Empires of Entertainment

Jennifer Holt’s Empires of Entertainment is a detailed history of the control of the markets, and large media conglomerates came to be. The book details the ongoing debates between the cable companies, and the Hollywood studios and broadcasters leading up to the Telecommunications act of 1996. This act, ultimately, deregulated market rules for media conglomerates, allowing the common ownership of the media. Although intended to increase competition and diversity among the media landscape it did the opposite and increased the ability of giant mergers between companies, decreasing the diversity of ownership and product, resulting in what Holt calls “structural convergence,” which is a “mixture of vertical and horizontal integration and conglomeration”(3). Thus these empires like Viacom/CBS, AOL/Time Warner, NBC/Universal and Comcast/NBC emerged as controlling most of the media, making most of the profit, and producing most of the entertainment. While the history of control over media swings in and out of the hands of broadcasters, studios and cable ownership, what is most disturbing about these empires is the control over cultural production itself.

Much of the book follows only these American industries, but in the last chapter, and when the global markets emerged as players in this entertainment empire, ‘culture’ became deeply associated with these audiovisual materials—America’s second largest export (Holt, 131). The conglomerates hold control over the information that is produced and broadcasted to the public. They bought and expanded these media outlets as one buys and expands land ownership and is able to choose what to do with it, reducing the amount of public or integrated spaces. The purchase of content was extremely important to creating these empires, as HBO and Ted Turner both succeeded in purchasing films that they were then able to distribute for profit and through their own networks. Media however does not face the same geographical boundaries and is easily transferable across borders. U.S. entertainment was and is extremely successful abroad, and it was the entertainment owned by these large media “empires.” While little regulation was accounted for within the U.S. in debates surrounding the GATT negotiation, especially from Europe attempted to prevent this deregulation within cultural products. It was decided that ‘culturally’ influenced materials, in this case audio-visual materials were exempt from deregulated trading laws (144). Holt states that the decision “…was a triumph of European rhetoric and discourse about film and television and other media products (as indigenous culture that must be cultivated and protected) over American conceptualizations of those products (as commerce and a market-driven commodity that should extend as far as the audience will buy it)”(145). Europe was frightened that American media would shortly be the prominent media outlets in their countries, infringing on their culture. It was a triumph as “culture over commerce” (144). This globalization process is evident of the power the American entertainment industry has—and for most countries it is mostly a one-way street. American entertainment is shown widely, compared to the amount international entertainment that is produced or popular on American networks. There are strong foreign holds on these conglomerates, but American entertainment is still the most widely exported.

Holt ends by stating that the law is, “perhaps the most important place for creative thinkers at this moment as their perspective is necessary to help position legal issues and their ramifications as matters of culture” (177). Although her book is a tedious read, it does highlight the importance of understanding the processes of how these large companies now carry with them the ability to control aspects of cultural expression. As citizens, and especially intellectuals pursuing careers in the media world, it is our duty to have an understanding of how this media is regulated and the history of how outdated regulation policies have failed continuously, allowing for these ‘Empires of Entertainment.’ With the advent of the Internet and the ability to produce and access content on such a large scale, it has become easier for those to seek platforms outside of these conglomerates. However, they still have ownership over most media and while it is a powerful feat, it reduces the power of the public and independent ownership and production.

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Comments

  1. I love the parallel you propose between media ownership and land ownership, and the fact that you are quick to point out the limits of the analogy in ways that are both perceptive and productive. Land and media/culture are, as you note, fundamentally different, especially insofar as the latter is not finite. But you’re quite right to intuit that insofar as both are commodities, land and culture at once act on and react to political-economic forces. If this is something you’re interested in studying further, I’d recommend looking into some recent work on cultural policy and uneven development.

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