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It would appear as though the increase in conglomerates within the media industry is a natural result of market pressures. Some would argue that the economic benefits which accrue from such patterns are beneficial to stakeholders.
However, a sociological analysis of the same phenomenon reveals the dominance of conglomerates places too much power in the hands of a few individuals. It causes them to prioritize their economic welfare at the top over other factors. Consumers must then bear the brunt of diminished pluralism as well as a decline in democracy.
Whether it is inevitable and its effects
A certain level of aggregation is necessary to provide media companies with economies of scale. Doyle (2002b) uses the example of the UK film industry to explain this point. Most film production firms in the country are small and fragmented. As a result, the amount of money they can put into a film venture is relatively low.
The author compares £6 million, which is invested in most large UK films, to $50 million, which goes into most Hollywood films. It is the dominance of conglomerates in the US film industry that furnishes them with resources needed to make big budget films. These large sizes allow for risk spreading as rewards from successful Hollywood films make up for average or unsuccessful ones. The small UK filmmakers simply do not have these resources.
Additionally, film production in the country is fragmented. Therefore, a producer will have relatively minimal control over distribution, marketing, or promotion. US firms do not suffer from this problem because a large number of them are vertically integrated. They can make a film and control its distribution, thereby increasing its potential for market returns.
Cross promotion is also possible when the media firms utilize other platforms to advertise an incoming film. Film makers in the UK must bear the risk of making their productions alone. They cannot market their products aggressively, control distribution, or invest in high-quality products. As a consequence, most of them yield poor returns.
The above analysis indicates that the economic case for conglomeration is strong. However, when too much concentration occurs, then other noneconomic reasons come into play. Public interests often contradict excessive application of power in the hands of a few hands. When the welfare of an elite group of corporate media owners takes precedence over public interest, then media conglomeration can become an enemy of democracy (Doyle 2002a).
A concentrated media industry would have the capacity to selectively publicize facts. These few players would focus on protecting their overall good instead of portraying an accurate picture of goings-on in the country. A certain level of independence is necessary to report the news objectively.
If media giants have spread their tentacles into different parts of the industry, it is likely that they will not publish information that portrays them in a negative light (De Bens and Ostbye 1998). One may argue that these distortions can still occur even in the presence of smaller institutions. However, if media owners are few, then it is likely that their control over public perceptions would be too much. There would be minimal room for dissenting voices are most of them will have been outcompeted.
A media industry that is dominated by conglomerates also has the potential to undermine democracy by skewing the news in favor of certain political views. It is easier for a few stakeholders to sway the public’s political views through overemphasis of one aspect. Usually, these may occur subtly in developed nations but may be more overt in underdeveloped or developing nations.
In western nations, especially the UK, policies, and candidates that represent the owners’ perspective may take precedence over others (Curran and Seaton 2003). Some of how political interventions occur are not well understood. Most editors have no transparent mechanisms with which to select news items. They often hide their intentions through other apolitical reasons that few can question. As a result, their firms may develop a culture of censorship.
Employees can choose news items based on the owners’ interests even before pitching them. Self-censorship is the greatest loss that has resulted from the concentration of ownership (Picard 1993). This is easy to do because entities already have so much power in their hands. If the rules of fair competition applied, then other media players would affect public opinions through their perspectives.
A company that has control in different media outlets is less likely to criticize itself. For instance, if a company makes toys as well as films and news, it may not discuss sweatshop labor because its toy-making affiliate could be engaging in the practice. Since conglomerates dominate the media industry, then such differing perspective is unlikely to appear.
Domination of conglomerates gives too much precedence to profit-making rather than news quality. As a result, it undermines media content and leads to a deterioration in the quality of journalism (Sparks, 1995). Most conglomerates exist owing to their focus on profit generation. Sometimes this occurs through sensationalism. To garner more audiences, these bodies strive to make their news entertaining.
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They often inject light topics into serious news, thus neutralizing content. Such companies have reduced their commitment to documentaries as well as investigative journalism. The monarch has become a soap opera while several political crises have been created by the media (Tunstall 1996).
Therefore, the huge corporations’ focus on profit making has led to less-aggressive coverage of news. It has minimized the plethora of ideas needed to make democracy thrive by commercializing journalism. This mass culture has reduced the avenue for expression available to all individuals. Citizens’ capacity to engage in meaningful discourse has been curtailed.
Vertical integration was often regarded as a problem in other industries. The government understood that businesses which controlled an entire production process from fabrication to sourcing of raw materials had few incentives to innovate. They also had the power to stifle others that competed against them. Currently, large conglomerates have become commonplace in the media industry as well as other sectors of the economy. Therefore, these companies still operate under relatively minimal restriction.
Some may argue that independent news writers still exist and can criticize these institutions. However, large conglomerates have found a way of dealing with external criticism. They employ independent writers such that the latter has a lot to lose if they contradict the conglomerate’s principles. In essence, they manage to control players that the public needs to enjoy a balance in news coverage.
Pluralism within the sociological lens is also manifested through culture. When few owners wield too much power, they may undermine cultural values in certain societies. Media have perpetuated a culture of sexual obscenity, violence, and sensationalism (Braithwaite 1998). This has eroded certain values that increased morality in society.
If there were more players in the industry, the chances are that the pervasiveness of one or a few media houses would be neutralized. Some media analysts have often stated that many storylines in the film have a class, gender, and racial bias. Since large conglomerates provide content for most entertainment features, it is not surprising that the biases held by their owners continue to be perpetuated.
Views of minorities may be suppressed or depicted as less important than that of white, middle income, male audiences. This is not to say that all conglomerates are biased. Most of them merely stick to proven approaches, storylines, or depictions to secure profits. The choices made by these institutions would not be as dire as they are currently.
About culture in the UK, the domination of many US firms in the film industry also undermines local culture. This has always been a problem for English-speaking nations that import material from the US.
The existence of large conglomerates has given US media houses excessive power to control the film market in the UK. As a result, fewer local voices are being represented. These may be regarded as a form of cultural imperialism on the part of the large and concentrated foreign players. UK citizens need to hear more about themselves in film.
Prospects for the future and what can be done now
It is likely that in the future, this pattern of conglomeration will diminish. The proliferation of new media has dismantled barriers to entry in the media industry. They also provide revolutionary ways of distributing content without having to depend on vast amounts of resources. If more independent sources enter the market, the challenges of diversity or pluralism will no longer be a problem. The internet is a rich source of news for most individuals.
Small companies and individuals can communicate and exchange ideas with people from different parts of the world. Even inexperienced and unprofessional writers can become part of the journalistic landscape through participation in news blogs and social networking sites.
Members of the public can upload photos or images of news as they unfold in their localities. These new forms of media are much faster than conventional media outlets at getting information out there. Citizen journalism will increase pluralism or the diversity of information coming from these areas (Sparks 2000).
Some critics may argue that internet platforms are also owned by conglomerates like Yahoo and Google. Consequently, the same problem of excessive power lying in the hands of a few individuals will arise. However, new media differs from old media because it is more difficult to control. It does not require immense usage of resources. Furthermore, citizens have a much bigger stake in this forum than in traditional media. Therefore, it is unlikely that one will witness the same loss of control that was present before.
Consumer tastes keep changing, and the media industry has to keep up with these divergent changes (Sparks 1999). It is unlikely that a few corporations will meet these differing tastes. Therefore, some new business models might emerge in the future. The domination of a few players may become an illusion owing to these divergent tastes.
The public will cry out for greater diversity, and it is likely that new media players will arise to meet this demand. The media industry is too dynamic to stay dependent on a few conglomerates for long. It is not feasible to control politics within democratic societies, so eventually; these leanings may trigger a backlash from the public.
In the meantime, the country and the EU, in general, need to nip unfair competition brought on by this phenomenon. For instance, the use of duties on monopolies would go a long way in enhancing fairness within the industry. Even ownership of media outlets must occur by certain regulations. This is the price that the country must pay for democracy. Furthermore, the UK requires greater support for diverse content in its media outlets.
The government can liaise with media players to ensure that this takes place. It may also make editorial agreements with key media owners to ensure that the pluralism of ideas is present in the media (Doyle, 2002a). Cross-media ownership restrictions can protect the public from the loss of power to corporate players.
Currently, these large media owners feel that they have no obligation to make art or even history in their work. Their commitment is to its stakeholders. They are not accountable to the public, which is highly affected by their choices. Regulations and standards in the industry would restore accountability into the business.
Size or economies of scale is not necessarily a bad thing in the media industry. However, it is the narrowness of ownership that is a problem. It gives excessive powers to a few individuals who then use it to stifle plurality. Most often, this occurs subtly through editorial biases. It minimizes the public’s access to differing viewpoints and also denigrates cultures. The government should pass regulations to ensure the divergence of ideas and fair competition.
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