25 December 2012

Television and Commercial Culture

Citizens of many modern industrial societies, and in American society particularly, seldom think twice about referring to themselves as ‘consumers,’ accepting the terminology from the world of media and advertising constructed for them by large corporations. Yet in the lives of their grandparents, ‘consumption’ referred to a debilitating disease, and nineteenth century dictionaries equated it with destruction and pillage. Only during the last century did advertising succeed in normalizing what was once an aberration. This is not to say that people are unaware of this process. Many are beginning to wake up to how their lives are packaged and processed; how they are ‘branded’ as children with product loyalties; how their behavior is manipulated by slick advertising campaigns; and how their public spaces have become commodified by the messages of advertising to buy, buy more, and buy again. The problem is that few people know what to do with this realization, or how to respond. Although one would never know it from watching corporate television, there is a global anti-consumption movement afoot. In street demonstrations, classrooms and other public and private gatherings, as well as by way of alternative media and non-corporate sources of information, the movement is growing. In recent years a number of books have begun to question consumer culture, ranging from psychological analysis of advertising to evaluations of the environmental impact of the all-consuming lifestyle.

The 1999 book Consuming Environments by Mike Budd, Steve Craig and Clay Steinman (with a foreword by George Gerbner) contributes to this discussion with the full benefit of previous works, and in a sense it brings together much of the contemporary literature into an analysis of consumer culture that reads at times like a handbook or workbook. In other words, Consuming Environments is meant to be used, not just read, and toward this end the authors provide a methodology for dissecting advertising and outline a conceptual framework for understanding consumerism, along with suggestions to help consumers become activists. In his foreword, media studies scholar George Gerbner surveys the way in which television has entered homes, schools and workplaces and how it has become the main storyteller of the culture, and how this is a profound but little understood change in human civilization. He calls upon readers to reclaim storytelling in their own cultural environment, to help ‘reveal how things work,’ ‘describe what things are,’ and tell people ‘what to do about them.’ With television having almost completely taken over this function in advanced consumer societies like America, the process has increasingly become global. Realizing the pervasiveness of consumerism, Gerbner sees a long hard struggle ahead, but one that can succeed; the first step, he suggests, is to turn ‘apathy and cynicism into action.’

The authors take up this charge and begin by describing the environment created by television, and how this man-made imaginary environment fuels a culture that is destructive of the natural environment. They suggest that the first step in developing this understanding is to view television not as a neutral form of technology but rather as an ‘apparatus’ that is designed with goals in mind in order to accomplish specific tasks. They specify four levels of the apparatus of television: its ‘technical base,’ the ‘conditions of spectatorship,’ the cultural ‘texts’ it broadcasts, and the ‘mental machinery’ at work when viewers turn these components into meaningful stories. Turning next to a related analysis of television economics, the authors provide concise overviews of how the cable and satellite industries work, and who are the financial interests behind the storytelling apparatus of commercial television. Especially useful are the charts and lists that show how a few mega-corporations control many aspects of media culture. For instance, Time Warner, one of the largest media cartels in the world, owns, operates or has major controlling interests (as of 1999) in: Warner Brothers, Time Warner Cable, Lorimar, Time-Telepictures, Castle Rock Entertainment, the HB Production Company, the WB television network, Home Box Office (HBO), Cinemax, Time/Warner Sports, the Cartoon Network, E! Entertainment Television, CNN, Headline News, and Turner Programming Services. Time Warner is also a partner in a major satellite company and sells 20,000 hours of TV programming in over 40 languages in 150 countries each year. One mega-corporation has become a global multinational force to be reckoned with, not for its military or economic power but rather for its ‘soft power,’ its ability to shape perceptions and habits. Although Time-Warner is only one such entity (there are important rivals, including SONY), in terms of media and entertainment the world is literally carved up among a few large trans-national corporations.

In a chapter on ‘Advertisers and their Audiences,’ the authors help readers to analyze how advertising manipulates audiences and persuades them to consume more, and how advertisers help producers trade audience segments according to shifting but well-controlled criteria. From this discussion, it becomes clear that when consumers watch television they are being carefully crafted into products, which are then bought and sold in the advertising marketplace. Television producers work hard to cultivate specific audience tastes, and then buy and sell these audiences like any other manufactured product. This marketplace is carefully monitored by way of audience surveys, and also increasingly by analyzing viewing habits through TV set-top boxes that can ‘watch’ a viewer’s every move, when a channel is switched, what is on, for how long, and during what hours people watch. These findings are collated with demographic information from postal codes, phone records, credit cards and other data that consumers obliviously leave behind as they live their lives.

After similarly analytical chapters on ‘Signification, Discourse, and Ideology,’ ‘Television Realisms’ and the ‘Flow of Commodities,’ the authors turn to the task of helping viewers make the transition ‘from consumers to activists.’ They forecast an emerging social division of the near future, not based on the traditional divisions of class, wealth or social standing, but ‘between those who cannot give up the drive for more and those committed to its end.’ Drawing upon the ‘uncooling’ of cigarettes as a case study in which a once-desirable product is now widely associated with addiction and disease, activists of the future will work to form similar negative associations with other wasteful and destructive products, beginning with luxury automobiles and junk-foods.

Many academics and activists have made connections between the lifestyle of industrial consumerism and the growing ecological crisis. As the consumer lifestyle expands and the natural environment deteriorates, ‘the ranks are sure to grow of those prepared to commit themselves to getting out of this fix, seeing connection to those already disaffected.’ Consumers-turned-activists will begin to insist on answers to tough questions, such as: What will the environmental movement of the future look like? How much overconsumption do we need? What about the rest of world? What about the poor at home? What right do earlier consumers have to limit the consumption of later ones in the name of environmentalism? Why should the Third World forswear what the industrial world has benefited from in the past century? Who will have the right to consume and pollute in the future? How can the planet possibly survive the efforts of transnational corporations to hook everyone and everything possible into cycles of want and waste? How can people retrieve time lost to watching television and consuming?

In order to help answer such questions, the authors urge readers to seek out alternatives to the advertising-driven apparatus of consumer television. Toward this end, they introduce a number of media organizations that are non-profit, which not based on consumerism, and which have different sets of stories to tell than the corporate media sources. They recommend supporting different forms of ‘media advocacy in the public interest’ and developing styles of ‘media literacy’ that will help viewers to manage television-time, develop critical analytical skills, and look behind the scenes of the television industries. Given the availability of affordable video and computer equipment, and the relatively easy means of distribution, the authors suggest that consumers turn to producing their own images and telling their own stories, and distributing them on the internet or via public-access television. They also suggest that consumers-turned-activists get involved in environmental organizations, find like-minded people, and seek strength in numbers. The book concludes with contact-information for a number of alternative media organizations and environmental groups, including useful telephone numbers, emails, and websites, which can no doubt be updated and expanded in each locale.

As more and more people wake from the slumber of consumerism and begin to realize that the once sought after ‘American way of life’ is destructive and no longer tenable, or even cool in the USA or anywhere else, the message of books like this – which might have seemed far-fetched or impractical in the recent past – will become commonplace in the near future. The anti-consumption movement is already gaining momentum among youth, who are disillusioned with the waste and want of their parents generation in the affluent West, and who in the rest of the world are beginning to see that the glitter of the American style consumer lifestyle blinds people to the realities of a wholesome, meaningful and spiritual life within a healthy and prosperous environment. This growing realization, coupled with activism, might enable peoples outside the industrial consumer societies to bypass consumption altogether and avoid the contortions and laborious self-flagellation that Americans seem to need in order to cure themselves of their self-inflicted diseases.
From the Book

Page 3: Many of us would describe the experience of television as entertainment, as an escape and diversion from the stress of the world and its work. Noticed or not, the experience of television is also one of the simulated abundance. Through the TV screen pours a cornucopia of images and sounds, of situation comedies, ads, soaps, ads, game shows, ads, promotions and ads, movies, news, ads, talk shows, and more ads. A new immigrant from a developing country might well identify the United States more with commercial abundance, overflowing supermarkets, and cable channels by the dozen than with values of democracy and freedom. Or abundance and democracy might seem intrinsically associated. Indeed, companies such as 7-11 and Burger King have campaigned on ‘freedom of choice,’ equating the diversity of similar products to the political franchise. Internationally and at home, the television screen has become the vanguard of commercial culture, as socioeconomic form that encourages more people to become consumers every year. Every year, too, experienced consumers find themselves shopping to meet more needs, or what seem to be needs, and spending more time working to pay for them. This is good for everyone, according to the values of commercial culture. The leading financial and political forces in the West have argued for the last century that the expansion of this culture at home and in less industrialized parts of the world improves the lot of humankind. It ‘develops’ the planet, transforming what is not human to human ends, radically altering the environment in the process.

Page 16: Commercial culture saturates identity in the United States, sometimes in ways not normally in view. As it has at least since the 1920s, this culture asks people to think of themselves as individuals in need who require commodities to become who they are, as private competitors for plenitude in interpersonal and economic markets. Although other social forces continue to define identity, the entertainments of commercial culture model this individuality. To do so effectively, as Lynn Spigel suggests, advertising early on adopted the ‘voice of an imaginary consumer.’ It learned to speak in terms meaningful to those it would target for sales. This has been key to commercialism’s hegemonic power. Not surprisingly in an individualistic culture, advertising on television and elsewhere has tended to adopt a voice that feels like an individual motivated not by a commercial system by personal desire, for a sense of generosity in oneself as well as for accumulation. Advertisers conceive this voice in the image of a shopper whose personal choices shape private life experience as well as the operations of the market. This is the imaginary voice television viewers are invited to assume for hours a day, so much so that it can seem like second nature, especially in combination with the print adds, billboards, and radio pitches that have survived earlier eras.
[This essay was extracted from J. Progler, Books for Critical Consciousness: Forty Reviews (Penang, Citizens International, 2010), pp. 52-58. Consuming Environments: Television and Commercial Culture by Mike Budd, Steve Craig and Clay Steinman, with a foreword by George Gerbner (Rutgers University Press, 1999) is available for online preview reading here.]

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