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The Clout of the Media Giants

Today, at the start of the 21st century, five multimedia conglomerates -- Viacom, Disney, News Corporation, Vivendi Universal and AOL Time Warner - exert unprecedented power in marketing messages and products to young people. Here are excerpts from interviews with media critics about the marketing/media 'forcefield' of these conglomerates.

Mark Crispin Miller
media critic and the author of Boxed In: The Culture of TV

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To give you a sense of some of the power these corporations wield, let me take you through just some of the holdings of News Corporation, for example.

This Australian-based transnational owns Fox Television, 20th Century Fox Films, Harper Collins Publishers. It's also the largest owner of newspapers in the world. Rupert Murdoch has Sky Television, which broadcasts the world over. And the list goes on and on.

This kind of range is unprecedented in the history of all the media industries. 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.

There's a handful of owners behind most of those products that you see at the newsstand or on cable or on the web. 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.

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're gonna go directly for the 'please center.' They're gonna try to get you watching and buying right away. And what this means is that they are gonna 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 a million ways.

Robert McChesney
media critic and author of Rich Media, Poor Democracy: Communication Politics in Dubious Times

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The entertainment companies--which 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, all the TV stations pretty much in the ten largest markets. They own all or part of every single commercial cable channel, these handful of huge companies. They look at the teen market as part of this massive empire that they're colonizing.

You should look at it like the British empire or the French empire in the 19th century. Teens are like Africa. It's this range that they're gonna take over and their weaponry are 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 money-making companies. And music is a weapon that generates money for them.

...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....Four of the five music companies that sell 90 percent of the music in the United States--they 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 a 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 it's a private club, a gentleman's club of like a half-dozen, seven-eight companies that really rule the thing. And they're closely linked. I mean 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, and 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 to huge.

So you have a handful of companies like Viacom that now dominate American radio. Every market now has usually two or three companies that dominate it, own almost all the stations, sell relevant advertising. And 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.

...Then you add into that conglomerates that Viacom also owns MTV and Paramount and Blockbuster. And what they can do now is they can go to advertisers and say, "Well, you advertise on our radio chain, the CBS Infinity 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 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 go 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.

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