his wife’s lover (the jury deemed it “justifiable homicide”), began to tackle the problem of photographing rapid action by using multiple cameras to capture motion in stop-action photographs. He set up a trip wire across Stanford’s racetrack so that when the horse’s chest pushed against it, it triggered electric circuits that opened a shutter mechanism to take the picture. On July 1, 1877, he used this setup to take a series of photographs of Occident, one of Stanford’s racehorses, showing all four hooves off the ground. But because the photographs had been retouched, the press and general public did not take them seriously.

Muybridge continued experimenting, and on June 15, 1878, he had a horse-drawn carriage trot across 12 trip wires, which set off 12 cameras in rapid succession at a speed that was about 24 frames per second. Muybridge developed the photographic plates and 20 minutes later showed them to the assembled press. The pictures showed the horse with all four hooves off the ground during its stride. The speed he used to photograph motion is faster than the human eye can separate, so when projected in sequence the images appeared to be a continuous "film" of the event captured, even though the longest event lasted only about one second. The effect was similar to a flip book or animated cartoon. The images were taken with individual cameras, so they can’t be called "moving images" as in our "movies" today. But Muybridge’s work was the kickoff for motion pictures. He continued experimenting, adding more cameras and using an electromagnetic timer instead of trip wires, so he could study the motion of other animals and human beings also. He developed the zoopraxiscope in 1879, which projected onto a screen a series of the horse trotting images, giving the appearance of motion. The zoopraxiscope and Muybridge’s work were the basis for Thomas Edison’s and the Lumiere brothers’ development of motion pictures.

The Internet

In 1962, computer scientist J.C.R. Licklider came up with the idea of interconnected computers that would enable people around the world to communicate with each other. He wrote about this “Intergalactic Network” and shared his ideas with fellow researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Licklider was also the first director of the computer research program of the U.S. Department of Defense’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA). ARPA was a new agency, only four years old, with a mission to fund future-oriented “high risk, high gain” research. On the heels of Pearl Harbor and in the midst of the Vietnam War, the U.S. government was especially interested in linking different computers together so that if a catastrophic event were to occur, the computers and data networks would keep running.

Research and computer experiments in the ‘60s, many of which ARPA funded, brought about the first minicomputer, the PDP-8, which could fit on a desktop and was affordable for businesses. Soon thousands of computers were in offices, manufacturing plants, and scientific labs. The first evidence of transactions being done “online” was in 1964, when IBM’s SABRE (Semi-Automatic Business Research Environment) air travel reservation system linked 2,000 terminals in 60 cities through telephone lines. In 1965, computer scientists Larry Roberts and Thomas Marill created the first long-distance dial-up connection—between a computer at MIT in Boston and a computer at System Development Corporation in Santa Monica, California. Theirs was the first wide-area computer network, also known as WAN.

Other developments in the ‘60s related to the Internet included fiber optics, modem, router, packet switching (computer files divided into smaller sections, or “packets”), the hypertext editing system, and the file retrieval and editing system. Interface Message Processors (IMPs) were introduced, which linked communication between four different computers in different locations and different operating systems. This was the basis for ARPANET, the very first Internet. In 1973, there were 30 institutions using the ARPANET, including Xerox PARC, BBN, the MITRE Corporation, NASA’s Ames Research Laboratories, and the Air Force research facilities. The introduction of the Apple computer and several other small computers in the late ‘70s opened up the computer market to consumers and small business owners. By the mid-‘80s, personal computers were in many households around the world, and by 1989, there were more than 160,000 hosts using the Internet/Arpanet protocol. E-mail was developed throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s, and the establishment of America Online in 1989 helped to promote this new form of communication.

The year 1990 was pivotal in the history of the Internet: ARPANET ceased to exist, and Tim Berners-Lee, a British computer scientist, wrote the code for the World Wide Web, including the standards for HTML, HTTP, and URLs. The ‘90s brought about the first search protocol (known as Gopher), MP3 file format, the first Web cam, and the first Web browser. The White House and the United Nations created their first Web sites in 1993, and the Vatican went online in 1995. Amazon, Google, and Hotmail, among numerous others, were launched in the ‘90s, and social media emerged in the 2000s, including Skype, Digg, MySpace, Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter.  

Social Issues and Legislation

“What progress we are making. In the Middle Ages they would have burned me. Now they are content with burning my books.” –Sigmund Freud, 1933

Censorship has long been a thorn in the media and entertainment industry’s side. For centuries governments and/or groups of people, such as religious or political groups, have squashed or attempted to squash ideas that they deem “dangerous” because they don’t conform to their way of thinking or cultural practices. What is offensive to one group or country may not be offensive to another, and thus censorship is subjective. Books that have been banned include Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, because giving animals voices was considered an insult to humans; the original version of Little Red Riding Hood, because one of the gifts to grandma is “wine”; The Diary of Anne Frank, for reasons ranging from suspicion of it being “fraudulent”—written by an adult, not a child—to it being “too depressing” for young people to read; and, more recently, the Harry Potter books, for “promoting witchcraft.” The award-winning science-fiction book Fahrenheit 451, a story, ironically enough, about a future where intellectual thought and books are illegal, has been banned at various times in schools around the country for its “questionable themes” and “foul language.” Censors have banned certain television episodes, e.g., an episode of The Simpsons wasn’t broadcast for years after 9/11 because it centered on the World Trade Center. Films that were considered blasphemous or anti-government, such as The Last Temptation of Christ, Monty Python’s Life of Brian, and Deep Throat, have also been banned. Censors have also gone so far as to prevent radio stations from playing certain songs, for example, the Bangles’ “Walk Like an Egyptian,” banned during the Gulf War; the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows,” because of the word “God”; the Beatles’ “Day in the Life,” for the “drug” reference “I’d love to turn you on”; Ke$ha’s “Die Young,” because of the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy. In 1967, the Rolling Stones sang “Let’s Spend Some Time Together” instead of “Let’s Spend the Night Together” to accommodate the conservatism of The Ed Sullivan Show. That same year, Pete Seeger was to sing his song “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy,” which was about Vietnam, on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. CBS cut the song from the program because they didn’t want the President of the United States to think they were criticizing him.

The U.S. government was particularly keen on repressing what it considered to be anti-government content in the 1950s. After World War II, communist governments started to gain ground in Eastern Europe and China, jump-starting the Cold War. Senator Joseph McCarthy fanned the flames of Americans’ fear of spies and communism by launching a “witch hunt” to find and punish “subversives.” He targeted not only politicians, but also journalists, news reporters, book authors, screenwriters, movie producers and directors, actors and actresses, musicians, and many others in media and entertainment. In response to being asked if they were or ever had been a Communist Party member, many of the accused claimed the Fifth Amendment, which protects from self-incrimination. The hearings were initially held privately or publicly, but it was the live TV broadcasts of McCarthy’s interrogation of U.S. Army officers in 1954 that raised the public’s awareness of his brutal tactics. News reporters Edward R. Murrow and Fred Friendly also aired a half-hour show in 1954 that criticized McCarthy, further contributing to his downfall. The Senate censured him on charges of abuse of legislative powers; they allowed him to remain in office but with little clout.

“What is freedom of expression? Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist.” – Salman Rushdie

Legislation that’s affected the media and entertainment industry includes the Communications Act, which Congress passed in 1934 to create the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The Communications Act and the FCC were established to regulate broadcast content. Broadcasters who transmitted “obscene, indecent, or profane” content could be charged with a fine of up to $10,000 and jailed for up to two years. In 1960, Congress gave the FCC authority to revoke the licenses of networks charged with airing indecent content. Throughout the decades since the act and the FCC were established, the question about what defines indecency and obscenity has caused great debate, and many lawsuits as well. In 1973, George Carlin’s “Filthy Words” routine, broadcast on WBAI radio station, triggered a letter of reprimand that the station challenged. The case, FCC v. Pacifica, went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in the FCC’s favor. In 1987, the FCC charged radio “shock jockey” Howard Stern with broadcasting “patently offensive” content, and Stern spent the next five years fighting the charges, with indecency fines totaling upwards of $1 million. In 2001, the FCC, under the Bush administration, issued its first television broadcast fine, to Telemundo. The show was given a $21,000 fine for broadcasting content that had “sexual double entendres.” The FCC continued to investigate and fine television broadcasts until 2008.

The FCC’s Fairness Doctrine also had a major effect on media and entertainment, particularly in news coverage. Created in 1949, the doctrine required that licensed broadcasters present controversial issues of public importance and that they present them in a balanced and honest way by including contrasting views. The doctrine was created at a time when there were fewer broadcast channels and less opportunities for people to learn about and comment on controversial issues. The growth of cable television and public-access channels in the 1980s, however, created more avenues for broadcasting and thus eroded the need for the doctrine.

The U.S. Supreme Court case that continues to be a starting point for many of the cases in media and entertainment that involve obscenity is Miller v. California (1973). Marvin Miller, who ran a mail-order business in California that dealt with pornography, was charged with mailing unsolicited obscene material. The question the court faced was whether the First Amendment’s guarantee of Freedom of Speech protected the sale and distribution of obscene material. The court ruled that the First Amendment did not protect obscene material, and left it up to state regulation to determine what was obscene, with three criteria to be met:

  • “whether ‘the average person, applying contemporary community standards’ would find that the work, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest;
  • whether the work depicts or describes in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by the applicable state law; and
  • whether the work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.”

These criteria are also known as the Miller test. What’s particularly important about the ruling in Miller v. California is that it gives communities, and the “average person” rather than select groups, the right to decide what constitutes obscenity. Communities have the authority to apply their own local standards to determine what is and is not obscenity.

The presidents of several major movie studios established the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association of America in 1922 to protect American movies from government censorship. William Hays, former postmaster general and a member of President Harding’s Cabinet, led the organization and became Hollywood’s chief censor when he created the Production Code, also known as the Hays Code, requiring all film scripts to be reviewed to ensure they didn’t contain “offensive” material. The organization was renamed the Motion Picture Association of America in 1945. By the 1960s, movies dealt with topics that were more open and frank, and thus the Hays Code was revised to loosen its restrictions. Jack Valenti became president of the MPAA in 1968, and founded the voluntary film-rating system to help parents determine which movies were appropriate for their kids.

The biggest challenge the movie industry has faced since its inception is safeguarding intellectual property rights. The development of video recording equipment and the Internet have contributed to the growth of movie piracy. The MPAA reports that illegal video camcording in movie theaters, known as “ripping,” accounts for more than 90 percent of all illegally copied movies. Subscription TV, digital stream, and high-definition television have also become popular with movie pirates. The damages from movie theft run deep, with billions of dollars lost to the U.S. economy and thousands of American jobs lost each year.

Protecting intellectual property has been a core issue for the publishing industry also. A landmark case in copyright protection that affected the publishing industry was New York Times Co. v. Tasini (2001). Prior to this case, computers and the Internet were recent innovations, and the rules regarding how online content was obtained and for what purposes had not yet been defined under copyright law. Many newspapers were transferring their print publications to online editions without seeking permission from writers and/or further compensating them. The National Writers Union, led by then-President Jonathan Tasini, filed the lawsuit against the New York Times Company, Newsday Inc., Time Inc., University Microfilms International, and LexisNexis, for copyright infringement due to the use and reuse in electronic media of articles that were licensed only for print publications. The case had initially been presented to district court Judge Sonia Sotomayor, who had ruled in favor of the publishers in accordance with the Copyright Act of 1976, which defined fair use. Sotomayor’s decision was reversed on appeal and the case was brought before the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of Tasini and awarded the plaintiffs a compensation pool of $18 million.

Related Professions