The recent CBS-Viacom-bination–at $37 billion, the largest media deal ever–mirrored previous purchases, like Disney’s acquisition of Capital Cities/ABC and Time Warner’s taking of Turner Broadcasting. Despite its unprecedented size, the CBS-Viacom megamerger had an eerie familiarity: Nine of the top ten media marriages of all time have taken place in the past decade, each bigger than the last–and there’s no end to mergermania in sight. “After a deal like this,” observed Sony chairman Howard Stringer, “the urge to merge becomes feverish.” David Geffen of DreamWorks SKG agreed, adding that “it will bring about a new wave of consolidations, making these companies even bigger.”
With programming now being distributed at the speed of light and Big Media busily synergizing, centralizing and conglomerating at something close to it, is there no alternative to the obsession with globalism and giantism? If there isn’t, the future of small media is bleak indeed. But as independent journalists are finding out, there are ways to turn their diminutive size into an asset, to make globalization work for and not against them.
At Globalvision, the independent media firm I co-founded with Danny Schechter, we’ve struggled with these issues for a decade, beginning with the production and distribution of our international television newsmagazine South Africa Now. How did we cover the censored story of a country in turmoil thousands of miles away, despite severe press curbs, few resources and no entry visas? We had no foreign bureaus or satellite transponders, little hardware and hardly any money, so of sheer necessity we reached out to individuals and groups inside South Africa, supplying them with low-cost camcorders to document events there. Soon we began to receive footage back–grainy and low-tech, but shot with an unusual perspective, literally from the inside out. By forging links and exchanging resources with those directly affected by events, soliciting their advice and analysis, and working in unison, we were able to stay afloat and ahead of the Big Media mainstream.
We called our approach “inside out” journalism, and we subsequently employed it in other situations around the world, reporting on the aftermath of Tiananmen Square with a team of Chinese filmmakers and documenting the mid-nineties siege of Sarajevo with a Bosnian video team living in that embattled city. Ten years on, we’re convinced that building such networks is emerging as the success strategy for independent media throughout the world.
This means thinking and acting both locally and globally, adapting to and using new technology, and forming partnerships with like-minded groups in other countries. With global aggregation and distribution, people everywhere are gaining unprecedented access to information–but also becoming inundated and overwhelmed. As a result, local authenticity and content will grow in importance. Small media can speak with a bigger voice by remaining light on their feet, making rapid decisions while surfing the tsunami of “too much information” and employing popular formats to appeal to a wide audience.
But that’s the easy part. With advances in technology constantly driving costs down and quality up, virtually anyone can “provide content” now. Cameras, computers and other tools of media-making cost less and are more accessible than ever. With a consumer-grade digital camcorder and a few hundred dollars for tape, you can shoot your own film or television program and edit it on your desktop. But once you make it, who can see it? How will they even find out about it? The crucial battle today in the realm of media is over control of the means of distribution.