The New Global Media
While the "Hollywood juggernaut" and the specter of US cultural imperialism remains a central concern in many countries, the notion that corporate media firms are merely purveyors of US culture is ever less plausible as the media system becomes increasingly concentrated, commercialized and globalized. The global media system is better understood as one that advances corporate and commercial interests and values and denigrates or ignores that which cannot be incorporated into its mission. There is no discernible difference in the firms' content, whether they are owned by shareholders in Japan or Belgium or have corporate headquarters in New York or Sydney. Bertelsmann CEO Thomas Middelhoff bristled when, in 1998, some said it was improper for a German firm to control 15 percent of the US book-publishing market. "We're not foreign. We're international," Middelhoff said. "I'm an American with a German passport."
As the media conglomerates spread their tentacles, there is reason to believe they will encourage popular tastes to become more uniform in at least some forms of media. Based on conversations with Hollywood executives, Variety editor Peter Bart concluded that "the world filmgoing audience is fast becoming more homogeneous." Whereas action movies had once been the only sure-fire global fare--and comedies had been considerably more difficult to export--by the late nineties comedies like My Best Friend's Wedding and The Full Monty were doing between $160 million and $200 million in non-US box-office sales.
When audiences appear to prefer locally made fare, the global media corporations, rather than flee in despair, globalize their production. This is perhaps most visible in the music industry. Music has always been the least capital-intensive of the electronic media and therefore the most open to experimentation and new ideas. US recording artists generated 60 percent of their sales outside the United States in 1993; by 1998 that figure was down to 40 percent. Rather than fold their tents, however, the five media TNCs that dominate the world's recorded-music market are busy establishing local subsidiaries in places like Brazil, where "people are totally committed to local music," in the words of a writer for a trade publication. Sony has led the way in establishing distribution deals with independent music companies from around the world.
With hypercommercialism and growing corporate control comes an implicit political bias in media content. Consumerism, class inequality and individualism tend to be taken as natural and even benevolent, whereas political activity, civic values and antimarket activities are marginalized. The best journalism is pitched to the business class and suited to its needs and prejudices; with a few notable exceptions, the journalism reserved for the masses tends to be the sort of drivel provided by the media giants on their US television stations. This slant is often quite subtle. Indeed, the genius of the commercial-media system is the general lack of overt censorship. As George Orwell noted in his unpublished introduction to Animal Farm, censorship in free societies is infinitely more sophisticated and thorough than in dictatorships, because "unpopular ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark, without any need for an official ban."
Lacking any necessarily conspiratorial intent and acting in their own economic self-interest, media conglomerates exist simply to make money by selling light escapist entertainment. In the words of the late Emilio Azcarraga, the billionaire head of Mexico's Televisa: "Mexico is a country of a modest, very fucked class, which will never stop being fucked. Television has the obligation to bring diversion to these people and remove them from their sad reality and difficult future."
It may seem difficult to see much hope for change. As one Swedish journalist noted in 1997, "Unfortunately, the trends are very clear, moving in the wrong direction on virtually every score, and there is a desperate lack of public discussion of the long-term implications of current developments for democracy and accountability." But there are indications that progressive political movements around the world are increasingly making media issues part of their political platforms. From Sweden, France and India to Australia, New Zealand and Canada, democratic left political parties are making structural media reform--breaking up the big companies, recharging nonprofit and noncommercial broadcasting and media--central to their agenda. They are finding out that this is a successful issue with voters.
At the same time, the fate of the global media system is intricately intertwined with that of global capitalism, and despite the self-congratulatory celebration of the free market in the US media, the international system is showing signs of weakness. Asia, the so-called tiger of twenty-first-century capitalism, fell into a depression in 1997, and its recovery is still uncertain. Even if there is no global depression, discontent is brewing in those parts of the world and among those segments of the population that have been left behind in this era of economic growth. Latin America, the other vaunted champion of market reforms since the eighties, has seen what a World Bank official terms a "big increase in inequality." While the dominance of commercial media makes resistance more difficult, it is not hard to imagine widespread opposition to these trends calling into question the triumph of the neoliberal economic model and the global media system it has helped create.