“Commerce” is a longstanding synonym for business as it is conducted in capitalist societies. It refers both to the institutions and practices of market economies and to the imaginative landscapes they produce. Commercial systems have two defining characteristics.
Organizationally, they rest on the assumptions that competition between privately owned companies is the most effective way to maximize the diversity and choice of products on offer, and that markets should be allowed to operate with the minimum of interference and regulation from government. Imaginatively, they present consumption as a unique sphere of personal freedom in which individuals can realize their aspirations and confirm their sense of self through the goods and services they choose to purchase and possess.
This identification of “being” with “having” lies at the core of the ideology of consumerism that provides advanced capitalism with its major meta-ideology. It presents itself as a system that can “deliver the goods.” The media play a unique role in sustaining this system. Not only do they offer a wide variety of purchasable communications goods and services, ranging from cinema seats to iPods, they are also the major conduit for the advertising promoting the consumer goods produced by every other sector of the economy.
The expansion of the modern commercial media however, coincided with the rise of the nation-state as the central political formation of modernity and with an ethos of citizenship that required mass participation in the election of governments. It was also accompanied by the development of a new kind of civil society made up of the multiple organizations through which people championed their interests and expressed their shared identities. Both of these other nodes of mobilization and power supported cultural and communicative activities that operated outside the market. States subsidized interventions they saw as helpful in cultivating national solidarity and a culture of responsible citizenship. Civil society organizations supported a range of initiatives that relied on voluntary labor. Some were devoted to sustaining momentum within the group. Others were aimed at attracting new recruits or raising money from sympathetic supporters. The history of modern commercialization is a history of the shifting relations between capital, state, and civil society, and of the persistent efforts by private corporations to enlarge their sphere of operations, both institutionally and imaginatively, and commandeer the material resources and social allegiances developed by the other two nodes of power.
From Individual Press Freedom To Media Businesses
Most observers of the communications landscape in Europe in the early decades of the nineteenth century saw markets as guarantors of greater freedom of expression. Everywhere, the dominant medium of the time, the press, was restricted by government censorship and licensing. In Cologne, the Rheinische Zeitung, edited by the young Karl Marx in his first job after graduation, was closed down by the censors for attacking the Russian Tsar. In London, every sheet of paper used in printing a newspaper was required to bear an official government stamp. By throwing ideas and argument open to the play of demand, commercialization promised to transfer power from governments to publics. A free market promised to produce a press that reflected the full range of political positions and social interests. After a series of long and bruising battles, this market-led definition of a “free press” prevailed and newspapers began to develop as modern businesses staffed by professionals. As this transition gathered momentum, however, it became increasingly clear that, far from disappearing, restrictions on expression had simply assumed another form. Control by government had been replaced by the censorship of money.
By the later decades of the century, newspaper publishing had become an increasingly expensive proposition. It required substantial investment in new printing and production machinery and subscriptions to the new telegraphic “wire” services that transmitted breaking news. Free market ideology presupposed that anyone who spotted a gap in prevailing provision could enter the market and submit their ideas to the judgment of readers. In the ensuing Darwinian struggle, good ideas would survive and develop. Bad ideas, like ill-adapted species, would die out. In reality, launching a major title was becoming a privilege reserved for the rich and well supported.
By the turn of the century, the press business was increasingly dominated by a new kind of proprietor, who owned chains of titles in a number of markets. The British entrepreneur Alfred Harmsworth (later ennobled as Lord Northcliffe) typified the imaginative estates of these new “press barons,” owning both the country’s leading popular “tabloid” titles, the Daily Mail and the Daily Mirror, and the primary newspaper of record, The Times. The front page of The Times had long been filled with small classified ads, a practice that continued well into the second half of the twentieth century, but the Daily Mail and its rival tabloids were becoming important vehicles for the display advertising promoting the new branded goods – Lipton’s tea, Pear’s soap, and Colman’s mustard – that were rapidly replacing unlabeled generic commodities. In the process, the economic foundation of the press was shifting from sales to readers to revenues from advertising.
Early Concerns About The Commercialization Of The Media
Chain ownership and advertising finance prompted increasing concern. Observers worried that the new proprietors would mobilize the titles they owned behind the political positions and causes they particularly favored (as Northcliffe often did) and exclude or unfairly denigrate alternative opinions. The greater the reach and centrality of their publications, the greater the potential damage to open debate and diversity of expression. There were concerns, too, that the drive to maximize advertising revenues by assembling the largest possible readership was pushing popular titles toward entertainment and sensation rather than objective information and rational debate on public issues.
These developments coincided with extensions to the franchise and the move toward mass participation in the political process based on the universal vote. To commentators committed to advancing this ideal by fostering a democratic culture rooted in informed deliberation, these trends appeared as “market failures.” Given the entrenched identification of a free press with a free market, there was little they could do to change the newspaper business other than impose limits on the number of titles any one owner could command and offer modest subsidies to support minority publications. When broadcasting emerged as a popular mass medium after the end of World War I, however, they saw another opportunity to counter the censorship of commercialism.
Governments in Europe had long seen the provision of public cultural facilities as an important aid in efforts to construct the nation as an imagined community with a common heritage, and to promote rational recreation and self-improvement. The resulting array of public libraries, museums, and galleries differed from the novels, theatre seats, and magazines produced by the commercial cultural industries in two key respects: they were free at the point of use and they were designed for shared use rather than personal possession. They came to be seen as public goods, not simply in the technical sense that a number of people could enjoy them simultaneously without pre-empting each other, but also in the more general sense that they contributed to the quality of collective life as well as to the pleasure and education of individual users.
Where commercial media were rooted in the private interests of producers and consumers, publicly funded cultural facilities were seen by their defenders as pivotal contributions to the common good. It was this view that prevailed in European debates on broadcasting and led to the establishment of radio as a public service, funded out of the public purse and oriented to providing the cultural resources deemed essential for a culture of citizenship and national solidarity. The fact that it delivered the same programs across the nation simultaneously and could be enjoyed by everyone equally – without the resource limits imposed by the limited space of a gallery or the competition for loans from public libraries – made it the ideal typical public good. In contrast, in the United States, despite a vigorous campaign for public service waged by universities and community groups, broadcasting followed the dominant pattern of the pre-existing cultural industries and became a commercial business, operated by privately owned companies and financed by assembling and selling audiences to advertisers.
The nature of advertising was changing, however. As real wages rose and a larger section of the audience began to move from maintaining basic living standards to making consumer choices that expressed lifestyle aspirations, so advertising set out to secure the links between tastes and brands. Hollywood began to embrace product placement, with manufactures paying to have their products featured and used in feature films and engineering tie-in promotions in local stores. Alongside spot advertising, broadcasters embraced program sponsorship, allowing manufacturers to include the name of the company or brand in the program title. Consumerism was no longer confined to the spaces between media artifacts; it was increasingly integrated into them. Faced with this consolidation of commercialism, at the level of both institutions and imagination, advocates of broadcasting as an essential medium of democratic life responded by subjecting the business of radio to regulations limiting the number of stations any one owner could command and insisting on a minimal diversity of output and opinion.
Commercialization Of Television
When television emerged as the dominant popular medium after World War II, the same basic division of operating philosophies was reproduced. The major European nations extended the principles of public service to the new medium and were mostly joined by their former colonies, which mobilized broadcasting behind the twin drives towards modernization and nation-building. Within Europe, the United Kingdom was unique in introducing advertising-funded television services in the mid-1950s, although the new commercial (ITV) companies were bound by extensive public interest requirements. As a consequence, competition was confined to audiences and talent, with the BBC continuing to receive the whole of the public subsidy provided by the license fee while the ITV operators enjoyed monopoly rights to advertising in their franchise regions. By guaranteeing relative security of income to both sectors, this convenient division of the spoils enabled both to fulfill their public service remits, an arrangement that supporters of greater competition dismissed as a “comfortable duopoly”.
Elsewhere in Europe, broadcasting remained a public service monopoly. Against this, the United States pursued the basic business model already established for radio and constituted television as a commercially operated medium, subject to minimal public interest regulations, a pattern widely followed in the key countries in Latin America that lay within the US’s longstanding sphere of influence. This dual system lasted more or less intact until the mid-1970s, when a combination of technological innovations and shifting political ideologies progressively undermined both public cultural institutions and the ethos of public service. As a result, over the next two decades, commercialism was to gain unprecedented geographical and cultural reach.
In a number of countries, from Norway to India, the arrival of commercial cable and satellite services, often beamed from “offshore,” broke the historic monopoly of public service broadcasting and opened the way for increased competition and commercialism. New advertising-supported terrestrial channels emerged alongside proliferating pay-TV services. Cultures habituated to the worthy fare served up by public stations were suddenly exposed to the full force of consumerism. The brashness and glamour offered by imported shows like Dynasty offered a window on a world where clothes and furnishing spoke louder than words about who one was and wanted to be. This way of looking played across an imaginative landscape already prepared by a fundamental shift in political and popular attitudes.
New Drive Toward Marketization
The elections of Margaret Thatcher in the UK and Ronald Reagan in the US marked the beginning of a rapid movement toward a renewed reliance on entrepreneurship, markets, and competition as the key drivers of economic growth, and a corresponding rejection of public enterprise, public subsidy, and state management. It was a worldwide movement. Not only was there growing disillusion with welfare capitalism across Europe and an evaporation of trust in state-managed development in emerging economies, but the three major economies that for most of the postwar period had been partly or wholly uncoupled from the global capitalist system all embraced market-led solutions: the Soviet Union collapsed, China introduced a market form of economic organization, and India moved away from self-sufficiency.
The communications industries were central to this shift in three ways. The telecommunications and data-processing sectors provided the essential infrastructure that allowed business to operate across dispersed arenas of action in real time. The popular commercial media constituted the central spaces for product promotion and marketing. And, as core elements in the wider array of high-technology sectors, the creative and information industries were assigned a central role in developing the next phase of advanced capitalism, based on trade in ideas and expressive forms rather than manufactured goods. This pivotal position made them prime targets for policies designed to enlarge the market sector and give companies maximum freedom of operations.
This drive towards marketization was pursued though a range of interventions deployed in varying combinations. Public communications assets were sold to private investors. Markets that had previously been dominated by one or two suppliers were opened up to competition (liberalization). In Europe, the old staterun post, telegraph, and telephone monopolies were broken up and obliged to compete for customers with new entrants. Institutionally, regulatory regimes relaxed the previous rules governing acquisitions and ownership, permitting larger, more diversified media to emerge and allowing broadcasters to take more advertising in more flexible forms (such as product placement).
Ideologically, they moved from the defense of the public interest to the application of competition law and purchasers’ rights, privileging audience entitlements as consumers rather than citizens. At the same time, media organizations that remained in the public sector were increasingly cajoled or pressured into behaving as though they were commercial corporations, a process known as corporatization. In China, the major state-owned broadcaster CCTV was required to support itself from advertising sales rather than state subsidy. In New Zealand, the public broadcaster was recreated as a state-owned enterprise, whose first duty was to generate profits that could be retuned to the Treasury to top up the general pool of taxation. In the UK, the BBC was required to sell off its transmission network, commission a proportion of its programming from independent producers, urged to seek co-productions with commercial players in the US and other major markets, and encouraged to maximize the value of its assets by aggressively pursuing the merchandising opportunities offered by programs and selling program formats across as many markets as possible.
At the same time as established media sectors were being reconstructed around the principles of commercialization, however, new forms of communicative activity were developing on the Internet. With the rapid expansion in computing power, the increasing speed and capacity of broadband networks, and the mobility offered by WiFi connectivity and the migration of the net to mobile phones, the struggle for the future of Internet services has become a major arena of contest between competing principles.
Self-organized communities played a central role in the Internet’s development from the outset. Where commerce relies on prices or advertising subsidy and public goods are funded out of taxation, these grassroots initiatives are grounded in an ethos of reciprocity and collaborative creation. The first, and still in many ways the most impressive, example of this new gift economy in action is the free software movement that, though pooling expertise, has created a range of robust alternatives to the commercial software produced by Microsoft. This same basic principle has been successively applied to an ever-expanding range of uses. These include the wiki movement, which allows postings, such as the entries to Wikipedia, to be modified and added to by other participants, and the multiple recommendation sites, where users of hotels, airlines, and other facilities post their experiences and tips.
These developments are a double-edged sword for commercial enterprise. On the one hand, piracy and unauthorized postings are reducing revenues. On the other hand, users’ loyalty and enthusiasm for peer-to-peer sites opens up new markets and promotional opportunities. The major media have been quick to capitalize on this, buying up sites, establishing a corporate presence in sites like Second Life, and pioneering novel forms of viral marketing. Public cultural institutions are also moving onto the Internet, using websites to extend their reach, make their resources and archives more readily available, and develop new participatory relations with audiences.
At present, then, we are witnessing both an intensification of commercialization and the extension of public goods and gift economies. The future of public communication will depend on eventual balance between these possibilities.
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