What is Commercialism?

by: Thomas Streeter / University of Vermont

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A wag once said, “if it’s British accents or fornicating spiders, it must be PBS.” Those of us who have spent some portion of the last fifty years in the US can turn on our TVs and more or less instantly notice whether our sets are tuned to a commercial or a PBS station. There are lots of tell-tale signs. Blaring commercial interruptions, laugh tracks, characters who live in dwellings that are strangely more upscale than real-life versions of those characters could afford — all are sure signs of American commercial TV. Talking heads in suits who go on for more than twenty seconds, or luscious pictures of exotic animals accompanied by sonorous explanatory voice-overs, signify a public station. The difference between commercial and non-commercial TV seems obvious.

But is it really? Think of all the terms we use: Commercial TV. The market. For-profit TV. Corporate TV. Advertising supported TV. Corporate media. We use these terms a lot, often interchangeably. But what do we really mean by them? Used precisely, they can all mean different things: you can have advertising-supported TV that’s non-profit (CBC in Canada, Britain’s Channel Four), for-profit TV that’s not operating in a market (because it’s a monopoly, or because it operates under government contract), and for-profit media that’s privately held and thus neither “corporate” nor advertising-supported (e.g., Mad Magazine). And of course, a corporation can be a church, or a grassroots activist group; a “corporation” is strictly speaking simply a legal entity that defines some group or collectivity with a shared goal or purpose. If we have a problem with, say, Time-Warner’s or Rupert Murdoch’s global media empires, calling them “corporate” does not really shed much light on the specific nature of our complaints.

Even people inside the industry are faced with some chronic uncertainty about the matter. True, the phrase, “this is a business,” constantly pops up in the conversations of industry executives. But why do they even need to say it? How often do stockbrokers or aluminum siding salesmen use the phrase? Nobody doubts that they are in a business. It is only in the case of TV, apparently, that people do have doubts. TV executives feel the need to assert that “this is a business” precisely because it’s not always self-evident that it is, or in what way it is so. The fact is, organizing the production and dissemination of televisual material as something that is bought and sold is a non-obvious activity, particularly in the absence of a ticket booth. The contemporary conundrums about business models caused by Tivos and Internet downloading are just the latest in a long line of structural puzzles the industry has faced since its inception.

In a graduate seminar, this would be the point in the discussion at which I’d talk a little about modes of production and encourage the students to go off and read some economic theory: theories of public goods, perhaps, or capital intensivity, or Fordism and post-Fordism. But the problem with this is not just that a search of the economic literature leads merely to a range of divergent theories that are equally brilliant and incommensurable. The problem is that these days, developing terminology that is precise, effective, and accessible is crucial to a sustainable media reform movement.

We need terminologies for media structure that will be vivid enough to come alive in broader public debates, and that will be precise enough to point the way to specific and effective alternatives.

One popular way to define “commercialism” is to say it is rooted in “the market” or market systems. Economic conservatives like this terminology because it has a political valence: the word “market” implies “free market” or “competitive market” which invokes the theory that freedom and democracy are naturally achieved through private property and investment (think “ownership society”), and that all things non-market are associated with its opposite, totalitarianism. Liberals and progressives often use this sense as well, because they think of the market as a system driven purely by greed, by cheap manipulative tricks done in search of the quick buck. There’s certainly a kind of truth to this — think of how, say, gratuitous cleavage is another obvious sign that the TV is tuned to a commercial channel.

But there are two problems with the left’s use of this term. The first is simply that one shouldn’t concede to the conservatives the notion that capitalism is identical with the competitive market. Corporations are arguably as much about limiting markets as supporting them. Capitalism generally relies on a delicate mix of stabilizing institutions and dynamic tendencies. As CBS founder William Paley once said, “sudden revolutionary twists and turns in our planning for the future must be avoided. Capital can adjust itself to orderly progress. It always does. But it retreats in the face of chaos.”[1] (Eileen Meehan has usefully suggested “corporate rivalry” as a better term than “competition” to describe the peculiar dance of the elephants characteristic of the Time-Warners and Disneys of our world.)

But there’s another problem with the left’s derogatory definition of commercialism as market driven. There’s a tendency to think that, since the market is based on self-interest, it is based on greed and is therefore immoral. When the villain of the film Wall Street, Gordon Gecko, proudly proclaims that “greed is good,” liberal viewers may enjoy gasping at the audacity of such a claim (and feel smugly satisfied at Gecko’s subsequent downfall in the film). But basically this simple disdain for market greed rests on a rationalist vision in which the satisfaction of desires is bad because it is opposed to reason or the “public good.” This cuts to the heart of some of the discussions we’ve been having on Flow of late: This assumption is problematic intellectually, because it relies on a version of Cartesian dualism in which bodily passions are framed as the opposite of the rational acts of the mind. And it is also problematic politically: most people do use media to satisfy desires, and a politics based on the notion that most people are debased is doomed to self-marginalization.

Perhaps a better way to think of commercialism is to focus on commercials, as in advertisements. Free markets are fine, when they are truly free and truly markets. But advertising support, the use of commercials to pay the bills, is essentially what even Mark Fowler called an “indirect market mechanism [wherein] the advertiser acts as the representative for consumers.”[2] If the arch-marketeer Fowler grants that there’s something “indirect” about the advertising system, that points to a weak link in his chain of reasoning. And advertising is indeed an odd and politically unsatisfying way to organize television; advertisers have their own agendas, which are not identical with most ordinary folk’s concerns.

Adorno and Horkheimer once observed that the “eccentricity of the circus, peepshow, and brothel is as embarrassing to [the culture industry] as that of Schoenberg and Karl Kraus.”[3] Adorno and Horkheimer’s problem with the culture industries was not that it was “low” culture; they could appreciate the carnivalesque, the genuine “lowbrow,” at least as well as Fiske. Their problem with was the odd and numbing effect of the highly coordinated and rationalized character of cultural production once it is wrested from the street and the carnival and awkwardly filtered through the needs of institutions dedicated to reducing the risks of mass producing consumer products. This is why TV so often seems to be almost but not quite interested in the lives of its viewers; TV is connected “indirectly,” as Fowler put it, at one remove from the complexity of viewers’ needs and desires. A media reform movement that focuses on the disappointing character of that “indirectness” might go further than a rationalist disdain of desire itself.

[1] William S. Paley, FCC Informal Engineering Conference Vol. II, pp. 252-3, June 16, 1936, quoted in Frank C. Waldrop and Joeph Borkin, Television: A Struggle for Power (1938; reprint, New York: Anron Press and the New York Times, 1971).
[2] Mark S. Fowler and Daniel L. Brenner, “A Marketplce Approach to Broadcast Regulation,” Texas Law Review 60 (1982): p. 210 and p. 232.
[3] Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception,” from Dialectics of Enlightenment, 1973.

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Please feel free to comment.


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  • I think this column is invaluable. We tend to think that the institutional/cultural arrangements specified in the word “commercial” are self evident. Tom very astutely points out that strange and often contradictory political projects are carried out both in the name of commercialism and against it. This column is another reminder that, as Tom and others have pointed out, idealist efforts to separate public service from commercialism inevitably fail, at least in the US context.

    I would only add to the discussion by saying that the questions raised here could be extended to the concept of “sponsorship” in TV–a concept both identified with and distinct from commercialism. As a word, sponsorship allows advertisers signal their goodwill. “Sponsors” are benevolent entities, ostensibly providing programming for free to audiences. This goes back to radio–Susan Smulyan’s book has some great material on the evolution of sponsorship in response to anti-commercial backlash.

    But in addition to promoting an image of corporate citizenship, sponsorship is a mechanism through which US TV is believed to perform a public service and by extension motivate viewers to act as citizens.

    The worst example of this version of sponsorship appears on our screens around election time–not only smear-filled spot ads but also stuff like Tattered Honor, or whatever it was called (The anti-Kerry documentary aired by Sinclair Broadcasting in the run up to the election.).

    The second worst example is the PSA, or at least those made under the auspices of the ad council. Although the ad council is popularly considered “liberal,” it is effectively a PR group that serves both state and economic power by serving as a political gatekeeper.

    Still, there have been moments when people have used sponsorship to promote civic action. This was certainly the case prior to the FCC’s programming policy statement of 1960. Many types of groups, from racist extremists to centrist liberals, sought a voice on the air through sponsorship in early TV. More recently, MoveOn’s unsuccessful battle to get superbowl airtime for an anti-bush psa in the illustrates the continued relevance of the idea that sponsorship is political speech–and that it is feared for that very reason.

    CBS refused the ad because it was controversial and thus against superbowl ad policy. THey were secure in this refusal in part because of the Fowler era destruction of the fairness doctrine and its insistence on the presentation of controversial material, including opposing viewpoints. But to my mind it was nevertheless an eye opening moment, one that exposed the potential power of sponsorship as a form of political speech, and made the network’s close identification with the state very apparent. Too bad this struggle was subseqently eclipsed by Janet Jackson’s “controversial” exposure.

    Ok, time to sign off–starting to feel like a blogger.

  • Questioning Ads – the subscription solution

    I like this idea of questioning the place of advertising (rather than the role of corporations) in media. I agree with Tom Streeter that the problem isn’t that a network show is trying to sell you something while supposedly entertaining/ enlightening you; its that its trying to sell you hundreds of things at once, and so the show must represent the advertisers which represent the companies who manufacture the products – all very indirect.

    We’d be better off comparing commercial corporate TV (NBC) to non-ad driven corporate TV (HBO), rather than comparing it to public TV. The interests behind a network show are at once too diverse (different co.s w/ different products to sell) and too removed from the interests of the viewer to reflect our desires in any meaningful way. Ignoring product placement for a moment, HBO only has 1 product to sell you – its shows. Is it any wonder the latter produces more coherent, consistent fare than the former?

    Large #s of people seem ready to adopt a subscription model in media these days. While I personally enjoy (indeed, rely upon) public TV & radio, I doubt that it is or ever was sustainable as a non-subscription service. But if there was a subscription-based medium w/o ads, wouldn’t ads just migrate to another media (there’s always billboards)? You can’t keep a company from trying to hawk its wares to the public, and the only way they can do that is by raising the public profile of its products through ads. But at some point, this arms race between companies (and between advertiser and increasingly-savvy consumer) must become a burden on the economy. All that $ could’ve been used on R&D to create a superior product. So we end up w/ watered-down programming that misrepresents our desires AND an inefficient economy.

    I’m not suggesting that a well-oiled economy is the end-all be-all of a healthy society. But talking about reform in terms of “the common good” will only win over so many people. If we can broaden the language of the movement, and prove that at some point, spending $ on ads hurts our economy, and that people are willing to adopt subscription models, then maybe this will provide a boost for the movement.

  • Christopher Lucas

    The case of Low Power FM radio

    A few years ago I did some reading on the policy history of low power FM (LPFM) radio. I was surprised to learn that it’s most recent incarnation (beginning in the late 90s) emerged from a coalition of alternative media (read: community radio and pirate) types and for-profit entrepreneurs. The entrepreneurs saw a space for extremely “local” radio like LPFM – which has a broadcast range of only a few miles – as a kind of small business, and they wrote much of the original policy language. However, the FCC dropped any possibility of a commercial aspect in LPFM from the final policy statements, which, as I later wrote for a conference paper, resulted in a small but diverse array of community and civic groups getting into LPFM, along with a great many religious institutions.

    The influence of the NAB and other industry groups within the FCC had a lot to do with keeping LPFM “not for profit,” of course. But the entire episode raised questions for me about the intellectual and political costs of positioning the “commercial” in opposition to the “public” and treating it as problematic in all cases. Certainly in the case of LPFM “faith-based” institutions with national reach were able to coordinate their applications and win a lot of the limited low-power spectrum that was available (at least one church got in trouble with the FCC for excessive collaboration). I’m not saying that radio should not be emanating from your local church (the applications overwhelmingly came from Christian groups), but there is surely some irony in pushing aside entrepreneurial locals entirely such that nationally affiliated religious groups filled the void. As Streeter suggests here, might the issue be less about commerce than the size, political power, and risk-aversion of the institutions that hold most of the policy levers? Does a more local, but still commercial, sphere of media contribute to a more robust system of media, fewer “walled gardens” and more jungle-like pea-patches? We might ask whether such a system would fulfill Streeter’s call for reform that promotes a more “direct” form of cultural production but also whether that “directness” lends itself to progressivity and social justice, or would it veer toward the more troubling faces of populism?

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