Coping with Commercial Media

No issue better illustrates the poverty of major party presidential politics than the recent outcry over the entertainment industry. When the Federal Trade Commission issued a report decrying "pervasive and aggressive marketing" of adult material, such as R-rated movies, to children, Joseph Lieberman suggested the report ought to inaugurate a larger debate about "the impact the popular culture is having on our moral fabric." Not to be outdone, Lynne Cheney, former head of the National Endowment for the Humanities and wife of Richard Cheney, asserted that entertainment violence "debases and degrades the culture our children are growing up in."

However sincere these accusations may be, none of the major party candidates seems willing to acknowledge the role that media policy both parties endorse plays in fostering a sex and violence obsessed TV. Lieberman and Cheney may deplore media exploitation of children. Nonetheless, unless they are willing to contemplate a more democratic and open media, they can offer us nothing except scolding or onerous censorship.

The US media have undergone a sea change eagerly, though silently, promoted by the Clinton Administration. For decades US law forbade extensive horizontal and vertical integration of the media. Companies could not own more than one TV or radio station in the same market. Film studios could not own movie theatres, and television networks could not produce their own programming. Such antitrust regulation grew out of a commitment to foster diversity of voices within the commercial media. These regulations never worked perfectly and were always biased against noncommercial media. Nonetheless, they did prevent some of the worst excesses of commercial consolidation.

Under the 1996 Telecommunications Act, these restrictions have been dramatically reduced or eliminated. The rationale for sweeping deregulation was that with the growth of the internet, anyone can launch a website and compete with the existing giants. Yet as Robert McChesney argues persuasively in Rich Media, Poor Democracy, "The internet has not spawned a competitive media marketplace. The giants have too many advantages ... They have the brand names, advertisers, and capital to rule the Internet." The anguished comments of Lieberman and Cheney are an implicit acknowledgment of the increasingly pervasive role of these media.

The aggressive marketing of "adult" material to children is a natural outcome of media consolidation. Cross marketing is in fact a major rationale for these consolidations. If a media conglomerate has a successful motion picture, it can promote the film on its TV stations, sell it through magazines, and spin off CDs and other merchandise.

Lieberman and Cheney criticize the promotion of adult fare to children, but say little about a larger problem, what some critics have called the "commercial carpetbombing" of our children. Targeting children for advertising of all sorts has become the central growth strategy of the conglomerates. As the head of the Fox Family Channel points out, "if you develop a loyalty with the kids of today, they eventually become the adults of tomorrow." And no goal seems more important than insuring that the children of today -- and their parents -- become devoted consumers. Commercial programming for children is now the fastest growing segment of the media, with ad revenues now at about $1 billion. In a practice one Time Warner executive conceded is "vaguely evil," broadcasters have begun targeting 1-year-olds. Perhaps some day they will discover how to send subliminal messages into the womb.

Violent and offensive advertising for children is a larger part of the work and consumption culture that increasingly grips this society. Both children and adults are ever more programmed by their schools, workplaces, and media to consume an endless array of consumer goods and to work longer hours in order to produce those goods. But since middle- and upper-class families long ago achieved a substantial level of comfort, further consumption can only be fostered by appealing to or creating status anxieties and by promoting images of instant release from the frustrations a life of endless work breeds.

New restrictions on media ads or content are hardly an answer. Restrictions on advertising could easily spill over into heavy-handed efforts to control content. The ludicrous voluntary ratings systems only foster an intensified interest in the consumption of forbidden fruit.

The best response to a violent and commercially dominated media is to foster stronger nonprofit and public broadcasting outlets. It is not a law of God that our only major media must be financed by commercials. Tax policy could grant tax credits for contributions to nonprofit media. General revenues could be used to fashion a true public broadcasting system, in which each community might have independent low power radio and television stations with locally elected boards and well funded public access facilities. Under such a system true niche programming might emerge. Not only would the media speak to a variety of interests (golf, finance, gardening, fishing etc.) as they do currently, but programs of interest to political and cultural minorities could be developed. These could be financed through grants from the local funds in direct proportion to the number of viewers who select particular programming.

Opponents of an enhanced public broadcasting capacity often argue that such a system would replace our "free" media with a more costly alternative. They fail to recognize the large advertising and media costs built into most of the products upon which we currently depend. Our free media come at an enormous price tag even for those of us who never partake.

Exploitative sex and mindless violence are real problems in our communities. But scolding the commercial media will hardly redress this violence. Our best answer lies in a political movement that can renegotiate our terms of engagement with the corporations and their consumer culture.

Such a movement might allow our citizens to use steady increases in productivity to fashion increasing opportunities for more artistic and recreational freedoms and diverse life styles consistent with the minimal needs of social order. Enjoying both more personal freedom and the chance periodically to revise and limit the demands upon us, the need for pleasures and escapes at the expense of others would diminish. A more democratic media could be both an expression of our individuality and an indispensable step in fostering a more free and humane social order.

John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor and writes regularly on labor and environmental issues. He is co-author, with Etta Kralovec, of The End of Homework: How Homework Disrupts Families, Overburdens Children, and Limits Learning (Beacon Press). He invites comments at

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