The Naked Truth

Stopping the world’s spin.

The Clout of the Media Giants

Our media landscape is very, very heavily dominated by just a handful of gigantic media corporations, transnational corporations. The most important ones are Disney, Time Warner, Viacom, the News Corporation and Universal-Vivendi.

We now have all of our culture industries, from movies and TV and radio to music and book publishing and the web, dominated by corporations that are all-powerful in all of those fields. They are all-purpose media corporations.

One often hears that we all enjoy many more choices as viewers and listeners and readers than any generation of human beings ever enjoyed before. Well, that’s actually not the case. There’s a seeming multiplicity, a great ostensible diversity out there; but behind the surface of that apparent vast range of choices, there’s really not all that much in the way of true difference or true diversity. There’s a handful of owners behind most of those products that you see at the newsstand or on cable or on the web, you know? A handful of owners and the same commercial imperative at work, no matter where you turn. You talk about newspapers, magazines, movies, TV shows, radio. It’s all alike, calculated to make as much money as possible as quickly as possible.

Now, most of the media industries have always been commercial above all. There’s no question about that, although some were more commercial than others were. Book publishing, for example, was historically not driven, above all, by a concern about profits, but it was actually run by men and women who loved books. It sounds quaint today. Nevertheless, by now all the media industries are alike, driven by commercial concerns. And this has been intensified by the fact that the huge few that wield all the power are heavily indebted. They have to make a lot of money. Their shareholders are always at the door. They are very anxious enterprises. They are forced to go wherever they think the money is right now. They are forced to try to grab the biggest demographic bloc they can. They aren’t inclined to take any real risks at all.

And this has tended to make the quality of most media product highly dubious. Whether we talk about the TV news, which is in this country more idiotic and lurid than ever before; or whether we talk about the content of most magazines, which is increasingly soft porn; or whether we’re talking about newspapers, which are more and more like television; or movies or music; we’re talking about a decline in quality that most of the people who work in these industries have recognized.

Please don't sell to me

When you’ve got a few gigantic transnational corporations, each one loaded down with debt, competing madly for as much shelf space and brain space as they can take, they are going to do whatever they think works the fastest and with the most people, which means that they will drag standards down. They’re not going to be too nice about what they choose to do. They’ll go directly for the please center. They’re going to try to get you watching and buying right away, and what this means is that they are going to do as much trash as they can, because that will grab people.

The word “trash” is old-fashioned, because this is a state-of-the-art, highly sophisticated venture that we’re talking about. They’re using all the most brilliant means of measurement and surveillance to figure out what we’re all about. They focus group everything in a million ways. So we have a highly sophisticated enterprise that’s engaged in a kind of regressive project. They’re trying to sell as much junk as they can by appealing to the worst in all of us, but they do it some extremely civilized means.

Advertising today has to do with the fact that we’re all far more jaded than we used to be–more cynical about certain kinds of utopian claims. It also has to do with an increasing desperation on the part of the advertisers to break through the “clutter,” as they put it. So they tend to do things that are more outrageous than anything they would have tried 30 years ago. There are other factors at work here, but what it all comes down to is that this all-pervasive commercial propaganda, which sells not only countless products but a whole view of life, has itself become much nastier since, I’d say, the mid-1970s. The utopian element has gone out of advertising, and now it tends to be a celebration of the worst kinds of values. 

Let’s remember that advertising is, above all, a form of propaganda. It’s changed in a very significant way over the last couple of decades. If you go back to the TV shows of the 1950s that were pitched at kids, you’re struck by the fact that the ads, the commercials in those shows stood out as interruptions. I can certainly recall a certain impatience when those commercials would suddenly appear. You run to the bathroom, you get something to eat, or you just wait until they’re over. This was in the days before people had remotes, so you just sort of had to suffer through them. Sometimes they were amusing, but for the most part they were not the point.

Now that interruptiveness in advertising has disappeared. Advertising has now moved center stage. Consider rock videos, for example. MTV was the first 24-hour, seven-day-a-week commercial channel, because rock videos are ads. Rock videos are highly sophisticated, irresistibly seductive commercials for songs and also for clothes.  The fact is that that development has brought us to a world in which the ad is not something you have to suffer through. The ad is not the price you have to pay in order to get to watch the show. The ad is the show. The ad is the point. 

(edit – The important lesson here is don’t be all consuming…try creating.)

Full report: Interview with Mark Crispin Miller.  Also recommended is Frontline’s The Merchants of Cool, a compelling look at the purveyors behind pop culture. It’s a little dated but no less relevant.

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March 15, 2008 Posted by | advertising | , , , , | Leave a comment