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Media Capitals: Sweet Home Chicago

(Image, ‘Chicago Sunrise’ Daniel Schwen, 2009)

Media capitals are sites of mediation where complex forces and flows interact as a centre of activity, concentration of resources, reputation and talent. Here, all the elements and influences of media production come together and create the generation and circulation of new mass-culture forms to be broadcasted on local, regional, and even transnational levels.  Many influences and factors shape and impact a media capital. Chicago being the poignant example of one that has been eclipsed and overtaken by powerful rivals, overshadowed by the emergence of Los Angeles and Hong Kong.

During the first waves of early television in America, New York, Los Angeles and Chicago all thrived in this new medium of media production and all served as major production centres. Chicago showed promise as a significant site of cultural production, but ultimately succumbed to the advances of media flows.  In the early days, Los Angeles outside of Hollywood offered little as a base for network operations. Conversely, Chicago offered many advantages as a major regional centre of manufacturing, transport and communication. The city had major importance as a mediator between local and regional and Midwestern and national. It was this that drew major broadcasters to base operations for advertising firms here. These advertising agencies became the leaders in radio programming and production.

These agencies prided themselves at the standing point between national and local sentiments. Chicago was a huge city teeming with a significant immigrant population who were international and also from the rural heartland. Their radio signals covered diverse neighbourhoods in Chicago and reached many other towns and cities across the Midwest. Thus, Chicago provided an assimilatory backdrop for foreign, domestic, urban and rural to come together as a mass market for America. Chicago’s creative community offered ground-breaking elements to the genres of radio in drama, soap operas and comedy. The city was a thriving pin point for radio production, and come the emergence of television it was poised to maintain its role as mediator for US popular culture.

Chicago thrived during the first decade of television but by the 1950’s television began to emerge as the predominant medium of national media. Demand for advertising by networks grew increasingly, and they sought to centralize operations. This included decreasing the creative control sponsors and advertising agencies had in programs. Networks started to create their own programming where the would have full creative and operational control.
there was increasing trend in turning to Hollywood film producers to develop telefilms rather than remaining in New York and Chicago based practices. New York operations began to consolidate studio operations in the late 50’s and shut down productions there and in Chicago. The new partnership with Hollywood made it easier to reduce costs and preserve creative control and took advantage of new distribution opportunities to local stations and markets overseas.

This time saw networks irrevocably change the conditions of production and alter the discourse of television. Television was also seen as a potential tool for international diplomacy, the export of US telefilms promoted the development communication satellites. Television became a vital instrument in national systems for mass production, distribution and consumption. The role of regional economies, like Chicago, diminished and crumbled. As the role of mediator between cultural centres were no longer relevant. Television became such a national concept that many viewers grew a disdain for local programming. The media power had successfully become centralised, financed and managed on the East Coast and produced on the West Coast.

Now with the emergence of Hong Kong as a growing media capital, and other contenders as China and India accrue media power, its impact on Los Angeles as a media capital will surely be felt similarly to the takeover of Chicago. Hollywood faces ever increasing competition and will do well to remember the fate of Chicago to prevent losing their footing entirely.

Curtin, M., 2003. Media Capital: Towards The Study Of Spatial Flows. International Journal of Cultural Studies, 6(2).

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