For as long as mankind has existed, so too has the desire to communicate and share information, which is the core mission of media and entertainment. In ancient cultures, outdoor festivals such as those held in Greek amphitheaters were a primary source of entertainment; they usually featured songs and plays dedicated to the gods of those civilizations. The performances were meant to educate and inform people as well as to distract them and prevent uprisings. Other types of entertainment were chariot races, gladiator fights, beast hunts, and public executions. Today’s media is used in much the same way as it was in those early times, to enlighten and influence large populations. And, come to think about it, much of our current television programming (e.g., reality shows) also focuses on similar themes of competition, survival of the fittest, and exposure and punishment of the corrupt.
Printed materials, such as scrolls and letters, date back to ancient civilizations also, but little has survived over the centuries. The first printed book, made out of woodblocks, with a verifiable date (868 A.D.) is a Chinese translation of the Diamond Sutra. Books originated earlier than this but as of now, this is the only known surviving example. The first book to be printed in the West using movable type was the Gutenberg Bible, printed by Johannes Gutenberg in Mainz, Germany, in the 1450s. Newspapers and magazines came later, in the 17th and 18th centuries. The first English-American newspaper, Publick Occurrences, was published in 1690 in Boston, and the first general-interest magazine, The Gentlemen’s Magazine, was published in London in 1731.
Many inventors were experimenting with motion picture cameras in the mid- to late-1800s. The zoopraxiscope, also known as the “wheel of life,” patented in the United States in 1867 by William Lincoln and further developed by Eadweard Muybridge in 1879, was the first machine to show animated pictures. Viewers looked through a slit in the machine to watch drawings or photographs. In 1891, Thomas Edison unveiled his prototype for the Kinetoscope, an early motion-picture device in which film passed behind a peephole that single viewers could look through. French inventors Louis and August Lumière are also considered among the originators of cinematography because of their creation in 1895, the Cinematographe, which could do three things: capture images, process film, and project images. It was the first portable motion-picture camera that projected moving pictures to groups of people rather than single viewers, thus offering entertainment to paying audiences.
The motion-picture industry emerged in the early 1900s, with the introduction of film exchanges that enabled exhibitors to rent, rather than buy, films; and film production started to shift toward storytelling at this time. Edwin S. Porter, a former employee of Edison’s studio, wrote, produced, and directed two short, silent films that used innovative film techniques: Life of an American Fireman and The Great Train Robbery, both released in 1903, featured early examples of narrative, film editing, camera movement, and on-location photography. The film industry grew quickly throughout the 1900s due to many other inventions and developments. Production standards were created to determine what content was appropriate for movie audiences. Many of today’s major film production studios were established in the 1920s, and movies with sound debuted then also. In 1909, there were approximately 9,000 movie theaters in the United States. As of 2019, the National Association of Theatre Owners reported there were 40,613 indoor movie screens and 559 drive-in theaters in the United States.
The roots of radio date to the late 1800s, with Nikola Tesla’s demonstration of radio frequency transmission and Guglielmo Marconi’s creation of a wireless system that could transmit radio signals at long distances. The radio industry grew from a small group of amateur broadcasters in the early 1900s to more than 500 broadcasting stations by 1923. More homes had radios in the 1920s and radio shows were popular entertainment as well as a major source of news for most households. Radio stations were organized into networks, and in 1927, the Federal Radio Commission, which became the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in 1934, was established to help standardize and regulate radio broadcasting. Radio networks received a large portion of their funding from advertisers who sponsored the radio shows, which was initially controversial as many people felt the commercials were invasive. Other highlights from the 1930s include Edwin H. Armstrong’s patent of FM radio, Edward R. Murrow’s live, riveting reports about World War II while he was in London and other European cities, and Orson Welles’s mock-terror broadcast of War of the Worlds that caused widespread panic in New Jersey.
Inventors were experimenting with electronic television in the late 1920s, but it wasn’t until 1939 when the general public actually viewed a telecast. This was when RCA televised President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s speech at the New York World’s Fair. In 1941, the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) aired two 15-minute shows daily to a small audience. Television gained popularity after World War II, in the late 1940s and early 1950s, when the American economy started to thrive again and consumers had more time and money for entertainment. Other networks that were formed then include the National Broadcasting Company and the American Broadcasting Company. Television programs were newscasts, situation comedies, variety shows, and dramas. Stations across the country aired shows such as The Texaco Star Theater, with Milton Berle; the Camel News Caravan; and the kids’ program Howdy Doody. The television boom coincided with the government’s crackdown on what it deemed “un-American” activities in the film and television industry. Senator Joseph R. McCarthy led the charge, starting in 1947, and many actors and creators were investigated and falsely charged with being “Communist traitors.” Journalist Edward R. Murrow helped to end McCarthy’s reign in 1954. Television programming expanded in the ‘50s and ‘60s to include more in-depth coverage of presidents, politics, and war.
In 1967, Congress created the Public Broadcasting Service, which has more than 330 noncommercial stations across the United States. Cable television started to appear in the early ‘60s, geared originally to viewers who were located in isolated parts of the country. Soon, cable operators in New York City were contracting to air the home games of local sports teams. In the 1970s and early 1980s, cable networks such as Time Inc.’s Home Box Office (HBO), Turner Broadcasting System (TBS), C-SPAN, Cable News Network (CNN), and Nickelodeon were established. Videocassette recorders in the 1980s enabled viewers to record and watch programs and rent movies at their convenience, and the Internet came along in the 1990s, allowing people to watch TV programs and movies on their computers. High-definition television (HDTV) was also introduced then, transmitting TV signals digitally between computers, the Internet, and television. Smartphones and tablets are other recent developments that have given us more options to watch television programs and movies wherever and whenever we choose, and they're altering how the industry works.