Monday, March 2, 2009

Broadcast News as a Commodity

To what extent can we view broadcast news as a commodity within today’s global society?

“News is not a commodity — it is a vital part of our democracy,” declared The Independent on Sunday in the headline of an article written by Mark Thompson (2008), the BBC’s Director-General. The world’s most revered public service broadcasting institution quite correctly — perhaps as a matter of policy — refuses to reduce its product to a mere commodity. Yet a quick analysis of the bulk of news and related content coming from leading international broadcasters will immediately raise the question of news commoditization. It will be likely to lead to the observation that the overall quality of mainstream broadcast news — the perceived relevance to public interest — has been deteriorating for any number of years, effectively causing a crisis of credibility. Arguably, the blurring of the boundaries between news and entertainment, information and advertising, together with the media’s peculiar interest in singing their own praises, does little to help the situation.

The huge volumes of news made available every day and the overwhelming feeling of sameness often experienced by the news consumer easily invoke the concept of commodity. But before we embark on an exploration of this issue, we must ask ourselves what a commodity is. A standard dictionary lookup will define it as: ‘a mass-produced unspecialized product’ or ‘a good or service whose wide availability typically leads to smaller profit margins and diminishes the importance of factors other than price’ (Merriam-Webster 2008).

In order to understand the issue of broadcast news commoditization in a global context, we need to identify and study the consequences of some of the conditioning factors. One of these can be seen as an overarching theme: globalization and history — the forces of cultural, political, social, and economic change. Underlying factors include: television’s historic relationships and affiliations with radio and cinema; the development of video, cable and satellite technologies; free markets, transnational competition, and ownership concentration; cross-media publishing and promotion; the fusion of information and entertainment, of advertising and editorial content; marketing needs and dependency on audience ratings; public service vis-á-vis economics; 24-hour news channels and narrowcasting; streaming audio and video, mobile radio and television and the astonishing development and worldwide distribution of digital ICT.

On the whole, a distinct and seemingly direct cause of news commoditization came with two relatively recent revolutions that sent news supply sky rocketing: rolling news broadcasting and online news and information, much of it freely accessible.

McNair (2003) gives an account of the development of news media in the UK, including the transition from radio to television as the news medium of choice for the masses. Back in the 1950s, the presentation of TV news resembled the already established tradition of radio news while reflecting the educational tone of the day. To the point of kinship with the world of film, Curran and Seaton (2003) relate how technical staff for early television often consisted of people with a background in cinema — contributing to a clash of cultures. Before long, as Finnegan (2008) outlines, American television broke away from its radio roots and learned to make use of its visual advantage, taking a pivotal role in the rise of the entertainment culture during the years and decades that followed. While entertainment gradually gained prominence, a celebrity culture likewise became apparent among national TV news presenters, spawning a new meta-category of news about the news.
People are slowly but surely turning away from TV news. Roberts (2008) points out that the major networks in the US have lost an average 1 million viewers annually over the past 25 years — an overall trend that seems to reflect a steady decline with temporary reversals at the occurrence of extraordinary events. On such events, Bauder (2008) reports that more than a record 43 million American households watched the 4th November 2008 presidential election returns on television, whilst another 27 million followed the event on the internet. The historic election of Barack Hussein Obama was witnessed around the world and clearly had a global impact.

The rise of 24/7 rolling news was initiated with Turner Broadcasting System’s 1980 launch of the Cable News Network. Its unorthodox format departed decisively from the traditional studio-centered news presentation with a cost-efficient operation and an informal style and with key emphasis placed on live coverage from scenes of events. CNN changed the face of broadcast news and, as its success unfolded, the established TV networks attempted to follow suit but initially failed (McNair 2003; Turner 2008). Today there are several rolling news channels with current affairs and documentary programs — CNN, BBC World, Fox News, to name some — and scores of other channels dedicated to narrowly defined markets, such as Bloomberg Television, Discovery Channel, MTV, etc. A new generation of rolling news channels — notably Al Jazeera, Telesur, and France 24 — are now seen to represent a ‘contra-flow’ to Anglo-American influence in the arena of global media communications (Thussu 2007).

Back in the 1980s and 1990s, and even into the 21st century, a wave of privatization and deregulation took place in broadcasting across national borders, spurred on by the dominance of free market ideas. This was intertwined with technological breakthroughs in video, cable and satellite communications, all of which had vast implications for the development of broadcast media (Curran and Seaton 2003).

Industry consolidation with mergers and acquisitions followed, generating a hostile business environment for independent news broadcasters, and resulting in ownership concentration with fears of corporate censorship and uniformity in the news. The 1996 acquisition of Turner by the largest player in the global media industry, TimeWarner — formed in 1990 with the takeover of Time by Warner Bros. — was but one of a number of deals, the net result of which has been that little more than a handful of conglomerates control most of the entire world of news and entertainment media: TimeWarner, Disney, NBC Universal, Vivendi Universal, News Corporation, Viacom, Sony, Bertelsmann (Branston and Stafford 2006). This remains a major concern and the subject of debate at all levels, including at the World Electronic Media Forum (WBU 2007). In the US, for instance, Scott (2004) criticizes the Federal Communications Commission for relaxing broadcast ownership limits, echoing concerns of media reform organization Free Press (2008).

Other noteworthy developments in the media industry included Microsoft’s 1996 entry into broadcast news through MSNBC — a joint venture with NBC — and Google’s acquisition of YouTube in 2006. Google and Microsoft have developed advanced internet news delivery services in cooperation with a wide range of news providers, offering content that includes text and pictures as well as streaming audio and video, and both companies hold stakes in mobile communications through the Windows Mobile and Android platforms, respectively (Microsoft 2008; Open Handset Alliance 2008).

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