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.

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