Rural Screens

Because I’ve moved several times in recent years, I’ve found myself thinking quite a bit about media and place, the role of specific geographical and political determinants in shaping what kind of media we encounter and how we encounter it.   Quite often, these thoughts have manifested themselves in reflections on (the lack of) access to good radio stations and my enjoyment of internet radio, especially KEXP Seattle.  But I’ve also found myself thinking about issues of access to art house and independent movies quite a bit since I’ve moved here, especially when it comes to the challenges an art house theater faces when serving a medium-sized city like Fayetteville with only a small university community (Fayetteville State serves about 6,000 students).

But in a recent Flow column, Joan Hawkins offers one of the more vivid accounts I’ve read of the ways in which geography shapes media access, even within the U.S. In recounting her experiences in traveling from San Francisco to a small South Dakota town to take care of her mother, Hawkins coins the term “dish towns” to describe the number of farms, often spread out over dozens of miles, that have satellite dishes in order to have access to the media that many urban centers take for granted, not to mention access to national and international news coverage.

In addition, she points out that, quite often, the four “local” theaters will play the same movie during a given week in a kind of saturation booking, even making access to movie choice a difficult proposition.  Add to that the pressure to carry family- or teen-friendly PG or PG-13 movies, and there are a number of Hollywood films (much less independents) that never play in the area.  It’s a much different kind of media culture than I’ve ever experienced (attending college in the smallish Cleveland, TN, comes closest), but I think it’s a useful way of illustrating how cultural differences can be shaped by media access.   Hawkins’ column is well worth checking out, if only because it underscores the ways in which the screening experience itself shapes our reception of films and television.

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