New Technology: Media Meltdown

By Granville Williams

Large claims are made by the propagandists for the multimedia, multichannel future, but we should be cautious and questioning says Granville Williams about the real substance behind the vision and the arguments that we are being asked to sign up to.

A comment by Geoffrey Martin, Head of the European Information Unit in England, struck a chord with me. As the BSE crisis raged, and sections of the press stoked the anti-European Union fires, he protested that it was impossible to get the counter arguments about the European Union position, and the reasons for it, into the press. I know the feeling. It’s been just as difficult to get a word in edgeways to counter another enthusiasm which all the media companies have.

Since the autumn of 1993 we’ve seen the business and media press sing from the same song-sheet as a stream of articles, conferences and news reports have argued a beguiling and simple case. The old world of spectrum scarcity on terrestrial TV is dead, as digital satellite and terrestrial TV and cable transform it into a two-way medium offering a superfluity of information and entertainment: movies-on-demand, video games, data bases, educational programmes, home shopping, telephone services, telebanking, teleconferencing and the complex simulations of ‘virtual reality’.

Hamish McRae’s breathless vision (The Independent, 10 May 1996) predicts not just several hundred, but a couple of thousand channels. ‘Think of the magazine rack at W.H. Smith: strings of specialist titles covering everything from scuba diving to soft porn. Though the bulk of the sales are still dominated by a few dozen long-established titles, it is relatively cheap to launch a magazine. Any company with £250,000 or so can have a crack at starting a nationally distributed monthly. That means an entrant can suddenly hit upon something new that attracts the consumers… Consumer signals – what we want – feed through to what the producers deliver.’

The W.H. Smith analogy is unfortunate, because its key role as a distributor of published material determines what does and doesn’t get onto the shelves for people to purchase. Indeed, early in 1996 W.H. Smith, against a background of an interim profits slump, announced it was to pull some 350-400 low-circulation and low-revenue magazines from its shelves, and in doing so put a range of religious, political and specialist hobby magazines under threat. What is absent from the alluring visions of the multimedia age is the key role of the distributor, or gatekeeper, determining what does or does not get onto the channels. This depends crucially on ownership, and the rapidly growing media corporations would have us believe that every kind of channel brought into existence will be welcomed, including programmes from all over the world. The reality is different.

Cable TV in the US was presented to the public as a breakthrough in communications technology that would break the monopoly of the big three TV networks and provide dozens of new channels representing diverse interests and viewpoints. An excellent issue of the US media magazine Extra! (Nov/Dec 1995) points out, ‘We’ve got the dozens of channels, all right – but most of them are owned by an interlocking set of a half-dozen or so giant corporations.’ The major cable system operators and programmers are in fact business partners with their supposed competitors, and it’s almost impossible to get a new channel carried on major cable systems without offering those systems a piece of the action.

A perceptive US commentator, Les Brown, points out that there is only one black-oriented channel in American cable, though blacks represent round 12% of the population and as a group are among the heaviest users of TV. There have been attempts to put together channels that reflect the African-American culture for a general audience, but he asserts, ‘There’s a strong suspicion those channels don’t materialise because Tele-Communications Inc. (TCI), the largest and most powerful cable system operator, has a major stake in Black Entertainment television through its companion company, Liberty media. Why should TCI want to put on a competitor to its own channel?’

Rupert Murdoch’s Australian cable-TV service, Foxtel, refused to carry a news channel developed by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and the rival John Fairfax newspaper group. His reason was brutally frank: ‘Why should we help our competitors? The ABC won’t be any bloody good, and why give Fairfax money? They are spending money trying to destroy us, so why subsidise them?’ Andrew Neil, a former loyal Murdoch lieutenant, punctuated the exaggerated claims of BSkyB’s head of programming, David Elstein, that they carried other channels on the system. In a session at the 1995 Edinburgh Television Festival he responded to Elstein’s claims by quoting Rupert Murdoch’s own remark – ‘We’ll let other channels on BSkyB, but on our terms.’

Granada may well have an uncomfortable reminder of this harsh commercial imperative in their joint venture with BSkyB, GSB. The seven channels, costing Granada £10m to launch, will include Granada Plus (repeats of Coronation Street and other archive series), TalkTV, Men and Motors, and four channels under the Granada Good Life umbrella (TV High Street, Food and Wine, Health and Beauty, and Home and Garden). Under current legislation Granada must keep its stake at 20%, with BSkyB holding 80%. After the Broadcasting Bill becomes law this summer GSB wants its stake to go up to 60%, but BSkyB is lobbying for a bigger shareholding.

The tyranny of the gatekeepers is the first important qualifier to the alluring vision of the digital age summoned up, typically, by David Elstein in a recent Guardian piece (13 May 1996): ‘…programmes will be accessible more flexibly and immediately, a huge array of transactional services will present themselves, and programming uniquely suited to digital broadcasting will be designed by a new creative generation.’

The second is the growing commercialisation of areas of society previously relatively free from such pressures. Take education, for example, where funding pressures lead to staff cuts and, according to the National Consumer Council, businesses are targeting pupils with educational packs which are biased, plastered with company logos and encourage children to eat unhealthily. For example, a Cadbury’s World of Chocolate resource pack for 11-12-year-olds says, ‘Chocolate is fun to eat at any time of the day and gives you energy and important nutrients.’ This process echoes the situation in the US, where pupils are bombarded with advertisements throughout the day, sometimes on compulsory TV programmes like Channel One, which poorer schools take because of the inducement of the free TVs and satellite dishes offered.

In the UK all of this is linked into the high-tech vision for Britain’s schools which the two main political parties are vying with each other over. Last autumn Labour leader Tony Blair announced BT would link schools to the Net for free, but BT is also linked into a global deal with US telecoms giant MCI to provide its own Net service, and an apparently philanthropic gesture towards the schools also makes sound commercial sense. BT will be able to profit from the consumers of the future. Rupert Murdoch, in turn, after a lunch with Michael Heseltine, secured an amendment to the Broadcasting Bill which removes restrictions on BSkyB owning more than 20% of a domestic satellite service, and which enable him to launch a new digital satellite capable of providing a range of programming in the UK. In exchange, Rupert Murdoch offered to provide free satellite dishes for every school in Britain, which would also provide an easy access route to promote his programmes and products.

The classroom is being opened up to a free-for-all of business interests, whereas it should be a public space where students can acquire information and skills independent of such corporate pressures and sponsorship. The other dramatic example of growing commercialisation is the BBC, where the public service broadcaster is being restructured and placed under increasing commercial pressures to compensate for declining licence fee revenue.

The third qualifier about multimedia prophecies is to do with the actual programmes, and the range and quality on offer, on the new channels. The first and obvious point is that they will be paid for, either by subscription or pay-per-view, and therefore operate purely on market principles. It will mean re-shaping the types of programmes on offer, and going for what the industry inelegantly calls ‘killer applications’ – movies on demand, sports, games, music, home shopping, ‘adult movies’ and so on. In addition, many of the channels are automated to unspool, mindlessly, 24 hours of programming. Les Brown argues, ‘These channels are hollow at the core and lack a nervous system that would allow them to respond to events. They don’t interrupt themselves for bulletins.’

There is a more general point too. The dominance of corporate values, and the avoidance of clashes of corporate interests, will strengthen the insidious process of commercial censorship. When Walt Disney took over the US TV network, ABC, a $12 billion lawsuit outstanding against an ABC investigative programme by the tobacco and food giant Phillip Morris was hurriedly settled, even though the journalists involved with the programme refused to be part of the climb-down because they believed the programme was indisputably accurate.

Media magnates Rupert Murdoch and TCI’s John Malone are discussing a partnership to launch a new 24-hour news channel to reach millions of US homes by cable, and Murdoch is clear that his news channel will be a counterweight to the ‘liberal bias’ in news programmes. The worry is that as the media meltdown follows the passing of the US Telecommunications Act in February 1996, and the UK Broadcasting Bill this summer, huge chunks of the media are going to be in the hands of companies that espouse the values of corporatism. As the ‘Tom Tomorrow’ cartoon amusingly highlights, information which helps to shape our thinking and responses to issues is going to be filtered through precisely these channels.

On the day this piece was written Walt Disney launched, with a $40 million dollar advertising splurge, the cartoon version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. In a travesty of the original French novel by Victor Hugo, Quasimodo becomes Quasi without a hunchback, and the more unpleasant features of religious fanaticism disappear. The product, safely homogenised and sanitised for the international market, is symbolic of the new era of global conglomerates. A sociologist titled his book The McDonaldisation of Society, and it conjures up the right image to summarise our multimedia future – predictable packages, heavily promoted and cross-promoted through other media outlets and associated products, lacking risk or imagination, and leaving you with a hungry feeling after you have consumed them.

Granville Williams edits Free Press, journal of the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom. A new edition of his book, Britain’s Media: How They Are Related (£7.50 inc. P&P) is available from CPBF, 8 Cynthia Street, London N1 9JF.