Sunday, 23 September 2018

Sky's the Limit

The news that the US media giant Comcast has beaten 21st Century Fox in an auction for the UK-based broadcaster Sky probably won't prompt much political comment during the conference season, beyond perhaps some cheerful rumination on the eclipse of the Murdoch empire. With Fox simultaneously selling most of its TV and film production assets to the Disney Corporation, the Dirty Digger and his scions will fall back on their newspaper business, though their enhanced liquidity means you can't rule out another buying spree elsewhere. For all the framing of this as a titanic corporate battle, or the final frustration of one of the leading media entrepreneurs of the last 50 years, it should really be seen as a routine piece of business in a sector that is constantly cannibalising and reconfiguring its constituent parts. What is ostensibly driving this latest round of buyouts is the belief that only a handful of very large companies will be able to compete with Amazon and Netflix in a future market centred on the streaming of premium content - i.e. live sport, films and original TV productions. The assumption is that only "global players" will thrive, but this calls into question the future of "national" media, which is politically important.

There are two secular trends discernible in the history of media: a tendency towards consolidation and a profusion of content. The latter is mainly driven either by the emergence of new media, which usually generates novel content, or by the increase in channels available to existing media, which usually spreads existing content more thinly (the "great age of TV" enabled by DVD boxsets and streaming is more about quantity than quality). Both are constant features. Whether new media allows new content producers to enter the market largely depends on whether it lowers the cost of access. TV is an example of an expensive medium, hence early channels emerged out of existing radio corporations, such as CBS and the BBC. The Internet is an inexpensive medium, both for production and broadcast, hence the profusion of content, but it did not take long for the lion's share of online attention to be dominated by both a small number of platforms and traditional content providers. As each wave of new media technology recedes, the now broader media industry consolidates.

Depending on the economic climate, consolidation is contingently justified either as a defensive play (we must get bigger or die in a bearish market) or an offensive play (we must buy market share to quickly expand in a bullish market), but it is clearly a structural feature of a sector that rewards cartelisation and monopoly, hence the persistent need for regulation over media ownership to ensure adequate plurality. Contemporary old media, such as  newspapers and TV, claim that the structural dynamics of Internet publishing, such as network effects and zero marginal costs, are leading to a new and more dangerous form of monopoly in which platforms like Google dominate. This claim of novelty is misleading. The dominance of the BBC in the pre-Internet age was a product of the network effect of the licence fee, while the dominance of Facebook in the US today is nothing compared to that of Hearst in newspapers and radio in the 1920s. In comparison, Google's dominant position in online search has been marked by a broadening of access to independent content, not by a narrowing.

Much of the animus of the modern newspaper industry (and to a certain extent the TV industry as well) towards the likes of Google and Facebook arises from the belief that they are "outsiders" who don't share a journalistic culture and the supposed civic values that this entails (films like Spotlight and The Post are celebrations of an ethical world that would never countenance phone-hacking - no siree). This was particularly evident in the fearful responses to Jeff Bezos's acquisition of The Washington Post in 2013. In the event, the Post has changed little in it's coverage or editorial slant (it's still performatively baiting the President, as if to consciously evoke Watergate, while otherwise toeing the neoliberal line) though it has clearly improved its online presence by leveraging Amazon technology and placing a greater emphasis on consumer analytics. The alien culture that Bezos has introduced to the Post turns out to be just a more ruthless mode of capitalism. Journalistic culture will adapt to this, just as it adapted to the rise of the "yellow press" and tabloids.

Many old media mergers in recent years have been explained as the search for economies of scale in the face of the threat of new media, from the Guardian Media Group acquiring the Observer to Trinity Mirror buying the Express titles. This is the defensive play. In fact, this process of consolidation long predates the appearance of the commercial Internet. For example, the broad media economy in the US was dominated by 50 firms in the early eighties but by only 23 in 1990 (cited in Herman & Chomsky's Manufacturing Consent). The deregulation and relaxation of competition rules in both the US and UK in the 1980s enabled new market entrants, but it also stimulated aggressive buyouts. To narrow this down to the UK press, Murdoch's acquisition of The Times and Sunday Times was the defining move of the era, not the launch of Today, and it produced a more relaxed regulatory environment that would lead to further consolidation and eventually Murdoch's failed bid for outright control of Sky, none of which can be blamed on the impact of the Internet.

This process of consolidation, which has been increasingly international since the 90s, has been paralleled by one of homogenisation. As well as straightforward acquisition and expansion across national boundaries, there has been a tendency for domestic media organisations to increasingly adopt global norms, which largely means American norms. Two examples of this are the growth in generic lifestyle content and entertainment coverage, reflecting the inter-dependence of different media. With newspapers and TV both having absorbed the subject matter and style of magazines in the 80s, it's striking to recall just how little arts and entertainment coverage was provided by daily newspapers and TV news in the 70s. A consequence of this is that old media have been obliged to adopt a more cosmopolitan outlook (pun intended) because so much lifestyle content and entertainment is now international - from avocado toast through Fitbits to the Avengers - reflecting globalised capitalism. This causes tonal problems for intrinsically nationalist media like newspapers, who find themselves oscillating between isolationism (yay, Brexit) and internationalism (yay, Netflix).

What matters in lifestyle and entertainment coverage is not the specific commodities but the way that they are presented, from the giddy listicles of "The best teen films of the 80s" to the archly ironic coverage of high fashion (the complete oeuvre of Hadley Freeman, in other words). This is a distancing from the real world where hard choices are about self-denial not ranking, and where vicarious pleasure is no longer a harmless bit of fun but a reminder that certain things will always be out of reach, like a home of you own. That magazines themselves are losing readers is a paradoxical tribute to the hegemony of the magazine form across other media. While many are prepared to attribute this decline to the impact of the Internet, in reality it would have happened anyway as advances in print production allowed newspapers to provide a more colourful experience and the expansion of daytime TV targeted audiences (notably women and the elderly) that were traditional consumers of magazines. Why buy Cosmopolitan once a month when you can read The Guardian or watch Loose Women every day?

The press's solipsistic coverage of its own industry in the early Internet age - from defensive mergers to the merit of paywalls - gave the impression of an existential struggle, but the reality is that the rate of firm consolidation or title exit over the last twenty years has not been substantially different to the period before the arrival of the World Wide Web. The move of Internet firms such as Amazon and Netflix into programme production has been less transformative than the impact of TV on the Hollywood studio system in the 60s and 70s, or even the deregulation of TV in the 80s and 90s. Social media has not challenged the dominance of traditional media firms in terms of news content or opinion, though it has made visible the long-standing dissatisfaction of media consumers. "Echo chambers" and "filter bubbles" are a myth. Their prominence in the critique favoured by established organisations is a guilty admission of the shift of media since the 60s away from "admass" towards the creation of virtual communities of taste, quite at odds with real communities and far more granular than class formations, for the purposes of commercial targeting.

We can draw two conclusions. First, consolidation is the industry norm and occurs regardless of the emergence of new media. Second, the expansion of content leads to homogenisation even as it claims to service ever more specific demographics. Insofar as there has been a fundamental change over the last twenty years, it has been the increase in cross-border consolidation, not the impact of the Internet. The threats we face in terms of the erosion of media plurality and variety come not from the likes of Amazon and Google but from the structural dynamics of the media industry and the way that these are amplified by globalisation and deregulation. I doubt that either Comcast or Fox was too concerned by Jeremy Corbyn's comments that "change is coming" and that there was a need to "democratise" the media - they certainly don't appear to have priced this risk into their bids - but we may be approaching a fork in the road. We could be facing Brexit-inspired Tory deregulation leading to greater US domination of the UK media (a more worrying development than chlorine-washed chickens), or a Labour government committed to tighter regulation and antipathetic towards foreign ownership. If it happens, the latter will be condemned as censorship, but it will be more in keeping with the attitudes cultivated by a "nationalist" press. One way or another, Comcast's acquisition of Sky probably marks the start of a new era.

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