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Transcript: #43-98 Media Marketing Madness
October 28, 1998

Program description, guest contact information and audio files at

Phillip Babich: Welcome to Making Contact, an international radio program seeking to create connections between people, vital ideas, and important information. This week on Making Contact:-

Robin Templeton: The reality is, young people don't see the world and the public and the society at large as particularly invested in them, in a future that is full of hope and possibility.

George Gerbner: You're mortgaging the socialization of your children to a handful of foreign conglomerates that don't care about it. If you do that, why don't you disband your schools?

Phillip Babich: Disney, Rupert Murdoch's corporation, Time-Warner, and other multinational media companies now steadily beam programming and information into homes around the world. And the main demographic targets of these media giants are often young people. On this program, we'll take a look at the marketing schemes of top media executives, and we'll hear about the impact their decisions are having on children. I'm Phillip Babich, your host this week on Making Contact.

In his new autobiography Work in Progress, Disney CEO Michael Eisner gives a behind the scenes look at building and running a twenty-four billion dollar a year media empire. Newsweek magazine published an excerpt from the book last September. In that section, Eisner describes acquiring Cap Cities ABC in 1995 in his company's need to operate as a global entity. "Consumers are inundated with information and offered more choices than ever," he writes. "Reaching them requires highly visible distribution platforms, powerful brand names and sheer leverage to cut through the clutter."

Since then, a major priority for Disney has been to expand its children and family oriented "Disney Channel" into a global product, according to Bob McChesney, professor of journalism and mass communication at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and co-author of Global Media: The New Missionaries of Corporate Capitalism.

Bob McChesney: In this case, it's really the four largest media companies in the world. Each of those four -- Disney, Time-Warner, Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation, and Viacom -- each of those four has in the United States a twenty-four hour commercial kids' television channel on cable TV. Disney Channel, Time-Warner's Cartoon Network, Nickelodeon which Viacom has, and now Rupert Murdoch's new FOX Family Channel. Well these aren't just U.S. channels, these are global channels. And what these media giants have discovered, is that children's television is just a golden opportunity to make money all over the world. In the United States, for example, it's in the fastest growing area of profitability. Nickelodeon, the Viacom kids' cable channel, is one of the most profitable companies in the world. Their unit makes so much money.

The average American kid today gets some sense of what this means. We have... our kids are subjected to more television today in the United States than they were ten or twenty years ago by a wide margin. The average American kid today -- seven, eight years old -- sees fifteen hundred hours of television a year, and sees twenty thousand TV commercials a year. Twenty thousand TV commercials telling a kid, you know, there's something wrong with you. You're not okay unless you own this product. I mean, we're just giving a commercial carpet bombing to the children of this country due to these four companies and their commercial channels.

Now, this whole model is extending to the world. Latin America, the number one cable channel is Time-Warner's Cartoon Network. Nickelodeon and Disney are both trying to horn in on that market. The same thing in Europe and Asia. These kids' channels are just really booming and they're commercially saturated for the most part. They're all about turning kids into little consumers, turning them upside down and shaking money out of their pants.

I don't think they're at all defensible by any humanistic or democratic criteria. And I think that the sane-thing for the people in the United States to do, and everywhere in the world to do, is look at a country like Sweden, which outlaws advertising to children on television and considers it an obscenity, and is so serious about this issue that the National Trade Union Federation of Sweden threatened to go out on a general strike or lead a boycott if this law was changed.

Phillip Babich: Media conglomerates are utilizing satellite technology to distribute or recycle programming produced in domestic markets, most often the United States. Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation, owner of FOX TV, is leading the charge. He's spending billions of dollars to establish satellite systems. Based in England, Murdoch operates the most profitable satellite television system in the world, British Sky Broadcasting. Bob McChesney:

Bob McChesney: In the United States, cable's the primary way people get their television. I think about seventy percent of TV households are cable households. And maybe two, three, four percent might be satellite households. And the rest just get it over the air without cable or satellite. Well, in other places in the world there are some countries where cable, for a variety of reasons, has never caught on. Maybe it's a poor country that couldn't justify that sort of expense by a private carrier. Maybe it's a country with a very rugged landscape that make cable very difficult... or sparsely settled. And in some areas of the world, many of them in fact, satellite transmission is the dominant form of pay-television or multi-channel television.

It just so happens that Rupert Murdoch has been at the forefront of the satellite television movement in most places of the world. His British Sky Broadcasting is a very profitable company. It's an independent company that his news corporation controls. And it's the dominant pay-TV server in Great Britain, and it's developing a European base. And it's establishing deals right now in Germany and Italy to expand its influence.

In Asia he has a vast operation called Star TV, which goes from Mainland China, to India, to Indonesia and Thailand. And it's setting up an English language satellite TV service for all of Asia. In addition, he's got domestic language services in Indonesia, India, China, and he's got a major interest in the top satellite broadcaster in Japan.

Also in Latin America, he has a continent-wide satellite service there, Sky Latina, in a joint venture with the leading commercial firms Globo Televiso in Latin America and AT&T in the United States. At any rate, his dream is to have a global satellite empire of distribution, so that then he will have guaranteed outlets for all his shows that he produces at Twentieth Century Fox and Sky Studios in Hollywood and Europe and in Australia. And he's done a pretty effective job of putting it together.

Now what that means though, on the surface is it seems fairly benign, or nothing especially interesting. But when you look at the sort of stuff Rupert Murdoch considers good television, and then all the other media giants consider good television, should give us pause. The sort of journalism that these people are producing on their news channels, and he has the Fox News Channel, or that Time-Warner is producing, or Disney is producing, is garbage journalism. It's usually journalism that strongly stays within sort of the parameters of elite opinion, very little investigation, lots of fluff, low-budget stuff on celebrities and car crashes. It's dreadful journalism for people trying to govern their lives -- what a democracy actually needs.

Also, what you see in terms of entertainment is a, you know, a real lack of willingness to do creative stuff, to take chances creatively, aesthetically, to try to develop audiences. And what you do if you're in commercial media and you're trying to get an audience quickly and easily, you don't want to spend a lot of money, is you resort to sex and violence. You know, you just have Howard Stern ask a movie star when the last time was she got laid. You know, that will get people's attention even though it doesn't cost much money. But it's really, in the long run, it’s a pretty shallow version of entertainment.

Phillip Babich: Murdoch's expansion has met resistance in some countries. In 1997, a court in India issued arrest warrants for Murdoch, charging him with bringing obscene movies into the country via his Star TV operation. Also, the court said that one of Murdoch's talk shows defamed Mahatma Gandhi.

Bob McChesney: What he did in India was he overplayed his hand. One of the great successes Murdoch had in the United States and elsewhere is that he knows how to buy politicians and get them always in his hip pocket. In fact, Murdoch generally flosses his teeth with politicians. Whatever their political party, whatever their country.

Tony Blair, the Prime Minister of Britain, is so much in Murdoch's debt, that Murdoch was able to have him call up the Italian Prime Minister last year and sort of sound him out on maybe Murdoch buying the largest private TV company there. Sort of as a favor to Murdoch, since his paper supported Blair in the election, the '97 election that Blair won. In the United States, Murdoch has a huge lobbying organization that invariably is a powerhouse. I mean, he spends, you know, millions of dollars on the top lobbyists in Washington work for him in a variety of fronts to see that he gets the cushiest laws.

Well, in India what Murdoch did, is he applied the same strategy. India is a very lucrative market, even though it's a nation of nine hundred and fifty million people, most of whom are dreadfully poor. Half the country doesn't even show up on Murdoch's radar when he's looking for an audience. But the top fifty or a hundred million people who live in India are well educated, they have some decent disposable income. You know, it's a nice, dream market for someone like Rupert Murdoch. He has a lot of interest in being successful there. What he did is, when he set up his TV system, he went and hired a lot of the bureaucrats from India's public TV system Durdurshon. And he hired so many of them that it was just transparent that what he was trying to basically do was bribe big shots in the government, so he could get favorable regulations and put his TV system into play. And I think it caused a great reaction. In India, people sort of saw through this attempt to really circumvent the political system. But I wouldn't bet against Murdoch. I suspect he'll win in the end, barring some political changes.

Phillip Babich: Bob McChesney.

You're listening to Making Contact, a production of the National Radio Project. If you want more background information about the subject of this week's program, or would like to learn more about "Making Contact", please give us a call. We'll be giving out our toll free number at the end of this broadcast, so you might want to grab something to write with.

Here in the United States, we're all too familiar with television shows and movies that contain graphic violence. After these media products play in this country, some of them are repackaged and distributed to foreign markets. George Gerbner, professor of telecommunications at Temple University in Philadelphia, has long examined this phenomenon. He spoke with correspondent Julie Light, and began by talking about how media companies use the public airwaves to essentially market products to young people.

George Gerbner: The airwaves are a public resource. They're not private property. To allow the airwaves to be expropriated by a handful of marketing operations is a way of giving away the birth right of our children... is a way of mortgaging the socialization of our children to a handful of conglomerates who have no interest in our children, but who simply want to sell something to children and parents and adults alike.

Julie Light: What about the depiction of youth on TV? I know that there are.. I’ve worked with a lot of young journalists who are particularly outraged at the way youth come across, not just on TV, but also in the print media.

George Gerbner: Well, the depiction of youth is governed by the misguided notion, first of all, there is some certain amount of under-representation in terms of actual proportion of the population. But it's guided by the misguided notion that the way to get a youth audience, is to show youth as extremely aggressive, violent, hyperactive. And the best example of that was the Fox station, when Fox came in it specialized in that kind of violent youth representation in order to attract a youth audience.

This is a marketing concept. And it's like the chicken or the egg. I don't know if it works because it's violent or it's violent because of other reasons. By other reasons I mean violence is not popular, not even among the youth. We have the study to show the studies for five years to show that violence in fact depresses the ratings. Then the question arises: Well, if so, don't the ratings govern what goes on the air? Well, yes and no. There are two other things, two other factors that influence what goes on the air.

One is cost per thousand. That is, if you can cheapen a program sufficiently, a lower rating will be more profitable than a higher rating that costs proportionately more. This is why we don't have the weekly dramatic series anymore. We have series, but we don't have like Philco Playhouse, Goodyear Playhouse, there used to be some ten, fifteen years ago, in which every week you had a high quality dramatic presentation just for that week. And many of our great dramatists have grown up and have contributed to that. It is no longer. Now it's all series, now it's assembly line, and now it's global marketing.

And global marketing then is the key to the prevalence and the pervasiveness of violent representations.

Now if you are a producer in Hollywood, you can't break even on the domestic market. Production costs are too high. You have... you are forced then onto the global market to make a profit. Well, what is it that needs no translation, that's image driven, that fits any culture? And the answer by far is violence. So violence is not popular. But it becomes an element, a feature of a dramatic formula that is designed for the global market. So that even if you make less money or produce a less popular program in every country, put it all together, you make more money than if you produce a higher quality program that is more popular but is more culture bound. It's not as easily translatable into a homogenized global product.

Now, if you produce a Power Ranger, which is a very cheap, Japanese serial, kind of recycled with a few action sequences cut into it, send it to eighty countries, three hundred million children see it every night. Who cares how good it is? It's a globally marketed product that is profitable regardless of who likes it. And its reach is so wide, and its global circulation is so high that it becomes profitable.

Julie Light: I certainly know that's true, that when I lived in Central America, the canned recycled U.S. series dubbed over. The one's that did the best of course were the ones that were the most violent.

George Gerbner: Right. Our producers... the United States producers can present to the broadcasters and station managers in other countries an irresistible business deal. They can say, "We can sell you an hour's worth of this product for less money than it would cost you to produce one minute of your own." And unfortunately this is irresistible to many countries. Now I'm on several international boards, and when I go abroad I say, "You're not buying cheap entertainment. You're mortgaging the socialization of your children to a handful of foreign conglomerates that don't care about it. If you do that, why don't you disband your schools?" This is the real schooling. By the time your children get to school they are pretty well integrated into a culture that is essentially dominated by television.

Julie Light: Is there an upside to that, that there is a commonality created no matter where you grow up in the world?

George Gerbner: Yes there is. There is an upside and there is a great asset in the fact that there are no more provincialism. It doesn't exist. Nobody is outside the mainstream of culture. You can be in a remote village in Alaska or up in the Arctic, or you can be in a remote place in Central America as you were, and as I was just a few days ago, and you have a great deal in common. You can be a very poor person and have a great deal in common with the rich. So that there is a commonality. And for the first time in human history poor people and rich people have much in common. People of different regions, different walks of life, have much in common, can talk about it, can exchange ideas, and I think that is a very significant change in acculturation and in human socialization.

Julie Light: And finally Dr. Gerbner, how do we as consumers of culture begin to fight back? Begin to shape our own cultural environment?

George Gerbner: It is not enough to think of us as consumers. When you go into the cafeteria as a consumer, you are told that these are the wonderful choices and you are free to choose. And indeed you are free to choose what is available. But when you go into the same cafeteria as a citizen, you're asking what is available? Why not other things? You're not only asking what to choose but you're asking the question of the citizen. Very different question from the consumer. The question of the citizen is this the kind of cafeteria we want?

And then it's important to learn something about which we know very little because we have been protected from the knowledge, which is how are other systems? One of the peculiarities of our system of broadcasting is that it never shows us how else it could be done. You never are told this is the way the French do it, this is the way the Germans do it, this is the way the English do it, this is the way Japan does it, this is the way other countries do it. It's a well kept secret. And without that knowledge, the citizens' choice doesn't exist. So we have to begin to talk about, not only about this or that program and popularity of programs, but systems. What are the systems that provide the greatest diversity?

Ours, it does not. It is increasingly monopolized, and throughout the 1980s and 1990s there is an accelerating monopolization of cultural production. Today there are three or four conglomerates to tell all the stories. This is not a democratic situation. This is an untenable, an unacceptable situation. Therefore, what we need and what we're trying to do is to provide information for a citizen movement. Citizens have to get organized. This is basically an international problem, and we have to work on it with other countries that also are subjected to the bombardment and to the dumping of much of American television and movies, and decide what citizens can and should do to recapture control over their own public airwaves.

Phillip Babich: George Gerbner, speaking with Julie Light.

This year the U.S. media focused a lot of attention on violent school kids. There were the Jonesburough, Arkansas shootings in March, where two young boys lured students and teachers out of their elementary school with a false fire alarm, and then opened fire. And in May, a cafeteria shooting in Springfield, Oregon added momentum to the media coverage of what one right-wing pundit, Princeton professor John Delulio has termed "super predators".

But the problem with the coverage, and politicians' reactions of tougher sentencing for young offenders, is that violent juvenile crime has actually decreased over the past three years. And fewer homicides by children under thirteen occur today than in 1965, according to FBI crime statistics.

Robin Templeton works with "The Beat Within", a writing program in San Francisco Bay area juvenile halls, sponsored by the Pacific News Service. An article of hers recently appeared in the on-line magazine Salon, examining the role of the media and the aftermath of the high profile shootings. Templeton told me that she makes a direct correlation between the resulting coverage of the school shootings and stiffer penalties for young criminals.

Robin Templeton: I think we have to make that correlation. The media is doing a good job of manufacturing fear of crime and there's always a policy impact. The media's whipping up public fear and this is correlating with the demand for these ineffective, very expensive crime policies that we see proliferating around the country. We have to understand, I believe, that fear of crime is good for media business. And two, that when media whip up public fear, as I was saying, it creates this demand for ineffective policies.

So we have to trace this backwards and look at the fact that the right wing has had a very comprehensive and sometimes explicitly, sometimes implicitly racist, media strategy. If we look at this myth of young men of color in inner cities as inherently, almost genetically predisposed to violence. We need to chase this myth back to the myth of the teen super predator, which was invented, cooked up in kitchens, by John Delulio and other right wing criminologists. At this point, John Delulio, the founder of the super predator myth, is distancing himself from the media's coverage of the teen super predator because he doesn't think that punitive measures are working to deal with the alleged teen crime problem. Meanwhile, the media continue to regurgitate the myth of the teen super predator, and politicians follow suit.

Phillip Babich: What is it that you can say about media portrayal of young people and how it's affecting young people?

Robin Templeton: I think that the reality is, young people don't see the world and the public and the society at large as particularly invested in them, in a future that is full of hope and possibility. Instead, they see that California is building prisons at a rate twenty times faster than it's building universities. I use California as an example, not only because it's where I do my work, but because California is prefiguring the demographics for the country. And California university spending has decreased three percent over the past ten years. And corrections spending has increased sixty percent. This is happening in states across the country.

And what does it mean to grow up, to be a teenager today, and see that the police stations and the prisons around you have far more sophisticated and advanced technology, have far more monetary investment in them? A first year prison guard makes almost twice what a tenured high school teacher makes after she or he has completed her studies. You can have a GED and get a job as a prison guard in most states in the country and make over forty thousand dollars a year. Students, young people, see this very obscene prioritization of repressing and punishing them over preparing them for a healthy future. And they're seeing that now their fate is really in their own hands to correct this trade off.

Phillip Babich: I wonder if we can back up a little bit, and I want to follow up with some questions about prisons. But what are some of the impacts on young people and how they view themselves, when they're seeing the way young people are portrayed in the media.

Robin Templeton: Well, I mean, it couldn't be anything but demoralizing certainly, to see images of yourself as a super predator reflected back to you. If you are a young person of color, particularly a young man, a poor young person of color, instead of seeing images of yourself as the future, as your future being something that the society at large has invested in. So certainly this is a problem. And young people, it's almost a joke that young people only expect the media to turn up when there is a fight, when someone pulls a gun, when there's a gang problem.

A couple of examples are, recently in the San Francisco Bay area we held an expo about youth media, to talk about how young people are communicating with the world to change the world, and to strengthen their communities. And the event got a little bit of coverage in advance. We did a lot of outreach to the press. But the day of the event itself, we're talking about thousands and thousands of young people in the largest enclosed space in San Francisco, and no media showed up the day of. And we were all joking that if someone had pulled a gun, if there had been a fight, we would have gotten scads of camera crews and newspaper reporters there in an instant.

There's so many examples of this. Several years ago there was a front page U.S.A. Today story that was about gangs terrorizing safe neighborhoods. And it of course had a picture of two very menacing looking young African American men. If you trace that story backwards, what happened was a reporter with the L.A. Times called these young men because there was a guns for jobs program. That it was part of the community based organization. So the reporter showed up allegedly to cover this. No one had any guns on them. So he drove the kids back to their home to get their guns, in order to be pictured on the front page of, first, the L.A. Times and then U.S.A. Today with their guns. So these young people were set up, and so we see, you know, the lurid intensity that the media have of portraying young people as menacing, instead of hope and future. So you know, this sets a very negative and difficult precedent.

And young people see this. They're challenging these skewed images of themselves in the media. But they certainly need support in order to continue to do so.

Phillip Babich: Turning back to prisons: Across the United States, prisons -- both public and private -- are utilizing prisoners to do work for private companies and also public departments. And some Department of Correction facilities in the U.S. are devising new ways to market their products. Here in California the Department of Corrections came up with the "Prison Blues" campaign. It's a way to market blue jeans. In a sense, this sells back to young people the very gangster culture that the penal system is supposedly trying to combat. What are your thoughts on that?

Robin Templeton: That's a good example. I mean the analogy is sex, right? The right wing supposedly doesn't want anyone talking about sex, but it's fine to use sex to market anything under the sun to young people who supposedly are supposed to not engage in sexual activities ever. I mean, we see these contradictions and these ironies. Conservatives turn their eyes to questions of sex and violence when it comes to marketing, never are paying attention to them. But when it comes to any sort of public policy, of course, it's fine.

And the issue of prison labor is getting no coverage. Another analogy is that corporations are not accountable to communities any longer. They're running to third world countries where they can pay workers oppressively low wages. And what's happening domestically...domestically, corporations are turning inside of prisons to, again, pay prisoners starvation wages, less than a dollar a day, less than a penny a day in some instances. And this is getting no coverage from the media as well.

Phillip Babich: Robin Templeton works with "The Beat Within", a writing program in San Francisco Bay area juvenile halls, sponsored by the Pacific News Service.

That's it for this edition of Making Contact, a look at young people and media priorities. Thanks for listening. We had production help this week from Susan Celli. I'm Phillip Babich.

If you want more information about the subject of this week's program, call the National Radio Project at 800-529-5736. Call that same phone number for tapes and transcripts, or if you'd like to make a comment or suggestion for future programs. That's 800-529-5736.

Making Contact is an independent production funded by individual contributors. We're committed to providing a forum for voices and opinions not often heard in the mass media. Our National Producer is David Barsamian. Phillip Babich is our Managing Producer. Our Senior Advisor is Norman Solomon. Shereen Meraji our Production Assistant. Peggy Law is our Executive Director. Our theme music is by the Charlie Hunter Trio. For everyone on Making Contact, thanks for listening.