September 9, 1999

On Owning Reality

Rudyard Kipling's oft-quoted aphorism, "Words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind," is truest when by "words" we understand the full repertoire of signs, symbols, gestures, visual and auditory representations that make for human communication and collective feeling and comprehension. Words in this largest sense, more powerfully than any of the opiates with which Kipling was familiar, bound and shape lived reality not by absolutely deafening us to what they do not speak but by progressively rendering us passive and indifferent to any experience, thought, feeling, or action that lies beyond the limited reality they can conjure for us or we can conjure with them.

If you doubt the power of words to shape the most basic of human realities; if you believe you choose and use words rather than they you--and you have a ruthless streak--try asking a young child who's just old enough to grasp the meaning of the question, "What did you think before you could speak?" If understood, you will witness a silent confrontation with a loss of self, a primal terror of nothingness within and without, of language out of control, and a series of facial expressions that belong to no child, that have no age at all. And probably you will never be completely trusted again.

This power of words, in the largest sense, to bound and shape our most basic human realities is the reason we should be frightened by the wave upon wave of global corporate media mergers of the last two decades. Today's announcement (September 8, 1999) of Viacom's proposed buy out of CBS for $37.3 billion is only the most recent "biggest media merger ever" and marks the fall of the last independent American broadcasting network. NBC was bought by General Electric in 1985, and ABC by Disney in 1995. How long the Viacom/CBS deal will remain the record merger is very uncertain, because, as reported in the New York Times, the deal is likely "Act I in an Opus of Hollywood Deals":

"It will bring about a new wave of consolidations, make these companies even bigger," said David Geffen, a partner at the film and music company Dreamworks SKG. "It's a very powerful merger. They always come in waves. Everyone becomes competitive."

Similarly, Howard Stringer, chairman and chief executive of Sony Corporation of America, said in a telephone interview from New York, "After a deal like this, the urge to merge becomes feverish. And right now temperatures are soaring all over the city."

The only foreseeable limit on this prospective wave of mega-media mergers is not the FCC but that, for the first time in history, there's almost no one of any size left to buy. "There's a scarcity issue now," according to Jeff Logsdon, an entertainment analyst at Seidler Cos., quoted in the same NY Times article. Viacom and CBS will be asking the FCC to lift to 41% its 35% cap upon how much of the U.S. population any single broadcast network is allowed to reach. It appears likely the request will be granted. With the entire country so completely parceled out to so few broadcast/cable empires there seems little point in quibbling over 6% more or less for one of them.

The public danger here is not simply the traditional monopoly-bugaboo of corporations obtaining immunity from failure through total market domination, although this is a major motivation behind these mergers according to an executive guaranteed anonymity by the NY Times ("Act I in an Opus of Hollywood Deals") for speaking about these violations of at least the spirit of anti-trust law:

They've now created a company so big that the relative performance of next week's new movie and next week's television show is diminished. You've insulated the stock from weak performance.... You now have a bunch of businesses with more predictable earnings flow. This takes the volatility out of what you're doing.

Neither is the public danger simply the traditional political paranoid's fear of government (and corporate) propaganda, unchecked by significant independent news sources. There's already so much of that kind of lying on a grand political scale that we should be well past worrying about more.

For example, in the same issue of the New York Times (September 8,1999), a backgrounder piece on the most recent round of terror in East Timor, entitled "Who is Behind the Carnage in East Timor and Why?" avoids all mention of well-documented U.S. complicity in Indonesia's original invasion and in the subsequent 24 years of periodic massacre and systematic starvation and impoverishment of the indigenous population. There's no mention of increased U.S. arms sales to Indonesia at the height of its genocidal campaigns, nor of U.S. blockage of U.N. Security Council resolutions condemning Indonesia's actions, nor of sweet World Bank and I.M.F. deals. Nor does the NY Times article find it worthwhile recalling to public attention the scandal of the last Presidential election when it was discovered that laundered Indonesian contributions had found their way into both Clinton's and the GOP's coffers. Although the very same issue of the NY Times (September 8, 1999) carries coverage of alleged Chinese contributions to Clinton's last election campaign. Instead, we are told there is little that can be done and reassured that "though the carnage in East Timor arouses moral outrage, the territory is a tiny one with little international importance," which statement is true only if one forgets all the preceding and that within the last two years Indonesia finally managed to overcome international "moral outrage" and sell off the rights to develop East Timor's off-shore oil reserves.

No, the larger public danger arises not from the media's increased ability to sustain a lie but from the other principle motivation for the current media mergers: cross-marketing and cross-promotion. As the New York Times reports in its lead article, "Viacom Set to Acquire CBS in Biggest Media Merger Ever," the size and diversity of Viacom/CBS as a seller of advertising is more economically significant than its size as a media producer:

And perhaps even more significant than Viacom's ascension to second-largest media company -- with a stock market value of about $72 billion, compared with Time Warner's $80.5 billion -- Viacom could very likely emerge as the world's largest seller of advertising.

Besides the television and radio properties, Viacom's acquisition includes CBS's pending deal to acquire the billboard giant Outdoor Systems Inc. Analysts estimate that a combined Viacom-CBS would generate $11 billion a year in advertising revenue -- nearly twice that of the current leader, Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation, which sells $5.8 billion in annual advertising.

The new size and diversity of its combined media holdings will allow Viacom/CBS to attempt cradle-to-the-grave saturation marketing and promotion across a very wide range of socio-economic and special interest audiences, constructing worlds of self-referentially in which, no matter which way the "target" turns, looks, or listens, he or she is either sold a product or lured to other Viacom/CBS media in which that product or another is also sold.

Of course, this kind of marketing has been attempted before. We see it's most advanced development thus far in film and TV product placement and in the suborning of local and national newscast "human interest stories" and even hard news coverage to lend air-time to "blockbuster" film releases and "the new fall lineup." Certainly, the least we can expect of a Viacom/CBS is that the latest MTV pseudo-controversy over video and cartoon content will become more newsworthy than ever before in the eyes of CBS Nightly News producers, editors, and reporters.

But, in a larger view, it is impossible to anticipate fully the strategies and tactics likely to emerge in the next few years. We've seen only the beginning. Cross-marketing and cross-promotion, and especially the potential of the two combined, constitute a relatively new field only effectively opened by mergers on the unprecedented scale of Viacom/CBS or previous record holder Disney's 1995 acquisition of ABC. No doubt a great many "gifted individuals" are already being extravagantly over-compensated to discover what works best in this brave new world. Take a good look at ABC programming and self-promotions these days: even its colors are turning Disney. We can only look forward to what the MTV geniuses will do for the NBC peacock.

If you're thinking, "So what? There's nothing new here," you should at least reflect on the fact that those who are engineering these mega-media mergers do not in the least share your opinion. They can recall the past accurately enough, as can the New York Times Business pages when that past suits its largely corporate-business readership. In "CBS and Viacom Hope for No Other Bidders" (September 8, 1999), the NY Times recalls,

The history of Viacom began in 1971, when it was spun off from, of all places, CBS. In those quaint days, it bothered people when companies owned too many media properties, and CBS, owner of one of the three major television networks, was forced by the Federal Communications Commission to unload its cable TV and syndication operations.

"Those quaint days" of restraint upon corporate media power in the residual public interest are gone. If as a result there's now a scarcity of merger and acquisition candidates in Hollywood, we can expect relatively unregulated Silicon Valley to be the next great hunting ground. The search engines are ready prey. And, likely because Sony as a "foreign-owned" corporation is still quaintly barred from participating in any merger frenzy involving U.S. traditional broadcast media, Microsoft and Sony are certainly showing the way with their recent cross-promotion deal over Microsoft's Windows Media and Sony's extensive collection of film, video and music copyrights. After all, "technological convergence" is not consumer ease-of-use from a global marketing perspective. Fundamentally, it is the newly dawning realization that advertising real-estate is advertising real-estate, regardless whether it be in the theater, on TV, in books and magazines, plastered on billboards, popping up on the desktop, or coming soon to a refrigerator near you. And if you think all this makes no difference, there's a massive industry raking in a global fortune off the fact that you are quaintly and quite plainly wrong.

The 21st century we are about to enter promises be one in which children grow up to adulthood and pass to old age thoroughly protected from such sadistic questions as "What did you think before you could speak?"--the ancient human formula, by the way, for creating a shaman, a priest, a philosopher-king, a Dalai Lama. Because, before they can either think or speak, their fundamental reality of words, signs, symbols, sights, and sounds will have been brilliantly strategized and orchestrated into an all-encompassing globe of trustworthiness by a mere handful of global corporate entities.

And it will be a smiling, benevolent world in which there appears little need to attach much significance to anything other than thinking and speaking, "I really, really need that, right now. I do, I do, I do need that! Please, tell me what I have to do--anything--to get it.

Posted by Raoul

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