Robert McChesney is a media critic and author of Rich Media, Poor
Democracy: Communication Politics in Dubious Times. He is research
professor in the Institute of Communications Research at the University of
To the casual observer, it seems like there's a tremendous increase in
consumer choice, especially for kids. Why isn't that a great thing?
If you define it simply as "consumer choice," it's the plenitude that you can
select from that could or could not be a great. That'd be an interesting
discussion, but I don't think that's really the dominant thing that's taking
place with children having a range of choice. It's the nature of the choice,
and how the choices are laid out there, that is really the most striking
feature of it. I think there that the issue isn't really the amount of choice;
it's the amount of sort of commercialism that permeates all the choices. So,
on one hand, while it seems like you have a massive range of choice, they're
really underneath it girded by the same commercial logic. There's very little
diversity in a certain way. It's the appearance of diversity, but without
What's that commercial logic?
The commercial logic is the idea that everything is dedicated to the idea of
selling something. The whole point of the relationship with the teen is to
turn them upside-down and shake all the money out of their pockets. That's the
sole purpose of it--the artistic, the creative. There's traditionally been a
distinction between the editorial or creative side and the commercial side. It
was a common theme in our media for much of the twentieth century.
It has always been a nebulous relationship. Commercial factors have invariably
weighed in and influenced the creative and editorial side. But that
relationship has really collapsed in the past ten years. The barrier between
them, the notion that there should be an integrity . . . to the creative
product or to the editorial product--distinct from the needs of commercial
interests to make as much money as possible to just stand on its own--is
corroded. It has come under sustained pressure, because the people who
actually make the decisions are commercial people. And those values ultimately
are permeating the creative side. This affects children's and teens' cultures,
as much as all other cultures, maybe even more so, due to the importance of
that market to marketers for a lifetime of consumption.
The marketers we've talked to seem to feel that there's almost an ethic in
the fact that they do focus groups and consumer testing and they find out what
these kids really want. So in a sense . . . the teens' power is on the
It's quite the opposite, actually. The purpose of the focus group is never to
find out what teens want per se. It's to find out what teens want so they can
make the most money off it as possible. What they're looking for is simply
within the range of what they can make the most money off of. It's not a
legitimate search for anything that teens might possibly want. It's not an
open-ended hunt. If they were to find out that most teens aren't interested in
something, but still this company can make money off selling it to them,
they're still going to sell it to them. It's a self-serving argument to say
that this research is done to basically serve teens. It's done to better
What is left out of a consumer research project with teens that doesn't fall
into the category of something to make money on?
. . . What if the focus groups asked, "Do you really want your musicians
connected to products?" In teens, if they found out, "No. We don't really
want the musicians whose music we listen to connected to underpants and
deodorant and buttons and wear." The response to that would not be,
"Okay. We won't do that." The response would be, "Well, how can we do that
without pissing them off?" That's how you would take that focus group
information if you were a marketer. How can you still make money off that but
not antagonize them? And if it's a legitimate focus group, they say, "Okay.
That's a legitimate concern. They want their musicians to just do music." But
that's not something they can do, because there's no money in that.
Do you see other values being sucked out of teen culture as a result?
Absolutely. The whole name of integrity . . . sounds corny or banal, because
we live in cynical times. The whole notion that there's some reason to do
something outside of just making money off it is lost in a culture in which the
sole point is to make money off you. You're told that's the whole reason for
this being in existence. In popular music, there's a huge difference if you
ultimately think the reason you're listening to this music is because these
musicians basically were hired because of some marketing thing--and it's all
a scam just to make money--rather than these are musicians who are artists and
having something to say to you, it's a relationship with you, they really
believe in something. . . .I don't know if we'll really know the effects,
ultimately, for a while. So I'm speculating. But I can't see anything good
about it. Nothing good that comes out of it, only bad.
. . . Has this all . . . negatively affected the entertainment
No, no. In fact, I think they're in the midst of it. In fact, it's maybe very
much the opposite. The entertainment companies are a handful of massive
conglomerates that own four of the five music companies that sell 90 percent of
the music in the United States. Those same companies also own all the film
studios, all the major TV networks, and pretty much all the TV stations in the
ten largest markets. They own all or part of every single commercial cable
channel. They look at the teen market as part of this massive empire that
You should look at it like the British or the French empires in the nineteenth
century. Teens are like Africa. There's this range that they're going to take
over, and their weaponry is films, music, books, CDs, internet access,
clothing, amusement parks, sports teams. That's all this weaponry they have
to make money off of this market, to colonize this market. And that's exactly
how they approach it. So they look at music as just one small part of it.
They aren't music companies; they're moneymaking companies, and music is a
weapon that generates money for them.
Can you describe the way the copycat syndrome works?
The music industry's probably the most interesting one to study culturally, for
a number of reasons. But the primary reason, in an economic sense, is that
music is the least capital-intensive of all our modern commercial media. To
make a good movie, even a low-budget one, costs in the hundreds of thousands of
dollars, if not the low millions. But if you have a pretty expensive tape
recorder and equipment, instruments, you can make great music in a garage.
Music is fairly inexpensive. So music's always had a very interesting
relationship between the companies--the musicians and the users. Because the
costs are so low, anyone can really do it.
Commercial music has had a very contradictory relationship with artists in the
last 50 years, say, since the rise of the electric guitar and the rise of
popular music in the late 1940s and early 1950s, the modern notion of popular
music with the small combos. And what we see is that people who are students
of music, or even fans, would say that the great trends in music have
invariably come outside of sort of the commercial networks. They've come from
ghettos or barrios. They've come from college towns, but they're people who
play music because they love it and it means something in their lives.
And if you go through the history of popular music since the post-war
years--starting with rock 'n roll, which grew out of rhythm and blues, going on
to soul, to 1960s rock, to the punk movement, reggae, hip-hop--none of them
started in the research and development department of EMI Records. All of them
started in a barrio or in Kingston, Jamaica, or in the South Bronx.
And then it's a very interesting process in which they're sort of appropriated,
or, to use an academic term, "colonized"--I think "colonized" is a better
term, in which they're taken in and then they try to figure out the way to make
the most money out of it, if you're the company. "Yes, boy, this hip-hop is
really good. What can we do with it?" "Well, we'll have Colonel Sanders do
hip-hop in a commercial," or something like that. Or "We'll have Rod Stewart
add some hip-hop licks to his next CD." And then you say, "Well, now we need
someone who can do more of this hip-hop stuff. Let's find some people that fit
that demographic model who look like they'd be really right-on hip-hop
artists." It's the same thing for punk or grunge.
And in the process, the sort of commercial value is putting the cart in front
of the horse. The commercial values start determining the content, rather than
the content bringing the commercialism behind it to sort of pay the bills and
sell the product. And it loses . . . authenticity. It loses its connection to
the audience. Its creativity becomes a joke, ultimately. It becomes farce.
Our schlocky culture has been filled with sort of these artists that we make
fun of, and they're almost humorous in a way, but ultimately they're tragic.
And I think the real irony of our commercial media system is that it can't
really help this in music. They do what's rational. They're trying to locate
the thing, the real thing, the next real thing. But soon as they find it, they
almost snuff it out, because they put the commercial logic on top of it, which
wipes it out.
What's happened in popular music in the last 25 years is that window of
opportunity for new musical art forms to develop and have some integrity before
they get grabbed by the big companies has been narrowed, because these
companies are searching out anything. They want to be the first one in to get
the band that's going to be the next big hit, the next grunge, the next
hip-hop. So there's not that incubation period anymore. Now they hear about
some guy in the South Bronx who's doing something different, and man, they're
up there in the next cab. Two days later, the guy's got a contract.
Before, reggae or hip-hop or punk had years to develop before they became big
commercial entities. You really had a whole body of work by a number of great
artists that was out there. Or the British invasion in rock 'n roll in the
early 1960s. Well, those days are over. So you have the ironic thing, that
the effort to get more of this music out kills it off. It leaves us in the. . .
current popular situation--the sort of hyper-commercialized sewer.
I saw a rapper perform and he got up there and said, "Thanks to Sprite for
getting the message out." And these guys were as authentic as there are around
today. How is it that they're deluded about the positive force of Sprite
pushing their message out?
It's not a matter of one particular artist being deluded, going into individual
psychology. It's looking ultimately at the whole creative and artistic
process. When you're having Sprite sponsor your tours or pay for your
recording sessions and you're wearing Sprite logos on your stuff, then it's
just a short step to the next thing in line. Once you sort of cross that
bridge, you say, "We're for sale." Now, you might do it for good reasons. A
lot of artists probably say, "Look, this'll help us do more concerts or maybe
make our tickets cheaper, because this is helping us out." It's not that
they're actually bad people. Some of them are just greedy. "Let's let them
make more money for us and we don't care." Some of them might be very well
But the ultimate logic here, the trajectory, is right out of what makes the
music great in the first place. And I think that's why there's a great tension
now in the musical community. A lot of artists are just really concerned about
this. Very famous artists like the Springsteens and the Pearl Jams and a lot
of artists aren't famous to some extent, because they won't play this game,
because they simply refuse to commercialize their music--commercialize what
they try to present to their audience and their relationship to their
Do you think this phenomenon is lowering teen taste?
That's a highly speculative thing. I don't know. I don't know how you can say
that. I think if great music comes on, people are going to respond to it. I
don't know. I don't know that you're dumbing down teens so they no longer
appreciate a good tune. That's a pretty flexible concept. Teen tastes were
dumbed down in the early 1960s in rock 'n roll, listening to that garbage that
was passed out from 1959 or 1960 to 1963. They sure got upgraded really fast
in 1964. I'm not concerned about that. I think if great music comes on,
people will respond.
The period that you're talking about is the golden rock '-n roll age
between, say, 1940 and 1972.
No. Even 1990. You go right through to grunge even, into the 1990s.
Before that, great music came from the academy, and after that, I guess
great music comes from the corporation. Isn't this just an ascendancy of a new
set of filters for what we get?
Perhaps, but I don't think great music came from elites prior to World War II.
If you study a history of popular music, we have extraordinarily rich creations
of folk music in almost every country, especially in the Anglo-Irish tradition
that played such a large role here and really influenced all our popular music
in the South. What makes American music so exciting is this fusion of African
and Anglo-Irish traditions here in Appalachia and in the South that fuels our
country music, that fuels our rock 'n roll and popular music and the whole jazz
tradition. These traditions were not elite traditions at all, and they've
existed for hundreds of years. Especially before the Second World War, they
were huge in the country.
So in my view, a better way to look at it would be to say we've had these great
popular traditions that didn't start in 1945. That was just a new phase of
them, because there is a fundamental change that we're in the midst of. It's
not like there was a firm break. This commercial pressure has always been
there, but it's sort of a quantitative change, as the mathematical law goes,
and in a certain way, it seem to be a qualitative change. The influence of
marketing and commercial pressures at some point becomes so great that the pond
becomes the lake. You really shift the relationship.
Commercial value is now permeated such that you have major artists like Britney
Spears and 'N Sync, who are basically marketing creations. They're basically,
"This is what kids want. We're going to locate the demographics, write the
music, use a computer to write the music. Just plug in a few chords." It's
quite different from some people playing in their garage who love music and do
it for years and have something to say to an audience of people they live with
and relate to.
We talked to these people who did research with kids in actual bedrooms. . .
.There's this feedback loop where the audience seems to sort of suck in
everything that's put before them.
I know. And I think we're in a really interesting phase, culturally. The
notion that there's something distinct from commercial culture comes into
question when everything's commercialized. There's the traditional notion
that there was this musical thing that could start outside of commercial
values. And it's a troubling notion--the idea that our references are so
commercialized now that all our dissidents, all our autonomous voices, are
getting their cues from MTV on how to revolt.
I think that's a real tension that's going on among young people today. For
really the first time, in a decade or two, from my experience, we've seen young
people, not just college students, having a real concern that their entire
culture is this commercial laboratory and that being cool is buying the
commercially sanctioned cool clothes. It's a real tension that's going on
right now. It'll be very interesting to see how it plays itself out, because I
think there's a sense that the sort of MTV-VH1 infomercial view of life--where
everything is part of the sales process and being cool is something you buy and
an act you sort of pose in-- ultimately that's not a very satisfying or
nourishing way to live or to look at the world. And trying to create an
alternative is imperative for a lot of young people. But it's very hard to do
when all the markers around you are commercial.
Are teenagers willing to make their life choices from the offerings that are
It's hard to generalize, obviously. It's a lot of human beings, and it comes
from a wide variety of backgrounds in the United States. But I think that what
I am seeing that's noticeable is that today there's more dissidence among
young people. It's more vocal, more clear, than it was five, ten, fifteen
years ago, certainly in a long time. I'm 47, and it's certainly since my
generation came up that it's the most noticeable.
I'm a college professor. I've been seeing students pretty regularly for 17
years, and I don't want to make it sound like we're in the midst of some
enormous revolution. But you can see sort of below the surface, slightly below
the radar of the media, some bubbling going on that wasn't there five or ten
years ago. A lot of it is the sort of political activism among young people
that is absolutely unprecedented for 20 or 25 years--these demonstrations in
Seattle last year, the demonstrations in Washington at the conventions, the
Nader campaign-- in which literally you had hundreds of thousands of people, 18
to 25, doing stuff that I haven't seen that generation do since the 1970s.
Do you see some artists that are subconsciously making art about the very
I'm sure there are, and this is where my age is preventing me from giving a
good answer to that question. That would be a natural expectation. I think
that's been going on for a while, and that goes back to Andy Warhol, even
before that. The use of commercial culture to critique and understand
commercial culture, to both praise it and critique it, but to understand its
significance in our life and to use those tools as a means, as artistic
weaponry, so to speak. Yes, if you're an artist, I think it's almost
unavoidable to do that, in a way. As I said, you're so surrounded by these
marketers, to even to criticize it you have to use those tools.
Is there some optimistic hope in that these kids might push through
Yes. I'm very optimistic in that way, but I do think it's closely related to
politics ultimately, in the broadest sense of the term. I don't think culture
on that level operates independent of politics. In fact, I think one of the
reasons why the music has been so lame recently in the United States hasn't had
anything to do with the music industry or commercialism. It's been a response
to the broader demoralization of public life, of civic life, of social life. I
think music gets better and culture gets better when people engage socially and
politically. The two go hand in hand. So I think if there's a broadening of
interest in social and political issues among people, the music, even within
the crummy commercial system, will get better, if you understand the
relationship. There are other factors besides just EMI's research and
marketing department that influence the nature of music.
When those factors are systematically removed by corporations, do you find
that music and the sentiment around it coarsens?
You mean when it's more commercialized? I'm not a great culture theorist.
I'm not even a bad cultural theorist. I'm not really a cultural theorist. So
I'd be careful to give the answer to this, but my hunch--as sort of a political
economist assessing these industries--if, in fact, the political critique of
music is zapped out, the people want controversy in their lives. They want
that sense of struggle and conflict. Then you replace it with sort of the
Howard Stern-Eminem stuff, a lot of misogyny, a lot of violence, which gives
the illusion of conflict and tension and excitement without the real thing.
It's just picking on the weakest members of society. That seems very
controversial, and it's commercially viable, but it's not the real thing.
We saw Insane Clown Posse. There were a lot of just random white young
enraged men. The band felt they were really answering a cultural call and that
kids who were there felt they really belonged to something.
Yes. I've heard of Limp Bizkit--nothing very favorable about them. But yes,
I think there's a real need people have that's trying to be met, and the market
meets it by giving them a sort of white rage, teen rage groups. But the
content is just a marketing ploy for an intensive purpose that plays on the
sorts of biases to pick on the weakest members, and to stay away from those
powerful members of society. So it's a very unthreatening type of resistance.
It's easy to pick on gay people and minorities and women. That's not going to
. . . you aren't going to have to worry about it.
If you go out and start picking on the WTO and the people that own the country,
now that's another matter. And that sort of stuff, that type of critique isn't
there. But people want tension. People understand there's something going on
in the world--it's not just a "Brady Bunch" world we live in. But they're
getting Eminem and this sort of stuff. That's the corporate response. That's
what they can hand out.
The white rage bands we've talked to so far . . . It seems like they're
victimized as much by the corporate process as their audiences are, and
they're unconsciously perpetuating the corporate cycle.
That wouldn't make sense to me. I would think that a lot of them are very
earnest. The musicians, as a rule, tend to be quite earnest, and actually,
most artists are. It'd be very hard to do any sort of art if you weren't
earnest. Now, some people can pull it off, but most can't.
Talk about your take on MTV.
To understand MTV, you've got to first look at the parent corporation, which is
called Viacom. And Viacom is an extraordinary company. It not only owns MTV,
it owns VH1, it owns Black Entertainment Television, it owns CBS, it owns
Paramount Pictures, it owns Showtime, it owns Simon & Schuster Book
Publishers, it owns Blockbuster video rental, and it also owns about 160 radio
stations, all of which are in the largest 12 markets in the country. And it's
a commercial powerhouse. More than any other media company, its revenues
depend upon ad sales from radio and television and cable. It's the ad-linked
one. It's the most commercialized of our media companies.
All of the media companies are commercial, but the other ones tend to have a
higher percentage of money that comes from amusement parks, film sales,
books--things that don't rely directly on advertising. Viacom is directly an
advertising-related company. They've taken American radio and almost
single-handed turned it into a 24-hour infomercial on every station. And
that's their genius. The head of Viacom and Sumner Redstone are all about
maximizing commercial return. They make that quite clear. And if you look at
MTV in that context, you get a sense of what they're all about.
We talk about how there's been a separation between creative and commercials
eroding in this conglomerate culture. Well, Viacom is the lead army. They're
the Napoleons of the war on that separation. They lead the fight in turning
every nanosecond of time on their stations into something that's selling
something. And so you look at MTV or VH1, this sister channel or brother
channel, and it's really a 24-hour infomercial. Every second on the air is
selling something. It's either directly selling a product, or it's going to be
a program hyping a new movie that's paid for by the studio. It's really an
infomercial for the studio. Or it's going to be a video, which is an
infomercial for a record label. And everything that's worn on the set, the
clothes that are worn by the people there, is consciously planned to sell some
product somewhere. So it's really taken this whole process to the very limit.
They're quite candid about this. If you don't talk to the PR people, but you
talk to their ad department call them up and disguise your voice saying, "I'm
thinking of buying an ad on MTV, but I'm concerned it's not commercial enough."
And they'll tell you how commercial it is, what a tremendous thing it is.
If you look around the world, it's a global phenomenon. And bluntly, it's all
about commercializing the whole teen experience, making youth culture a
commercial entity that's packaged and sold to people. So by watching MTV and
buying the products there, looking like the people there, buying the music
there, you become cool. It's a commercial relationship to coolness, of being
acceptable. And if you don't do it, you're a loser.
And yet they make this great point of being all about kids.
That's the genius of it. Absolutely. It's a genius marketing procedure that
works. And, as you've pointed out, it's a self-referential, almost circular
thing, where that both sides interact. It's all about commercialism. That's
the whole point of it. . . . If there was truth in advertising, you would have
Sumner Redstone and the Viacom head be the VJs, these 60-year-old fat guys in
suits, who are just counting the money--the guys who own the company and run
it. Or they should make Sumner Redstone play a song on the guitar once every
hour, the guy who's the owner of Viacom. Because they're the people who run
it. That's what the station's all about. This station is really ultimately
there to serve Sumner Redstone and the owners of that company. It has nothing
to do with kids. They couldn't care less about teenagers. Teenagers are just
people to turn upside-down and shake the money out of their pants and then you
But the kids buy it.
Yes. You're absolutely right. And it's a tension . . . there are some
dissidents within it, but you're absolutely right. It's a marketing genius.
There's no question about it, but it's marketing genius. That's the only type
of genius it is. There's nothing else to it, but it is pure marketing genius.
Why do they make more money off that than they would off of good
Well, it's cheaper to produce, on the one hand. One of the genius moves of
Sumner Redstone and Viacom also, in additional to commercializing everything,
is they slash costs. They're really famous for going into the entertainment
industry and reducing the cost dramatically from what the traditional pattern
has been for primetime television shows or for movies. They've kept the cost
really low. And when you're hyper-commercializing everything, you can get
your cost low. If you're making deals with kid clothes manufacturers to let
them help you outfit the people and they're going to pay you for it, that gets
the cost low. When you're basically just running music videos, which are paid
for by the music companies, that keeps your cost really low.
So it's all about keeping the cost as low as possible, commercializing it in
much as possible, and using market research to sort of make it look as cool as
possible. And it has worked.
Now it's the A&R guy who's trying to come in and find the next Nirvana or
Pearl Jam. They go in to college campuses in college towns, in Chapel Hill or
Madison or Urbana-Champaign or whatever it might be in the country. They want
to find the kids who are sort of smoking a lot of weed and playing music and
hope they stumble across someone who's going to sell 25 million records. And
you can build a whole sort of cult thing around them in the community like they
had in Seattle in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Once again, it's the logic
of whatever it takes to find someone you can sell and package.
Back to MTV--"Total Request Live" looks like something, but is it actually
...A very interesting phenomenon has taken place that's really shown the change
in our culture. In the 1950s, when rock 'n roll was the king and popular and
was really taking off and selling singles was crucial, the biggest scandal that
took place in American radio was called "payola." Record companies would come
in and pay disk jockeys to play the records for their artists, records that
wouldn't be played otherwise if a disk jockey just used their own judgment.
And this is considered a huge scandal, because they thought the American
people, if you listen to a radio station, you had the right to believe that if
it wasn't an ad, that the music was only being played because someone actually
thought it was good music. It was an editorial call. And the disk jockeys
who were convicted of payola lost their jobs, and some went to prison. It was
a massive scandal in the 1950s and early 1960s.
Well, now payola's legal again. It's okay to do payola, but now the money
doesn't go to a disk jockey, who's a powerless figure. The money goes to the
company that owns it. So if you're a label and you pay enough money to CBS or
Viacom to get your music on their stations, you could actually buy your way on.
. . . So that integrity . . . is lost. You can't really believe the music
you're listening to is there because some of it actually is good music. It
might only be there because someone bought a bunch of ads on that station and,
therefore, earned the right to get their music played on that station.
Well, of course, that influences all of us. If you hear that music over and
over, there's a much greater chance you're going to like it and buy it than if
you never hear it at all. And that filter, that editorial judgment, the idea
that there's someone listening to the music who really knows music and cares
about it is making a decision this is something that the audience might
like--it's been corrupted. It's been turned over to the marketing office, and
that's means whoever pays the most money can buy the attention of our audience.
And MTV is very much the same way. It is by no means a level playing field
that anyone can get on the air just because they have great music. There's a
whole politics there in being connected to a large label. Having all sorts of
marketing muscle behind you has everything to about whether that music gets
heard. So then once you're heard and you're exposed to millions of people, of
course, it's going to have an influence. That's the whole premise of
advertising. If it didn't have some influence, it wouldn't exist.
First of all, you had two relationships. The artists had a longer
relationship to marketers, and a more direct relationship to their audience, on
the one hand. But then intermediaries, the radio stations, also theoretically
had this some integrity to them, so you can trust what they were doing, so they
weren't simply going to play records that people paid them to play. So there
were sort of these buffers in there.
Both of those buffers have been diminished to the point now where it's really
like, if you have enough money, you can force your sound, force people listen
to it. You can't force them to buy it. If the music's really bad, it's not a
slam-dunk, but your odds of success are tremendously greater if you get
millions of people to listen to your music than if you can't get them to listen
to it. It's impossible to make a hit out of something that no one can ever
It looks that with the internet, with Napster and all these other devices,
that those voices can get heard.
Yes. What's happened with the internet in that regard is really exciting and
it's very promising, but it's also still quite problematic. How that's going
to play out is unclear at this point, and I wouldn't romanticize the fact that
it's going to sort of upturn the system entirely. The recent deal where
Napster, for example, is linking now to create a pay service, I think is one
of a long list of developments which suggests that we'll see just how effective
the internet technology is at overcoming the hyper-commercialization of music
and culture. I tend to be skeptical, but I think, once again, we really do
have to wait on this one.
Have programming and advertising become the same thing now?
Well, not the exact same thing. But on MTV, it's all a commercial. You start
from the premise that is saying that everything on MTV is a commercial. It is
an infomercial. That's all that MTV is. Sometimes it's an explicit
advertisement paid for by a company to sell a product. Sometimes it's going to
be a video for a music company there to sell music. Sometimes it's going to be
the set that's filled with trendy clothes and stuff there to sell a look that
will include products on that set. Sometimes it will be a show about an
upcoming movie paid for by the studio, though you don't know it, to hype a
movie that's coming out from Hollywood. Everything's an infomercial. There is
no non-commercial turn of MTV. That's simply a nonexistent segment of the MTV
It seems that, as it becomes more that way, the MTV editorial and creative
process is about moving in on these emotional triggers. Have you seen that
I don't watch MTV as much as I used to, partially due to my age, but also
because they stopped putting music at some point, and I wasn't interested in
the programming except for the music. So I'm not an expert on their content.
But what MTV is struggling with is what's going on with all our cultural
industries. We have fewer and fewer owners, but more and more choices. So
they have to desperately find ways to keep people looking for gimmicks, and
they don't have a huge time frame to establish an identity. With the remote
control, your shelf-life of chances to keep someone, to get them to stay there,
is very short. You can't develop a character every six weeks. They're going
to be gone after two minutes.
It put pressure on commercial culture providers like MTV to try to find sort of
things that their research shows will click right away, recognizable things,
and play on those. So when you're flipping the dial and you get there and
after ten seconds. you've got one of those or something that hits you so you
stay, or after 30 seconds, they know you aren't going to stay there four hours
waiting for something. You've got 50 other choices on the dial or you go over
to the internet.
And the irony is that, with all this choice, so to speak, in our commercial
media system, with all these new options which theoretically increases the
quality because there'll be all these smaller markets that can be tended to, in
some ways what it's doing, though, is increasing the commercial logic and
commercial pressure. Because they've got to get you so badly that they have to
use tried and true methods that diminish, in some ways, the chances of
creativity. Your margin of error is so slim that you can't take chances.
Does MTV now have specific relationships with record companies?
Traditionally, it's been a source of great tension, because they have had the
sort of monopoly over the music video industry since the early 1980s, and they
had deals with the major record labels. And, once again, there are only five
companies that sell 90 percent of the music in the United States and 80 percent
of the music worldwide. They've had exclusive deals where they could be the
first ones to get the videos for a certain amount of time before anyone else
could get them, which basically was a clearly anti-competitive mechanism.
There would be no competition with MTV.
And since they're sort of the gatekeeper now, basically, you've got to go
through them for certain types of artists to have any hope of really winning
out. They have very close relationships to the record labels--extremely
close-- and the decisions they make go a long way toward determining the
success or failure of acts and of certain releases.
How is MTV the ultimate gatekeeper of the American music industry?
It's not the only one. The radio system, too, is also an important gatekeeper.
The internet is a minor gatekeeper now, but it may become a more important one
later. But MTV has been very important for the past 20 years. It's a crucial
gatekeeper because so many people watch it, and if an artist is on there, the
chances of success increase exponentially. If an artist isn't on there, the
chances are very slim.
It's like if you're on the ballot for an election or you're a write-in. If
you're on the ballot, you've got a shot. If you're a write-in, your chances go
way down. And that's what happens, which is why these companies are desperate
to work with MTV to get their artist on the air, get them covered by MTV, get
them promoted. If you're planning a marketing plan, if you're a music label,
MTV's a crucial part of your strategy. You've got to figure out, "Will MTV
support my artist and how can we get them to support our artist? What sort of
promotional efforts can we do with MTV?" It's a key player in the whole
I can talk about the industrial relationship between small independent and big
labels and how they get swallowed up and how that can affect the music
industry, if you want. But I can't really talk about the content of the music
in any great detail
The micro-label subsidiaries of real big labels--are they real?
Sure, they're real in the sense they physically exist, philosophically. But
the independent labels historically played a very important role in the music
industry, just like small businesses play an important role in all industries.
They do the research and development that would be too costly for the big
company to do. The minute they strike something, the big company just buys it
out. And big companies in the music industry, as in other industries,
discovered it's a lot cheaper to let a thousand people kill themselves trying
the make a fortune on the margins and buy the ones that are successful than
trying to bankroll all thousand.
And that's what the small labels do now. That's their function in our music
industry. They all kill themselves trying to find the next Nirvana, the next
real thing. Then if they stumble on something, they get bought out. Subpop
Records, which was responsible for Nirvana and grunge, is the classic case in
point. A terrific independent label, and then they sell it for $50 million or
$100 million to Time Warner, once they make it big. Does that then affect the
nature of the content of those labels? Of course it does, because when an
Innerscope or a Subpop is bought, or when they have a relationship with a major
label . . . the major label is implicitly saying, "We want more of that stuff
that makes money. We didn't buy you to make artistic statements. We bought
you to produce another Nirvana and another Pearl Jam and another number one
And that often changes a logic of how these labels work in the first
place--which were much closer to the ground, that were more concerned with good
music, and that the commercial side would then take care of itself if you come
up with great artists. But now that you get the commercial value more in the
front seat, you're looking at, "Well, does this person look like they'd be a
good grunge singer? Do they have a same sound as Nirvana?" instead of, "Do
they have their own distinct sound?" So I think the effects are largely
negative, but they play a very important role, and that will always be an
I think the concern about the internet and Napster is that there's a good
chance that that ultimately might be what it will do--be a farm system for
these commercial giants. They will let the internet sort of breed these, and
then they can pluck the ones that look like they have a following.
There's the argument that these companies do market research, so they must be
giving the people what they want, because obviously they're studying what
people want, so they have to give it to them. That's really a fallacious
argument. It doesn't stand up to close analysis. What they're trying to do is
find out how they can make the most money off of people. So they're going to
query them, to see what the areas of entry are. It's not an honest examination
of what people really want.
I'll give a couple of examples. In the early to mid-1990s, the ad industry in
the United States did a survey of people to find out if they wanted any
advertising on the internet, and how they felt about it. And something like
two-thirds of Americans said, "We want no commercialism on the internet."
Well, obviously that was something that was thrown in the wastebasket, because
you can't make any money off that. So that meant, "How can we get commercials
on the internet without pissing these people off?" That becomes the way you
deal with it, not an honest effort to say, "Well, okay. How can we have a
non-commercial internet?" No, but a dishonest effort: "How can we manipulate
people to have a commercial internet and not piss them off, so we can make as
much money as possible?"
A second example?
A second example is a historical one from the period I've studied in the 1930s.
The vast majority of Americans wanted no advertising on radio when radio
started in the early 1930s. It was a very intrusive and obnoxious form of
advertising, compared to print advertising. You would be listening to a show
or music or something, and all of a sudden some sales pitch for mouthwash would
come on. Most Americans just thought it was obnoxious. They hated it. But
despite this fact, the commercial broadcasters were not going to give them
ad-free radio, because they couldn't make money off it. So they just had to
come up with ways to make advertising more palatable, and not honor the
legitimate desires of the American people.
Young people we've talked to experience rage because of this, and then the
rage seems to end up being exploited.
Yes, it seems to be, in terms of the sort of rage for no particular reason,
except for the rage for the hell of it, so to speak. I think that the
rebellion notion of popular music and rock 'n roll is a strong part of it,
the punk, grunge, all of it. . . . It's always been so, going right back to
the beginning of rock 'n roll. And it's something that is increasingly
marketed. Maybe because of the commercialism--although I'm not an expert at
cultural content--but maybe that accounts for the fact that it seems more and
more mindless. Right now, the Sex Pistols seem like some pretty heavy
intellectuals, compared to the sort of stuff that's marketed up as rage today.
There actually seemed to be something there, even in the nihilism.
Does the content get sucked out of the gesture?
Yes. It's like, "We need rage, so we have to push these buttons to hit
this marketing group, because this demographic that buys this type of blue
jeans needs to be pissed off. So we have to give them something to be angry
at, or else they won't buy these blue jeans, won't buy this hair dye," or
something like that. That's the motivation for it. That's the logic behind
it. No one would ever accuse the Sex Pistols of selling out . . . because they
were trying to discourage tourism to the UK and encourage it to Ireland
because they were paid for by the Irish Tourist Bureau. You understood they
were just pissed off. There was a legitimate nihilism there.
When companies are looking for buttons to push, are rage and anger easier
buttons to push?
Well, with this demographic, it might be. But when they're going to the
12-year-old girl market, then they're going to . . . come up with an 'N Sync or
Backstreet Boys. It's all done by marketing, though. Clearly, you find the
sorts of the things that work. . . . One of the ironies is that we think the
commercial marketplace of ideas is going to satisfy all our needs, because
it's in the interest of the marketers. In fact, it almost works the opposite
Once you find something that works, everyone else apes it, and you just run it
into the ground and everything else is forgotten. "Oh, Backstreet Boys works
with 12-year-old girls?" Then you've got 500 Backstreet Boys. Now some rage
thing works for 17-year-old white guys in the suburbs. Then you've got 500
people doing the same thing. So the marketplace, ironically, almost has this
sort of monoculture built into it, because logically you're trying to always
ape what worked last week. And you don't want to take chances. You lose your
job when you take chances and it flops. No one's going to be fired for doing
the second Backstreet Boys, but if you go out and do the first thing of
something else . . . and that flops, then you're history.
Now "Dawson's Creek" is going to have real issues in it. Is that a valid
way to spread issues and real life and good content back to the masses?
I guess I'd rather have "Dawson's Creek" deal with real issues than with inane
issues. So I certainly would not discourage them from doing that. But is
that going to ultimately be a successful way to really have a vibrant culture?
Probably not. There's no evidence to think that, if the commercial logic that
so dominates the content of these shows was at all in conflict with the idea of
doing a show on an important issue, it's hard to believe that the issue would
overwhelm the commercial logic.
If, for example, a show with a girl having an abortion would antagonize a
significant part of the base and hurt advertising sales, the track record is
that it's just not going to be done, period. Take the classic case in the
early 1980s, when they did the show "The Day After" or something about the
nuclear war. They couldn't sell ads for it, but it had the highest ratings
ever. So therefore you don't do shows about serious topics if it hurts the
commercial imperative. And you haven't seen any more shows like that since
then. But we've seen plenty of shows on JonBenet Ramsey and the "Long Island
Lolita," because those things sell lots of ads.
So there's a big difference between audience ratings and commercial
Sure, there can be. And it becomes circular, because basically, you're not
given that choice of "The Day After" very often. You're never given a choice
of a show about nuclear war just so you can really factor it in, except once
every 10 or 20 years and it's an accident. So you're usually just picking from
commercial choices. That's the range of things. So they said, "Well, everyone
picked this," but they didn't have a choice of something without ads. They
didn't have a choice of something on a topic that wouldn't be done for a
commercial reason. That would be a legitimate survey, but then focus
groups would never even ask that.
There was a great piece by the Nation columnist, Christopher Hitchins,
where he talks about how he was involved in one of these focus groups a few
years ago for a primetime TV show. They were showing him a pilot for a new
show with a bunch of other people, and they were supposed to rate it. They
wanted to get opinions on it so they could tweak it a little bit to get it
And he said that, when you left, everyone in the group was pissed off, because
it was such a circular thing. They were only asking certain types of
questions. They never asked something like, "What do you think of the show in
general?" It was always, "Well, what do you think of this character's
haircut," or "Is that character's butt too big?" or "Is that joke funny
enough?" But they just wanted to say, "We think the whole thing stinks. We'd
like a show on something else," but that was off-limits. The focus group was
only interested in what they could do to make money off of that investment,
When GE runs NBC, is there more content that can't show up? How does
corporate America's obvious focus . . . rob these young people?
It's hard to answer that, because there are so many factors in people's lives
to really evaluate, does it make kids happier and healthier or does it hurt
them? Look at the American Pediatric Association, which is really young kids,
or the American Psychological Association, when they do their studies. I think
that the evidence is increasingly clear that being awash in sort of a
commercial marination, as American children and teenagers are today, does not
make happier people. The evidence is clear that we have a generation that's
not especially happy, and it should be a troubling sign for all of us.
It's a tough area, because there are so many other factors, you hesitate about
sounding like a vulgar social critic. But in 1970, some sociologists did
surveys of teenagers all over the world to see who were the happiest teenagers,
who feel best about their world their lives. And the three groups of teenagers
that were regarded as the happiest teenagers in the world in 1970 were in
Israel, Cuba, and Chile. And those were highly non-commercial cultures--all
three of them.
It's interesting to look at Chile, because Chile at that time was a very
democratic society. It had a very high rate of voter turnout. It was very
political--the most political society, arguably, in the world-- certainly in
the Third World. They had a coup d'etat, they established a free market
economy, a so-called "free market economy," and they consciously tried to
de-politicize the people when they reinstated democracy.
Now it's a highly commercial culture. If you go to Chile, the middle class of
Chile is conscious of brand-names. They don't know anything about politics.
And now they've got one of the most depressed groups of teenagers. But it's
considered a great victory in the New York Times and in our
media, because it's a free society now. It's a democracy. But it's also a
society where people aren't very happy, and it's a deeply troubled society,
obsessed with brand-names.
That's anecdotal evidence. I would never use that in the court of law to
convict, but I think there is considerable evidence that this type of world
does not produce happy people. This isn't really what people are meant to
be--basically recipients of marketing messages to define themselves by
purely commercial terms. And that really shouldn't surprise us. Look at every
major religion, every theology. None of them would define a good life or a
happy person on the basis of something as meaningless as their possessions,
what they own, or how many more they own than someone else, or having a
different brand-name. In fact, that really violates almost all our
philosophical and moral notions of what a good person and a good life is; and
for good reason, because it is a bogus life.
What is the emotional-spiritual-ethical effect of having all of your
authentic cultural artifacts sucked up into this machine?
It really promotes the sort of world in which you don't think anything matters
unless it serves you, unless it serves your material gain. Why be honest? Why
have integrity? Why care about other people? That's for chumps. It's all
about taking care of number one. The dominant institutions in society, the
values they send out is, "We're just here to make money off of you. We're just
here to take advantage of you." The message that goes out to everyone in that
system is, "Yes, everyone should be everyone for themselves. Just take care of
number one. Why should I care about that other person? What's in it for me?"
And that's not a healthy environment for society. People are not islands.
That's not new. We're social creatures. It creates very unhappy people when
we stop caring about each other, when we just think what happens to us is all
And kids can find something like the Insane Clown Posse experience and get
camaraderie until it gets sucked back. . . .
So the sales of the music go down and the label fires the band and creates a
new band and probably their marketing says, "Now we've got to shift over to
Do you care about big companies buying big companies and what effect there
is on content?
That side isn't really that important. What's happened in the media in the
United States in the past 10 or 15 years, especially since about 1994 or 1995,
has been an unprecedented concentration of ownership. So we have seven or
eight companies now, which own these largest media companies. All are film
studios. All are TV networks. Four of the five music companies that sell 90
percent of the music in the United States own almost all the TV stations in the
largest markets. They're huge conglomerates, and this is really a new thing.
It used to be that the largest media companies, 20 or 40 years ago, only
produced newspapers, they only made movies, they only had a TV network. Now
they're dominant players in each of these markets. They're highly
non-competitive. They don't have to worry about a newcomer coming in. The
barriers to entry, as economists talk about, are so high that basically,
they've got a private club. It's a gentleman's club of about a half-dozen,
seven, eight companies that really rule the thing.
They're closely linked. They know each other. They have deals together. And
what they're able to do with this tremendous power between them is
hyper-commercialize their content without fear of competitive retribution.
Radio is a classic case in point of how that works, and the company Viacom,
which owns MTV, is a big player in this. In 1996, radio was deregulated by the
federal government. This is public property, so the government has a right to
say how many stations you're allowed to own. Well, in the 1996 Telecom Act,
without a shred of debate in Congress or any hearings discussing it, the
ownership restrictions were lifted on radio from 28 stations for one single
company to as many as they wanted to own. And you were allowed to own up to
eight in the largest markets. Overnight, over half these stations in America
were sold from small companies to big companies, and big companies to huge
So you have a handful of companies like Viacom that now dominate American
radio. Every market now usually has two or three companies that dominate it,
that own almost all the stations and sell relevant advertising. What's
happened to American radio is a classic case, then, of this
hyper-commercialism, on one hand. The amount of advertising on American radio
today is 18 minutes per hour. It's something like 50 percent more than the
early 1990s, because these companies don't have to worry about competition.
Two or three of them own all the stations. They don't have to worry about
someone coming in doing eight minutes an hour and stealing away their
listeners. So it gets hyper-commercialized.
The only time there isn't advertising, they're selling payola. Whoever buys
the most ads get their artists played. And you can see built into that that
it's a very negative thing to have concentrated ownership, because it
increases the ability to hyper-commercialize.
Then you add in conglomerates. Viacom also owns MTV and Paramount and
Blockbuster. And now they can go to advertisers and say, "Well, you advertise
on our radio chain, the CBS . . . stations we own, and maybe work out a deal
with MTV or maybe work out a deal on VH1. Or we can do posters in our
Blockbuster stores or do something on Showtime or maybe we can have
"Entertainment Tonight," which is a TV show we produce, do something on your
stuff, too." It gives them tremendous leverage to do much more commercialism
than they could do if they only owned one thing. And that's the reigning logic
behind the entire system. It's based on concentration and hyper-commercialism.
And it's done not because these are bad people. These people are no worse or
better than their predecessors were 50 years ago. It's done because this is
what the system is set up to produce. This is the logical thing to do. If you
don't do it, you can't compete. You're going to be put out of business.
You're out of work. So it's really a systematic issue. It's not of the
morality of individuals.
For the parents and teens watching this--what are the first steps towards
The first steps would be hard to say. Ultimately, I think we have to change
the nature of the system. When you talk about cable television, when you talk
about over-the-air television--this is public property. The companies that
rule it are there because they've got monopoly licenses from the government,
either to have cable systems or access to channels on the airwaves. So the
public has a right to intervene there and say, "These are the terms we want."
For example, in Sweden they allow no advertising to children under 12 as the
condition of broadcasting. You can't advertise there to children under 12.
The public has a right to do that here. We have a right to set real limits on
the amount of advertising and commercialism that reach people under 18. We
have the constitutional and moral right to do that
Ultimately, we have to think like Sweden--think big and really get to the root
of the problem. Just eliminate this hyper-commercialism aimed at children, at
teenagers. I think that's the direction we need to go in. That seems probably
far off--maybe even impossible--given the strength and power of these media
companies. But there are things you can do at the local level. You can go to
your school board. The same companies that are hyper-commercializing MTV are
interested in commercializing your schools. Try to keep advertising out of
Try to keep non-commercial things, like public television, non-commercial.
Try to limit the advertising and commercialism in public media that are
supposed to be ad-free. Keep those as a sector, as an island of non-commercial
entertainment, news, and journalism in our culture. Likewise, you can do
things like insist that your schools do media literacy--real media literacy.
There are two types of media literacy. There's the type that actually teaches
you how the system works, what advertisers are trying to do, so you learn to
understand it to be a critical participant. Then there's the type that the
media companies want to do, which is basically to train you to like certain
types of shows, but not to question the system. Get real media literacy done
by honest intellectuals and academics, not by PR people for the media
companies and the ad industry. That can help, too. Make people aware of what
The great communication theorist Marshall McLuhan has a wonderful line about
commercialism. He says, "We don't know who discovered water, but it probably
wasn't a fish." And one of the problems with commercialism is that we're so
immersed in it, at a certain point, we lose our ability to see it critically.
That's why something like media literacy in schools can be so important--to
make kids aware at a very early age that it isn't natural, that it wasn't
always like this. "Think of it critically. Someone's doing it because they
benefit by it. This is why. This is what they're trying to do to you." So
you can arm yourself and understand the nature of the relationship early on,
and be a critical participant in society, and not just someone who's
manipulated by marketers.
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