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Corporate Media and the Threat to Democracy

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The second joint press appearance of George W. Bush and Al Gore will take place tonight in Winston-Salem on the campus of Wake Forest University. The networks have agreed to exclusion of third-party candidates. This evening’s two-party show is brought to us by some of the largest corporations in the country, with campaign contributions flowing in to the Democrats and the Republicans at similar rates.

The Commission on Presidential Debates is an unelected body made up of an equal number of Democrats and Republicans. The commission is a private corporation that exists to protect the two-party system. The Commission on Presidential Debates was formed in 1987, with the national chairs of the Republican and Democratic parties, Frank Fahrenkopf and Paul Kirk, the self-declared co-chairs. Today they still hold these positions. The New York Times recently quoted Paul Kirk as saying that he believed the commission should exclude third-party candidates from the debates, and that as chairman it was his responsibility to strengthen the two-party system.

This at a time when corporate control of the media is at unprecedented levels. Bottom-line considerations dumb down the news and narrow the range of opinion. As highlighted by the debates, the powerful broadcast lobby pretty much gets what it wants.

We go now to a speech given recently by Robert McChesney, one of the foremost experts on issues of media and democracy.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: And you are listening to Pacifica Radio’s Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, here with Juan González.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yes, and, Amy, the European Union hasn’t only been changing its stance toward Yugoslavia. Its executive body on Wednesday conditionally approved America Online’s $129 billion acquisition of Time Warner Inc., removing another obstacle in the proposed combination between these octopuses of the media.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s right. And this is really the topic that we’re going to take on today, is the corporate media. And I think it is important that this is happening as tonight the second presidential debate will be taking place in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, again, according to the same rules, excluding third parties.

You know, Juan, going back to 1987 at the news conference where the GOP chair at the time, Frank Fahrenkopf, who’s now head of the American Gaming Association — we’re not supposed to say “gambling” — and Democratic chair Paul Kirk announced that the Commission on Presidential Debates had been formed and that they themselves would be co-chairs, positions they still hold 13 years later. This was in The New York Times. It said, “Fahrenkopf indicated that the new Commission on Presidential Debates … was not likely to look with favor on including third-party candidates in the debates.” It goes on to say, “Mr. Kirk was less equivocal, saying he personally believed the panel should exclude third-party candidates from the debates.” “As a party chairman,” said Kirk, “it’s my responsibility to strengthen the two-party system.”

And that is really what is happening right now as the corporate spigot is completely open to both the Democrats and the Republicans. In fact, the debate is sponsored by Anheuser-Busch, why we’re calling the debates “Debate Lite” — you know, “Budweiser Light” is written all over the recreation area for the press. In the last debate, the Ford Motor Company press credentials that each of the reporters sported.

Well, we thought this was a very important time to look at how — and now the corporate media will cover this debate; each of the networks will show this as a debate, as opposed to a joint press appearance — to bring you the words of Robert McChesney. Robert McChesney is a professor of media studies at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. His latest book is Rich Media, Poor Democracy: Communication Politics in Dubious Times. He gave this speech recently, where he talks about information, quoting Jefferson, the currency of democracy. What is the impact on democracy if that currency is owned, printed, packaged and distributed by a handful of megacorporations? Corporate control of media is at unprecedented levels, he says. So, now let’s go on to that speech of professor Robert McChesney.

ROBERT McCHESNEY: The issue I’ve come to talk about today is of the utmost importance. It’s the relationship of media to democracy, the crisis of democracy in the United States today and the role of the media, the press, in that crisis, and what we can do about it, what we should do about it, in the months and years and decades to come.

I think if you look at democratic theory, you see that there are really three core elements that are necessary to have a viable political democracy. The first thing to have a real democracy, a viable democracy, where people actually rule their own lives, is that you can’t have a great deal of social inequality. You can’t have a democracy if you’ve got a handful of very wealthy and a mass of very poor. If you think about it, it just won’t work. If you’ve got that much inequality, for a variety of reasons, it will be very difficult for the poor to ever really participate remotely closely as equals, and then eventually you won’t have a democracy anymore.

This is not an original concept, I might point out. I can’t take credit for that observation. It goes back, in fact, to the very first generation or second generation of democracy coming about in Athens in the 4th century and 5th century B.C. Aristotle wrote about this in the Politics. Aristotle said real clearly, democracy can’t exist with inequality. You have a choice: You want democracy, you get rid of inequality. If you don’t get rid of inequality, you can’t have democracy. And that’s something that should really be underlined and remembered by those of us who are interested in democracy, how important that it is, because in our current era, the call for not only accepting, but glorifying extreme social inequality, as we have in the United States, is extremely powerful and, unfortunately, rarely countered. And it’s something that I think we should immediately and permanently counter.

Secondly, a democracy can only work effectively if there’s a sense that the well-being of others affects your well-being, just, essentially, there’s something in it more than just yourself, that you’re in this with other people, there’s a community involved, that if everyone around you sinks and you’re still sitting on an island, you don’t sit there and say, “Gee, I just won,” but you say, “Gee, there goes my community. My life’s terrible.”

Regrettably, in our current situation, with a very strident free-market mentality, we live in an era in which just the opposite is the constant message beat into people’s brains: Take care of number one, put on your blinders, don’t think about the person next to you, don’t think about that person down the road, don’t think about the person in the neighborhood that you no longer have to drive through because you can do everything on the internet. Just think about number one, and if you’re happy, everything’s fine. And anyway, we’re told by the pundits, greed is good. Greed is good. Well, that’s nonsense. You can’t have a democracy in that case. That’s a recipe for disaster.

This is a point that Adam Smith, the frequently invoked ideologue of the far right, of the free-market right today, well understood. One of the things we know about Adam Smith, the British economist who was allegedly the architect of free-market policies and eliminating welfare spending, is that the people who invoke his name have never read him. Were they ever to read Adam Smith, they would discover a very different individual from the one who’s frequently invoked as the architect of free-market policies. In fact, Smith came up with the notion of the invisible hand, to talk about how the market worked, to wrestle with the clear paradox of a capitalist or business-run society. Smith said — he was a moral philosopher, understand — How can a society in which everyone is looking out for number one, and is rewarded for being selfish and being greedy, be a good society? How can a society in which you don’t care about others, you can be rewarded for that and rise to the top, be considered a morally or ethically good society? Of course, this vision of a society, of this market society, completely violated all theological precepts that predated it, from all religions and all moral philosophy. And that’s where Smith came up with the idea of the invisible hand. He said, sure, it looks really goofy. Everyone being completely greedy and taking care of number one produces the best possible outcome and the most happiness for everyone. On the surface, that’s a contradiction, but because of the invisible hand of the market working, it produces the optimum social outcome. Everyone being greedy produces a society in which everyone maximizes their happiness. But, in fact, it’s an absurd scenario. And I think the degree of demoralization and despair in our society is a clear indication of just how bankrupt that view is. And I think Smith never took it seriously. In fact, I know he didn’t.

And third and finally, if you’re going to have a viable democracy, you’ve got to have an informed citizenry. And now, this, once again, is a no-brainer. James Madison, the fourth president, I think — yeah, fourth, yeah — of the United States, late in his career put it well, and I’ll paraphrase this quote. He said, “A popular democracy without a press system that informs and engages people, is a prelude to a tragedy or a farce, or both.” If you don’t have — if people can’t have access to be informed on affairs of the day, generate opinions, have a clear reckoning and accounting for the people in power and the people who want to be in power, the right to vote, the right to be a citizen doesn’t mean a whole heck of a lot. It’s mandatory to have that to have a viable democracy.

I think, quite clearly, this third element — media — is central to democracy. But I would also argue, not only is it central to number three, but it’s also implicated in both the first two. And our current media system, in my view, regrettably, is working against democracy on all three of those counts, particularly number three. Now, having said that, I want to underline one point: I don’t think the media are the primary cause of the problems we face or the only cause. I think they’re one of the causes and an important cause. But the process of democratizing our society does not come exclusively through changing the media, because that alone won’t do it. But the process of changing the media has to be part of any program to rejuvenate democracy in this country, and probably in most any other country that enjoys the sort of system we have in the United States today.

Now, I guess, before I move on to the media, let’s — one last point. Let’s clear up a myth. There’s a myth going around that we live in a democracy here. You’re probably familiar with that one. Lots of students I asked today, they all agreed: Yes, this is a democracy. And I asked, you know, “Why is this a democracy? What are the criteria by which the United States is a democracy today?” And I think the sort of reason is, well, the classical reason: the rule of the many. Is this a democracy because the people of this country make the fundamental, important social and political decisions? Well, no one thought that was the case, because, clearly, the many don’t make any of those decisions. They have very little say over most important decisions in this country. Significant percentage of important decisions are made by corporations and the private sector, completely unaccountable to the public. And those that are made in the public sector are generally made behind closed doors with minimal public participation.

So, what exactly is the degree of — why are we a democracy in this country? Well, it generally comes down to two things. One, you have a right to do what I’m doing here: get up and blow off steam and belly-ache and whine and say whatever you want, without being thrown in the hoosegow. And I think that’s a wonderful right, and I’ll fight for our right to do that. But that’s not democracy. Democracy is the rule of the many. Democracy is actual power in the hands of people who live in a country. It’s not just the right to stand up and complain about the fact you don’t have any power. Democracy means really having power.

And the second factor is that you can vote. OK, we don’t really know what they’re doing. OK, we don’t really have any control over what we’re doing. But at least every two or four years, we can vote them out if we don’t like their commercials. So we’re a democracy. That seems to be the logic here. And if that is the logic, that’s what our tenuous read is that makes us a democracy — we have the formal right to vote out people or vote in new people — I think it tells us just how far we are from any sort of meaningful democracy. I don’t think any of you need to have me catalog the deplorable nature of electoral politics in the United States today. The current system we have is simply no working, or at least it’s not working very well. There are exceptions, of course, but, in general, the exceptions are few.

Now, the fight for democracy has been going on for a long time. It didn’t just start six months or a year ago. It began back in Greece. And the core fight for democracy historically, until this century, the leading fight for proponents of democracy was always to extend the franchise to an ever-increasing part of the adult population. That was the main democratic battle until this century. Back in the time of Greece, in Athens, in the other Greek democratic city-states, the battle over who got to be a citizen and who didn’t was a central battle. The more the citizenship franchise was extended into the adult population, the more poor people had power, the more that it was a threat to those with wealth and power, and the more they fought it. And it was a key fight of that period.

It has been a major fight in U.S. history. For those of you who have studied American history, you’re well aware, I assume, that at the time of the American Revolution, in the early constitutional period, a fundamental fight was over what sort of democracy we would have in this country. It’s a fight that, in many respects, is being fought out to this day still. On one side, you had Thomas Paine and Ben Franklin, who believe in universal adult male suffrage — and adult suffrage, in some cases — and believed in a democracy of the many, with the power — with a single legislative body with maximum power to the voters. On the other side, you had people like John Adams, the second president, John Jay, the first chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, who were opposed to democracy, who were opposed to popular rule, who wanted to work hard to see that a system be set up to minimize the possibility that the many could overrule the interests of the few. Both Adams and Jay counted among their very favorite expressions the saying “Those who own the country ought to govern it.” And both of them worked assiduously to see the franchise restricted as much as possible.

Now, the battle for universal suffrage was fought throughout the 19th century. And by the 20th century, it began to turn the tide, and we had, largely, universal adult suffrage by the 1920s, with the exception of the U.S. South, which finally came along in about late 1960s. But we see in the 20th century the change — the struggle for democracy takes a turn. On one hand, you have universal suffrage granted, but the voting rates then begin to decline. And then the fight between democrats and anti-democrats takes a different turn. It’s no longer over the right to vote. That fight has been won. But it’s whether the right to vote will mean anything, whether the right to vote should have any content. In that fight right now, the anti-democrats are winning considerably. The low voter turnout, I submit, is not an accident, a fluke, just sort of a bad hair day for the voters. The low voter turnout responds to long-term strong pressure by those who wish very much to minimize the possibility of democracy in this nation as in others.

AMY GOODMAN: Robert McChesney, professor of media studies at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and author of the book Rich Media, Poor Democracy. We’ll be back with his speech he recently gave in just a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: You’re listening to Pacifica Radio’s Democracy Now! as we continue with the speech of professor Robert McChesney, author of Rich Media, Poor Democracy: Communication Politics in Dubious Times.

ROBERT McCHESNEY: Public relations, the industry of public relations, is clearly a result of the rise of universal suffrage. And it’s how powerful, moneyed interests dealt with the fact that they had to deal with universal suffrage and the threat that the many could outvote the few and might exercise their interests. As Alex Carey, the Australian, put it, there are three great developments in the 20th century: one, the rise of universal adult suffrage; second, the rise of the corporation to dominate the political economy of societies; and third, the rise of public relations to protect corporations from universal suffrage, the rise of public relations publicity to take the risk out of democracy, to limit the ability of democracy to actually be democracy.

And this is done through any number of mechanisms, but the most brilliant way it can be done is to produce a general populace that’s demoralized, depoliticized and, rather than having to be oppressed, simply doesn’t get involved at all — exactly what we see in the United States, I think probably the most depoliticized society in the world, with the exception formerly of Russia. I don’t know what’s going on there now, but under the communists, the Soviet society was fairly depoliticized, as well. But we’re clearly — we’re a tyrant’s envy for degree of depoliticization.

And it’s worth noting, as I said, this isn’t an accident. Around the world, as the free-market policies are spread — and the term for this globally is called “neoliberalism,” the idea of getting rid of labor unions, limiting their power, getting rid of social spending that might have helped poor people and working-class people as opposed to the other subsidies never talked about that go to powerful interests, the idea of lowering taxes and regulations on wealthy people and on business — these sets of policies that are called neoliberalism, the Reagan-Thatcher revolution, that are being adopted increasingly around the world, it’s not just an economic model. It’s a political model. This model of capitalism, neoliberalism, depends on having a neoliberal political culture, exactly like we have today. Ours is the model of what a neoliberal political culture is. It’s a culture where politics is downplayed, consumption is emphasized. And the media is crucial to the development of this type of model, and I’ll go into that in a second.

One example of this that’s quite interesting is the country of Chile, the nation of Chile, which in the early — prior to 1973, was considered arguably the most vibrant political culture in the world, certainly in the Third World. If you were to go to Santiago, Chile, prior to 1973, you would see literally 10, 12, 15 daily newspapers in the capital city of Santiago. The voter turnout rate was the highest in the world. It was the sort of country where you could talk to anyone in the street about politics and have a conversation that would make a college professor blush in the United States today. It was a highly politicized society. In 1970, they had the temerity to elect a socialist president. And then, three years later, the Chilean military overthrew that elected government — I guess there was no more time for democracy there — and installed one of the most brutal dictatorships of the century in that country.

But during that dictatorship, while they were clearing out the democrats — can’t have that, because the wrong side won — they had crafted a new constitution that was to go into effect when they did make their return to democracy, after it was safe, once they were sure that the bad guys couldn’t possibly win. Then you can have democracy again. And the new constitution was drafted by a gentleman named José Guzmán. And a friend of mine who’s a Chilean scholar translated portions of it for me, and the correspondence that led up to the Chilean constitution. And what they decided was, they said, “What’s the ideal sort of political culture for a market economy?” And they said, “The United States really has it right. You need to have a healthy democracy in a market economy. What you have to have is a situation where both political parties basically agree on everything. You have to have a situation where whoever wins, they can’t affect the balance of power in society. The economic institutions are untouched.” And they said, “You know, it’s really not a bad thing if people don’t vote. That’s actually a really good thing. So high voter absenteeism and lack of interest is really a healthy phenomenon.” That was the argument Guzmán made. “So, let’s try to construct — you know, this stuff of 95% voter turnout, 12 daily newspapers, people really interested in issues, now, that’s for the birds. You know, that’s good for civics class, but that’s not going to cut it in the real world. That led to Allende last time. We’ve got to get rid of that stuff.”

So, now we have Chile returned to democracy, in its tepid new model, 10 years ago now almost, nine years ago. Vote turnout has plummeted. In the last Chilean election, I don’t know the exact figure. My Chilean friend told me this. An astounding number of people left their ballots blank upon voting, 10, 20%. The culture’s been largely depoliticized, the shop-’til-you-drop, me-first mentality overwhelming the middle class. Neoliberal political democracy has won, or seems to have won.

And that’s the sort of culture that goes well with the sort of economy we have now. And as I think it’s clear from my comments, this type of neoliberal “democracy” — quote-unquote, “democracy” — this type of neoliberal policies of unbridled market capitalism goes directly against what you need if you’re going to have a viable democracy. And the sort of political culture we have in this country today is not an accident. It’s not a mistake. It’s exactly what’s appropriate for the type of economy we have. This is it. Get used to it, or change it. And if you’re going to change it, you’re probably going to have to change our economy, or some aspect of it, to have any hope of long-term success.

Now, the media, as I’ve said, are strongly implicated in the neoliberal democratic culture. And the media, of course, occupies all of our attention. A recent survey I saw said that, I think, the average American now consumes 11-and-a-half hours of media a day — an all-time high, you’ll be glad to know. Hey, who says we aren’t number one? And we’re in the midst of stunning changes in our media culture, as I’m sure you’re all aware. To some extent, these are technological changes due to digital communication, the expansion of channels, the rise of the internet, satellite and cable. And to a large extent less talked about, the changes in our media culture today are a result of market economics and also neoliberal policies, which have promoted economic concentration and commercialization of media, which I’m going to talk about in a second.

In particular, a law passed in 1996, the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which completely revamped the basis of regulation for radio, television, electronic communication, telephony, data, the internet, is central, this law, to what’s going to come in the next generation or two. It’s generally considered one of the two or three most important laws of the decade, one of the seminal laws of the last 20 or 25 years. The law it replaced, the Communications Act of 1934, was responsible for the development of radio and television, and it was in power for 62 years, to give some sense of how significant these laws are.

Well, the Telecommunications Act of 1996, befitting a neoliberal democracy, was passed in a manner that would probably have embarrassed Mobutu or Suharto. The law received almost no press coverage whatsoever. It was undebated in Congress. It was covered extensively in the business and trade press, where it was covered as an issue of importance to investors and to shareholders, to managers, but never covered anywhere as an interest of — as an issue of importance to citizens, to people, the media system that will dominate and rule for the coming generations.

The basic premise of the law was that whoever can make the most money should win. Notions of public service, that there is something that should be exacted from private media operators that use the public airwaves, were minimized, with the idea that competition, we were told, would lead to the optimum results and produce the best of all possible worlds for all of us. We were told the Telecommunications Act of 1996 would lead to vast new entrance into all the communication markets, improving quality, lowering prices. Now, of course, this was silly. If it was going to do anything like that, the firms that pushed it through would have never let it get passed. They’re not stupid. The law was basically written by and for a handful of dominant firms with massive lobbyists. And there were tremendous fights over this bill. The fights were between the cable companies and the satellite companies and the telephone long distance and the telephone local over who’s going to get the best deal, who’s going to get the biggest slice of the pie.

Conspicuously not represented at the table, then or now, is the public, the public interest. What do we get? There, we’re told that competition will serve us as they allegedly compete for services. And I think we’ve seen the degree of competition so far that this bill has brought. It’s led to the largest and most massive wave of mergers and consolidation in media and telecommunications in the history of, you know, humanity, whatever you want to call it — history, period — in this country or any other. And I’ll get back to this a little bit later, some of the implications of this, because it’s a quite astonishing piece of legislation, that was, as I said, completely undebated in Congress. And the public — most people in the public are not even aware it passed.

So, what we have seen in the United States this decade is the result of market economics, deregulation or technology — a stunning reformation and transformation of the media system in the United States and globally. During this decade, we’ve seen rapidly emerge a first tier of seven, eight, nine firms that thoroughly dominate our media system. There’s another tier of maybe 10 to 12 firms that round out the system. But once you get past these first 20 or 22 firms, you’ve basically got people who publish most of the books, most of the magazines, most of the newspapers, own almost all the cable channels, cable systems, film studios, record companies, book publishing companies, billboard companies, radio stations, TV stations, internet portals — soon to be — in the business. It’s a small group of people.

And it is a fairly dramatic change. We’ve always had a commercial media system, for example. And in the 1940s or 1950s, this was a highly concentrated industry, so that if you were to come to the United — look at the United States media in 1960 or 1950, all the major media sectors — magazine publishing, book publishing, radio, television broadcasting, films, music — each of these were dominated by a relative handful of firms, two or three at the low end, up to 10 or 12 at the high end. But they tended to be firms in different industries. What’s happened since the 1980s is the number of firms in each of these industries has shrunk a little bit, but, more importantly, what’s happened is that the dominant firms are now major players in each of these sectors or in many of these sectors. The largest firms have become conglomerates.

So, 1983, when Ben Bagdikian wrote the first version of his seminal work, The Media Monopoly, he talked about 50 firms that dominated all of mass media. In the five editions of the book he’s published since then, he’s got it down to 10 now, thanks to mergers and acquisitions. And the top tier of firms now that really dominates our media system are massive firms, 10 or 15 times larger than they were just a decade ago, due to mergers and acquisitions and internal growth, vastly larger and more powerful and influential than they ever were before.

Well, who are these guys? This is a very abstract talk. Let’s put some meat on these bones. The largest media firm in the world is Time Warner. They’ll do $28 billion of business this year. Then comes Disney. It’ll do $25 billion of business this year. Then, roughly in the right order, Viacom — and probably many of you haven’t heard of Viacom, because it’s really not a trade name, but they own Nickelodeon, MTV, Simon & Schuster, Blockbuster, Showtime, Paramount Film Studios, a lot of other stuff, too, but that’s their primary stuff; let’s see, TCI, the cable company, is in the process of being bought by AT&T; Sony, the huge Japanese conglomerate electronics manufacturer, which owns Columbia and TriStar Films and has major music interests; General Electric, the largest — the most lucrative firm in the world, which owns NBC; Seagram, the Canadian drinks manufacturer, which owns Universal Studios and which just recently bought PolyGram for their music interests; and then, finally, you could probably put in CBS, massive television and radio interest. But that’s really the first tier of American firms. And as I said, there’s a second tier, which includes most of the large newspaper chains and some of the cable companies, a handful of other firms.

Now, why have they done this? Why have firms gone from — why did we have to leave the good old days of, you know, firms dominating one particular sector but not trying to be in others? Well, the reason is really pretty simple. What these firms have learned is that the profit whole, when you own a bunch of — are a major player in a bunch of different sectors, is vastly greater than the sum of the profit parts. When you’re a media conglomerate, if you play your cards right — and it doesn’t always work — you’re in a position where you can make a lot more money than if you just are a player in one sector. And the logic of this is such in the market that firms that only have — firms that only have holdings in book publishing or music or television can’t really compete with their competitors who have those things plus other things. You got to be a player in everything, or you really have to get out.

I’ll give you an example of what one firm owns, the largest firm, to give a sense of what a modern media conglomerate tries to look like. Take Time Warner. Time Warner is one of the major film studios of the world. It owns Warner Bros. and New Line Cinema. It also is one of the biggest movie theater-owning companies in the world, although most of its theaters are outside the United States. It’s the largest cable system company in the United States, cable systems. And it’s also the largest cable TV channel company. Its cable TV channels include HBO, CNN, all the CNN stations, the Turner stations, TBS, TNT, Court TV, a bunch of other things. It’s one of the largest book publishing companies in the world. It’s the largest magazine publishing company in the United States. It’s one of the three largest music companies, Warner-Elektra-Atlantic Records, in the world. It has retail stores. It has amusement parks. It’s — and I’m leaving something out, I’m sure, that’s worth billions of dollars, and I apologize for that. Trust me, they’re doing fine.

Well, why do you have to own — what can you do with all this sort of property? What advantages does this give a company like Time Warner? Well, let’s take Disney for a second, and I’ll give the most extreme example, but I think this really applies across the board. And that is the film The Lion King. Sure many of you saw that film. It was a Disney animated film made in 1994. The Lion King was a smash hit. It generated approximately, I think, $700 million in global box office, which is really a lot of money for a film. I mean, it puts it in the top five of all time. It might have even been number one before Titanic, I’m not sure, but it’s way up there. So it’s a lucrative film. But Disney gets to keep about half of that. The rest goes to the movie theater owners. So, Disney gets maybe $350 million for Titanic — or, excuse me, Lion King.

Well, how much profit does Disney make on Lion King, do you think? Well, they made over a billion dollars in profit — not just revenue, but profit. How do you get a billion dollars of profit out of $350 million of revenue? That’s good math. Well, look at what else Disney owns, and you can see where the money is. Disney also owns — besides having a film studio, it owns ABC and the Disney Channel. So it can create TV shows, spinoffs, based on The Lion King. It also has book publishing and CD-ROM and comic book publishing interests, so it can publish all sorts of Lion King-related books and CD-ROMs. It has music, so it can do Lion King CDs. And it has amusement parks, so you can go to Disney World, Euro Disney, Disneyland, Disney Japan, and see Lion King rides and other accoutrements. And then, of course, there are 600 Disney Stores gracing the malls of America and the world, you’ll be glad to know. And in all of those stores, there’s a heavy dose of Lion King merchandise and paraphernalia to be sold. In short, there’s a lot of money to be made from a successful cash-cow film.

It also means, in the case of Disney, that when they make a film that’s only mediocre at the box office, like their three subsequent animated films — Pocahontas, Hunchback of Notre Dame and Hercules — all of which did about $200 million globally and $100 million in the United States, each of those films generated over $500 million in profit — profit — using the same revenue streams I’ve talked about for Lion King.

Well, if you think about the logic here, if you’re making animated films and you want to compete with Disney, if you don’t have all their other revenue streams, you’ve got a lot more risk facing you than Disney has. If you make a film that bombs at the box office and that’s your only source of income, you’re in big trouble. You might be out of business. Disney makes one that bombs at the box office, they can still make a profit. And so it is that the only competitors in the animated films market are those connected to the four largest media firms.

AMY GOODMAN: Robert McChesney, professor of media studies at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. He’s author of Rich Media, Poor Democracy. You are listening to Pacifica Radio’s Democracy Now! We’ll be back in a minute.

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