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Élite versus mass: the impact of television in an age of globalisation
Jürgen KrönigJurgen Kronig is the London editor of Die Zeit.
Keywords Television, Media, Globalization, Culture
We have listened to various statements which have tried to convince us that a golden future lies ahead of us – technological change and the information revolution will lead to an unprecedented supply of information and will increase knowledge and understanding between individuals and nations. This is the message the prophets of choice convey. I will try to contradict this optimistic picture of the future. It is true, we are witnessing the rise of new global infrastructures on a large scale, generating an enormous capacity for cross-border penetration. This has led to a dramatic increase in the volume, intensity and speed of communication and cultural exchange. Western popular culture and inter-business communication are the primary content of this global interaction. One might call it with some justification the Americanisation of the world.
We live in an information-based economy, for which Benjamin Barber, the US political scientist, coined the term "McWorld" (Barber, 1995). It is tied together by information, communication, entertainment and commerce. It is a world in which a global taste for images and goods is created around logos, advertising slogans, sponsorship, brand names, trademarks and jingles; a world in which global markets seek to shape people so that they join the universal tribe of consumers. Democracy and civil society, on the other hand, need more than brainwashed consumers; they need citizens who are informed, autonomous in their decisions and independent in their judgement These two interests will collide more and more. Television is the preferred and most effective instrument in creating a culture based on consumption and commerce. Television is like the cinema, only open all the time, whose films you can watch whenever you feel like it. We are witnessing the rise of a monochrome culture of unitary content – glitzy, seductive, hedonistic – a world revolving around sex, violence, glamorous life styles, money and material values. Many people around the globe spend a lot of time in the commercial habitations of this new world, being "imagineered" in Hollywood and its satellites, i.e. they spend a lot of their time in front of their television sets. This is happening not only in our so-called developed Western societies. On various journeys into remoter parts of the world I remember village bars – for instance, in the mountains of Morocco, Nepal or the Canary Islands – with the dark faces of peasants glued to the only television of their village, staring at the symbols of a Western life style – flashy consumer products, cars, supermodels and contemporary US films.
The whole existence of television is based on ever-increasing consumption. Commercialisation needs to create new urges, new needs and wishes – which in turn creates new consumption and, of course, the need to use more of the resources of our planet. Even Rupert Murdoch himself has expressed doubts about the world he and others helped to create. "Are we not creating a homogenised world culture and at the same time destroying indigenous cultures?", he asked his biographer William Shawcross (1992). In this globalised television world, commercials have already become the favourite programmes. Recent US research, based on 102 regional television stations in 52 metropolitan areas of the USA, showed that news, current affairs and information programmes get less airtime than commercials (Rocky Mountain Media Watch, 1998). Nobody can deny that there are excellent examples of advertising to be found, not least in the UK. Sometimes commercials are small masterpieces, witty, artistic and entertaining. Yet good, bad or mediocre – they have significantly contributed to a popular culture of drastically reduced attention span: the three-minutes culture. Children in particular love commercials and they are more and more targeted by the industry, which tries to reach children as young as two years old in order to turn them into the brand-conscious consumers of tomorrow. This should dampen any joy about one of the recent success stories of the BBC. The much-acclaimed Teletubbies, who have been sold to more than 40 countries around the world, are designed to do nothing else but glue the very young to the television set. As Neil Postman remarked, "TV is the only activity which you can't improve through permanent training" (1984).
The driving force of globalisation is a relentless process of commercialisation. Media conglomerates and publishing houses are fighting ever-fiercer ratings and circulation wars. Proprietors and top managers are obsessed with circulation. Sales figures of papers are discussed on a daily basis by executives, at least in the more serious cases. Circulation figures used to be published quarterly, nowadays monthly and weekly.
Does the ratings war between competing media conglomerates inevitably lead to a process of dumbing down? I fear it does. It is understandable that people who work in the media industry want bigger audiences. This leads quite logically to the next step in the process. If you want to win new audiences, you have to appeal to their lower instincts. This is unfortunately quite a necessary assumption. The result is a dumbed-down mass media culture, the triumph of banality and voyeurism. You have to lure the audience, to titillate them and take into account their laziness.
I use the expression dumbing down, knowing very well that this is regarded as elitist or snobbish. However, dumbing down is happening, it is for real and nearly all media outlets are affected by it. It is no coincidence that various television "personalities" such as David Dimbleby (who denounced prime-time television as "ghastly, voyeuristic and banal"), John Humphreys and Melvin Bragg have come to damning judgements about the present state of the television industry as a whole, specifically the dumbing down of current affairs and news programmes. It means ignoring an overwhelming body of evidence to deny that intellectually demanding programmes are becoming a rare species on mainstream television and that even news and current affairs are more and more regarded as "losers"; even at the BBC they get demoted by channel schedulers.
"TV is entertainment crap", wrote columnist Matthew Parris of The Times, who likes to provoke. However, I would say that the most powerful medium plays an even less pleasant role. It provides a growing minority in our societies with a daily diet of trash television. Daytime television has degenerated into the medium of the television junkies. It offers an endless sequence of soap operas and game and confessional shows, with false emotions, faked people and genuine exhibitionism, hypocritically dressed up as counselling. Recently Oprah Winfrey called confessional shows dangerous. She has a point. On these shows, grown-up babies can articulate no other feelings than rage or blame. Everything is simplistic, black or white.
The rise of so-called television junkies – the first time I heard the expression from a television executive was approximately ten years ago – is the main reason for the steady decline in the circulation of newspapers, particularly tabloids. In the last ten years they have been on a downward slope, losing readers continuously. Occasionally the trend is interrupted through bingo games and price cuts. However, it seems impossible to stop the downward trend.
The television junkies consist mainly of what is sometimes called the under class plus parts of the working and lower middle classes. They were the first ones to go for the pleasures of satellite television. The distribution of satellite dishes is still an interesting social statement in the UK. However, even if they cannot afford or do not want satellite television, on the five free television channels in the UK there are enough soap operas and confessional shows on offer to make their day, for example, programmes such as Kilroy-Silk, Leeza, Vanessa Feltz and Jerry Springer. This group of television viewers consists of a high percentage of mothers, single or not, whose babies grow up surrounded by the noise and flickering images of television sets switched on all day long. This section of society has been lost to all attempts to reach them with programmes, which might enable them to become informed citizens and participate in the democratic process.
Television has changed across the board. All programme sections are affected by the downward trend:
Documentaries have to be racier and sexier to survive on the main channels. They are less demanding, more entertainment driven. There is the new trend of introducing dramatised elements. Docusoaps or fly-on-the-wall programmes with their constructed scenes and their pretence of reality have mushroomed. On free television in the UK 75 docusoaps were broadcast in 1998. On a Friday night, 3 September 1999 (to take a recent example), six fly-on-the-wall programmes appeared one after the other on ITV – Parking Laws, Motorway Life, Family Foods, Holidays from Hell, Pleasure Island, and Nightlife. The bubble may burst eventually. But what then? A return to the golden age of Lord Reith? We all know that this is impossible.
Quiz shows. Quite often there is not even the pretence of demanding any knowledge. These are common to the game shows swamping our television schedules. Surely few of us have seen programmes like Wheel of Fortune or Supermarket Sweep, programmes so undemanding and stupid that it hurts. But their message is simple and clear: they all preach the values of the "loads of money" society. Just think of the darkly addictive "Do you want to be a millionaire?", which was such a howling ratings success for ITV, after they had cleansed their evening schedule of any slightly more demanding programmes, including News at Ten. Now Who Wants to be a Millionaire? has been sold all over the world, including the USA and Germany – which demonstrates my point: these trends are global.
News, a protected species on television. At least in the UK and Germany it belongs to the protected areas of output. Despite this, it is getting more superficial and sensational. The received wisdom of producers and editors is that only by personalising can news stories have meaning for the audience. They must feel to understand. The problem is that feeling may undermine understanding. Television news always had a problem – it needs pictures to illustrate its stories. News means film. Reporting has been taken over by the camera. If a camera was there, if there are pictures available, good; if not, there is no story. This has often led to the rejection of more complex problems and processes on television news. Now, in the age of infotainment, the need for pictures and images is greater than ever before; this in turn has increased the inherent weakness of television news. Quite often it consists of a series of disasters – floods, storms, fires, helicopter or airplane crashes. News has degenerated into "disastertainment". There is not much difference between news bulletins and the special disaster programmes, which have become a staple of mainstream channels all over the world.
A recent survey by the British Film Institute (BFI) confirmed these observations to a much greater extent than I would have expected (1999). The overwhelming majority of television programme makers believe that the quality of broadcasting is falling and that ethical standards have collapsed over the past four years. Even more worrisome among those working in news and documentaries, 52 per cent said that they had been pressured to distort the truth and/or misrepresent the views of contributors to create an "exciting, controversial or entertaining programme". The BFI report states that "some respondents felt that bowing to pressure for exciting and entertaining programmes had become almost habitual within factual programming". Malcolm Moore, chief executive of the Directors' Guild of Great Britain, responded to this survey by explaining that "in a myriad small details directors and producers are pressured to alter or conceal facts to make a better story". It may only be distortion by oversimplification. However, it is often "serious falsification by omitting inconvenient evidence, misrepresenting contributions and sometimes knowingly restating untruths". Moore blames the "gatekeepers", i.e. the commissioners, controllers of broadcast outlets and executives of production companies for this worrying state of affairs.
Of course public broadcasting is not immune to these trends. It follows the same pattern, reluctantly, sometimes with bad conscience or at least against inner conviction – and there are pockets of resistance. Public broadcasters are under enormous pressure to justify their licence fee, which their opponents prefer to call a regressive tax (with some justification). However, the point is not to deny the existence of such a tax. The question is whether society still regards this tax as a sensible proposition. So far the answer is yes. However, to say yes has become more difficult, partly because public broadcasters are caught between Scylla and Charybdis. To justify their form of finance they need a significant share of the audience. To reach big audiences they have to give the masses what they want – entertainment and games. Most of the time commercial populists are better at this game than public broadcasters. However, this does not mean that the latter have not tried. Look at BBC-1. Current affairs programmes have become nearly extinct on this main channel. Like news it used to be a protected species. This is changing. Controllers regard Panorama, the only serious survivor on BBC-1, as a dead weight around their necks. If possible, they would shift this programme to an even later time in the evening. "BBC-1 is a no-go area for serious current affairs programmes", a member of the current affairs unit in White City recently told me. "We are resigned to that fact". The excessive, highly emotionalised way in which BBC television and radio reacted to the murder of television presenter Jill Dando appeared to be another ominous sign. Of course, shock and sadness are understandable. But the coverage was embarrassing. There was no restraint, no detachment; instead there was a reaction in tune with the "feely-touchy", over-emotional response to Princess Diana's death.
In Germany, another stronghold of public broadcasting in the Western world, the overall picture is not dissimilar. The main channels of public broadcasting have given in to the commercial pressures. Controllers have moved the more demanding programmes out of the way, into late evening or on to the "elitist" channels with minute audience shares. However, there are differences between Germany and the UK. Public broadcasters in Germany raise some of their money through advertising, but only until 8 p.m. They are not allowed to show commercials after that. On the other hand, there are still a number of current affairs programmes scheduled in prime time at 9 p.m., like Monitor, Panorama and Report. However, the pressure is growing to remove these "obstacles" from their prime-time slots.
There are other signs indicating a decline in standards, which can be detected in the television output of many countries. More and more often documentaries use faked scenes and incidents in order to create a dramatic film. In this respect Channel 4's excellent sitcom Drop the Dead Donkey, with its reporter Damian Day, provided a fictionalised but realistic insight. Many times talk show guests have turned out to be phoney. It is not surprising that individuals have started to make careers for themselves by appearing to be a sex addict, racist or "road rager" and offering their services to a grateful television industry. The demand is there and they are happy to deliver. Commissioning editors blamed inexperienced, over-eager producers or researchers, but the main problem is that, as a young researcher or producer, you can only make your name by sensationalism, by coming up with a really dramatic story or a weird talk show guest. The success of docusoaps not only represents the triumph of emotional sensationalism over serious issues from politics to science, it is the cheapest solution at a time of mushrooming channels and the need to fill all these new channels with programmes.
A comparison of two BBC nature programmes is quite telling. Recently Supernatural was broadcast, a programme far removed from the Attenborough approach of observation and analysis. Supernatural tries to create characters and storylines; it hurriedly jumps from one species to the next to meet the assumed short attention span of today's mass audiences. Computer animation is heavily used in this entertainment-driven form of programme, which perhaps should not be called documentary any longer. Supernatural is slick and well produced. It looks like a Disney product. Ten years ago the BBC produced Supernature, with, at that time, a revolutionary filming technique and slow motion, but it remained true to the values and traditions of documentaries.
One other aspect needs to be mentioned, because it could very well lead to a deterioration in all areas of television. Public broadcasters are expected to sell their products on the global market. The consequences of this commercial demand are evident.
Oversimplification and a more short-term, sensationalist approach are affecting the output of all media outlets, not only television. The trend has touched even the best of the so-called quality papers and magazines. There is less room for a balanced approach, for analysis, for seeing events in a wider context, to observe and explain processes instead of going for the crass headline or extraordinary story. To give one example from my own country – it has become more difficult for Germans who are interested in the UK to get a clear picture of the political and economic situation in this country. In summer 1998 the influential news magazine Der Spiegel announced in its title story the end of Tony Blair as a superstar – Der Lack ist ab – and the UK's imminent recession. The rather triumphant conclusion: the UK could and should not be regarded as a role model any longer. Of course Blair remained as popular as ever and the recession did not materialise, not then, not now. But many Germans, including a lot of media people, followed the lead or were influenced by it.
All this tells us something about the drift in the fourth estate, the media industry, which has become more powerful, influential and arrogant than ever before. Nobody wants a good, balanced analysis; it is necessary to hype and exaggerate to attract viewers or readers with controversial reports and dramatic, over-the-top headlines. There are clearly more articles and television reports based on nothing but gut feelings, prejudice and dislikes: the "me" generation of media commentators.
Globalisation will reinforce these trends. Foreign news is in decline, dramatically so in the USA, but it is happening in the UK and Germany as well. Foreign correspondents have a better chance of getting airtime or space in their papers if they play to stereotypical expectations at home. The focus in foreign reporting will be more than ever before on the negative, the extraordinary and the sensational. Across the board the entertainment factor has become more important.
Dumbing down has touched all parts of the chaotic cosmos of today's media from television to broadsheets, not least to the detriment of foreign reporting. It is in retreat. Middle brow papers and tabloids do not have foreign correspondents any longer. Commercial television tends to send special reporters into countries when dramatic or spectacular things are happening there. Accurate, incisive reporting and analytical journalism is losing out.
The promise of the advocates of the world of multi-channel television and the digital revolution - more is better - is untrue. We will instead see more of the same and the quality of most media output will go downhill. The information revolution will not increase understanding among people and nations. On the contrary, it may easily increase dislike, prejudice and fear of others. The forward march of commercialisation will bring about more written or visual "fast food of the mind". The popular tabloid agenda is already spilling over into the more serious media outlets. All this might even lead to deteriorating relations between people and nations, because dislike, prejudice and fear of others could increase. There seems to be a correlation between the rise of television and the decline of civic engagement. This hardly bodes well for democracy and civil society (Putnam, 1996).
Good broadcasting should give people what they do not yet know they need. This goal is less and less observed. When 70 per cent of television professionals feel that the quality of television output has declined and that truth falls victim to modern commercial demands and pressures, we all should be alarmed - the media industry, politicians and society as a whole. We hear a lot about the necessity of re-creating civic society and enhancing social cohesion. However, this will not be possible when opposed by a media industry in the grip of unfettered market forces and guided by commercial values only. As Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in the nineteenth century: "It would diminish the importance of newspapers to believe they only serve to guarantee freedom; they maintain civilisation". Today we have more reason to doubt whether the media as a whole, not least television as the most influential player, will be able to live up to such a noble and important duty. It is telling that Ted Turner, founder of CNN, invited to give a lecture at a media conference for children, surprised his audience with the message "Stop watching TV, it is bad for your brain". This may be exaggerated because there are still a few good television programmes around, but Turner seemed to think that this provocative statement was necessary. Education has indeed little chance to win in the competition against entertainment for those not disciplined in the rites of learning. Who can expect Fox or Sky television to encourage people to spend an evening reading books? The prophets of multichannel television and choice who enthuse about the brave new world of possibilities are right in one aspect. The elitists of the past have lost. They wanted to impose their criteria on the masses; they wanted to inform, educate and entertain and tried to prevent "choice". In the battle between elite versus masses they are the losers
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British Film Institute (1999), Television Industry Tracking Study, London, May.
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Putnam, R.D. (1996), "The strange disappearance of civic America", The American Prospect, Vol. 24.
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Shawcross, W. (1992), Murdoch, London.