FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Synergizing America

by Walt Brasch

Saturday night in the middle of Winter in northeastern Pennsylvania.

About the only social life were myriad Bingo games and fat-laden church dinner socials. There was nothing exciting in the local theater that I hadn’t already seen, and TV was spewing re-runs. Time to tune in The Nashville Network.

But, on this cold Saturday night, even TNN was unfriendly. No Statler Brothers. No Grand Ole Opry. Not even a luke-warm “Dukes of Hazzard.” Just pro-fake wrestling. TNN had been Viacomized.

Media conglomerate Viacom had exorcised the soul of the once-independent TNN, renamed it The National Network, and had stripped its country roots. The Nashville Network had begun in March 1983 with Ralph Emery hosting “Nashville Now,” a variety-talk show that would anchor the new network. A decade later, “Music City Tonight,” with hosts Charlie Chase and Lorianne Crooks, replaced “Nashville Now” when Emery retired. In 1997, Westinghouse, which had bought out CBS in 1995, added TNN and sister cable network CMT to its acquisitions. Just a business deal. Nothing more.

But, two years later, Westinghouse/CBS decided it was good business to shift from country to “country lifestyle,” and cancelled several prime time series, including “Prime Time Country,” “This Week in Country Music,” and a re-named “Crooks & Chase.” Less than a year later, Viacom bought out Westinghouse/CBS for $50 billion, placed TNN under Viacom’s MTV division, dumped long-time employees, and shifted most of the administration from Nashville to New York City. “Country lifestyle” was now replaced by “general entertainment.” The intent was “to be as diverse as the nation itself and break out of a regionalism,” said Herb Scannell, president of Viacom cable networks Nickelodeon and TV Land who now notched TNN on his resume.

So long Waltons, the Real McCoys, and Boss Hogg. Bring on the apparently non-regional World Wrestling Federation’s forms of fake-blood-and-head-banger entertainment, and mix it with numerous “Star Trek” reruns and other Paramount films since Viacom–in addition to owning CBS, Nick, TV Land, MTV, and VH1– also owns Paramount Pictures. Viacom, which recorded about $20.1 billion in revenue in 2000, also owns cable networks Showtime and The Movie Channel. It also owns the UPN TV network, Spelling Entertainment (“Beverly Hills 90210” among other shows), Blockbuster, several theme parks including Kings Dominion and Kings Island, movie theater chains, radio and TV stations, and Simon & Schuster book publishers, the largest educational publisher in the country.

Among the other megamedia conglomerates are Disney ($25.4 billion media revenue in 2000), AOL Time Warner ($25 billion), German-owned Bertelsmann ($16.6 billion), Canadian-owned Seagram’s, itself owned by a French conglomerate ($14.8 billion), and Australian-owned News Corporation ($14.1 billion), British-owned Thomson, and Japanese-owned Sony. Through an intricate series of intertangling alliances, directors of one conglomerate can be found sitting on the boards of others, while the conglomerates themselves own parts of each other. In Viacom’s case, with Seagram’s it owns the Sci-Fi channel and USA Network; with AOL Time Warner it owns the Comedy Channel; and with Robert Redford it owns the Sundance Channel. The trend of corporations swallowing other corporations, and conglomerates merging with other conglomerates may mean that the universe may one day be ruled by a mouse.

The conglomerate-advocates claim that in largeness is more efficiency, cost-cutting, and the development and use of greater resources to improve the product. They’re right. But, also right are the opponents who see even more layers of management, layoffs and “downsizing” in the name of “streamlining,” and the gradual development of a conglomerate with innumerable divisions, each with its own identity and target audience, but all of which reflect the ownership’s values and mind-sets.

The six major conglomerate-owned film companies (American-owned Warner Brothers, MGM/UA, and Disney; and foreign-owned Universal, Columbia, and Fox) and five “mini-major” corporations bring in about 90 percent of all box office revenue, and essentially control distribution, even of independent films. Only four major recording companies–Sony, BMG (owned by Bertelsmann, which also owns RCA and Arista), Universal (owned by Seagram’s/Vivendi, which also own MCA), and Warner Brothers (AOL Time Warner, which also owns Atlanta and Electra)–control nearly 90 percent of the recorded music in the U.S. Chain ownership is now the prevalent model for daily newspapers, with 13 chains accounting for about 54 percent of all circulation; only about 300 of the nation’s 1,480 dailies are not parts of group ownership. Tied into all this is the lack of local competition. In 1923, 502 cities had competing dailies; today, only 14 cities have competing dailies. Half of all bookselling is now through Barnes & Noble or the Borders chains. A decade ago, independent booksellers accounted for about one-third of the market; now they sell about 15 percent.

Fifteen book publishers, owned by six megamedia conglomerates, account for more than 90 percent of all book publishing in America. Only 10 of those publishers placed about 95 percent of the year’s best-sellers. With corporate business models replacing literary adventure, what seems to matter most is the bottom line. Editors first ask, “Can it sell?” Booksellers ask, “What’s the promotion budget?” The emphasis is upon names rather than writers, which is why O.J. Simpson girlfriend Paula Barbieri received a $3 million advance from Little, Brown, part of the AOL Time Warner chain. It’s also the reason that Beavis and Butthead’s Ensucklopedia sold more than 400,000 copies in 1995, more than books by Peter Benchley, E. L. Doctorow, Joseph Heller, Jack Higgins, John Irving, James Michener, and Herman Wouk.

Book publishers now look for manuscripts that can be turned into film properties and sold to a sister company. Good writing is often rejected in favor of probable spin-offs. It’s not even necessary for films to show a profit in theaters. Film companies, buying books even before they’re published, can make their profits not in theaters, but by selling videos to chain video stores, and air rights to television and cable networks which the parent conglomerate owns. The American media have become so incestuous that few people even thought it unusual that Warner Books paid former General Electric chairman Jack Welch a $7.1 million advance for his rules-laced business-guide autobiography, then announced a $1 million marketing campaign that included two days of interviews on the “Today” show which is produced by NBC, part of the G.E. conglomerate. It’s all called “synergy.”

And it’s synergy that downsizes staffs while calling it “streamlining,” and has helped exclude worthy projects, while promoting a corporate climate that rejects the “regionalism” of The Nashville Network in favor of mass audiences that will raise the profits while dissolving America’s literary and cultural diversity into reams of bookkeeping records.

Walt Brasch is professor of mass communications at Bloomsburg University. His latest book is The Joy of Sax: America During the Bill Clinton Era.

Walter Brasch is an award-winning social issues journalist. His latest book is Fracking Pennsylvania, an analysis of the history, economics, and politics of fracking, as well as its environmental and health effects.

More articles by:
Weekend Edition
July 22, 2016
Friday - Sunday
Jeffrey St. Clair
Good as Goldman: Hillary and Wall Street
Joseph E. Lowndes
From Silent Majority to White-Hot Rage: Observations from Cleveland
Paul Street
Political Correctness: Handle with Care
Richard Moser
Actions Express Priorities: 40 Years of Failed Lesser Evil Voting
Eric Draitser
Hillary and Tim Kaine: a Match Made on Wall Street
Conn Hallinan
The Big Boom: Nukes And NATO
Ron Jacobs
Exacerbate the Split in the Ruling Class
Jill Stein
After US Airstrikes Kill 73 in Syria, It’s Time to End Military Assaults that Breed Terrorism
Jack Rasmus
Trump, Trade and Working Class Discontent
John Feffer
Could a Military Coup Happen Here?
Jeffrey St. Clair
Late Night, Wine-Soaked Thoughts on Trump’s Jeremiad
Andrew Levine
Vice Presidents: What Are They Good For?
Michael Lukas
Law, Order, and the Disciplining of Black Bodies at the Republican National Convention
David Swanson
Top 10 Reasons Why It’s Just Fine for U.S. to Blow Up Children
Victor Grossman
Horror News, This Time From Munich
Margaret Kimberley
Gavin Long’s Last Words
Mark Weisbrot
Confidence and the Degradation of Brazil
Brian Cloughley
Boris Johnson: Britain’s Lying Buffoon
Lawrence Reichard
A Global Crossroad
Kevin Schwartz
Beyond 28 Pages: Saudi Arabia and the West
Charles Pierson
The Courage of Kalyn Chapman James
Michael Brenner
Terrorism Redux
Bruce Lerro
Being Inconvenienced While Minding My Own Business: Liberals and the Social Contract Theory of Violence
Mark Dunbar
The Politics of Jeremy Corbyn
Binoy Kampmark
Laura Ingraham and Trumpism
Uri Avnery
The Great Rift
Nicholas Buccola
What’s the Matter with What Ted Said?
Aidan O'Brien
Thank Allah for Western Democracy, Despondency and Defeat
Joseph Natoli
The Politics of Crazy and Stupid
Sher Ali Khan
Empirocracy
Nauman Sadiq
A House Divided: Turkey’s Failed Coup Plot
Franklin Lamb
A Roadmap for Lebanon to Grant Civil Rights for Palestinian Refugees in Lebanon
Colin Todhunter
Power and the Bomb: Conducting International Relations with the Threat of Mass Murder
Michael Barker
UK Labour’s Rightwing Select Corporate Lobbyist to Oppose Jeremy Corbyn
Graham Peebles
Brexit, Trump and Lots of Anger
Anhvinh Doanvo
Civilian Deaths, Iraq, Syria, ISIS and Drones
Christopher Brauchli
Kansas and the Phantom Voters
Peter Lee
Gavin Long’s Manifesto and the Politics of “Terrorism”
Missy Comley Beattie
An Alarmingly Ignorant Fuck
Robert Koehler
Volatile America
Adam Vogal
Why Black Lives Matter To Me
Raouf Halaby
It Is Not Plagiarism, Y’all
Rev. Jeff Hood
Deliver Us From Babel
Frances Madeson
Juvenile Life Without Parole, Captured in ‘Natural Life’
Charles R. Larson
Review: Han Kang’s “The Vegetarian”
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail