Co-opting Consumers of Color
They call it penetration--as in market penetration. The tentacles of the transnational mediopolies reach deeper into racial and ethnic communities than ever before. For some, this is a triumph in diversity. Big corporations reaching consumers of color is something they say we should celebrate. However, this market penetration has gone hand in hand with decreasing media ownership by people of color, resulting in loss of industry voice and jobs.
Flagship properties that were once trumpeted as success stories in black ownership--BET and Essence magazine--have become little more than shadows of their parent companies. The outlets' makeovers were designed to garner greater "synergy" and brand recognition for their corporate masters. As a result, BET looks more and more like VH1, complete with dog-eat-dog "reality" shows, cloying countdown lists and decade retrospectives that work to remake history--even black history--into trivia. In fact, BET was the last place to tune in for Black History Month programming. Its main commemorative offering: a VH1 adaptation hosted by comedian Paul Mooney titled BET's Top 25 Most @#%! Moments in Black History. To many, it was fitting, as BET regularly programs what some regard as the most @#%! moments in black popular culture.
The remaking of Essence magazine has been more subtle. Celebrity profiles and gossipy features increase in page share, à la People magazine (both are Time Warner publications), while the names of Essence veterans have been disappearing from the masthead--mostly as a result of "restructuring" under editor and Teen People import Angela Burt-Murray.
The loss of Essence's expert leadership is but one example of how diversity in staffing (especially at the top) is closely tied to diversity in ownership. According to a 2002 study by the Minority Media and Telecommunications Council, only 4.2 percent of radio outlets are minority-owned, yet these outlets employ more than half of all the people of color in radio. Fewer minority-owned outlets has meant fewer minorities in media. And changes in regulation, like the elimination of tax incentives for outlet sales to minorities, are making things worse.
Television-staffing diversity has also been taking a real blow, especially since the merger of UPN with WB. According to a forthcoming study commissioned by the Writers Guild of America west, before the merger UPN had the single highest concentration of writers of color--63 percent of television writers of color in 2005-06 were employed by UPN. This was part of a conscious marketing strategy aimed at cornering the young black market to carve out a bankable niche. Some of the most controversial black programming on the air, including a short-lived, much-protested sitcom on slavery, was on CBS-owned UPN. But UPN is merging with WB to create a new network called CW. CW's fall scheduling plans show a safe mix of both networks' main stalwarts, which bodes deep cuts in UPN's black programming: Only a few appear to have survived, including Girlfriends and Everybody Hates Chris.
From Fox Sports en Español to the growing proliferation of affinity groups of color on MySpace (News Corporation's mega "e-community"), there are few spaces that Big Media hasn't invaded. And if that's not enough to keep you up at night, consider this: If public discourse in our communities becomes completely corporatized, what will become of our voices, our points of view, our interests? As history has shown, communities without access to media in their interest are vulnerable indeed.