A Real Life Game of Monopoly

I consider myself a Disney fan. I grew up watching all the old 90s animated films, the cartoons, Disney Channel, heck I even went to Disney World…four times. But it never dawned on me how far-reaching the Walt Disney Company was in my media consumption until just a few years ago, when a new episode of a popular YouTube series called “Epic Rap Battles of History” was released. The idea is that the two creators, NicePeter and EpicLLOYD, impersonate pop culture characters or historical figures and they rap-battle each other. The channel currently has over 14 million subscribers and almost 3 billion views, making it one of YouTube’s most successful shows. Anyway, the episode which alerted me about Disney’s monopoly in the media landscape was the one featuring Stan Lee and Jim Henson.

Stan Lee is a comic book writer who helped launch Marvel Comics into a household name. He created heroes like Thor, Hulk, Fantastic Four, and Spiderman among others. Jim Henson, on the other hand, was a puppeteer and the creator of The Muppets, another show I used to watch when I was growing up.  But I digress.

At the 2:12 mark of the video, I learn that these two seemingly disparate entities are actually part of the Disney conglomerate. In the video, Walt Disney interjects with the lyrics “I didn’t buy you for billions so you could sit around debating”. He goes on to say “You belong to Disney, which means you stay busy. Cranking out magic and assembly line whimsy.”  He goes on for awhile about how far reaching his empire is, but what really stuck out for me is the 2:59 mark, when he says:

I’m owning this battle. In fact, I own this whole series.

I remember thinking “wait, did they just break the 4th wall? Hold up, did he just say Disney owns this show?” So I paused the video and did a little internet sleuthing, and discovered that the series is partnered with an entity called “Maker Studios”, which was founded in 2009 by a small group of prominent YouTubers like Kassam G and Phil DeFranco. Its purpose is to help YouTube channels by providing production and marketing services to them. I then discovered that Disney bought them out in 2014, and ERB’s contract with them still held. So yes, Disney also owns one of my favorite YouTube shows, along with retaining 60,000 other YouTube partnerships as of February. Despite previously believing I had moved on from Disney and was consuming culture from other creators, I was still under the Disney umbrella.

Now, after reading Jennifer Holt’s Empires of Entertainment, I’ve discovered that just a handful of companies control pretty much all media industries (2). Their strategy of “structural convergence…a mixture of vertical and horizontal integration and conglomeration” from the 1980s onward allowed the top corporations to merge with other entities, thus creating the current predicament of a small collection of companies controlling the entirety of mainstream media (3). As such, a “single company could control production through point of sale not just within, but also across media. The unchecked corporate power that spread across industrial lines created a media environment that was beneficial to private, not public interests” (4). In other words, unchecked and disproportionate power held by just one entity is dangerous. If you’ve ever played a game of Monopoly, you’ll know it’s never a good thing when one player controls too much of the board.

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And yet that’s exactly what we’re seeing today, especially in regards to our entertainment industries. Disney has controlled what I’ve been viewing since I was a toddler, and they continue to do so even today. The media controls what we see, what we know, and when we know it. With so much influential power inherent within a media agency, it’s problematic to give so much control to just a handful of entities.

However, the era of deregulation and convergence isn’t infinite. It’s important to remember that these companies were allowed to converge under the watch of policymakers. People voted in a Reagan administration that favored massive deregulation policies, and it’s the people who can vote in an administration that ends this mess by instituting more practical regulations on these massive conglomerates.

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