Wednesday, November 28, 2007

FROM THE DESK OF THE VICE PRESIDENT FOR EAST COAST TELEVISION AND MICROWAVE OVEN PROGRAMMING: In the early 1980s, some 50 corporations dominated the production and distribution of American media. Today we have the Big Six: GE, Disney, CBS, Viacom, Time Warner, and News Corp. In some ways, this "corporatization" isn't a very big deal; after all, popular culture has always been commercialized and commodified, and today's media conglomerates are, to an extent, simply larger versions of the entrepreneurs and industries of decades past. Yet the rise of Big Media has also significantly altered the ways in which pop culture is produced, distributed, and consumed, and those changes are in turn reshaping the culture itself.

Even in the 1960s and 1970s, business conglomerates from Gulf+Western to Transamerica to Kinney National had targeted entertainment companies for takeover, recognizing the profit potential of popular culture. But the fever for mergers and acquisitions really took off in the 1980s under the business-friendly Reagan administration. During the mid-eighties, all three major networks were bought up (ABC by CapCities, NBC by GE, CBS by Laurence Tisch), and 1989 saw the marriage of Time Inc. and Warner Communications. Over the past two decades, media mergers have accelerated even more -- Westinghouse-CBS, Disney-ABC, Time Warner-Turner, Viacom-CBS, AOL-Time Warner, GE-Vivendi -- fed by developments ranging from the demise of "fin-syn" rules to the Telecommunications Act of 1996 to the commercial explosion of the Internet.

As several ThingThrowers know far better than I do, media consolidation has become a hot-button issue over the past few years, especially in the worlds of politics and journalism; critics argue that corporate ownership of multiple media outlets will stifle critical voices and encourage cultural homogeneity, while defenders of media corporations insist that consolidation will actually promote higher quality and greater diversity. In order to sidestep both the forbidden realm of political debate and the lure of brilliant-but-impenetrable discussions of vertical integration, let's look specifically the effect of media consolidation on popular entertainment. In what ways has the corporatization of popular culture affected your experience of movies, TV, radio, music, the Internet? Is the entertainment produced by the Big Six fundamentally different from the entertainment produced by "independent" media companies? If so, how?

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