Magazine article Monthly Review

The Global Struggle for Democratic Communication

Magazine article Monthly Review

The Global Struggle for Democratic Communication

Article excerpt

Since the first systems of mass media and telecommunications emerged, their control and structure have been political issues. It has been well understood that the control over the means of communication is an integral aspect of political and economic power. Perhaps the most striking feature of our current age is the increase in prominence--for economics, politics, and culture--of technologically advanced systems of communication and information, that are often global in scope. Moreover, the global communication system is in the midst of a dramatic transformation that is reorganizing industries and revamping modes of regulation. Yet precisely at the historic moment that the social implications of communication appear at their greatest, the subject of how communication systems are controlled and organized and for what purposes is effectively being removed from the range of legitimate political debate, as communication is turned over to the market for profitable exploitation.

In my view, it is mandatory for progressives, democrats, and socialists across the world to resist this trend and to organize around media and communication issues. If we fail to do so, substantive progressive social change will be vastly more difficult to achieve. In this article, when discussing national experiences, I will tend to concentrate upon the United States, because that is the nation with which I am most familiar. In addition, the United States is particularly important for all global communication scholars and activists, as it is there that the model for global commercial communication was developed. To make my argument I will first review the key trends in global communication and the nature of contemporary communication policymaking.

The Communication Revolution

Two trends mark the communication revolution. First, there has been a rapid corporate concentration within media industries, along with a strong drive toward globalization. Although film, books, and recorded music have been global industries dominated by a handful of corporations for much of the century, media markets otherwise have been primarily national in scope. A global oligopolistic market that covers the spectrum of media is now crystallizing with very high barriers to entry. National markets remain and they are indispensable for understanding any particular national situation, but they are becoming secondary in importance.

Today there are five global vertically integrated media companies: News Corp., Disney, Time Warner, Viacom, and TCI. There are several other media firms with global ambitions including General Electric (owner of NBC), Westinghouse (owner of CBS), Sony, Seagram (owner of MCA), and a few European giants led by Philips (owners of PolyGram), Havas, and Bertelsmann AG. These firms tend to make films, books, recorded music, and television programs and own newspapers, magazines, radio stations, cable companies, and television networks. They often are connected to electronics firms and they may have holdings in sports, amusement parks, retail outlets, and leisure enterprises. These firms can take advantage of the complementary nature of their properties such that the profit whole is greater than the sum of the parts. When Disney produces a film, for example, it can promote the film across its media properties, show it on its television networks, create a spin-off TV program, sell the soundtrack, publish a book or comic based on the film, create a related amusement park ride and/or video game, and sell paraphernalia related to the film in its retail chain stores. It can also negotiate cross promotions with firms like McDonald's. Smaller firms without widespread--and increasingly global--holdings are less able to take advantage of these cross-selling possibilities and therefore are put at a severe competitive disadvantage. A firm like Time Warner now earns 25 percent of its revenues outside of the United States. By 2000 that figure is expected to reach 40 percent and it is likely that within a decade all the global media firms will earn a majority of their income outside of their home country. …

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