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BBC’s “Sherlock Holmes”: The Medium is the Message Case Study

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Updated: Sep 9th, 2021

The Concept

It is not easy to interpret or embrace Marshal McLuhan’s assertion that “the medium is the message” (Logan, 2010). It is a struggle to accept this statement at face value. The difficulty lies in the conventional way people interpret the meaning of medium. Crack open a Webster’s dictionary, and one can find that the word “medium” is defined as the messenger’s tool. If one takes away the message, the medium is nothing more than an empty receptacle. If one takes away the message, the medium is like a deaf and mute child.

There is a clear dividing line that separates the medium from the message. McLuhan’s idea of merging two distinct entities seems implausible. It is easier to disprove McLuhan’s claim, especially when viewed from the context of simple communication systems. However, McLuhan’s idea makes sense when viewed from the context of mass media and social media platforms. In simple communication systems, such as written notes and public speaking, it is easy to separate medium from the message. It is not the same conclusion when it comes to mass media and social media platforms.

In mass media communication systems and Internet-based communication platforms, the medium affects the message (Long & Wall, 2014). For example, TV commercials are produced with a 30-second run time in mind. Ads placed in newspapers were created with space constraints in mind.

McLuhan’s perceptive mind understood the interaction between medium and message. Nevertheless, he went further when he declared that the “medium is the message” (Wardrip-Fruin, 2003). He pointed out that a particular medium produces a certain product. For example, a one-paragraph monologue, describing a person’s frustration with the government will generate a certain type of reaction when posted on a school’s bulletin board.

However, it will generate a different type of activity and reaction if the author made arrangements with a local newspaper to publish the same message. Therefore, in the context of mass media and social media platforms, the message is dependent on the medium. The message requires the amplification power of the medium, and this was the intended message of Marshall McLuhan (Logan, 2010).

The Case Study

In this particular case, the medium is the BBC, and the message is the 21st century adaptation of Sir Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. BBC’s history stretches back to the 1920’s and will celebrate its centenary in 2022. A cursory glance at the historical timeline reveals the evolution of the BBC’s tools and format, from radio broadcasting to digital BBC TV channels.

It is impossible to discuss 20th century British history without discussing the impact of the BBC on people’s lives. The BBC was the first broadcasting company to begin a regular TV schedule in 1936 (Porter, 2012). The BBC changed the way people perceive radio broadcasting when reporters made live commentary on location during World War II (Porter,2012).

The BBC went changed the history of television when it broadcast the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953. In 1958, BBC launched a children’s TV program called the Blue Peter. It is one of the longest-running shows in TV history. In 1995, BBC’s broadcast of the Princess Diana interview was seen by 15 million people. In other words, the BBC is not an ordinary broadcasting company in the eyes of many people.

Applying the Theory

It is important to highlight the history and accomplishment of the BBC mass media conglomerate in order to see its power to change people’s perspective on a particular subject matter. BBC’s power to transform the message is evident in the 21st century adaptation of Sherlock Holmes. It must be pointed out that millions of people around the world are familiar with the Sherlock Holmes character. People are aware of the basic characteristics of the great detective, and they are familiar with the basic plot of the story. In their minds, Sherlock Holmes is a middle-aged detective and the best sleuth in England. London’s famous Scotland Yard – Metropolitan Police Service turns to Sherlock Holmes if the detectives in its employ are unable to solve a difficult case.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle created the Sherlock Holmes character (Porter, 2012). Fans of his novels imagine Sherlock Holmes as an elderly gentleman who loves to smoke a pipe (Vanacker & Wynne, 2013). In the 21st century adaptation, BBC’s “Sherlock” is a three-part television series. In the BBC version, Sherlock Holmes is a young detective that uses nicotine patches in order to kick the smoking habit.

Benedict Cumberbatch plays the character, and at first glance, he does not seem to look the part. He does not only look young, but he also looks effeminate. It is difficult to imagine the officers of the world-famous Scotland Yard knocking on the door of Cumberbatch’s apartment because they needed his help. Avid fans of the Sherlock Holmes novels are expected to make known their displeasure.

It can be argued that the irreverent depiction of the fabled detective could translate to a colossal failure. It is, therefore, a risk that no prudent investor should undertake. However, BBC’s “Sherlock” is one of the most popular TV shows in the United Kingdom. Therefore, television viewers embraced the radical characterization of Sherlock Holmes. It can be argued that the TV viewers who subscribed to the said show are consuming a new product, something that is very different from the original.

BBC is technically the medium. However, its history, leverage, influence, and reach enabled it to manipulate the original message of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. In this example, the medium exerted its power to interfere with the intended message (Wardrip-Fruin, 2003).

On August 8, 2010, BBC broadcast the third episode of the said TV series (Porter, 2012). The name of the episode was “The Great Game,” and in one scene, Holmes ripped off Watson’s clothes in a darkened swimming pool. Watson told Holmes that he was glad no one saw what happened, because he was afraid of what people may say with regards to their relationship. It is interesting to note that the BBC did not attempt to hide the gay references in the said TV series.

The company is able to do this because of how it is perceived in the present time. The BBC is known for its liberal views. Thus, it is allowed to present controversial ideas like the hidden undercurrents in the relationship between Holmes and Watson (Porter, 2012). This is another example of McLuhan’s theory that the medium dictates the outcome or the impact of the message (Logan, 2010).

The running time for “The Great Game” was clocked at 89 minutes. In a show that runs under two hours, Sherlock Homes was required to solve a series of complicated problems. He solved all those problems in quick succession. It was a distorted view of real-life detective work. BBC did not intend to create an unrealistic version of real-life detective work. However, the company created products based on the target audience and the type of product that they want to consume (Long & Wall, 2014). In this regard, they needed to create a show with a fast-paced narrative. They needed a storyline wherein the hero provides a resolution to the conflict at the end of the show. The inadvertent effect was to plant a false idea into the minds of the TV viewers, that criminal cases can be resolved in a few days.


It was difficult to understand McLuhan’s aphorism, that “the medium is the message,” especially if the mind was conditioned to separate these two entities. However, McLuhan was correct when he said that there is no need to dichotomize the medium from the message. Based on the study of “The Great Game,” one can argue that this show is another evidence to support McLuhan’s claim. His claim is true, especially if viewed in the context of modern mass media communication processes.

The BBC is an example of a modern mass media platform, and its manipulation of the original Sherlock Holmes storyline supports the idea that the medium has the power to shape and affect the outcome of the message. The BBC created a new character based on the needs of the 21st century audience. It also altered the way people view the crime-solving process. Thus, McLuhan was correct when he said that the medium affects the form and consequences of the message.


Logan, R. (2010). Understanding new media: Extending Marshall McLuhan. New York: Peter Lang.

Long, P., & Wall, T. (2014). Media studies: Texts, production, context. New York: Routledge.

Porter, L. (2012). Sherlock Holmes for the 21st century: Essays on new adaptation. NC: McFarland & Company.

Vanacker, S., & Wynne, C. (2013). Sherlock Holmes and Conan Doyle: Multi-media afterlives. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Wardrip-Fruin, N. (2003). The new media reader. MA: MIT Press.

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IvyPanda. 2021. "BBC's "Sherlock Holmes": The Medium is the Message." September 9, 2021. https://ivypanda.com/essays/bbcs-sherlock-holmes-the-medium-is-the-message/.


IvyPanda. (2021) 'BBC's "Sherlock Holmes": The Medium is the Message'. 9 September.

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