Symposium 01

The Global Erosion of the Public Sphere

Public space in the media, and in communications more broadly, is undergoing steady privatization on a global scale, with a concurrent shrinkage in noncommercial operations and in the provision of messages and programming other than entertainment. This results from the fact that the powerful economic forces which are in virtually uncontested command of economic and political life in the New World Order are systematically replacing nonmarket institutions and values with profit-seeking businesses and market values. In this regime of a triumphant capitalism, more intense competition, and a dominant neoliberal ideology, noncommercial media space is being taken over by those who will put it to the "best economic use."

Advertiser hegemony versus the public sphere

The "best economic use" of media space in a market system is to service advertising, and the relationship between media and advertisers has been long-standing and close. As capitalism has consolidated its position in the West and in the Third World, and spread into China and the former Soviet bloc, advertising has grown rapidly and extended globally. Global advertising increased tenfold between 1973 and 1995 (from $33 to $335 billion), growing rapidly in the United States, but even more so elsewhere – recently, at its fastest pace in Asia, Latin America and Eastern Europe.

Public broadcasting systems, and other noncommercial media, without advertiser support, depend on money provided by subscribers/listeners, donors, or the government. In a world of government budget deficits, and financial pressures on ordinary citizens, noncommercial media are under chronic financial stress, and tend to be noncompetitive with sources able to tap the immense resources of business advertisers. And governments, under budgetary pressure, and increasingly receptive to neoliberal arguments, are more and more inclined to allow public media to be transformed into market-funded entities. The commercial media are eager to occupy that space, and conservatives want them to have it because of the structured political bias and other effects of commercialization on the "public sphere."

By "public sphere" I refer to the places and forums in which issues important to citizenship in a democratic community are discussed and debated. In the media, this would refer to in-depth news and analyses of the news, debates and documentaries on public issues, and biographies, histories and talks that provide insight into matters important to citizen understanding. Advertisers, and hence commercial media managers, tend to avoid the public sphere because audiences there are smaller than for entertainment programs and its serious and controversial subject matter is not compatible with sales messages. This point was stressed half a century ago by the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in its report entitled The Public Service Responsibilities of Broadcast Licensees, where the Commission acknowledged that advertising and public service programming are incompatible. It contended, however, that these "irreplaceable" public service programs, and overall program balance, would be maintained by broadcasters' "sustaining programs," funded by the broadcasters themselves. The FCC indicated that the maintenance of such balance would be assured by the Commission's licensing policies, which would give substantial weight to this consideration. The FCC's claim that advertising based programming and public service are incompatible implies that the market "fails" in serving the "public sphere," and that the FCC has to correct this failure by moral suasion and regulation.

The U.S. Experience

This incompatibility, and the disastrous effects of commercialization on the public sphere, are well illustrated by the 70 year experience of broadcasting in the United States. When broadcasting began in the United States in the 1920s, its proponents placed almost exclusive stress on its public service potential as an educational tool and means of political, religious, and cultural enlightenment. Advertising was seen as a threat, or at best a necessary evil, to be kept under rigorous control.

But by a quiet coup, carried out between 1927 and 1933, the commercial stations and networks, with the help of the regulatory authorities, displaced the many early educational and religious stations and took control of broadcasting. This control, and the full-blown commercial regime that ensued, was ratified in the Communications Act of 1934. In 1934 the broadcasters did pledge to provide ample public service programming, and as noted the FCC in 1946 promised that broadcasters would meet public service responsibilities through "sustaining programs," as a condition of license renewal.

But as advertising flooded in to the commercial stations and networks, "sustaining programs" became more expensive, as they entailed not just production expenses but foregone advertising income. And as the FCC had suggested in 1946, advertisers preferred light entertainment to public service programs, which shrank steadily in importance even as broadcaster profits soared. By 1970, public affairs programming had fallen to 2% of programming time, and the entire spectrum of public service offerings was far below that provided by public broadcasting systems in Canada, Great Britain, and elsewhere in the West. Profits of station owners, ranged from 30–50% of revenues, and were much higher on invested capital. But this did not reduce pressure for still higher profits, as the workings of the market cause profits to be capitalized into higher stock values, which become the basis for calculating rates of return for both old and new owners.

Under advertiser pressure, and the force of competition, not only did entertainment displace public sphere programs, even entertainment programs tended to lighten up, avoiding undue seriousness, depth of thought, and backgrounds devoid of lavish and upscale decor. The shrinking numbers of documentaries tended to deal with non-political and non-controversial matters like dogs, restaurants, travel, personalities, and the lives of the rich. Politics was marginalized and trivialized, with news itself transformed into a form of entertainment ("infotainment"). The hegemony of advertising and entertainment values in the mature U.S. system was captured at the time of Disney's 1996 acquisition of the giant network and media conglomerate ABC-TV, when Disney head Michael Eisner described his as a "family entertainment communication company" in the business of providing "non-political entertainment and sports."

A notable trend in U.S. commercial broadcasting has been the attrition and corruption of children's programming. As profits soared in the 1960s, children's programs were removed from weekday slots and shifted to weekend mornings, and were confined increasingly to cartoons funded by advertisers of snacks and toys. The situation was so bad that an organization, Action for Children's Television (ACT), was organized in 1968, and sought remedies from stations, the FCC and politicians for many years. Despite these efforts the situation reached a new low in the 1980s with the Reagan administration's further deregulation of TV, which sanctioned what are called "program length commercials" prepared by toy manufacturers and of course centering in the toys to be sold. The toy manufacturers virtually took over children's programming during the 1980s. The service to children improved somewhat with the rise of cable and the 1993 change in political administration, but not a great deal, and the downward trend of quality and central role of advertising in shaping children's programs remains clear.

Public broadcasting was introduced with public funding in 1967, in large measure because the commercial broadcasters wanted to rid themselves of any public service responsibilities and were pleased to allow its shift to stations and networks paid for by the taxpayer. An interesting feature of public broadcasting has been its greater degree of political independence and courage in allowing dissent, despite its heavy reliance on government support. During the Vietnam War, for example, despite the growing opposition to the war at home and throughout much of the world in 1965 through 1967, network television toed the official line and avoided as much as it could airing the pains of the war and dissenting opinion. a great deal of its sponsored entertainment was jingoistic." The U.S. networks not only made none of the seriously critical documentaries on the War, during the early War years they barred access to outside documentaries. As the leading historian of US TV, Erik Barnouw, has pointed out, "This policy constituted de facto national censorship, thought privately operated."

But while the mass protest against the Vietnam War rarely found outlets on commercial TV, it did find occasional expression in public broadcasting. Apparently, the constraints built-in to the commercial operations by ownership and advertiser interest makes them less bold and more subservient to establishment political desires than an institution literally on the government payroll but granted some degree of autonomy. Because of this independence, conservatives dislike public broadcasting (as well as community broadcasting), and regularly urge that it be defunded and pushed into the commercial nexus.

Globalization of the U.S. model

The U.S. model is being extended globally, partly because of U.S. power, leadership, and plan, but more basically because it represents the advanced, if not full, product of the extension of market principles and processes to the media and communication industries. The plan element encompasses the attempt by the U.S. government, and sometimes its allies, to encourage private enterprise, open economies, and market-based media systems throughout the world, to pry open markets, and to destabilize and overthrow non-market-friendly governments.

U.S. goals and strategies were implemented by means of U.S. economic and military aid, military and police training programs, economic and political pressure, support given to indigenous forces serving U.S. aims, and sometimes more direct interventions, as in Guatemala in 1954, Nicaragua in the 1980s and Cuba still in process today. There is a clear official record of intentionality in the pursuit of these goals, which cannot be dismissed as a product of "conspiracy theory."

With the long dominant position of the United States in the motion picture business, and its great competitive strength in all segments of the communications industries, U.S. politicians have been pushing for the opening up and privatization of the communications sector for decades. The great weight of the United States in the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank has been reflected in those institutions' policies serving the same ends.

The mainly U.S.-based global firms that now cross many borders, providing films, TV shows, and "news" to media firms everywhere, are all intensely commercial, seeking to attract audiences and advertisers by offering attractive entertainment. They tend increasingly to be organized around film studios, and their movies feed into other parts of their conglomerate operations, generating "synergistic" revenues from videos, sound tracks, books, toys and theme park rides. For these entertainment companies, news is a very small segment of their operations, and tends to be a necessary but superficial adjunct to doing media business. Other features of the public sphere have been virtually eliminated.

But they attract large audiences with their sophistication and special effects, and their economies of scale from dealing with both a large U.S. and global market allow them to replace more expensive local productions and set a cultural standard, as the U.S.-advertiser sponsored soap opera did many years ago. And with the accompanying global advertising and subtle value intrusions, they help in the global advance of consumerism and neoliberal ideology.

But the dynamics of the market has its own internal momentum, operative within the United States itself (and still working there today) and extending globally at an accelerating pace by the force of cross-border media investment and competition. Within each country the corporate system and corporate media, underwritten by advertisers, have gathered strength, with enhanced ideological and political power. Aided by the increasing force of capital's greater mobility and global financial integration, they have successfully downgraded the idea of public goods and a public service responsibility of government, and with the help of financial pressure on governments have constrained the growth of (or shrunk) public service and welfare budgets. Part of the new "economic realism" has been privatization, which raises money and placates powerful economic interests. And with the commercial media eager to capture public space and put it to better economic use, public broadcasting has been in retreat globally.

Concluding note

The public sphere is shrinking globally under the impact of a triumphant market system, which is putting more and more public space to profitable use, as defined by the advertising community. The main drift of the global market system and media therefore poses the serious threat that we are allowing democracy to be subverted and, in Neil Postman's words, "entertaining ourselves to death."