"In a time of universal deceit telling the truth is a revolutionary act." -George Orwell

Posts Tagged ‘Corporate Consolidation’

How Can The US Solve Its Problems When The Corporate Media Has Turned Into The National Enquirer?

In Uncategorized on June 9, 2011 at 2:05 pm

Oldspeak:”I call it “The Real World Effect”. Since the advent of the ‘reality’ show it seems that slowly people have become more concerned about scripted reality than actual reality. Obsession with celebrities’ and politicians’ sexual proclivities and “fabulous lives”. Poor and obese peoples path to redemption through hard work and beneficent rich persons. Anonymous persons rising to fame and fortune via televised dance and singing popularity contests. TV ready marriage minded singles finding “love” via an outlandish and demeaning relationship vetting process when the contestants ply their sexual and whatever other wares to vie for the attention of the desired man/woman.  Meanwhile, in actual reality civil liberties are eroded. Worldwide war is authorized. Access to information is censored and you’re surveiled. Your environment is being destroyed. Your children and food are being contaminated with toxins and poisons. And corporate media has very little if anything to say about these life altering realities. We can expect to continue to witness the downward spiral of the U.S. economically, morally, and socially until reality is focused on and dealt with in a meaningful & substantive way.

By Mark Karlin @ Truthout:

There is no escaping the salacious Anthony Weiner Internet scandal. Since the mainstream corporate media – for the most part – merged politics, news, entertainment, celebrity personalities and sensationalism, it’s been almost impossible to have an informed national discussion on public policy.

One Weiner “confessional” news conference is worth more in advertising revenue than a year of covering our wars that have spanned a decade.

A sizeable percentage of Americans are out of work and without a safety net, Medicare and Social Security are under siege, wars are being fought that receive only sporadic coverage and the disparity in income in America is at its widest point in memory. Yet, these and other pressing issues play a distant second fiddle to a Congressman engaged in sexual titillation over the web and on the phone – however creepy and inappropriate that may be.

The Weiner affair is just the latest example of what Chris Hedges calls “spectacle” coverage superseding the dissemination of news that informs and enlightens.

Weiner – as he noted in his news conference on June 6 – will have to answer to his wife, his constituents and Congress.

The news media that is increasingly evolving into a combination of the National Enquirer, People magazine and “American Idol” has to answer to history, as America descends into a tabloid future in which only the very rich will control the mass media “news” prism.

Unchecked Financial Speculation Drives Oil Price Hikes; Is There A Scam Behind The Rise In Oil And Food Prices?

In Uncategorized on May 13, 2011 at 1:50 pm

Oldspeak“Approximately 60 to 70 percent of the oil contracts in the futures markets are now held by speculative entities. Not by companies that need oil, not by the airlines, not by the oil companies. But by investors who profit money from their speculative positions.” -Dan Gilligan, president of the Petroleum Marketers Association.  It’s a scam folks, it’s nothing but a huge scam and it’s destroying the US economy as well as the entire global economy but no one complains because they are ‘only’ stealing about $1.50 per gallon from each individual person in the industrialized world.” -Phil Davis, Financial Expert. The debate in washington over cutting oil subsidies is another manufactured issue, diverting attention from the true cause of rising oil and commodities prices; unregulated, unchecked financial speculation and derivatives trading. Coincidentally the cause of the recent crash of the global economic system. Recently passed “financial reform” did nothing to reform this fatally flawed financial system. A simple and totally correctable (stricter regulation) flaw; corporate media, corporate economists,  no one is talking about it. “no one wants to talk about, because so many powerful people armed with legions of lawyers want unquestioning allegiance, and will sue you into silence.”- Danny Schechter. High gas prices are being used by Big Oil and their minions in the Congress to push for more offshore drilling, and as a grab of oil production by major multinationals from smaller oil companies. Naked oligarchy rules the day in America.

By Danny Schechter @ The News Dissector:

The global economy and its recovery, and the living standards of millions of plain folks, are now at risk from the sudden rise in oil and commodity prices.

Gas at the pump is up, and going higher. Food prices are following.

The consequences are catastrophic for the global poor as their costs go up while their income doesn’t. It’s menacing American workers too, who in large part have not seen a meaningful raise since the days of Reagan (keeping it this way is clearly behind the current flurry of attacks on unions).

Already, unrest in the Middle East and many African countries is being blamed for these dramatic increases. It seems as if this threat to global stability is being largely ignored in our media, one that treats the oil business as just another mystical world of free market trading.

Why is it happening? Why all the volatility? Is oil getting scarcer, leading to price increases? Is the cost of food, similarly, a reflection of naturally increasing commodity prices?

While it’s true that natural disasters and droughts play some role in this unchecked price inflation, it also seems apparent that something else is attracting increasing attention, even if most of our media fails to explore what is a political time bomb, while most political leaders shrug their shoulder and ignore it.

President Obama recently said there is nothing he can do about the hike in oil and food prices.

Critics say the problem is that government and media outlets alike refuse to recognize what’s really going on: unchecked speculation!

Not everyone buys into this suspicion. In fact, it is one of more intense subjects of debate in economics. Princeton University economist Paul Krugman pooh-poohs the impact of speculation counter posing the traditional argument that oil prices are set by supply and demand.

The Economist Magazine agrees, summing up its views with a pithy phrase, “Speculation does not drive the oil price. Driving does.”

Others, like oil industry analyst Michael Klare of Hampshire College in the US see demand outdistancing supply:

“Consider the recent rise in the price of oil just a faint and early tremor heralding the oilquake to come. Oil won’t disappear from international markets, but in the coming decades it will never reach the volumes needed to satisfy projected world demand, which means that, sooner rather than later, scarcity will become the dominant market condition.”

Usually you hear this debate in scholarly circles or read it in political tracts where orthodox views collide with more alarmist projections about the oil supply “peaking.”

But officials in the Third World don’t see the subject as academic. Reserve Bank of India Governor Duvvuri Subbarao charges “Speculative movements in commodity derivative markets are also causing volatility in prices,” he said.

The World Bank is meeting on this issue this week because it is seen as a matter of “utmost urgency.”

“The price of food is a matter of life and death for the very poorest people in the world,” said Tom Arnold, CEO of Concern Worldwide, the international humanitarian agency, ahead of his participation at The Open Forum on Food at World Bank headquarters.

He adds, “…with many families spending up to 80% of their income on basic foods to survive, even the slightest increase in price can have devastating effects and become a crises for the poorest.”

Journalist Josh Clark argues on the website “How Stuff Works” that much of the oil speculation is rooted in the financial crisis, “The next time you drive to the gas station, only to find prices are still sky high compared to just a few years ago, take notice of the rows of foreclosed houses you’ll pass along the way. They may seem like two parts of a spell of economic bad luck, but high gas prices and home foreclosures are actually very much interrelated. Before most people were even aware there was an economic crisis, investment managers abandoned failing mortgage-backed securities and looked for other lucrative investments. What they settled on was oil futures.”

The debate within the industry is more subdued, perhaps to avoid a public fight between suppliers and distributors who don’t want to rock the boat. But some officials like Dan Gilligan, president of the Petroleum Marketers Association, representing 8,000 retail and wholesale suppliers has spoken out.

He argues, “Approximately 60 to 70 percent of the oil contracts in the futures markets are now held by speculative entities. Not by companies that need oil, not by the airlines, not by the oil companies. But by investors who profit money from their speculative positions.”

Now, a prominent and popular market analyst is throwing caution to the wind by blowing the whistle on speculators.

Finance expert Phil Davis runs a website and widely read newsletter to monitor stocks and options trades. He’s a professional’s professional, whose grandfather taught him to buy stocks when he was just ten years old.

His website is Phil’s Stock World, and stocks are his world. He’s subtitled the site, “High Finance for Real People.”

He is usually a sober and calm analyst, not known as maverick or dissenter.

When I met Phil the other night, he was on fire, enraged by what he believes is the scam of the century that no one wants to talk about, because so many powerful people armed with legions of lawyers want unquestioning allegiance, and will sue you into silence.

He studies the oil/food issue carefully and has concluded, “It’s a scam folks, it’s nothing but a huge scam and it’s destroying the US economy as well as the entire global economy but no one complains because they are ‘only’ stealing about $1.50 per gallon from each individual person in the industrialized world.”

“It’s the top 0.01% robbing the next 39.99% – the bottom 60% can’t afford cars anyway (they just starve quietly to death, as food prices climb on fuel costs). If someone breaks into your car and steals a $500 stereo, you go to the police, but if someone charges you an extra $30 every time you fill up your tank 50 times a year ($1,500) you shut up and pay your bill. Great system, right?”

Phil is just getting started, as he delves into the intricacies of the NYMEX market that handles these trades:

“The great thing about the NYMEX is that the traders don’t have to take delivery on their contracts, they can simply pay to roll them over to the next settlement price, even if no one is actually buying the barrels. That’s how we have developed a massive glut of 677 Million barrels worth of contracts in the front four months on the NYMEX and, come rollover day – that will be the amount of barrels “on order” for the front 3 months, unless a lot barrels get dumped at market prices fast.”

“Keep in mind that the entire United States uses ‘just’ 18M barrels of oil a day, so 677M barrels is a 37-day supply of oil. But, we also make 9M barrels of our own oil and import ‘just’ 9M barrels per day, and 5M barrels of that is from Canada and Mexico who, last I heard, aren’t even having revolutions. So, ignoring North Sea oil Brazil and Venezuela and lumping Africa in with OPEC, we are importing 3Mbd from unreliable sources and there is a 225-day supply under contract for delivery at the current price or cheaper plus we have a Strategic Petroleum Reserve that holds another 727 Million barrels (full) plus 370M barrels of commercial storage in the US (also full) which is another 365.6 days of marginal oil already here in storage in addition to the 225 days under contract for delivery.”

These contracts for oil outnumber their actual delivery, a sign of speculation and market manipulation, as oil companies win government authorizations for wells but then don’t open them for exploration or exploitation. It’s all a game of manipulating oil supply to keep prices up. And no one seems to be regulating it.

What Phil sees is a giant but intricate game of market manipulation and rigging by a cartel—not just an industry—that actually has loaded tankers criss-crossing the oceans but only landing when the price is right.
“There is nothing that the conga-line of tankers between here and OPEC would like to do more than unload an extra 277 Million barrels of crude at $112.79 per barrel (Friday’s close on open contracts and price) but, unfortunately, as I mentioned last week, Cushing, Oklahoma (Where oil is stored) is already packed to the gills with oil and can only handle 45M barrels if it started out empty so it is, very simply, physically impossible for those barrels to be delivered. This did not, however, stop 287M barrels worth of May contracts from trading on Friday and GAINING $2.49 on the day. “

He asks, “Who is buying 287,494 contracts (1,000 barrels per contract) for May delivery that can’t possibly be delivered for $2.49 more than they were priced the day before? These are the kind of questions that you would think regulators would be asking – if we had any.”

The TV news magazine 60 Minutes spoke with Dan Gilligan who noted that, investors don’t actually take delivery of the oil. “All they do is buy the paper, and hope that they can sell it for more than they paid for it. Before they have to take delivery.”

He says they make their fortunes “on the volatility that exists in the market. They make it going up and down.”

Payam Sharifi, at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, notes that even as the rise in oil prices threatens the world economy, there is almost total silence on the danger:

“This issue ought to be discussed again with a renewed interest – but the media and much of the populace at large have simply accepted high food and oil prices as an unavoidable fact of life, without any discussion of the causes of these price rises aside from platitudes.”

What can we do about that?

News Dissector Danny Schechter wrote an introduction to the recent reissue of a classic two-volume expose of John D. Rockefeller’s The Standard Oil Company, one of the top ten works top works of investigative reporting in America. (Cosimo Books) Comments to dissector@mediachannel.org

Despite Rhetoric, Cutting Oil Subsidies Would Have Little Effect on Gas Prices

By Nicholas Kusnetz @ Pro Publica:

Democrats renewed their push to cut oil subsidies this week, saying high gasoline prices and big revenues for oil and gas companies make this as good a time as any to eliminate billions in annual tax incentives to the industry. Republicans countered that higher taxes on oil companies would only mean higher prices for consumers.

Most experts agree, however, that the tax incentives in question don’t have much effect on gasoline prices, one way or the other.

“The impact would be extremely small,” said Stephen Brown, a professor of economics at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Brown co-wrote a study in 2009 arguing that if the subsidies were cut, the average person would spend, at most, just over $2 more each year on petroleum products.

This isn’t the first time Congress has debated the pros and cons of cutting the tax subsidies. President Obama has proposed eliminating some $4 billion in subsidies in each of his annual budgets since entering office in 2009 (the liberal Center for American Progress has a good breakdown of the President’s proposal). Senate Democrats this week introduced an alternative plan that would cut a little more than half as much, by targeting only the largest oil companies.

From the beginning, the Treasury Department has said the President’s proposal would raise prices at the pump by less than a cent per gallon at most. Brown’s study, produced for the non-partisan think tank Resources for the Future, came up with similar results. Even the American Petroleum Institute, which opposes cutting the subsidies, said in a press release on Monday that eliminating them wouldn’t affect gas prices.

The argument offered by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and other Republicans who oppose cutting the incentives is that it would drive up costs for oil and gas companies and ultimately reduce production and supply, leading to higher prices. (Domestic production, incidentally, has increased 10 percent over the last two years, and more oil wells were drilled in the U.S. last year than in any since 1985.)

As the Treasury Department’s analysis showed, the numbers don’t support McConnell’s assertion. Treasury’s Alan B. Krueger told a congressional subcommittee in 2009 that cutting tax incentives to the oil industry would raise costs by less than 2 percent and lead to a reduction in output of only one half of one percent. The United States produces about 10 percent of the world’s oil supply and holds less than 2 percent of global reserves. Since oil is a globally-traded commodity, a small drop in U.S. production would have an even smaller effect on the global price of oil.

In its 2012 budget proposal, the Obama Administration said cutting a number of tax breaks for the oil and gas industry would save more than $43 billion over the next decade. Republicans have opposed attempts to pass those subsidy cuts, most recently byrejecting attempts to attach them to a series of Republican-sponsored bills that aim to expand domestic drilling. On Tuesday, Senate Democrats introduced a bill that would cut subsidies only for the five biggest oil and gas companies, a more targeted plan that sponsors say would save $21 billion over the next 10 years.

There are other reasons why people support or oppose cutting these subsidies, including their effect on the budget deficit, job creation, reliance on foreign oil and interference in the free market. The President’s proposal could also shift more production from smaller oil companies, which tend to operate less productive wells, to the big multinationals, said Brown, the University of Nevada economist. The National Journal hosted a blog forum last week that gets into many of those arguments. Today, the Senate Finance Committee will host CEOs from the big five oil companies to discuss the topic.

Gas prices also have been the rallying cause for another set of proposals in Congress that would speed permitting and expand offshore drilling. House Republicans passedtwo of those bills in the last couple of weeks. A number of studies and reports have argued that the biggest of those proposals, expanded offshore drilling, probably wouldn’t affect gasoline prices much either.



What Does Proposed AT&T And T-Mobile Merger Mean?

In Uncategorized on March 23, 2011 at 1:21 pm

Oldspeak:“Corporate consolidation yields reduced choice, anti-democratic monopolistic practices, higher rates, worker elimination/job loss & price gouging. In an industry “regulated” by an agency (FCC)  it has captured, one has to wonder how closely this proposed deal will be scrutinized. If the recent ComcastNBC merger provides any indication, the answer appears to be not very closely atal. :-|”

By Eric K. Arnold @ The Media Consortium:

Welcome to the Wavelength, your bi-weekly field guide to the world of media policy. Over the next four months, we’ll be compiling great content, connecting the dots, building context, and reporting how media policy impacts the lives of everyday people. From the ongoing battle over Net Neutrality to the wild world of Internet regulation, from partisan crusades to media accountability, the Wavelength is here to keep you in the know.

This week, we’re focusing on major mergers, holding telecom giants accountable, and the revolving door at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

So, without further ado, let’s take a spin through the media zone.

AT&T to Absorb T-Mobile?

On Sunday, AT&T announced it had reached an agreement with T-Mobile to buy the mobile phone service provider for $39 billion. As reported in the New York Times,  the deal would “create the largest wireless carrier in the nation and promised to reshape the industry.”

The immediate upshot is that the number of nationwide wireless carriers would drop from four to three, with Sprint Nextel running a distant third behind AT&T/T-Mobile and Verizon. Another impact could be higher rates for current T-Mobile customers. Advocates of the deal suggest it could improve AT&T’s oft-criticized service, resulting in fewer dropped calls. However, critics note that the roughly $3 billion in projected annual cost savings will likely come at the expense of workers at the hundreds of retail outlets expected to close, if the deal goes through.

Both the Justice Department and the FCC have to sign off on the merger before it can be approved, a process that could take up to a year.

House adds insult to NPR’s injury

On St. Patrick’s Day, the Republican-controlled House voted 228-192 to end federal funding for NPR. The move came on the heels of a secretly recorded video from conservative activist James O’Keefe that purportedly showed NPR fundraiser Ronald Schiller expressing support for Islamic fundamentalism and disavowing the Tea Party as “racist” — leading Schiller and NPR CEO Vivian Schiller (no relation) to resign. The video was later revealed to be excerpted and heavily edited from a longer video which places Schiller’s remarks in context.

At TAPPED, Lindsay Beyerstein watched the entire two hour video, and notes that:

O’Keefe’s provocateurs didn’t get what they were looking for. They were ostensibly offering $5 million to NPR. Their goal is clearly to get Schiller and his colleague Betsy Liley to agree to slant coverage for cash. Again and again, they refuse, saying that NPR just wants to report the facts and be a nonpartisan voice of reason.

As reported in the Washington Times, the Democratic-controlled Senate is unlikely to pass the bill, making NPR’s federal funding safe—for now. However, the timing of the vote suggests that House Republicans are essentially endorsing O’Keefe’s questionable tactics, showing that their dislike of the so-called liberal media is of greater concern.

Telecoms add ramming to their list of illegal practices

A recent AlterNet story by David Rosen and Bruce Kushnick details sneaky, unethical, and possibly illegal telecom tactics, the most recent of which is “ramming.”

“Ramming” happens “when a phone company‘s customer is put on a service plan or package s/he did not need or want or cannot even use.” According to the article, “An estimated 80 percent of phone company customers have been overcharged or are on plans they did not need or even order. These and other scams can cost residential customers $20 or more a month extra and small business customers up to thousands of dollars a month.”

These practices are insidious because modern telephone bills are so cryptic that it’s not easy for even the most astute customer to figure out they’ve been duped.

Powell’s next move

Last Tuesday, former FCC chair Michael Powell announced that he has taken over as president of the National Cable and Telecommunications Association. Leading media advocacy organization Free Press snarkily congratulated Powell via a statement from Managing Director Craig Aaron:

If you wonder why common sense, public interest policies never see the light of day in Washington, look no further than the furiously spinning revolving door between industry and the FCC.

Former Chairman Michael Powell is the natural choice to lead the nation’s most powerful cable lobby, having looked out for the interests of companies like Comcast and Time Warner during his tenure at the Commission and having already served as a figurehead for the industry front group Broadband for America.

AT&T imposes monthly usage caps

Finally, we’ve got more bad news for those unlucky enough to have AT&T as their Internet and cable service provider. As Truthout’s Nadia Prupis recently reported, AT&T customers who use the company’s U-Verse cable TV service and DSL hi-speed Internet services in the United States can expect a bump in their monthly bills if they exceed a new usage cap – 50GB for DSL customers and 250 GB for U-Verse users. Those who exceed the storage fee will be charged $10 extra for every 50GB over the limit.

Surprisingly, the telecom behemoth continues to insist their price-gouging moves are in the consumer’s best interests. According to an AT&T press release: “Our new plan addresses another concern: customers strongly believe that only those who use the most bandwidth should pay more than those who don’t use as much.”

Personally, I don’t spend too much time thinking about how much bandwidth other people are using, as long as I’m getting the download speeds I’m paying for.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about media policy and media-related matters by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint and repost. To read more of The Wavelength, click here. For the best progressive reporting on critical economy, environment, health care and immigration issues, check out The AuditThe MulchThe Pulse and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets, and is produced with the support of the Media Democracy Fund.

AT&T To Buy T-Mobile: Great For Them, Bad For You

In Uncategorized on March 20, 2011 at 10:34 pm

Oldspeak:“Corporate consolidation continues its march on a path of destruction of choice and flouting of anti-trust laws. “Less competition always results in higher prices” -Sascha Segan. Coming soon, from AT&T/T-Mobile, higher prices, poorer service…. I might have to switch to CREDO MOBILE.  B & L soon come:”

By Sascha Segan @ PC Magazine:

AT&T just announced it will buy T-Mobile USA for $39 billion. If the transaction gets approved by the government and closes in a year as planned, it will create the nation’s largest wireless carrier by far.

While this is great news for both companies, it’s an awful idea for consumers – and I desperately hope the US antitrust authorities rake this merger over the coals.

An AT&T/T-Mobile merger at least makes more sense than the silly T-Mobile/Sprint idea which was being bandied about. Both carriers use the same technologies: GSM, HSPA+ and LTE. While they’re on different frequency bands, radios which use all of the relevant bands are becoming easier to build.

The merger neatly solves T-Mobile’s long-term problem of not having enough spectrum for LTE, the 4G technology which will soon be a global standard. It gives T-Mobile’s struggling parent, Deutsche Telekom, a gigantic cash infusion. And it lets AT&T once again position itself as the number-one carrier against Verizon Wireless, which leapfrogged AT&T technologically this year with Verizon’s 4G LTE launch.

AT&T is ahead of T-Mobile on building LTE. T-Mobile is far ahead of AT&T on building HSPA+, a intermediate 4G technology that fits right between the carriers’ existing 3G networks and LTE. Together, they could have a smooth and powerful nationwide network.

AT&T’s press release for the merger backs this up. The combined carrier will be able to build out much more LTE Than AT&T could alone, by combining AT&T’s 700 Mhz spectrum with T-Mobile’s AWS spectrum.

For stockholders, this all sounds great. With reduced competition and the efficiencies of a combined network, the new company will probably be quite profitable.

For phone owners, tech lovers, and American consumers, this is a total disaster.

Rates Will Rise, Customer Service Will Drop

Let’s start with a basic fact: less competition always results in higher prices than you would have had otherwise. T-Mobile has always been a value leader, offering low prices and some innovative plans, such as its Even More Plus plans which gave monthly discounts in exchange for paying the full up-front price for phones. These plans will go away and the combined carrier will normalize at AT&T’s higher rates.

In AT&T’s press release for the merger, the company doesn’t bother to rebut this idea. Rather, the carrier says there’s already plenty of competition and implies that prices are so low that Americans shouldn’t be too concerned. AT&T also shows a disingenuous chart explaining that prices dropped when carriers merged over the past ten years. Of course, it doesn’t show what would have happened to prices if those carriers hadn’t merged.

This merger also means less phone choice for US consumers. Unlike in most other countries, the American phone market is dominated by the carriers; the carriers have to approve and sell most phones. The process of making it through approval labs, and the space on carrier store shelves, limit the number of phones each carrier can handle at once. I’m pretty sure that the number of phones carried by AT&T/T-Mobile will be less than the current number carried by the two carriers separately, because they will want to create efficiencies and unify their product lines.

This doesn’t mean T-Mobile’s phones will go away – I see the merged carrier cherry picking an iPhone here, a MyTouch 4G there. But it means that there will be fewer choices overall for American consumers, and fewer chances for new manufacturers or ideas to appear in the marketplace.

From a customer service perspective, make no mistake, AT&T will subsume T-Mobile. The merged carrier will not have T-Mobile’s friendliness, nimbleness, or level of customer service. Just like in the horrifying Sprint-Nextel mess or during the long, slow, grinding AT&T/Cingular merger, the merged carrier will sink to the minimum customer service level of its parts.

I’ve sung this song before. I don’t see how the biggest carriers getting bigger improves anything for consumers. We’ve seen many times around the world how duopolies or cozy tri-opolies can retard innovation and drag up prices (hello, Canadians!) and the US government should do everything in its power to prevent the US wireless market from becoming wholly owned by AT&T and Verizon Wireless.

Short of killing this merger entirely, I’m not sure what the government could do to maintain competition here. AT&T and T-Mobile are the only major GSM carriers; everybody else is CDMA. That means if the government forced the merged carrier to divest some markets to be picked up by someone else, the buyer of the divested markets won’t be able to integrate them easily into its existing network.

If this merger goes through, it only becomes more urgent for MetroPCS, Cricket and US Cellular to band together into a new, single low-cost force in the wireless market. Together, the three carriers would have around 20-21 million users. They all use the same CDMA technology, and their spectrum holdings largely don’t overlap. A new nationwide value leader could help reduce the negative effects of this merger for US consumers.

AT&T-T-Mobile USA deal may face regulatory hurdles

Oldspeak:”But it might not be a done deal just yet, maybe regulators will actually regulate this industry. ‘The biggest issue for the FCC and for the Department of Justice, which also needs to approve this merger, is whether a merger between these companies would concentrate too much power in the hands of a single company, which could affect pricing and services for consumers.’ -Marguerite Reardon’ Heres hoping the FCC and DOJ don’t roll over on this one too.”

By Marguerite Reardon @ CNET:

From a network and technology perspective, the $39 billion marriage between AT&T and T-Mobile USA is a no-brainer, but the companies may have to do some smooth talking to get the deal approved by regulators.

AT&T and T-Mobile USA, which is owned by German phone company Deutsche Telekom, each use the GSM technology and each company plans to deploy the 4G technology known as LTE in the future. AT&T plans to launch its LTE network this summer, and T-Mobile has said in the past that LTE is on its roadmap.

Currently, each company has been upgrading its network to the latest version of 3G wireless technology called HSPA+. (T-Mobile stirred up controversy last summer when it began marketing the HSPA+ network as 4G. AT&T, which initially criticized T-Mobile for this, began calling its own HSPA+ network 4G earlier this year.)

The technology synergies between T-Mobile and AT&T are stark contrast to how T-Mobile lined up with Sprint Nextel, which had been rumored to be eying T-Mobile for more than two years. Sprint uses a different network technology called CDMA, which is the same technology that Verizon Wireless uses. What’s more Sprint is using WiMax for its next generation wireless network.

While regulators would have been much more eager to see No. 3 Sprint Nextel merge with No. 4 T-Mobile so that they could take on No. 1 Verizon Wireless and No. 2 AT&T, the reality is that such a scenario would have been an integration nightmare for Sprint. Sprint is still struggling to make sense of its 2005 acquisition of Nextel, which also used a completely different technology.

“There’s no question that AT&T and T-Mobile are a very good fit from a technology standpoint,” said Charles Golvin, an analyst with Forrester Research. “A Sprint-T-Mobile deal would have given these companies scale, but it made sense from an integration standpoint.”

But even though the deal makes sense from a technology standpoint, it won’t necessarily be smooth sailing. For one, regulators are likely to scrutinize this deal closely. And secondly, even though AT&T and T-Mobile use the same technology, they use different wireless spectrum bands to deliver their services. This means that AT&T will have to move T-Mobile’s customers to different spectrum bands in order to integrate the networks.

Regulatory scrutiny
First let’s look at the regulatory picture. The biggest issue for the FCC and for the Department of Justice, which also needs to approve this merger, is whether a merger between these companies would concentrate too much power in the hands of a single company, which could affect pricing and services for consumers. T-Mobile has always been a price leader. It’s safe to say that AT&T will likely not adopt T-Mobile pricing, which means that consumers will be losing a more affordable player in the wireless market.

And the reason is simple. It won’t need to. AT&T and Verizon Wireless already control more than 40 percent of the existing wireless market. And T-Mobile, the smallest of the major wireless operators, would concentrate AT&T’s market power further. A combined AT&T and T-Mobile would have nearly 130 million subscribers, which is a third more than Verizon Wireless, the No. 1 nationwide player in the country. The new AT&T-T-Mobile would also have twice as many customers as No. 3. Sprint Nextel.

The FCC has already expressed concern over the competitive landscape in wireless. In May the FCC warned that the industry is getting too concentrated. In its report, the agency said that since 2003, market concentration in wireless has increased 32 percent. The report indicates that 60 percent of the nation’s subscribers and revenue come from the country’s two largest wireless providers: AT&T and Verizon Wireless. The FCC noted that these companies are continuing to gain customers as other national operators, Sprint Nextel and T-Mobile USA, have been losing subscribers.

So far the FCC hasn’t issued a statement regarding the proposed AT&T-T-Mobile merger. But insiders at the agency have said previously that they would be more concerned with an acquisition between AT&T and Verizon Wireless and either Sprint Nextel or T-Mobile USA than a merger involving Sprint Nextel and T-Mobile.

AT&T and Verizon Wireless have scoffed at the FCC’s assertion that the wireless industry is not competitive. And the companies have repeatedly pointed to the fact that there are often four to five players in almost every major market in the U.S. Smaller players such as MetroPCS and Leap Wireless have aggressively moved into new markets. And U.S. Cellular, a regional wireless carrier, has gotten high marks in terms of customer satisfaction in many national surveys.

But the fact remains that AT&T and Verizon Wireless have far more customers than any of these smaller players. Indeed, Golvin estimates that a combined AT&T and T-Mobile would mean that three out of four wireless subscribers in the U.S. would be a customer of either AT&T or Verizon Wireless.

What’s more, combining AT&T and T-Mobile, means that there would be only one national wireless carrier using the GSM technology. Verizon and Sprint Nextel use CDMA, as mentioned above. This would give consumers, who want to use their phones overseas in places such as Europe, only one choice in national U.S. carrier.

At least one congressional leader is already pushing the FCC and Department of Justice to take a hard look at this deal.

“With every passing day, wireless services are becoming more and more important to the way we communicate,” John D. Rockefeller IV (D-West Virginia), chairman of the Senate’s Commerce Science and Transportation committee, said in a statement. “So it is absolutely essential that both the Department of Justice and the FCC leave no stone unturned in determining what the impact of this combination is on the American people.”

While it is possible that the FCC and/or the Justice Department could simply stop the merger from happening, it’s unlikely they’d do that, Golvin said. Instead, it’s more likely that these agencies would put conditions on the merger and require AT&T to divest some of its wireless spectrum assets, he added.

“I don’t believe this will have a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ outcome,” Golvin said. “I think what the regulators do will be more about the extent of AT&T’s divestiture.”

In fact, the FCC took this approach when it approved Verizon’s $28.1 billion merger of regional carrier Alltel Wireless, which closed in January 2009. Instead of analyzing this merger on a national basis, the FCC analyzed each individual market where Verizon and Alltel operated. And in markets where there was too much concentration, the FCC required that the Verizon sell those wireless assets. All told, Verizon agreed to sell operations in 105 markets where Alltel also operated.

AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson spoke to the Wall Street Journal on Sunday and said that he is confident that the company will get regulatory approval. He said that the merger will help “conserve spectrum at a time when that resource is in tight supply.”

He also said that the wireless market is already very competitive.

“This is probably the most fiercely competitive wireless market in the world,” he was quoted as saying. “The majority of Americans have the option of five different wireless carriers.”

Spectrum issues
Regulatory issues may be only one hurdle the companies face as they look at integrating the two wireless networks. While it’s true that T-Mobile and AT&T each use GSM technology, the carriers also use different bands of spectrum to deliver their services. Specifically, T-Mobile uses the spectrum it bought in the AWS spectrum auction in 2006 to build its 3G wireless network.

AT&T also acquired spectrum in that auction. And it is using this AWS spectrum to build its LTE network. AT&T uses its 850MHz and 1900MHz spectrum to deliver its 3G service. Part of the reason that AT&T wanted T-Mobile in the first place was to get more of the AWS spectrum for its LTE network.

Meanwhile, T-Mobile has no additional spectrum to deploy LTE, since it’s been using the AWS spectrum for its 3G service. What this means is that once AT&T and T-Mobile merge, AT&T will have to move all of T-Mobile’s existing 3G customers (which includes the supposed 4G HSPA+ customers) to AT&T’s 850MHz and 1900MHz spectrum. This means T-Mobile customers will need new handsets, since the existing T-Mobile 3G HSPA and 4G HSPA+ handsets will no longer work on the AWS spectrum.

The migration of additional T-Mobile customers to AT&T’s already congested 3G network could also be painful for existing AT&T customers. But Golvin believes that in the long run, AT&T will actually benefit from the merger with T-Mobile because it will allow AT&T to use the newly upgraded backhaul systems that T-Mobile has put in place to link its radio network to the hard-wired Internet and telephone backbone.

“For some period of time, customers from either network may find that the quality is not what they would like,” Golvin said. “But AT&T won’t be able to just turn off the T-Mobile network. It will take time and it will be done in stages. I think what might be more painful for some T-Mobile customers is that they were T-Mobile customers because they didn’t want to be AT&T customers.”

The deal comes just days before the wireless industry meets in Orlando, Fla., for the CTIA’s spring trade show and conference. On Tuesday morning, CEOs from all four major U.S. wireless carriers–AT&T, Verizon Wireless, Sprint Nextel, and T-Mobile–will take the stage for a roundtable discussion. FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski is also expected to give a speech Tuesday morning from CTIA. It’s unclear how much if anything the players involved in the merger will say at CTIA. But CNET will be there, so stay tuned.

 

 


 

Back To The Future With ComcastNBC: Will Have Monopolies In 80% Of The Country

In Uncategorized on February 22, 2011 at 2:23 pm

Oldspeak: The Corporatocracy is consolidating its control over all that you see hear and read. “Net Neutrality” will soon be a thing of the past. “Comcast met behind closed doors with the FCC to map out the future of broadband service and video streaming over the Internet. Anyone who wonders how federal banking regulators got captured by the financial industry, or how lawmakers got neutered by the insurance companies on the health care bill, or how big money is going to buy the next presidential election, should study the Comcast merger. It is a cautionary tale of things gone awry in Washington, where corporate speech is heard and heeded and the voices of actual citizens are ignored.”-Peter White

By Peter White @ Truthout:

After hammering out the details in daily meetings with Comcast over a three-month period in late 2010, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the Department of Justice (DOJ) approved the $30 billion merger of Comcast and NBC/Universal in January 2011. The nation’s largest Internet and TV provider is about to get much bigger. The public can comment for 60 days, but it’s pretty much a done deal.

Coriell Wright, an attorney with Free Press, a nongovernmental organization (NGO) opposed to the merger, watched it all go down.

“I was genuinely positive about the process until November. The FCC staff asked great questions, they requested a lot of information from Comcast, But a lot of the good points that were made in the flings didn’t make it to the end game when push came to shove in bargaining with Comcast.”

Wright said a coalition of merger opponents met with FCC staffers about once a week during that time, while Comcast and NBC met with them “once a day or more.”

“I don’t feel we were excluded, but we didn’t have meetings every single day like Comcast and NBC did. And we don’t have hundreds of lobbyists on call like they do,” Wright said.

Comcast spent $100 million to get the merger approved. It hired 100 former government employees and paid $8.8 million to 30 lobbying firms to help seal the deal. It dumped a lot of cash all over Capitol Hill in the past two years. The numbers are here.

Twice in October 2010, the FCC granted Comcast and NBC enhanced confidential treatment, related to their programing and carriage agreements and their “current and forwardlooking business strategies and plans, which contain the company’s analyses of particular sectors of the media and communications industry and detail perceived trends, possible business initiatives to respond to those trends, and customer analyses.”

In other words, Comcast met behind closed doors with the FCC to map out the future of broadband service and video streaming over the Internet. Anyone who wonders how federal banking regulators got captured by the financial industry, or how lawmakers got neutered by the insurance companies on the health care bill, or how big money is going to buy the next presidential election, should study the Comcast merger. It is a cautionary tale of things gone awry in Washington, where corporate speech is heard and heeded and the voices of actual citizens are ignored.

The DOJ checked the deal for any anticompetitive elements. Under a much weakened Taft Hartley law, the DOJ doesn’t really oppose monopolies these days, but rather imposes conditions to protect the status quo of the so-called “free market.” So, under the terms of the agreement, Comcast cannot discriminate against program producers or distributors who want to provide Comcast programs to their customers. About 173 of the agreement’s 279 pages deal with those matters.

About 75 pages deal with the FCC’s job, which is quite different than the DOJ’s legal one. Under its mandate as a federal agency that regulates telecommunications, the FCC has to affirm that the merger would advance the public interest in some way and not just preserve the status quo.

The FCC says the conditions it put into the deal require Comcast/NBC “to take affirmative steps to foster competition” and based on the company’s promises, the FCC found the merger to be “in the public interest.”

“ComcastNBC will increase local news coverage to viewers, expand children’s programing, enhance the diversity of programing available to Spanish-speaking viewers, offer broadband services to low-income Americans at reduced monthly prices, and provide high-speed broadband to schools, libraries, and underserved communities, among other public benefits,” the FCC announced.

“Those are all good things,” says Wright, “but ultimately don’t touch on the problems that are baked into the structure of the new company.” In other words, a newer bigger Comcast won’t change your cable lineup much, if at all.

“I tried to find a place where the FCC says that the merger would result in more competition, lower prices, or more diversity. But that’s not in there because the merger won’t do any of those things,” she said.

How Big Is the Deal?

Very big. In addition to its cable systems in 39 states, Comcast would get a production arm, Universal Studios; and a broadcast network, NBC, with its 10 wholly owned stations; and CNBC, a financial news cable network; and 16 Spanish language stations on Telemundo. The combined company would own or control 125 cable channels, studios, stations and web sites that would provide 20 percent of what people watch on TV, and by next year, according to the FCC, broadband companies like Comcast will have monopolies in about 80 percent of the country.

Media scholar Ben Bagdikian, author of “Media Monopoly,” paints a grim picture of the future when Comcast has its way.

“The Comcast NBC merger will have twice as many customers as any other broadband service. Everyone who is dependent on AT&T for telephone service knows that their response to subscriber complaints is notoriously poor and woefully slow for repairs. NBC’s merger with Comcast will make it the world’s largest cable company and if history is repeated, a public service company that is twice as large as it’s nearest competitor, does not have to worry if it tells its customers to wait for repairs or service and the general public will suffer from restricted choices and programs. A generation ago when Gannett became the giant in newspapers good papers disappeared. If this happens to cable, the fate of newspapers will be repeated in the cable industry,” he said.

Even basic cable coach potatoes like me understand that this bleak future is already here. I’ve seen “Rocky” so many times, I’ve started hoping he’d just stay down in the fifth round and be done with it. I suspect it’s about the same everywhere else: the same action movies over and over and over again. Watching bowl games on New Year’s Day used to be a tradition in America. Not anymore, unless you pay to see them. ESPN carried 33 of 35 bowl games on their subscription channels this year. The take-away lesson about cable TV is that more is really less.

Critics say the merger will mean fewer choices and higher prices for consumers. Well, we’re already used to that. Will the future bring us better fare than “Deal or No Deal,” “Minute to Win It,” or “Dancing With the Stars”? These shows may be popular, but they are also pathetic because so many Americans are downwardly mobile these days. Mainstream TV is just a mass opiate to help us forget our misery.

What passes for quality programing on TV gives cold comfort to the three million Americans facing foreclosure this year, the 15.5 million American kids living in poverty and the 16 million Americans without a job. Remember “Playhouse 90,” “The Honeymooners,” “See it Now,” “The Twilight Zone”? For my money, there’s nothing comparable on TV today at any premium program price.

Rates for Cable TV have been going up 5 percent a year and more Americans aren’t buying it anymore. Last year, 800,000 households in the US dumped their TV provider and that number is expected to double this year. That’s a small proportion of the nation’s 100 million TV subscribers, but why pay money for shows you don’t want to watch, when you can see the ones you do for free or a lot cheaper on line?

Stifling Innovation

Comcast built its empire out of wire and lowest common denominator programing. The first has been around since the telegraph and the second since at least the third or fourth Grade. Now we have satellites, Dish TV, FiOS and wifi and all of these new technologies threaten Comcast, which lost 275,000 cable customers in the third quarter last year.

The Internet as video platform is just a few years old, but already has 150 million people watching at least once a month. Sales of web ready TVs and other equipment to watch Internet video will jump from 14.6 million to 83.4 million by 2014, according to InStat, an Internet, marketing research company.

Here’s the bad news: a combined Comcast/NBC will create a vertically integrated behemoth like the trusts and monopolies of Teddy Roosevelt’s day. It could operate with virtual impunity toward the public and over its rivals, like a Mexican drug cartel.

“The rise of the Internet makes cable companies obsolete…. the only way for them to stay alive is to generate so much power, both as a distributor and content provider, they become a mafia-style vertically integrated market. They will use content as a cudgel to extort exorbitant fees out other cable companies and customers,” said Josh Silver, President of Free Press.

Comcast’s Business Plans

John Dunbar, a former AP reporter who now works at American University’s Investigative Reporting Workshop, published a report in the January/February 2011 issue of Columbia Journalism Review. He looks under the rug of the proposed merger and notes that Comcast wants to protect its revenue streams in broadband and cable, and grow them both, even as TVs and computers become one.

“One way to do that is to keep competition in check. Comcast would be in a unique position to do just that especially because, by adding NBC Universal to its holdings, Comcast will become one of the nation’s largest television programmers, too the only company to have such a large position in programing, cable and Internet distribution,” Dunbar wrote. His article is available here.

“Don’t hold your breath waiting for ComcastNBC Universal to welcome an Internet utopia of free-flowing, no-charge television content,” he concludes.

Comcast says after the merger, broadcast programs will most likely wind up on Hulu, in which it will have a 27 percent stake but no operational control, and cable shows will go to TV Everywhere, a joint venture Comcast started with Time Warner in 2009. Hulu is free, but TV Everywhere is only free to cable subscribers and only for the programs they already pay for.

“It’s not that Comcast thinks it can kill online video. They’re not stupid like the recording industry was,” said Harold Feld, legal director with the Washington, DC, digital advocacy group Public Knowledge. “What they want to do is manage the terms under which we’re going to change so that they can continue to make the tons of money they’re making right now selling their cable service.”

A Short History of Cable TV and Why Americans Are so Dumb

American broadcasters once described, reflected upon, entertained and helped shape our national identity. But maybe I’m just being nostalgic for a time that never really was. Way back in 1961, FCC Chairman Newton Minow called television a vast wasteland. (Oh, how I long for the days when a federal regulator called a spade a spade.) But let’s review some history.

In the halcyon days of broadcast TV, Walter Cronkite was the most respected man in America. Over time, pretenders, who looked good and could read other people’s copy as if they wrote it, replaced the sober men of Cronkite’s generation. Authenticity went out the window and with it our collective grip on reality. Then we got cable and that’s when everything started to go South. We stopped living the American dream, more or less together, and started listening to hucksters, spin doctors and pundits, dreaming our lives away in some ersatz reality via television.

Getting people to pay for what they used to get for free turned the country upside down. It was a very big deal … for the cable companies. In exchange, we got CSPAN. Then, in 1984, we got the Cable Act. It was the first major revision of telecommunications policy in the US since 1934. The law deregulated the industry that quickly spread like a cancer all over the country and into fewer and fewer hands. By 1991, just nine companies owned more than half the cable business in the US. Today, six media giants control most of what we see, hear and read.

Former Washington Post editor and scholar, Ben Bagdikian, has been like Paul Revere on this issue for nearly three decades. He and other media critics, mostly from the left, have been warning about the dangers inherent in such concentration. In short, robust public discourse is stifled when huge corporations control the marketplace of ideas. Same thing when it comes to cultural programs. Producers get strong-armed, competitors are squeezed out and consumers get gouged wherever a monopoly controls a market. The public interest is not served.

Window Dressing the Public Interest

For its part, the FCC wanted assurances from Comcast that it would play fair after the merger was approved. But that’s like asking the greedy banker not to foreclose on the sweet, old widow because she can’t pay the mortgage any longer. All regulators have a similar problem: they presume the innocence, if not the good will, of the industry players in whatever game they referee. They are hopelessly utopian in a dystopic world. All corporations engage in the single-minded pursuit of money. They aren’t moral or engaged in fairness, and it sometimes takes years before some kind of remedy can be found for the bad things they do. And by then it can be too late. Think Bernie Madoff, not Bill Gates.

Comcast sweetened the deal by agreeing to provide a $10/month broadband service to low income families. And it agreed to add ten new channels, to its D1 Digital Tier lineup. Eight of them will be minority owned or at least partly minority owned. Comcast will pick the owners. It also agreed to give two Asian groups $1 million dollars to develop programs and committed $20 million in venture capital to Hispanic and African-American producers to develop “new media content and applications.” It is not clear if that content would be created for the new channels or not.

That sounds pretty good, but it breaks down to the average price of just one Hollywood action movie spread over eight years and a very wide demographic. There will be no lack of ethnic producers to fight over the money. They will be picked by Comcast, of course, and they may or may not produce programs that rise above your average “ghetto channel” offerings. But even if they do, they won’t be able to reach a really big audience because their programs will likely run only in Detroit; Washington, DC; Atlanta; Chicago; and Philadelphia. Comcast will decide where the channels will be carried, of course. And after a few years it will probably shut them down for failure to thrive.

The company also agreed to support local partnerships between nonprofit news sites and ten of its NBC broadcast stations and six of its Telemundo Spanish language stations. NBC’s San Diego affiliate currently takes two stories a week from a local news startup called Voice of San Diego.

Adding 1,000 more hours of news and public affairs programs a year sounds good, but it comes out to about 16 minutes a day, and its just 16 markets out of about 300. And it will almost certainly be more of the same dumbed-down and warmed over mainstream pabulum that we already have. Why? Because Comcast has not promised a plug nickel to fund the newsgathering operations of their prospective news partners in those markets. Where will the investment come from to nurture news startups in those cities? Presumably, from some rich philanthropist, but it’s a safe bet it won’t be Comcast CEO Brian Roberts.

“You can’t point to any current Comcast owned channels as exemplary public interest programing,” claims Josh Silver, president of Free Press. “Now that they are taking on $30 billion in added debt to NBC, you can be 100 percent sure they aren’t going to surprise us with quality content,” he added.

Its critics say Comcast is a notoriously bad actor on public interest issues. It has a long history of opposing local journalism efforts on public access channels that it is required to provide wherever it operates cable systems. Indeed, the company blocked local PEG channels for decades in Philadelphia, where the company is headquartered. In any case, Comcast’s promises aren’t nearly enough to satisfy opponents of the deal because the conditions the FCC imposed all sunset after seven years.

“The conditions are sort of a side show and the negative impacts of the merger are still going to happen, they just aren’t going to happen until 2018,” Silver said.

Two Cases in Point

If Comcast’s critics are right, the merger puts the entire communications infrastructure, the information superhighway and the entertainment industry all at risk by putting too much control in too few hands.

Take former Vice President Al Gore’s ill-fated Current TV, for example. Even a Nobel Prize-winning author and former presidential contender, some say undeclared winner, even he could not muster enough venture capital to get his channel onto a major cable network.

“It’s because of the whims of these cable companies whose policy decisions are completely corrupt. It’s a walled garden they run,” says Silver. “Their goal is part of a master plan to turn online video into the 21st Century version of cable TV.”

If the past is any guide, the merger won’t boost news and public interest programing, but rather stifle it. Al Jazeera is a perfect example of that. It is well-funded and the quality of its news is first rate and no news organization anywhere can match its coverage of the Arabs-peaking world. By and large, Americans can’t watch it.

“Other than in a handful of pockets across the U.S. including Ohio, Vermont and Washington, D.C. cable carriers do not give viewers the choice of watching Al Jazeera,” wrote Ryan Grim of Huffington Post recently.

“That corporate censorship comes as American diplomats harshly criticize the Egyptian government for blocking Internet communication inside the country and as Egypt attempts to block Al Jazeera from broadcasting,” he wrote.

On cable systems in Canada, Al Jazeera became widely available after the network ran a successful campaign to get Canadians to demand it from the Canadian Radiotelevision and Telecommunications Commission. Not so in the US with the FCC.

“There is no policy teeth, no leverage or hook in order to compel Comcast to carry certain kinds of programs like Al Jazeera,” said Silver.

Is Redemption Possible?

When the FCC approved the merger, Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, who voted for it, released a statement that sums things up and may prove to be prescient:

“I encourage people to speak out should they see the slightest bit of programing discrimination or any other type of questionable behavior from the soon-to-be-formed entity. My door will remain open and I will be perpetually available to field any and all future concerns in this regard,” he wrote.

“I expect the parties to live up to the letter and spirit of their commitments. I, and the American people, will be watching,” he concluded.

Well, some of us are watching now, and the FCC just gave away the farm with damned little to show for it. So, if exhortation does not work and several years down the road we are faced with more insipid programs, higher prices, and a less informed public, will the FCC step in to fix what they have wrought?

Stay tuned.

Bio: Peter White is a former USFS smokejumper, surfer, and has covered two wars and three civil conflicts on four continents. He has written anchor copy and produced news for a number of foreign networks, NBC, ABC, PBS. NPR, and a number of print media outlets including The New York Times and San Francisco Examiner. He lives in Nashville with his two sons.

 



FCC Approves Comcast-NBC Merger

In Uncategorized on January 19, 2011 at 4:07 pm

Oldspeak: ” COMING SOON! Higher Cable bills and subscription costs! ‘At a time when a small number of giant media corporations already control what the American people see, hear, and read, we do not need another conglomerate with more control over the production and distribution of news and other programming.” -Sen. Bernie Sanders.’  Beautiful example of A “Regulatory Agency” captured by the industry it’s supposed be be regulating, doing the industry’s bidding, forsaking the public interest/greater good to the tune of 2.4 BILLION in additional costs to the consumer.”

From Nadia Prupis @ Truthout:

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) approved a conditions-based merger between Comcast and NBC on Tuesday. After months of heated debate over the potential consequences to net neutrality, a 4-to-1 vote by the FCC sealed Comcast’s acquisition of NBC. The Department of Justice (DOJ) also announced its approval of the deal.

Now, with 51 percent of the stake in NBC Universal (NBCU), Comcast will own the majority of the network’s channels, including CNBC and Bravo, as well as the Universal Pictures movie studio.

Comcast will also be able to maintain partial ownership of Hulu.com, but must “relinquish its managerial rights,” according to a DOJ press release. “Without such remedy, Comcast could, through its seats on Hulu’s board of directors, interfere with the management of Hulu, and, in particular, the development of products that compete with Comcast’s video service. Comcast also must continue to make NBCU content available to Hulu that is comparable to the programming Hulu obtains from Disney and News Corp.”

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski included several provisions in the commission’s approval statement to note the importance of net neutrality as the country’s biggest cable company takes control of a large broadcast network.

“As part of the merger, Comcast-NBCU will be required to take affirmative steps to foster competition in the video marketplace,” the FCC approval letter read. “In addition, Comcast-NBCU will increase news coverage to viewers; expand children’s programming; enhance the diversity of programming available to Spanish-speaking viewers; offer broadband services to low-income Americans are reduced monthly prices; and provide high-speed broadband to schools, libraries and underserved communities, among other public benefits.”

Comcast will also have to abide by the FCC’s recently-approved net neutrality regulations, even if Congress repeals it, and must offer customers the option of ordering Internet service separately from a cable bundle – but only for the next seven years.

The restrictions enforce Comcast in providing content to some online distributors, but not all. Comcast will be able to continue withholding its content from some competitors, like Google TV.

Democratic Commissioner Michael Copps opposed the vote. The deal “reaches into virtually every corner of our media and digital landscapes and will affect every citizen in the land,” Copps said in a statement. “It confers too much power in one company’s hands.”

Join the movement for truth – support brave, independent reporting today by making a contribution to Truthout.

Sen. Al Franken (D-Minnesota), a longtime critic of the merger for over a year, called the deal a “tremendous disappointment.”

“What we see today is an effort by the FCC to appease the very companies it’s charged with regulating,” Franken stated. “With approval of this merger, the FCC has given a single media conglomerate unprecedented control over the flow of information in America.” Franken, who previously worked for NBC on “Saturday Night Live,” said last February at a Judiciary Committee hearing that his experience with the network led him to distrust promises that the two media companies had made.

Assistant Attorney General Christine Varney, who leads the DOJ antitrust division, voiced her support of the merger as part of an “open and fair marketplace.”

“The Antitrust Division conducted a thorough investigation of the Comcast and NBC Universal joint venture to examine the competitive effects of the transaction,” Varney said in a statement.

Josh Silver, president of media watchdog group Free Press, disagreed that the merger will help maintain a public and competitive market. “This deal will give Comcast unprecedented control over both media content and the physical network that delivers it,” Silver stated. “While the FCC has adopted conditions, they are insufficient short-term or voluntary fixes that will fail to prevent permanent harm to competition, consumer choice and the future of the Internet.”

In April 2010, an appeals court cast doubt on the FCC’s ability to regulate the Internet, rejecting the commission’s 2008 cease-and-desist case against Comcast, which had been accused of slowing and eventually prohibiting BitTorrent transfers.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont), who called for the end of the merger after Keith Olbermann’s suspension last year, said the FCC and the DOJ “ignored their mandates to protect the public interest and preserve competition” by approving the deal. “At a time when a small number of giant media corporations already control what the American people see, hear, and read, we do not need another conglomerate with more control over the production and distribution of news and other programming.”

The American Cable Association filed a study with the FCC in December estimating that the merger would cost consumers $2.4 billion over a nine-year period, due to higher monthly cable bills and subscription costs. Comcast rejected the study on the grounds that it was a “flawed analysis” that relied on unsupported calculations.


How Disney Magic And The Corporate Media Shape Youth Identity In The Digital Age

In Uncategorized on August 13, 2010 at 10:39 am

Oldspeak:“Every child, regardless of how young, is now a potential consumer ripe for being commodified and immersed in a commercial culture defined by brands. “Epic Mickey,” revamps the character of Mickey Mouse in an alleged effort to make him more appealing to today’s generation of youth. The mouse will no longer embody a childlike innocence and generosity, but will instead be “cantankerous and cunning” and will exhibit “selfish, destructive behavior. WOW. Even Mickey Mouse isn’t safe from the narcissistic consumption fueled militarism that now defines American culture.”

From Henry Giroux and Grace Pollock @ Truthout:

While the “empire of consumption” has been around for a long time[1], American society in the last 30 years has undergone a sea change in the daily lives of children – one marked by a major transition from a culture of innocence and social protection, however imperfect, to a culture of commodification. Youth are now assaulted by a never-ending proliferation of marketing strategies that colonize their consciousness and daily lives. Under the tutelage of Disney and other megacorporations, children have become an audience captive not only to traditional forms of media such as film, television and print, but even more so to the new digital media made readily accessible through mobile phones, PDAs, laptop computers and the Internet. The information, entertainment and cultural pedagogy disseminated by massive multimedia corporations have become central in shaping and influencing every waking moment of children’s daily lives – all toward a lifetime of constant, unthinking consumption. Consumer culture in the United States and increasingly across the globe, does more than undermine the ideals of a secure and happy childhood: it exhibits the bad faith of a society in which, for children, “there can be only one kind of value, market value; one kind of success, profit; one kind of existence, commodities; and one kind of social relationship, markets.”[2] But corporate-controlled culture not only exploits and distorts the hopes and desires of individuals: it is fundamentally driven toward exploiting public goods for private gain, if it does not also more boldly seek to privatize everything in the public realm. Among US multimedia megacorporations, Disney appears one of the least daunted in attempting to dominate public discourse and undermine the critical and political capacities necessary for the next generation of young people to sustain even the most basic institutions of democracy.

The impact of new electronic technologies as teaching machines can be seen in some rather astounding statistics. It is estimated that the average American spends more than six hours a day watching video-based entertainment and, by 2013, the numbers of daily hours spent watching television and videos will match the numbers of hours spent sleeping.[3] The American Medical Association reports that the combined hours “spent in front of a television or video screen is the single biggest chunk of time in the waking life of an American child.”[4] Such statistics warrant grave concern, given that the messages provided through such programming are shaped largely by a $263-billion-dollar-a-year US advertising industry[5], which sells not only its products, but also values, images and identities largely aimed at teaching young people to be consumers. A virtual army of marketers, psychologists and corporate executives are currently engaged in what Susan Linn calls a “hostile takeover of childhood,”[6] seeking in the new media environment to take advantage of the growing economic power wielded by children and teens. Figures on direct spending by young people have dramatically increased in the last ten years to the point where it is now estimated that each year pre-teens and teenagers marshal “$200 billion in spending power.”[7] And this is not all. Young people also exert a powerful influence on parental spending, offering up a market in which, according to Anap Shah, “Children (under 12) and teens influence parental purchases totaling over … $670 billion a year.”[8] Because of their value as consumers and their ability to influence spending, young people have become major targets of an advertising and marketing industry that spends over $17 billion a year on shaping children’s identities and desires.[9]

Exposed to a marketing machinery eager and ready to transform them into full-fledged members of consumer society, children’s time is conscripted by a commercial world defined by the Walt Disney Company and a few other corporations, and the amount of time spent in this world is as breathtaking as it is disturbing. Typical children see about “40,000 ads a year on TV alone,” and by the time they enter the fourth grade, they will have “memorized 300-400 brands.”[10] In 2005, the Kaiser Family Foundation reported that young people are “exposed to the equivalent of 8½ hours a day of media content … [and that] the typical 8-18 year-old lives in a home with an average of 3.6 CD or tape players, 3.5 TVs, 3.3 radios, 2.0 VCRs/DVD players, 2.1 video game consoles and 1.5 computers.”[11] There was a time when a family traveling in a car might entertain itself by singing or playing games. Now, however, many kids have their own laptops or cell phones and many family vehicles come equipped with DVD players. Family members need not look to each other or the outside world for entertainment when a constant stream of media sources is at their fingertips. Today’s kids have more money to spend and more electronic toys to play with, but, increasingly, they are left on their own to navigate the virtual and visual worlds created by US media corporations.

In what has become the most “consumer-oriented society in the world,” Juliet Schor observes that kids and teens have taken center stage as “the epicenter of American consumer culture.”[12] The tragic result is that youth now inhabit a cultural landscape in which, increasingly, they can only recognize themselves in terms preferred by the market. Multi-billion-dollar media corporations, with a commanding role over commodity markets as well as support from the highest reaches of government, have become the primary educational and cultural force in shaping, if not hijacking, how youth define their interests, values and relations to others.

Given its powerful role among media-driven modes of communication, the Walt Disney Company exercises a highly disproportionate concentration of control over the means of producing, circulating and exchanging information, especially to kids. Once a company that catered primarily to a three- to eight-year-old crowd with its animated films, theme parks and television shows, Disney in the new millennium has been at the forefront of the multimedia conglomerates now aggressively marketing products for infants, toddlers and tweens (kids age eight to twelve).[13] Web sites, video games, computer-generated animation, Disney TV and pop music – developed around franchises like “High School Musical,” “Hannah Montana” and the Jonas Brothers, and accessible online with the touch of a button – are now sustaining Disney fans into their teenage and young adult years. Allied with multimedia giant Apple, Inc. (Apple CEO Steve Jobs is the single largest shareholder in Disney) and the cutting-edge animation studio Pixar, Disney is beyond doubt a powerful example of the new corporate media at the beginning of the 21st century.

Disney not only represents “one of the best-known symbols of capitalist consumerism,”[14] but also claims to offer consumers a stable, known quantity in its brand-name products. Understanding Disney’s cultural role is neither a simple nor a trivial task. Like many other megacorporations, it focuses on popular culture and continually expands its products and services to reach every available media platform. What is unique about Disney, however, is its titanium-clad brand image – synonymous with a notion of childhood innocence and wholesome entertainment – that manages to deflect, if not completely trounce, criticism at every turn. As an icon of American culture and middle-class family values, Disney actively appeals to both conscientious parents and youthful fantasies as it works hard to transform every child into a lifetime consumer of Disney products and ideas. Put the Disney corporation under scrutiny, however, and a contradiction quickly appears between a Disney culture that presents itself as the paragon of virtue and childlike innocence and the reality of the company’s cutthroat commercial ethos.

Disney, like many corporations, trades in sound bites; the result is that the choices, exclusions and values that inform its narratives about joy, pleasure, living and survival in a global world are often difficult to discern. Disney needs to be addressed within a widening circle of awareness, so we can place the history, meaning and influence of the Disney empire outside of its own narrow interpretive frameworks that often shut down critical assessments of how Disney is actually engaged in the commercial carpet bombing of children and teens. Understanding Disney in the year 2010 requires that we draw attention to the too often hidden or forgotten corporate dimension surrounding the production, distribution and consumption of Disney culture and, in so doing, equip parents, youth, educators, and others with tools that will enable them to critically mediate the ways in which they encounter Disney. In 1999, Disney was a $22 billion profit-making machine.[15] Ten years later, Disney is generating over $37.8 billion per year and quickly expanding the market for its products in countries such as China, where the latest Disney theme park – Hong Kong Disneyland – opened in 2005, and another park is slated for development in Shanghai.[16] Now a worldwide distributor of a particular kind of cultural politics, Disney is a teaching machine that not only exerts influence over young people in the United States, but also wages an aggressive campaign to peddle its political and cultural influence overseas. As global capital spreads its influence virtually unchecked by national governments and the international community, citizenship becomes increasingly privatized and youth are educated to become consuming subjects rather than civic-minded and critical citizens. If today’s young people are to look ahead to a more rather than less democratic future, it has become imperative for people everywhere to develop a critical language in which notions of the public good, public issues and public life become central to overcoming the privatizing and depoliticizing language of the market.

Disney’s Marketing Juggernaut

One measure of the corporate assault on kids can be seen in the reach, acceleration and effectiveness of Disney’s marketing and advertising efforts to turn kids into consumers and childhood into a salable commodity. Every child, regardless of how young, is now a potential consumer ripe for being commodified and immersed in a commercial culture defined by brands. The Walt Disney Company spares little expense in generating a coherent brand image and encapsulating its many products and services within the seductive symbolism of childhood innocence and wholesome family fun. The company’s approach makes Disney a particularly useful case for understanding corporate strategies directed at youth in the new media environment. At the same time as Disney represents nostalgia and tradition, it has become a global leader in transforming digital technologies into profit-making platforms and developing a consumer-centered discourse that deflects criticism away from, while it softens, what can only be called boldly commercial self-promotion. Disney, with its legion of media holdings, armies of marketers and omnipresent advertisers sets out not just to exploit children and youth for profit: it actually constructs them as commodities while promoting the very concept of childhood as a salable commodity. Childhood ideals increasingly give way to a market-driven politics in which young people are prepared for a life of objectification that will simultaneously drain them of any viable sense of moral and political agency. This is especially true in the current consumer society in which children more than ever mediate their identities and relations to others through the consumption of goods and images. No longer imagined within the language of responsibility and justice, childhood begins with what might be called the scandalous philosophy of money, that is, a corporate logic in which everything, including the worth of young people, is measured through the potentially barbaric calculations of finance, exchange value and profitability.

Disney, perhaps more than any other corporation, has created a marketing powerhouse that uses the pivotal educational force of children’s culture in combination with new digital media technologies. Kids can download enormous amounts of media in seconds and carry around such information, images and videos in a device the size of a thin cigarette lighter. Moreover, “[media] technologies themselves are morphing and merging, forming an ever-expanding presence throughout our daily environment.”[17]Mobile phones alone have grown “to include video game platforms, e-mail devices, digital cameras and Internet connections,” making it easier for marketers and advertisers to reach young people.[18]Kids of all ages now find themselves in what the Berkeley Media Studies Group and the Center for Digital Democracy call “a new ‘marketing ecosystem’ that encompasses cell phones, mobile music devices, broadband video, instant messaging, video games and virtual three-dimensional worlds,” all of which provide the knowledge and information that young people use to navigate their place in families, schools and communities.[19] Disney along with its researchers, marketing departments and purveyors of commerce largely define and control this massive virtual entertainment complex, spending vast amounts of time trying to understand the needs, desires, tastes, preferences, social relations and networks that characterize youth as a potential market.

The disconnect between market values and the ethical responsibility to care for children is on full display in Disney’s almost boastful use of research to mine the inner lives and experiences of young children. That Disney’s insidious strategies receive front page coverage in The New York Times and are presented without so much as a critical comment is a testament to how commercial values have numbed the public’s ability to recognize the danger such values often present to children. According to The New York Times, Disney is at the forefront of finding ways to capitalize on the $50 billion dollars spent worldwide by young boys between the ages of six and 14.[20] As part of such an effort, Disney seeks the advice of educators, anthropologists and even a research consultant with “a background in the casino industry,” not only to study all aspects of the culture and intimate lives of young boys, but to do so in a way that allows Disney to produce “emotional hooks” that lure young boys into the wonderful world of corporate Disney in order to turn them into enthusiastic consumers.[21] Disney’s recent attempts to “figure out the boys’ entertainment market” enlisted the services of Kelly Pena, described as “the kid whisperer,” who attempts to uncover what makes young boys tick by using her anthropological skills to convince young boys and their parents to allow her to look into the kids’ closets, go shopping with them and pay them $75 to be interviewed. Ms. Pena, with no irony intended, prides herself on the fact that “Children … open up to her.”[22]Given Disney’s desire to expand into boys’ culture, the company’s announcement in 2009 that it had purchased Marvel Entertainment Inc. came as no surprise. Marvel’s comic book empire owns the licenses to approximately 5,000 superhero characters. The Wall Street Journal remarked that by “bringing in macho types such as Iron Man, Thor and Captain America, the Marvel deal would expand Disney’s audience, adding properties that appeal to boys from their preteen years into young adulthood.” [23]

It is even more disturbing that Disney and a growing number of marketers and advertisers now work with child psychologists and other experts, who study young people in order to better understand children’s culture so as to develop marketing methods that are more camouflaged, seductive and successful. Disney claims this kind of intensive research pays off in lucrative dividends and reinforces the Disney motto that, in order to be a successful company, “You have to start with the kids themselves.”[24] Several psychologists, especially Allen D. Kanner, have publicly criticized such disingenuous practices.[25] Disney’s recent attempt to corner the young male market through the use of sophisticated research models, ethnographic tools and the expertise of academics indicates the degree to which the language of the market has disengaged itself from either moral considerations or the social good. It is clear that Disney’s only goal is to win over the hearts and minds of young people so as to deliver them to the market as both loyal consumers and commodities. In such unscrupulous strategies, the contradiction becomes visible between Disney’s public relations image as a purveyor of wholesome entertainment and the hidden reality of Disney as a political and economic power that promotes ideology conducive to its own corporate interests, thereby impoverishing the imaginative possibilities of youth and dismantling the public foundations for a thriving civic culture.

Childhood, Inc.

Corporate culture is rewriting the nature of children’s culture, a trend that becomes visible in the various ways traditional boundaries once maintained between the spheres of formal education and entertainment are collapsed. According to Lawrence Grossberg, children are introduced to the world of logos, advertising and the mattering maps of consumerism long before they can speak: Capitalism targets kids as soon as they are old enough to watch commercials, even though they may not be old enough to distinguish programming from commercials or to recognize the effects of branding and product placement.[26] In fact, researchers have found that while children as young as three years old recognize brand logos, not until they are around eight years old do they understand advertising’s intention to manipulate their desires.[27] But this has not stopped corporations from exposing kids from birth to adulthood to a consumer blitz of advertising, marketing, education and entertainment that has no historical precedent. There is now even a market for videos for toddlers and infants as young as three months old. Not surprisingly, this is part of a growing $4.8 billion market aimed at the youngest children – an area of multimedia culture into which Disney recently expanded.[28]

In 2000, Disney purchased the Baby Einstein Company from its founder, Julie Aigner-Clark, who had created a line of products and toys known to mesmerize these youngest television watchers by displaying, for example, vibrant moving objects while playing a soundtrack of classical music selections. The marketing of the products suggests that parents can purchase toys and videos that will not only enable their children to develop good taste in music, but also make them capable of great intellectual achievements. (Disney/Pixar’s 2004 film “The Incredibles” plugs the Baby Einstein franchise shamelessly when one character exclaims, “Mozart makes babies smarter.”) Despite objections against the marketing of baby videos as educational media by organizations such as the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, Disney persists in using clever packaging for the videos that implies they are, at best, beneficial learning tools to be used in a child’s most formative years and, at worst, harmless distractions for infant audiences. And the marketing strategy works. A 2007 survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 48 percent of parents believe that baby videos have “a positive effect on early childhood development.”[29]The news that baby DVDs and videos actually impair infants’ cognitive development broke in 2007 when the University of Washington issued a press release about a study published in the prestigious Journal of Pediatrics that concluded infants eight to 16 months old, who were exposed to one hour of viewing baby DVDs and videos per day, displayed slower language development: those children understood on average six to eight fewer words for every hour of viewing than infants who did not watch the videos.[30]Reading to a child once a day, by contrast, produced an observable increase in vocabulary.[31]

How did Disney respond to the researchers’ findings? President and CEO Robert Iger demanded that the University of Washington immediately retract its statements on the grounds that the study’s assessment methodology was faulty and the publication of the results was “misleading, irresponsible and derogatory.”[32] Disney’s main objection was that the study did not differentiate between brands when it tested the effects of baby videos on language development. Mark Emmert, president of the University of Washington, refused to comply with Iger’s demand for a retraction and instead articulated a need for more “research aimed at helping parents and society enhance the lives of children.”[33] While this research was clearly not enough to deter Disney from marketing its Baby Einstein wares as beneficial for babies and toddlers, other researchers have found that one of greatest costs associated with surrounding very young children with screen media is a reduction in the time they spend engaging in creative, unstructured play. In a 2007 report, the American Academy of Pediatrics lamented, “time for free play has been markedly reduced for some children.”[34]Yet Disney’s message to parents continues to foster the idea that parents should not only accept the ubiquitous presence screen culture in their babies’ lives, but view it as an inevitable fact of life, one pointless to criticize and impossible to change.[35] In an utterly cynical gesture, the Baby Einstein web site cites a 2003 finding by the Kaiser Family Foundation that “in a typical day, 68% of all children under two use screen media.”[36] This statistic is not presented as something that should alarm concerned parents and encourage different parenting practices; on the contrary, it becomes simple proof of “the reality of today’s parents, families and households” and an indicator of how the American Academy of Pediatrics, which discourages television viewing for children under two years old, is simply stuck in the past.37.

Disney’s marketing tactics utilize the idea that parents who want their kids to keep up in a highly competitive world must supply them with every available product that purports to nurture young minds. In 2007, Disney launched an educational web site for parents, DisneyFamily.com, which offers parenting advice “in a manner that is compelling, comprehensive, entertaining and, most importantly, objective.” The web site taps into the growing parenting industry, claiming to target “the more than 32 million moms that are online in the US.”[38] Given Disney’s attempt to refute work by leading researchers in children’s health, it is unclear what the web site intends to publish as “articles from experts in the parenting field.” But if the so-called expertise is not useful to parents, they can at least download a coupon from the “Family Tool Box.”[39] The web site also features the “Disney Family Learning Center,” developed in collaboration with Sony Electronics and Powered, Inc., an online education provider that also happens to specialize in social marketing. Disney finds ways to promote Sony’s and its own products when advising parents on child development, entertainment options and other “family-relevant information” in its online courses, such as “Traveling Light with Kids and Technology” and “Contact Management for the Busy Mom and Dad.”[40]

The Internet’s commercial potential is certainly not lost on Disney, as Steve Wadsworth, president of the Walt Disney Internet Group, stated, “There is massive opportunity here.”[41] Harnessing the power of virtual space is a strategy openly championed by CEO Robert Iger, whose stated goal is for the company to establish “clear leadership in the kids and families online virtual worlds space around the globe.”[42] Disney views online media as an opportunity not so much to enhance children’s lives as to make money for shareholders, enjoy low overhead costs and keep the company’s film and television franchises profitable. The Disney.com site, redesigned in 2007, includes video games, social networking, customized user content and videos on demand. As of the summer of 2009, approximately 16 million users have designed customized fairy avatars that inhabit Pixie Hollow at DisneyFairies.com.[43]Internet sites offering cooperative games and social networking to children seem like a relatively innocuous option in a media culture currently exploiting every imaginable angle to populate reality television’s competitive worlds of winners and losers. It is far less innocuous, however, that these web sites help Disney collect and use personal information to assail consumer groups with targeted, cross-promotional advertising. Web-based social media not only acculturate children to being constantly bombarded with advertising, but give them the illusion of control while they are actually being manipulated.

Disney’s interest in capturing the attention of very young people through the Internet has also involved the acquisition of Club Penguin, a web-based virtual world, in a $700 million deal in 2007. Disney’s Club Penguin targets kids ages six to fourteen and provides each user with an animated penguin avatar that interacts in a snow-covered world, chats with other users and earns virtual money to purchase items such as pets, clothing and furnishings for an igloo home. Users can play for free, but must pay $5.95 per month for access to certain features of the game. As an interactive and “immersive environment,” Club Penguin enables Disney to train children in the habits of consumption – merchandise, such as stuffed penguins, is advertised on the site – while making direct contact with its global consumer base through the online network. Similarly, Disney’s “Pirates of the Caribbean,” for children under ten years of age, lures kids into a virtual world of consumers that is predicted to include 20 million children by 2011.[44] As Brooks Barnes points out in The New York Times, these electronic malls are only superficially envisioned by developers as entertainment or educational sites. Their main purpose, she states, is to enable media conglomerates to “deliver quick growth, help keep movie franchises alive and instill brand loyalty in a generation of new customers.”[45]

In order to tap further into the youth market, Disney’s recent strategy has involved spending $180 million on video game development. Disney-branded online space includes the Internet’s first multiplayer game for kids, “Toontown Online.” As Sara Grimes points out, multiplayer online games “construct entire cultural experiences based around beloved characters, fantasy and play [but] entry into these worlds is only possible through a perpetual cycle of consumption.”[46] Another product, the video game “Epic Mickey,” revamps the character of Mickey Mouse in an alleged effort to make him more appealing to today’s generation of youth. The mouse will no longer embody a childlike innocence and generosity, but will instead be “cantankerous and cunning” and will exhibit “selfish, destructive behavior.”[47] With Mickey’s popularity in decline in the United States, Disney’s market-driven agenda is visible not only in its willingness to transform the hallowed icon upon which its corporate empire was built, but also in the very way it has transformed Mickey Mouse’s character. Although Disney’s representatives suggest that this reimagining of Mickey Mouse merely reflects what is currently popular among young people, it seems more aligned with the current ideology of a ruthless economic Darwinism (also evident in reality TV shows) that has little to do with the needs of children and a great deal to do with a survival-of-the-fittest view of the world perpetuated by market-centered culture. The recent moves by the Walt Disney Company to darken the characters it incorporates into its cultural offerings should be seen as less a demystification of the brand image of Disneyfied innocence and more a signal of the company’s desire for a growing compatibility between its public pedagogy and a commercial culture’s ethos of egocentric narcissism, social aggression and hypermasculinity.

The issues surrounding Disney culture as a source of identity for young people are complex. Adult existence, according to Zygmunt Bauman, involves “changing one’s ego” through “an unending series of self-focused pursuits, each episode lived through as an overture to the next.”[48] Whether or not this is a dramatic departure from the way life was lived in the past, it is nevertheless becoming clear that today’s youth also are now caught up in negotiating shifting identities through processes that involve a constant engagement with educational sites throughout the culture. How much more challenging, then, will young people who are just embarking on the process of identity development find the navigation of a commercialized culture that appears to offer limitless choice in terms of selfhood, yet, effectively limits the choices that both children and adults can make in extending their sense of personal and collective agency?

One sign of how the Walt Disney Company seeks to intervene in children’s lives by shaping their identity narratives was evident in the company’s 2009 announcement that it would be redesigning its chain of 340 Disney Stores to mirror a theme park design. Based on the prototype called Imagination Park, the renovated stores will be entirely networked with interactive technology to create a multisensory recreational experience that encourages consumer participation and emphasizes community through collective activities.[49] The Disney store refurbishment project’s “goal is to make children clamor to visit the stores and stay longer” and will cost approximately $1 million per store. By enabling visitors to generate a narrative for their own consumption, the stores will offer the illusion that kids are the producers of meaning and have the capacity to customize their identities through the stories that are created around Disney products and places. Such power is not necessarily false and it is undoubtedly seductive in a world of narrowing opportunities for agency and expression – perhaps even more so for children and youth for whom such opportunities are few and for whom the spectacular has not yet lost the appeal of novelty. At the same time, it confines the imagination and any corresponding sense of community to the narratives on offer, which ultimately all lead back to immersing the individual in fun, conflict-free processes of consumption designed to generate corporate profits.

It is astounding the ease with which Disney’s conventional fantasy formula for young adults – recently updated and reissued in films like “High School Musical” – reduces unpleasant and contradictory lived experiences to the “trials and tribulations” of well-off kids who “just want to fit in,” and can easily do so by participating in consumer culture. Elayne Rapping observes a similar thematic message in the design of Disney World, which, not unlike the world of the “High School Musical” films, is “uniform in its middle-American, asexual, uninflected sameness,” all of which works to embody a “sense of classless luxury and unthreatening sameness … a synthetic spirit of democracy” that promises a kind of belonging free from the “stress of competition.”[50] The Disney celebrity factory has long been masterful at churning out clean-cut teen idols who symbolize these wholesomely bland American values. Miley Cyrus (aka Hannah Montana) is one of the latest incarnations of Disney’s star-making power. According to a New York Times article, for many people, but especially for those “parents unnerved by the spectacle of the Spears family,” Miley Cyrus represents a positive role model for “millions of girls still figuring out how they feel about boys.”[51] Cyrus plays the character Miley Stewart in the Disney TV show “Hannah Montana” alongside her real-life father, country singer Billy Ray Cyrus. The show focuses on the story of a teenage girl, who wants to lead a totally normal life at home and school and, therefore, decides to keep it a secret that she is also the superstar pop singer Hannah Montana. She achieves this goal by changing her clothing and hair color. On the show, then, the lead character, Miley Stewart, has a rock-star altar ego named Hannah Montana and, in real life, Disney aggressively markets Miley Cyrus as a pop icon by producing her music CDs and funding a 2007 concert tour, called Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus: Best of Both Worlds. As one reporter for The New York Times commented, Disney’s public relations’ ingenuity ensures that consumers get “three girls for the price of one.”[52] It seems that in a world increasingly defined by fragmentation and instability, “Hannah Montana” taps into the fantasy of celebrity, offering young people the lure of agency through an endless reinvention of the self. A tween girl might identify with the family dynamics depicted on the show, but need not stop there when she can also transform herself among her classmates and achieve the chic look of a rock starlet merely by purchasing “Hannah Montana” clothing at Wal-Mart. According to the Disney formula, self-expression is once again reduced to what a young person can afford to buy. And Disney is expert at reinforcing such cycles of brand promotion by generating relationships between its media offerings and consumer products. As Mike Budd explains, the company exhibits “highly developed corporate synergy in which every Disney product is both a commodity and an ad for every other Disney commodity.”[53] The comment from The New York Times about Cyrus being a good role model for kids should be considered within this context of consumerism and what it teaches young girls in terms of their identities, values and aspirations. Hannah Montana is not a superhero, but merely a superstar whose only responsibility in life is to entertain her fans and make money. Miley Stewart’s raison d’être is to deceive the people around her so that she can live her life unencumbered by the social responsibilities attendant on being a well-known public figure. Finally, does not Cyrus, as the real life embodiment of “three girls for the price of one,” represent the most commodified of role models, severely and insidiously proscribing the imaginative possibilities for a generation of young women who are sadly being encouraged to view their bodies as objects, their identities as things to be bought and sold and their emotional and psychological health as best nurtured through “retail therapy” (shopping)?

Concepts of self and society are undoubtedly shifting as we witness the “growing interpenetration of the economic and the cultural.”[54] Spaces that were once constructed through “forms of public culture,” as noted by Sharon Zukin, have now become privatized, controlled and framed by corporate culture.[55] These spaces, from suburban shopping malls to tourist spots to city centers, encourage leisure while also “priming the young for consumerism.”[56] While colonizing multiple cultural spaces, corporations like Disney are increasingly looking to virtual space in order to provide “enhanced” experiences for a consumer class that wants to maximize its leisure time. Developing virtual online worlds gives Disney, to a greater extent than at any previous point in history, more global corporate control over the “production of subjectivity that is not fixed in identity, but hybrid and modulating.”[57] Paradoxically, though, Disney gains access to children and adults by selling the illusion of fixity. Disney not only represents “one of the best-known symbols of capitalist consumerism,”[58] but also claims to offer consumers a stable, known quantity in its brand-name products. In other words, Disney culture acts as a temporary salve to growing feelings of uncertainty and insecurity produced by economic dislocations and social instability on a national and global scale. It is no small irony that, while offering people the “swindle of fulfillment” promised by rampant consumerism[59], multinational corporations such as Disney are one of the globalizing forces largely responsible for the instabilities and upheavals facing contemporary nation states.

Indeed, the sovereignty of national governments is increasingly challenged by the power of multinational corporations and the logic of the marketplace they embody; governments are downsized and their services are privatized or gutted, corporations receive incentives in the form of huge tax breaks or bailouts with taxpayers’ money, legislation is passed that further deregulates the market and democratically elected governments fail in their responsibilities to foster a just and equal society. Given these conditions, it is no wonder that individuals find comfort in the stable meanings they can ascribe to Disney and turn to consumption for even the semblance of personal agency. Multinational corporations such as Disney have become “the aristocratic articulations” of a global monopoly of power and coercion that is imposed from above and that achieves control through circuits that do not reveal themselves because they operate on the “terrain of the production and regulation of subjectivity” itself [60] – that is, in the realm of cultural production and consumption. According to Jeremy Weber, capitalism adapts to local cultures and conditions in ways that secure its profit-making power: “The market does not simply obliterate all earlier traditions. It is opportunistic. It will enhance and concentrate on those features of a society which turn a profit or change them in such a way that they will make money.”[61]Consequently, everything potentially becomes a commodity, including and perhaps most especially, identity. Global capitalism manages and controls diversity by commodifying and selling different identity positions, while also encouraging self-commodification – particularly of youth – through various marketing trends and technologies that become increasingly ubiquitous in the lives of the adults, teens and the very youngest children alike.[62]

Conclusion

Children are not born with consumer habits. Their identities have to be actively directed to assume the role of consumer. If Disney had its way, kids’ culture would become not merely a new market for the accumulation of capital, but a petri dish for producing new commodified subjects. As a group, young people are vulnerable to corporate giants such as Disney, which makes every effort “to expand ‘inwardly’ into the psyche and emotional life of the individual in order to utilize human potential” in the service of a market society.[63] Virtually every child is now vulnerable to the many advertisers and entertainment providers who diversify markets through various niches, most recently evident in the use of mobile technologies and online social media. Complicit, wittingly or unwittingly, with a global politics defined by market power, the American public offers little resistance to children’s culture being expropriated and colonized by large multimedia conglomerates and Madison Avenue advertisers. Eager to enthrall kids with invented fears and lacks, corporate media culture also entices them with equally unimagined new desires, to prod them into spending money or to influence their parents to spend it in order to fill corporate coffers.

The potential for lucrative profits to be made off the spending habits and economic influence of kids has certainly not been lost on Disney and a number of other multinational corporations, which under the deregulated, privatized, no-holds-barred world of the free market have set out to embed the dynamics of commerce, exchange value and commercial transactions into every aspect of personal and daily life. Wrapping itself up in the discourse of innocence and family-oriented amusement in order to camouflage the mechanisms and deployment of corporate power, Disney uses its various entertainment platforms that cut across all forms of traditional and new media in a relentless search for young customers to incessantly bombard with a pedagogy of commerce. In the broader society, as the culture of the market displaces civic culture, children are no longer prioritized as an important social investment or viewed as a central marker for the moral life of the nation. Instead, childhood ideals linked to the protection and well-being of youth are transformed – decoupled from the “call to conscience [and] civic engagement”[64] – and redefined through what amounts to a culture of excessive individualism and the numbing of public consciousness.

Rather than participate mindlessly in the Disneyfication of culture, we all need to excavate the excluded memories and silenced voices that could challenge the uncomplicated commodified identities offered to young people by Disney in the name of the innocence and entertainment. As one of the most influential corporations in the world, Disney does more than provide entertainment: it also shapes in very powerful ways how young people understand themselves, relate to others and experience the larger society. It is not difficult to recognize tragedy in the fact that a combination of entrenched social inequality and a lack of resources means that kids disappear literally into foster care institutions, teachers are overwhelmed in overcrowded classrooms and state services are drained of funds and cannot provide basic food and shelter to growing numbers of kids and their families. Yet, corporations such as Disney have ample funds to hire a battalion of highly educated and specialized experts to infiltrate the most intimate spaces of children and family life – all the better to colonize the fears, aspirations and futures of young people.

Disney’s commodification of childhood is neither innocent nor simply a function of entertainment. The values Disney produces as it attempts to commandeer children’s desires and hopes may offer us one of the most important clues about the changing nature of our society and the destructive force behind the unchecked economic power wielded by massive corporations. Strategies for challenging the corporate power and the consumer culture Disney propagates in the United States and increasingly across the rest of the globe must be aligned with a vision of a democracy that is on the side of children and youth. It must enable the conditions for young people to learn and develop as engaged social actors more alive to their responsibility to future generations than those adults who have presently turned away from the challenge.


Comcast & NBC/Universal: A Merger That Isn’t Comcastic

In Uncategorized on August 11, 2010 at 8:07 am

Oldspeak:“Another existential threat to net neutrality lurks beneath the Google/Verizon  headlines. Comcast has already been caught blocking user access to particular websites,  sued the FCC in court over its  right to enforce net neutrality – and won. What happens when America’s biggest broadband internet service provider GETS BIGGER, controls 2 major tv networks & over 50 cable channels? Probably job cuts, union busting,  diminished diversity, less choice. NO BUENO.”

From Steve Macek and Mitchell Szczepanczyk @ Truthout:

On December 3, 2009, the cable giant Comcast announced plans to buy NBC/Universal from General Electric in a $28 billion merger.

Ever since, lawmakers in Washington and legions of activists have been raising the alarm about the threat such a deal would pose to telecommunication workers, cable and Internet users and communities of color.

As a result, the Federal Communication Commission (FCC), the Justice Department and two Congressional committees have spent months carefully reviewing the proposed merger. The FCC even held a public hearing on the matter in Chicago last month.

Chief among the concerns the FCC must consider is the impact of the merger on workers. Comcast CEO Brian Roberts has promised that “there will be no massive layoffs,” even though every big media merger inevitably brings with it steep job cuts. For example, when AOL bought Time-Warner in 2000, the company laid off some 2,400 employees in the space of a year, about 3 percent of its total pre-merger workforce.

What’s more, Comcast has a long history of attempting to break its employees’ unions and firing labor organizers. When Comcast bought AT&T Broadband in 2002, Comcast refused to negotiate a first contract with 16 former AT&T collective bargaining units, and forced employees to attend intimidating anti-union meetings. Comcast has also spent lavishly to defeat the Employee Free Choice Act, which aims to strengthen workers’ right to form unions. Unsurprisingly, research shows that Comcast pays its workers 30 percent less in wages and benefits than other, unionized telecom companies.

The FCC must also scrutinize the potential of a combined Comcast/NBC to undermine “network neutrality,” which requires Internet Service Providers to treat all legal Internet content equally. Comcast is America’s leading provider of broadband Internet access and has been caught repeatedly blocking its users’ downloads on peer-to-peer file sharing sites. They even sued the FCC over its right to enforce network neutrality and won in a controversial federal court case.

A Comcast buyout of NBC/Universal would also lead to Comcast control of the NBC and Telemundo broadcast networks and 52 cable channels, including MSNBC, Bravo, USA, E!, Style, Versus and Comcast SportsNet. Having this mother lode of content would give Comcast even greater incentive to discriminate in favor of its own online video offerings and against video available from BitTorrent, YouTube or Blip.tv.

A Comcast/NBC merger could also be detrimental to communities of color. This very concern was the main topic of a hearing, also held in Chicago, by the US House Subcommittee on Communications, Technology and the Internet on July 8, 2010. There, complaints abounded about the lack of diversity in Comcast and NBC hiring practices, the companies’ upper-level management and their television programming.

As Rep. Maxine Waters pointed out at the hearing, only two of 28 Comcast executives and only two of 18 NBC Universal executives are people of color. Even worse, of the dozens of cable networks currently owned by Comcast and NBC, only one is headed up by a person of color. The National Association of Hispanic Journalists opposes the merger – which will give Comcast control over the second-largest Spanish language TV network in the county – because they fear it will lead to fewer jobs for Latino broadcast journalists and less coverage of the Latino community.

Comcast and NBC have offered some proposals to address these concerns, but as Stanley E. Washington, president and CEO of the National Coalition of African American Owned Media, said previously: “It’s crumbs and they know it is crumbs.” And as Representative Waters said at the Chicago House Committee hearing: “Neither Comcast nor NBC made any of these (pro-diversity) moves … until all of this began to unfold.”

Then, there’s the bread-and-butter issues about Comcast and cable television in general: higher cable costs; fewer cable channels (especially fewer independent channels); less funds for public access, education and government cable channels; and ever-worsening customer service.

Over the past five years, Comcast has jacked up its cable rates by nearly 50 percent in certain markets and plans to raise rates by 4 percent for some customers again in August. At the same time, the company has long had the lowest customer satisfaction ratings of any of the country’s cable and satellite TV providers.

For all of these reasons, the FCC and the Justice Department should reject the proposed merger, which, for the public, is decidedly not Comcastic.

It’s A Big Deal! Behold! The Bank Of Wal-Mart.

In Uncategorized on July 6, 2010 at 12:15 pm

Sam's Club, a division of Wal-Mart, will work with a finance company to offer loans of up to $25,000 to small businesses, the company said today. It's the latest in the company's move into the world of finance.

Oldspeak: “The biggest corporation on the planet is finding new and inventive ways of depriving you of your money, enticing you to buy shit you don’t need, and cheerfully plunging you deeper into debt. And other corporations are hot on their heels. Profit is Paramount.”

From Stephanie Clifford @ The New York Times:

Tired of waiting for spending to rebound on its own, retailers are taking matters into their own hands. Stores like Sam’s Club, Target, Toys “R” Us, Staples and Office Depot are offering unconventional promotions meant not only to attract visitors to stores, but also to get them feeling profligate.

Sam’s Club is introducing a program in which it facilitates loans for shoppers of up to $25,000, backed by the Small Business Administration. Target will give its credit card holders 5 percent discounts. Toys “R” Us is instituting a holiday fund program where it adds to shoppers’ savings, and Staples and Office Depot are giving away office products for a penny or at no cost.

“A lot of the government programs have come to an end,” said David Bassuk, a managing director in the global retail practice at AlixPartners, a financial consultancy. “So retailers are taking it upon themselves to do everything they can to get the consumer to spend, even opening up their own wallets to give money back to the consumer.”

Persistent unemployment nationwide is threatening to inhibit consumer spending. The latest figures from the government on Friday underscored the depth of the problem, with the economy adding only 83,000 private sector jobs.

There was no relief in sight from Washington, either. Congress left on recess Friday having failed to pass legislation that would have extended unemployment benefits for hundreds of thousands of Americans.

On the small-business side, credit concerns are keeping some companies from spending. And on the consumer side, while spending and confidence numbers continue to be weak, personal income has risen for three months straight and savings rates are relatively high. That suggests people now have cash but are just sitting on it.

Against this backdrop of uncertainty, retailers are taking bold steps. Of the over-the-counter stimulus plans, the one at Sam’s Club is the most unusual.

Sam’s began testing the program in May and will soon start marketing S.B.A. loans of $5,000 to $25,000 for its members nationwide. Superior Financial Group, which is managing the loans, gives Sam’s members a $100 discount on the application fee, and lower interest rates, because of how much business it expects through the arrangement.

The company says it does not expect the program to be a big moneymaker, though it earns $50 for each financed loan. The point is to get customers spending more freely — and, it hopes, spending at Sam’s Club.

Michael Golata had been watching his spending carefully. As a contractor in Louisville, Ky., for United Parcel Service, he drives emergency medical equipment to hospitals when M.R.I. or CT scan machines break down.

When he asked U.P.S. if more routes were available, the company told him there was so much work that he should bring on as many drivers as he could afford. There was just one problem: Mr. Golata owned one truck, and he was driving it all the time. Online, he had found a used white Dodge Sprinter for $12,500.

With just a few thousand dollars in cash, he tried to get a bank loan but was denied by two local banks because the truck was too old and had too much mileage. He decided an S.B.A. loan would be too much trouble, and he rejected as absurd a loan from a commercial finance company with a 21 percent interest rate and payments of $450 a month.

About a month ago, Mr. Golata, a Sam’s Club member, clicked through the retailer’s Web site and found a page describing S.B.A. loans offered by the retailer. He filled out an online application, and, by the next day, got a phone call from Superior Financial telling him he was approved for a $10,000 loan, with an interest rate of 7.25 percent over 10 years.

“It made the payment, like, $118 a month. I thought I was dreaming,” Mr. Golata said. Mr. Golata immediately bought the Dodge, and hired three drivers. He went from billing U.P.S. $3,000 a week to $8,000, he said.

A little under half of Sam’s members are small-business customers, and they account for a little more than half of the revenue at the retailer. As its net sales began to slip last fall, Sam’s surveyed small-business customers and found that tight credit was partly to blame.

In the survey, said Catherine Corley, vice president for member services at Sam’s, a division of Wal-Mart, “fully one-third said ‘I didn’t buy what I needed to buy at Sam’s Club because I didn’t have the money.’ It really motivated us to say, ‘We’ve got to find some solutions.’ ”

Sam’s has done only a small test of the S.B.A. loans, and so far about 200 people have applied, with about 45 percent being approved, said Tim Jochner, chief executive and founder of Superior Financial. Sam’s is considering offering other financial products through third parties to help ease customers’ finances, like working-capital loans or peer-to-peer loans, said Hiren Patel, director for financial services at Sam’s.

“We’re not necessarily trying to be a bank, we’re just trying to bring to them, much as we do with products, the things they need,” Ms. Corley said.

Other retailers are taking slightly different routes to economic recovery. Beginning in the fall, Target will offer its holders of its Target-branded credit and debit cards 5 percent off every purchase. Target expects that it will add a percentage point to comparable-store sales in the fourth quarter.

Toys “R” Us is asking consumers to create a sort of grown-up piggy bank, and put money into a holiday fund that can be spent only at the toy store. Toys “R” Us will add 3 percent to the account’s balance in mid-October.

And Office Depot is giving away products. Trying to lure back-to-school shoppers, it will soon sell some supplies, like glue sticks and scissors, for less than $1. It also will give away other items, like markers, free, even without a purchase.

Staples, meanwhile, is offering several products for a nickel or a penny, and when shoppers buy a backpack during the back-to-school period, Staples will give them a gift card equal to the cost of the backpack.

“On that particular one we probably don’t make money, but in general what we’re hoping to do is get customers into our stores,” said Demos Parneros, president of United States stores for Staples, “and then buy everything else that they need.”

Of course, smart shoppers can take advantage of these programs without necessarily improving the stores’ revenues.

Mr. Golata, the truck driver, said he was delighted with the loan program. But if the point of it was to free up his cash at Sam’s, it didn’t quite work.

He is saving again — so he can get another Sam’s Club loan in six months and buy another delivery vehicle.

“It’s not like it made me spend more than I normally would,” he said.

USSF: The Control of Public Media as a Social Justice Issue

In Uncategorized on June 28, 2010 at 2:40 pm

Oldspeak: “If we seek the survival of our communities and our movements, we must win two essential communicative capacities: communities in struggle must win the capacity to communicate with each other as well as the capacity to project their perspectives across society, no community can effectively reproduce culture or defend their material conditions if they lack the ability to communicate internally as well as project their perspectives across society.”

From

Yana Kunichoff @ Truthout:

The control of public media is a life-or-death struggle fought by diverse communities working toward social change against corporate-owned or undemocratic, government-sponsored media and professional journalists. The participation of marginalized and oppressed communities in shaping media systems is the only way forward for a democratic system of communication, and experiences from South America show this to hold true not only on the page, but in the field as well.

This was the message of the USSF workshop Control of Public Media as a Social Justice Issue: Lessons from Latin America and the US, which highlighted the availability of media as a racial and economic justice issue and what steps activists must take to bring media into the hands of the people.

“Who produces media systems?” asked panelist James Owens, an organizer and media coordinator with Chicago Media Action, who called for movement-based media producers organized in a network to lead the fight. “The answer to that question will largely inform us as to the culture and politics that that system will produce.”

“If we seek the survival of our communities and our movements, we must win two essential communicative capacities: communities in struggle must win the capacity to communicate with each other as well as the capacity to project their perspectives across society,” said Owens. “No community can effectively reproduce culture or defend their material conditions if they lack the ability to communicate internally as well as project their perspectives across society.”

According to Owens, the alliance of commercial media with corporate power makes it inherently untrustworthy, and the lack of democratic control of government-sponsored, national media networks such as the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) and National Public Radio (NPR) has the same result.

Even nonprofit news is not immune, because of its “basically undemocratic nature. They are not run by the people … too often public broadcasting outlets have boards populated by elite and corporate representatives, who historically have used their power to filter out the very perspectives we seek to extend.”

The elitist nature of professionalism in the journalism industry, Owens said, further serves to foster elitism by keeping out “unauthorized practitioners” and, thereby, continues control over the social message.

He called instead for democratically elected boards for NPR and PBS, much like those governing libraries and other recipients of public money. To fill the role of professional journalists, Owens says, the community will control the media and use it to enable the powerless “to shape the larger social life” through its broad-reaching tools. He calls this choice “commercial journalism vs. active journalism.”

Scott Sanders, a Chicago-based media organizer also with Chicago Media Action, identified Pacifica Radio as the existing model closest to his and Owens’ democratically run ideal. Founded in 1946, Pacifica reformed its board member system in 2003 after two years of national debates among thousands of listeners, sponsors and activists. The system it came out with gave listener-sponsors the responsibility of electing new local station boards at each of the five Pacifica stations. These local boards, in turn, elect the national board of directors.

Media outlets have been under the large-scale control of corporations since about 1975, Sanders said, but the deep cuts in budgets and credibility that news outlets across the country are suffering from mean “we now have a rare and historic opportunity to wholly re-invision our public media system. We could use it to create stories, produce culture, change conditions, but will we? We must listen to our friends down South.”

Allan Gomez with Radio Populares works with communities primarily in South America to build low-power FM (LPFM) community radio stations. Because radio is the most accessible communication technology, Gomez says, it is particularly adept for use by disenfranchised and often isolated groups.

LPFM radio uses electronic broadcasting, but at a very low power and low cost. An antenna and a transmitter for the average LPFM station can cost between $2,000 and $5,000, while the cost to for the average FM station can run into millions of dollars. As part of his program, Gomez teaches activists and communities in rural areas to build and operate the radios themselves.

A particular success for Gomez was building a radio with a group of women in a small, isolated village in a sea of Contra activity in Nicaragua. The women had begun a cooperative, which then went on to found health clinics and education programs focusing on conflict resolution.

“The women were hailed as amazing and everyone in the region loved it. Then they started addressing domestic violence and suddenly not everyone loved the women, in fact they started denouncing them,” he said. “The other station in the community, actually the only other station in the community, was an evangelical radio station that promoted women as the property of men and would denounce women as witches.”

Having their own radio station allowed them to counter these accusations. According to Gomez, this experience helped the women “identify how important is it to actually be your own messenger, be your own voice” and not give up that power to anyone else, “however well-intentioned they may be.”

The second panelist from Latin America, Gerardo Torres, experienced first hand the move from the neutral network and professional journalism to community-based activism. When President Zelaya of Honduras was ousted in an Army coup in June 2009, Torres, a Honduran journalist, sprang into action. He went from editing the arts and culture beat of a national newspaper to working with the International Commission of the National Front of Popular Resistance of Honduras on underground news ventures.

“After June 28 we stopped being journalists and started to work with the resistance,” said Torres. “You are not an 8-hour person, you are more than that,” he said of his move away from the so-called neutral network of mainstream news to the resistance.

Such a rejection of common media conventions for the common good are what Sanders hopes to see increasingly in the future.

“Public media’s elite offer us an unequal relationship in which they are the parents and we are the children, anxiously waiting for information to be spoon-fed to us. We can let this happen, let go and do nothing. It will continue.” To combat this, says Sanders, “social justice movements need to radically re-invision the US public service media system. It would be almost unrecognizable alongside the current version – alternative democratic structures to govern public media and radio.”

“Democratic participation in cultural civic production only occurs,” Sanders said, “when the powerless speak to themselves and to wider audiences.”








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