CHALLENGING THE GLOBAL CULTURAL FACTORIES

By Herbert I. Schiller

Is America's cultural future in the hands of the likes of Time- Warner, Disney and General Electric? Certainly ~ these are the determining voices in the current media scene. Film studios, cable networks, TV producers, recording companies, and newspaper, magazine and book publishers have been merged and consolidated into a handful of gigantic media combines. In the calculus of these super cultural factories, audiences exist only to be sold to advertisers. It is no longer a secret, if it ever was, that the world's most powerful and sophisticated message- and image-making apparatus is almost totally-the emphasis is on totally-in the service of selling the goods, services and general perspectives of the dominant Fortune 500 companies. This understanding now extends throughout the country-though what to do about it is another matter. Leo Bogart, former executive vice-president of the Newspaper Advertising Bureau, an influential trade organization, recently published an essay suggestively titled "The American Media System and Its Commercial Culture.''(1) He writes that "...contemporary American culture assigns no value or meaning to communications apart from their market value, that is, the price that someone is willing to pay for them...[they are] produced for sale to meet marketing requirements." What this means is that the great majority of the country's creative workers are forced into a commercial straitjacket. What they film, televise, write or compose must be shaped, first and foremost, to the specifications of advertisers and corporate sponsors. The fulfillment of their own creative imaginations, or the public's need for substantive cultural satisfaction, hardly comes into it. The commercial imperative is the overriding consideration. What this leads to is described by Deborah Baldwin, writing in Common Cause Magazine(2). She details the unending and relentless transmission of the sales message across all media forms, TV in particular. The viewer/listener/reader is overwhelmed by a tidal wave of advertising, in the programming itself as well as in the familiar commercial. Baldwin finds that "the very idea of citizen has become synonymous with consumer. " Youth especially are the targets of the marketeers. One of the most pernicious developments here is the creation of Channel One, a commercial TV program organized by the Whittle Corporation. It is currently being pumped into over 8600 public classrooms. In this large-scale contribution to the deformation of children's education, Whittle (owned 50 percent by Time-Warner) transmits ten minutes of "news," and two minutes of commercials (for toys, clothes, ornamentation, candy, etc.) to the school kids. The schools, under contract to Whittle, must make viewing the program obligatory for the youngsters. Is this general cultural malaise beyond repair? Fortunately, not everyone is enthralled with what has been going on in America's informational entertainment diet. For years, resistance to the cultural media conglomerates has been developing at local levels. Alternative media activities and programs have never been abandoned, and in some cases, have actually grown. The tenth anniversary of Paper Tiger Television is evidence of the determination of some creative workers not to allow themselves to be subjugated to the commercial media juggernaut. Having begun in 1981 in New York City-the center of the American cultural empire- surrounded by the national TV networks, the publishing giants, and the globe-girdling advertising agencies, a tiny collective of video workers has survived, produced more than 200 TV programs, developed a satellite distribution network (Deep Dish TV) and spun off production groups in other parts of the country. True, the corporate cultural empire has not yet been seriously challenged or shaken. But the seeds of new communications that take the human being as the central subject of attention have been sown. Some already are sprouting. Hail Paper Tiger Television for contributing to hope and the promise of better days to come, and, most of all, for working steadfastly to make communications serve human ends. 



Herbert I. Schiller is Professor Emeritus at the Department of Communication, University of California at San Diego. His most recent book is CULTURE, INC.: THE CORPORATE TAKEOVER OF PUBLIC EXPRESSION.
(1) Occasional Paper, No. 8, March 1991, Gannett Foundation Media Center, New York City. (2) May/June 1991, Vol . 17, No . 3 .
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