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Media Between Culture and Commerce: An Introduction

Media Between Culture and Commerce: An Introduction


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781841501659
Publisher: Intellect, Limited
Publication date: 07/15/2007
Series: Intellect Books - Changing Media, Changing Europe Series
Pages: 192
Product dimensions: 6.75(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Els de Bens is chair of the Department of Mass Communication Research at Ghent University and a visiting professor at the University of California, Berkeley.

Read an Excerpt

Media Between Culture and Commerce

Changing Media â" Changing Europe Series Volume 4

By Els De Bens

Intellect Ltd

Copyright © 2007 Intellect Ltd
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-84150-165-9


Media Between Culture and Commerce: An Introduction

Els De Bens

An ambitious and ambiguous title

This book addresses the consequences of the profound changes that have affected the media over the last years. Its contributors reflect on the concern and the debate about the role of the media in our rapidly evolving society. They identify and analyse the conflicts and the tensions between cultural policies and market forces at work in the present-day media landscape.

The title 'The Media between Culture and Commerce' may seem rather vague and ambiguous. It is more of a symbolic title that refers to the tensions between the public role of the media and the advancing commercialisation, between the public sphere and the market model, or, in Denis McQuail's succinct phrase, between 'commercialism and non-commercialism' (D. McQuail, 1998, pp. 108–110).

It has not been our intention to explore in depth the concept of culture. As a matter of fact, culture itself is scarcely discussed explicitly in the present book. 'Culture' serves rather as a portmanteau term for anything that connotes the non-commercialism and the idealistic ambitions of the 'public' model. Commercialism refers to the pursuit of profit as a primary goal, while non-commercialism in the media is associated with pluralism, diversity, and all kinds of public interest obligations that are often at odds with the profit motives that are inherent in the market-oriented model.

Privatisation and commercialisation have actually also stimulated creativity and innovation. In the seventies radio was the first medium to be privatised in Europe. For quite some time pirate radio stations anchored outside territorial waters had been challenging the established public broadcasting monopoly. An agreement in the Council of Europe (22 January 1965) allowed for action against these commercial and illegal 'pirates', but not before the latter had acquired a large and enthusiastic following. These stations introduced new music genres and innovative radio styles (including disc jockeys) that were subsequently copied by the public radio broadcasters.

After a second attempt to make illegal the use of the air waves by citizen band (CB) radio amateurs, and then an explosive growth of various types of illegal private radio stations – ranging from small, emancipatory ventures to purely commercial enterprises – the authorities finally decided to legalise private radio broadcasting in the seventies. Again the competitive challenge from the private radio stations incited public broadcasters to make their radio channels more dynamic and, above all, to differentiate them. Together with the new private radio stations, the re-profiled public stations gave a strong boost to the music industry.

The privatisation of television in Europe took place in the mid-eighties and subjected public television broadcasting to shock therapy. Across the board, the public TV stations were denounced for having become outdated, patronising and paternalistic as a consequence of their far-reaching bureaucratisation and politicisation. In several European countries public television broadcasters lost viewers to the newly arrived commercial rivals and their popular, youth-directed, trendy programming. The competition forced the public broadcasters to innovate and to strive for more autonomy, more dynamism, less politicisation, new programmes, and different formats. Thus the various national audio-visual industries were forcefully stimulated when private production companies were allowed to supply the public stations with programmes.

The success enjoyed by the new commercial players in the audio-visual market also affected the printed media. The new audio-visual competitors often appealed to the same advertisers for their funding, and newspapers and magazines were now obliged to reckon with their readers' changing expectations. In the nineties all newspapers underwent facelifts that incorporated more pictures, more colour, eye-catching titles, a fresh layout and a shift in content. They put more emphasis on human interest and on a more narrative style of writing. Newspapers grew 'fatter' and addressed the need for service journalism, including various special interest columns on subjects such as gastronomy, gardening, fitness and health, travel, etc.

It may be safely said that, in the initial stage, the liberalisation and commercialisation of the media market prompted healthy and constructive competition, which enhanced diversity.

By the end of the century, however, it became increasingly clear that the advertising market was not a sufficiently flexible and adequate funding source for the new media players and that the fight for advertising revenues was becoming extremely fierce. To defend their position the large media concerns entered into alliances with various types of media enterprises in order to extend their activities from printed and audio-visual media into the dotcom and the telecom/cable/satellite sectors. Conflict of interest leads to distorted power relations; cutthroat competition is harmful to diversity. In order to maximise profits, the media enterprises have been going to increasingly greater lengths in their quest for as many media consumers, and hence advertising revenues, as possible.

The title of this chapter refers to the media situation in the past five years, in which the tension between commercialism and non-commercialism has sharply increased. It is fairly obvious that between these two extremes, which the title symbolically reflects, there are many shades and different positions. Still, the triumphant rise of commerce and its dominant search for profits has proved to be inexorable.

The fact that during the latest RIPE conference in Copenhagen two colleagues happened to present papers with similar titles can hardly be accidental: A. Murray: Tension Headaches. The Experience of the culture/commerce tension: A study of the social context of scheduling, and J. Steemers: The BBC Balancing Culture and Commerce on the Global Stage. This is clear indication that a wider variety of media researchers have been occupied with the same controversial topic. Their papers refer to the challenges public broadcasting faces when trying to find a balanced position in the tension that exists between culture and commerce. They search for ways in which programme makers and schedulers can 'negotiate the culture/commerce tension by providing a range of programmes that fulfils the two objectives' (A. Murray, 2004).

The market model has been increasingly gaining importance and profit-making has become the central preoccupation of media companies and organisations. Culture has been turned into a commodity that is subject to the laws of the market. Quality is measured by success in the marketplace (Croteau & Hoynes, 2001, p. 34).

Today the 'public' and the 'market' models are blending into one another. Public broadcasters have been copying programming strategies from their commercial counterparts, and vice versa. A number of quality newspapers have not only adopted the tabloid format, but also tabloidised their lay-out and content with the sole purpose of increasing circulation figures.

This book does not present a 'good versus evil' narrative. It steers clear of the classic antithesis between highbrow or elitist, and lowbrow or populist culture, and above all, it avoids the patronising claim to 'know what is best for the people'. In its fullest sense, the term 'culture' in our title stands for diversity, openness, creativity and the non-priority of profit seeking.

Although quality as such may be encountered in all varieties of media, both in the public and in the private sector, it should be obvious that those media that appertain to the public service model (e.g. public broadcasters) or that profess to embrace quality (e.g. quality newspapers) will show a much stronger propensity to preserve culture against gross commercialism.

Commercialism and Hypercommercialism

Apart from describing some major changes in the media industry, this book also detects the causes of these changes and their impact on society as a whole. There is hardly any doubt that the most striking feature of these last years has been the advancing commercialisation, or marketisation, of the media sector.

The liberalisation and the concomitant privatisation of the media markets started in the early eighties as a joint result of political decisions, economic pressures and technological innovations. In most European countries public service monopolies were broken up and a profusion of new commercial TV stations was launched. Indeed, it was commercial television that primarily stimulated the commercialisation of the entire media market. As recently as 1986, McQuail still felt it was justified to write in the Euromedia Research group's policy book that the climate of opinion on commercial broadcasting in most European countries had 'until recently' been unfavourable. In the eighties, the advocates of commercialism in the media, who were at the time considered self-interested, populist and out-and-out liberals, were joined by cultural and economic pragmatists who were firmly convinced that the new media markets were creating new and interesting challenges (McQuail & Siune, 1986, p. 164).

These pragmatists were applauded, with the argument that the new commercial players were going to enhance healthy competition, as they were bound to develop innovative products, programmes and services in order to continue making profits. In the subsequent policy book (1992) the Euromedia Research Group came to the conclusion that the old media order in Western Europe had been swept away and that a new market-driven logic had become the driving force of changes in the European media. Commercialisation was the ineluctable product of the market logic. The academic world remained divided: the advocates of the market-driven model alleged that it would bring refreshing competition and more exciting challenges, while its critics maintained that it was engendering vulgarisation, homogenisation and the gradual breakdown of cultural values (Siune & Treutschler, 1992, pp. 3, 193).

The Euromedia Research Group's last policy book (1998) regarded the advancing commercialisation of the media and its increasingly intensive concentration and internationalisation, as irreversible facts: '... it seems that profit seeking and consumerism have been widely and largely de-demonized in Europe and have acquired respectability' (McQuail & Siune, 1998, p 112).

Denis McQuail envisaged a period of consolidation in which new commercial electronic media and alternative channels of distribution were established. Media groups merged into ever-larger entities, the Internet and the dotcom enterprises expanded steadily, the commercial logic continued to dominate. Public broadcasters also got involved in the process of commercialisation and restructured themselves into market-oriented corporations.

Yet, in spite of all these developments the European media landscape underwent no earth-shattering changes in the nineties. Was it 'the calm before or after the storm' Denis McQuail wondered (McQuail & Siune, 1998, p 18).

The dotcom crash was still to happen. And when it did, it remained to be seen whether it would bring about any fundamental changes for the large media companies. As it turned out, a lot of media companies emerged from the e-crash even stronger, and today they firmly and extensively colonise the content sites on the Internet.

The commercialisation of the media did initially have some innovating effects. The audiovisual sector sought new formats and produced in-house television programmes to meet the viewers' demands; newspapers and weeklies refurbished their lay-out and addressed the new trends in the reading culture; popular music explored new genres; experiments with new online media abounded.

Owing to ruinous competition and the overriding need to accommodate advertisers, the commercialisation of the media eventually produced trivial and standardised content. As McChesney has observed, 'commercial values, when they rule the roost, have proven to be deadly for artistic creativity' (McChesney, 1999, p. 35).

The media's strong tie-in with advertising has quickened its commercialisation. Success with the media consumer is now the primary requirement for the media, as advertisers need to reach the maximum number of consumers. Channel zapping and the fragmentation of the digital television market forced producers to collaborate with advertisers to capture the consumer by means of product placement, bartering, and various merchandising techniques that blur the distinction between content and advertising.

Commercialisation and concentration

Commercialisation has developed hand-in-hand with media concentration. The recent global mega-mergers of traditional media companies, telecom and cable operators and dotcom businesses have been prompted by the economic logic of mass market expansion and been made possible by novel digital communication technologies. These media conglomerates' ultimate goal is to maximise mass consumption and to open up as many new markets as possible. They enjoy the benefits of economics of scale by reducing the production and distribution costs and increasing sales volumes. The global commercial media system is dominated by a small number of, mainly American, transnational media corporations. Where national markets continue to exist, their importance has diminished. The media giants have in recent years been expanding their activities worldwide. For opportunistic reasons they have sometimes adapted to local conditions, but more often than not this 'glocalisation' is merely a veneer. It is confined to low-cost adaptations such as name changes of locations and persons, dubbing into the region's language, etc, while the formats and the narratives remain the same everywhere. Television shows such as Big Brother, Blind Date, or Star Academy, are based on transcultural principles that are applicable anywhere in the world. Big Brother has been shown in 21 countries in the form of local adaptations of the same basic formula: living together in a secluded Spartan environment, panoptic surveillance, obligatory tests and trials, elimination by voting, and above all, the exhibition of ordinary people. The growth of the media conglomerates is facilitated by the fact that media products may be given a longer life cycle by being recycled and transferred from one media form to another. A single film begets a TV series, DVDs, games, radio shows, CDs, books, and further spin-offs and merchandising (from toys and theme parks to clothing, foods, cosmetics, etc). Successful content can now be endlessly milked for revenue. G. Murdock & P. Golding (1996.) have examined this recycling of content from the political-economical approach.

Digital technology is eminently suitable for this multiplier effect. The Walt Disney Company and Time Warner are experts in developing, re-packaging and re-marketing a single concept or item in different media. The commercial synergy is further boosted by cross-promotion, i.e. promoting a single concept via various media.

On the other hand, digital technology also makes it possible to aim niche products at specific market segments. The media conglomerates will invest in the creation of these niche media markets when they can sell them to advertisers. The special supplements in dailies and weeklies are typical examples. They highlight the products and services (Food, Lifestyle, Home, Travel, etc) offered by particular advertisers.


Excerpted from Media Between Culture and Commerce by Els De Bens. Copyright © 2007 Intellect Ltd. Excerpted by permission of Intellect Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Els De Bens
Chapter 1: Media Between Culture and Commerce:
An Introduction
Jan van Cuilenburg
Chapter 2: Media diversity, competition and concentration:
Concepts and Theories
Minna Aslama, Els De Bens, Jan van Cuilenburg, Kaarle Nordenstreng,
Winfried Schulz & Richard van der Wurff with contributions from Ildiko Kovats,
Gianpietro Mazzoleni and Ralph Negrine. Edited by Jan van Cuilenburg & Richard van der Wurff
Chapter 3: Measuring and Assessing Empirical Media
Diversity: Some European Cases
Jan van Cuilenburg and Richard van der Wurff
Chapter 4: Toward Easy-to-Measure Media Diversity Indicators
Karol Jakubowicz
Chapter 5: Public Service Broadcasting: A Pawn on an Ideological Chessboard
Stylianos Papathanassopoulos
Chapter 6: Financing Public Service Broadcasters in the New Era
Minna Aslama and Trine Syvertsen
Chapter 7: Public Service Broadcasting and New Technologies:
Marginalisation or Re-Monopolisation
Karol Jakubowitcz
Chapter 8: Looking to the Future
Karol Jakubowicz
Chapter 9: Media Governance Structure in Europe
Cees J. Hamelink and Kaarle Nordenstreng
Chapter 10: Towards Democratic Media Governance

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