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.
It's true that in recent years there's been a huge expansion in the number of distribution channels, from cable and satellite-delivered TV to the ever-expanding Internet. But these same distribution networks are controlled by fewer and larger entities (like the newly reconstituted Viacom), and are programmed to provide an appropriate "sales environment" for a look-alike, sound-alike, market-driven monoculture. Thus the paradox of modern global communications: more choices but fewer voices, or, in Bruce Springsteen's memorable song, "57 Channels (And Nothin' On)." Even the Internet--a frontline in the information war, which at least offers the hope of a change in traditional media power relations--is increasingly poised to deliver merely more of the same, as "branding" money pours in from Big Media operations intent on making the chaotic Net conform to previous models.
Nevertheless, the stunning technological advances have already freed some alternative media-makers in various pockets of the world. One example is the informative and entertaining Serbian radio station B-92, which during the past decade became the leading independent news source inside Serbia--and a source of continual dismay for Slobodan Milosevic, who constantly threatened the station and its workers. By now B-92 and its director, Veran Matic, are fairly well-known internationally, one unintended result of the station's being taken over by the government and Matic being detained shortly after NATO airstrikes began in March. But relatively few people are aware that a network of international supporters helped keep B-92 alive and available via the Internet even after Milosevic's forces prevented it from transmitting over the air [see Veran Matic and Drazen Pantic on page 34].
Organizations that facilitate networks among small producers have a key role to play in the new independent media universe. One such group is the nonprofit Internews, which Evelyn Messinger describes on page 37. Its mandate is to assist the hundreds of small, nongovernmental TV stations that have sprung up in places like the former Soviet Union. Believing that "political pluralism is virtually impossible without media pluralism," Internews has trained nearly 4,000 media professionals, who now produce hundreds of hours of television each year and reach a potential audience of 200 million viewers.
In the same spirit, Globalvision's newest project is an Internet "supersite" dubbed the Media Channel (www.mediachannel.org ), the first Web site devoted exclusively to global media concerns. Developed in partnership with Britain's OneWorld Online, the Media Channel will attempt to make good on the Internet's democratic promise by delivering diverse, high-quality content from informed local partners around the world. It will provide news, analysis, resources and discourse about the media by aggregating content from NGOs, nonprofit groups, media monitors and a wide array of partner Web sites. The channel will also create a forum for debate, involvement and action about key media-related issues and a rich database of information for media-makers. Hundreds of groups have already joined as partners. But there are thousands more, which the Media Channel aims to bring under one virtual roof.
As we move away from a "broadcasting" model--in which a single large entity sends its message out to as broad an audience as possible--a diverse, multipoint media future is emerging: one where bigger isn't intrinsically better, but where it ain't necessarily bad, either. Media size, like technology, should be appropriate in scale. Bigger and global may be better when it comes to distribution--but smaller, local, more democratic and more public-minded media are de facto more authentic content creators.
The immediate future, then, is full of possibility and opportunity for small media, provided that its practitioners can quickly learn to turn certain trends--such as globalization and digitalization--to their benefit. One day soon, nearly everyone who wants to will be able to produce and distribute media, at least on a small scale. Those with the ability to produce locally and distribute globally will enjoy a key advantage, for in the future it is networks that will matter most--but networks of people, not of machines and wires.