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In this lesson, you will learn about an information delivery method known as narrowcasting.

You will learn when the term was coined and how TV, radio, advertisers and politicians have used it as a tool for delivering information.

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A Narrowcasting Prank

In 2013, a Facebook user played an elaborate prank on his roommate. He created a custom advertisement and paid to post it on Facebook. Then he used the ad targeting tools on the site to narrow his audience to one person: his roommate. The ad would only be displayed for his roommate, a professional sword swallower, whom he knew had trouble swallowing pills. When the sword swallower logged into Facebook one day and saw an ad saying ‘Trouble Swallowing Pills? Does it seem ironic that swallowing swords is easy and then small pills make you gag?’, he freaked out.

How did Facebook know such a personal thing about him? He was the victim of a prank made possible through narrowcasting.

Origin of the Term

You may know about broadcasting, but what about narrowcasting? Unlike broadcasting, which involves delivering information to the mass public, narrowcasting is a term that describes delivering information or media to a specific or narrow group of people. Although it sounds like a new term, J.C.R.

Licklider officially coined the term in 1967 while writing about the future of broadcast television. He predicted ‘a multiplicity of television networks aimed at serving the needs of smaller, specialized audiences’ and then named this type of transmission ‘narrowcasting’.’ Indeed, today many TV channels are made for specific groups and interests (like HGTV, for home design aficionados, and ESPN, for sports fans).

Licklider recognized that within the broad public, there were very distinct groups with distinct interests. For example, single men want to watch different television shows than families with small children. Licklider understood that you are more likely to watch a TV show you are personally interested in. Radio stations, advertisers and even politicians have found narrowcasting to be a more effective way to send out information and media for public consumption.

Marketing and Advertising

Narrowcasting has allowed marketers and advertisers to identify a target market and create messages and ads that are specific and effective. In the past, advertisers would simply distribute as many of their ads as possible.

They assumed that having more TV commercials and billboards meant more people would see and respond to their products.However, consumers were soon desensitized by too many ads. To combat this, advertisers and marketers narrowed down where they would show their ads. For example, if a company sells protein powder, they might use a muscular man in their ads and place those ads in gym bathrooms or on ESPN. That protein powder company knows that young men interested in sports are more likely to buy their product, so instead of broadcasting, they narrowcast to their target market.Companies eager to identify and learn more about their target audiences increasingly use data mining. Data mining means collecting information about a person by looking at their activity online.

Maybe you visited some wedding blogs, and on Facebook, you are listed as a woman in your twenties. A company can build a profile of you by looking at this data and then send you ads about wedding rings, because it is more likely that you will be interested in them. That is why on Facebook, you will often see sidebar ads that seem very specific to you.

Radio and Podcasts

Although radio used to be all about broadcasting, it has now embraced narrowcasting through podcasts. Anyone can create a podcast about a very specific topic, and the podcast is meant for a narrow audience.

Think of podcasts as narrowcasts. There are podcasts about sports, comedy, pop culture, history and more. Not all people would want to listen to a detailed, hour-long radio program about the Mongols, but history buffs would love it.

Therefore, a history podcast is narrowcasting to history buffs. Interestingly, national public radio, known for broadcasting news to the public, has led the way in supporting and showcasing podcasts.

Political Campaigns

Perhaps the most controversial use of narrowcasting is in politics. Political candidates tailor their messages for very specific groups rather than sending out broad messages for all of America. For instance, a female voter, registered as a Democrat, may receive an email from a candidate that talks about the candidate’s support for paid parental leave. She is likely to support that position, and therefore, the candidate. However, that voter might not receive information about the candidate’s other positions.

By narrowcasting, candidates can manipulate voters, because voters may only hear messages that they agree with.There is concern that narrowcasting has made Americans more partisan, because they live in totally different media universes. A Republican voter may watch a different cable news network, and therefore, receive completely different information and emails than a Democrat. The problem with this is that voters do not have to deal with uncomfortable ideas or facts that challenge their own ideas.

They are less likely to think deeply or debate these important ideas, a practice that can encourage listening and learning. Peter Swire, a renowned political scholar, believes narrowcasting has exacerbated partisanship. It might have created more distrust and less cooperation between Republicans and Democrats.

Lesson Summary

Narrowcasting means delivering information or media to a specific or narrow group of people. While broadcast TV and radio used to send out information for the whole public, people realized that factors like age, gender and geographical location can influence what sorts of shows and products a person is interested in. Advertisers could market their products more effectively by sending out ads to a more narrow audience. Radio has started to incorporate more podcasts that cover very specific topics for narrow audiences. Even politicians use narrowcasting to get support from voters.

However, many believe that narrowcasting in politics is problematic because voters can be manipulated by only hearing information that they agree with. Narrowcasting may also contribute to the hardening of partisanship in America.

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