“So just as we do not believe that a body is really sawed in half, we should not trust the instinctive illusion of media diversity….”
Silvio Waisbord*/United States, November 2014
One of the questions that must be addressed by those who are interested in freedom of expression and pluralism in the media is why concentration continues to be an important issue in today’s seemingly disperse and chaotic media ecology.
We tend to hear that we are experiencing greater diversification of content, which is illustrated by the expansive grid of cable and satellite TV listings, dozens of radio stations, street kiosks laden with newspapers and magazines, and the infinite digital universe. It is suggested that anyone with access to the Internet and relatively low-cost technology can produce content, something that was unthinkable until quite recently. Haven’t the costs of entry into the vast market of production and distribution of content on digital platforms decreased? Aren’t blogs and “social media” vehicles for disseminating an infinite amount of content that place the individual, and not companies, in charge of their preferences? Aren’t we in the best of all possible worlds?
As in magic, appearances deceive. Just as we do not believe that the body is really sawed in half, we should not trust the instinctive illusion of media diversity. It is a trompe l’oeil that ignores the persistence of restrictions and inequalities that limit possible contents that would express the heterogeneity of contemporary societies.
The current situation of the U.S. media industry reveals inequity under the illusion of media diversity. This situation negatively affects expressions and contents that are necessary for democratic pluralism and are not tied to the commercial logic that expects massive returns.
Today, the U.S. media industry is more concentrated than ever before. While in the early 1980s, 50 companies controlled 90% of the media offerings, this percentage currently is dominated by six mega-corporations: CBS, Comcast, Disney, General Electric, News Corporation and Viacom. Pay TV shows high levels of concentration as well. Four companies –Comcast, Time Warner, Cox and Charter- dominate the national cable market. Two companies –DirectTV and DISH Network- control the majority of the satellite TV service. If approved, the AT&T proposal of acquiring DirectTV would lead to even greater concentration, as it would reduce the competition to three companies that control one quarter of the market.
Why would it be inaccurate to describe the present order as pluralist given the explosion of access to digital contents? Each sector presents a unique situation.
Let’s consider the case of the quantity and quality of information. The lower levels of competition in concentrated markets mean that there are fewer incentives for companies to improve the quality of information. The economy of scale of large conglomerates prioritizes production of homogeneous contents and downgrades local information or content for specific audiences which does not have similar earning production capacity due to costs and their limited income potential. The future of journalism in the United States, particularly at the local level or in medium-sized cities in which there are near-monopolic news organizations, is of concern, as one can foresee the concentration of control into the hands of a single company that dominates both traditional newspapers and TV.
As consolidation advances, there is no economic motivation to produce quality information, critiques of power or content that requires significant investments. The economic crisis of the newspaper industry since 2006 led to the closure of dozens of publications and a notable reduction in personnel and resources, undermining the production of local and regional information. This is a classic case of market failures when the companies are not interested in providing contents that do not meet the expectations of high earnings.
Another problem is that concentration closes the doors on media coverage of the perspectives and interests of ethnic minorities and local populations. “Minority” groups control less than 5% of the TV stations and 7% of the radio companies at the national level. The obsession with economies of scale leaves aside the provision of contents that produce significantly lower earnings.
The increasingly limited universe of providers offers fewer incentives for pushing cost reduction and ensuring the quality of the services. In addition, concentration strengthens the power of cable and satellite companies to make decisions regarding access to TV content. Various recent conflicts between corporations that control access channels and those that produce content illustrate the presence of business censorship based on purely commercial calculations.
If pluralism requires a healthy and diverse financing market, the order of the digital world is less democratic than in the past. Dominant corporations –particularly those that work online like Google and Facebook- capture a substantial percentage of Internet publicity. This reduces the size of the publicity market for small businesses (and for large content producing companies). It is rightly said that the digital industry is more concentrated than the markets of the midway point of the last century if we take indicators such as investments in marketing as consumer preferences.
These examples suggest that recent technological innovations have not reduced the power of media and telecommunications giants. They control the contents and access routes to massive audiences. The lack of regulatory changes in favor of pluralism and the approval of business consolidation such as the case of Comcast and NBC by the FCC continue to strengthen the position of a few companies. In fact, the FCC has expressed less concern over the regulation of the ownership of traditional media under the argument that the massive use of digital platforms makes restrictions unnecessary and that the “free market” will take care of satisfying public demand. This position contributed to the decrease in the diversity of ownership and profound disinterest in policies that favor content diversity.
The issue of concentration also places Net Neutrality at the center of the debate. The FCC’s proposal grants a handful of Internet service providers the ability to offer “fast lanes” to companies that can handle the costs, crystallizing hierarchies of use and access. This proposal has been criticized by organizations that are alarmed by the consequences that it would have for freedom of expression, participation and innovation.
These cases suggest that the appearance of increased diversity should not be confused with reality. There are profound inequalities in access to the production of content and the distribution of information and entertainment. Concentration brings negative consequences for the quality, diversity and cost of information. It is therefore necessary to continue to show the illusion of superficially attractive arguments that leave aside the realities of the industry. There is no level playing field in which citizens and companies have the same amount of power. The paradox of homogeneity in apparent diversity should be explained in order to correct false impressions of today’s chaotic world of media and news.
*Professor in the School of Media and Public Affairs and Editor of the Journal of Communication at George Washington University