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The issue of media conglomeration, or the phenomenon of a vast amount of cultural (media) production being controlled by a relatively small number of corporations, has generated heated debates among communication scholars, policymakers, and industry practitioners. In these debates, the concept of media conglomeration primarily refers to ownership structures within media and communications industries, as well as to the nature and organization of this type of cultural production. The phenomenon of media conglomeration, though, touches upon a much broader set of interrelated issues – ranging from questions on diversity, competition, and control in a tightly oligopolistic market, to concerns over the wider societal implications of a situation where huge conglomerates dominate the global communications system.
Drawing upon public sphere theories, scholars working within a critical research tradition have been asking questions about how far and at what price a communication system can be dominated by a handful of corporations, and how this might affect the diversity of information and argument needed for effective and well-informed citizenship. Sharp political economic analyses on how the corporate structure and strategy of media conglomerates tend to homogenize cultural production and restrict critical media content have been opposed by advocates of the free market. Media conglomeration is also an important concept in the academic field of international communication and in debates on media, internationalization, and globalization. Because much of today’s communications industry is under the control of multinational corporations with cross-media activities in most parts of the world and with their headquarters in the USA, western Europe, Australia, or Japan, the issue of media conglomeration is often associated with older arguments about Americanization, Eurocentrism, or cultural imperialism.
Although an unparalleled series of international acquisitions and buy-outs of media and entertainment companies from the 1980s onward fueled the debate, it is clear that the issue of media conglomeration is not a new phenomenon. During the second half of the nineteenth century, new technologies such as the telegraph, facilitating the transfer of information over a long distance, created the first modern media corporations with an international scope. In the twentieth century, the growth of other new media sectors went hand in hand with vertically integrated and internationally active companies. The film industry, for instance, quickly saw the emergence of oligopolistic structures which tried to control most levels of the industry, increased their interests in the wider leisure industry (music, radio, etc.), and operated in an international environment. In the postwar period, the communications industry saw several waves of mergers and concentration. From the 1980s onwards, the rapidly expanding global entertainment market, the availability of new delivery systems, and the development of new markets and technologies, combined with a deregulation policy, all resulted in a further cycle of mergers. This trend did not stop in the 1990s and during the first decade of the new millennium, with spectacular mergers.
This conglomeration trend raised many questions. A first set of questions deals with how far a market can be controlled without harming competition in terms of production, dissemination, and consumption of media products or content. Critical voices in the debate argue that the trend reduces the diversity of cultural goods in circulation. From this perspective, conglomeration might have a restricting effect on media content while it tries to offer more variants of the same basic themes and images. Critics argue that conglomerates seek content that can move fluidly across different media and channels (synergy), while they ignore creative talent and content in favor of commercial viability. This analysis is countered by arguments claiming that a free market has led to a decreasing oligopoly and the emergence of new players, while consumers enjoy more choice. This position refers to the growing amount of television and other media providers and the emergence of the Internet as a source for information and entertainment, as well as the notion of counterculture audiences who do not accept what conglomerates offer. The answer to this position is that a key to understanding conglomeration is that major players in the field continuously try to absorb viable alternatives through mergers in order to extend their scope and consolidate their position. A second set of questions refers to a higher level of implications, dealing with the role of the media as a central political and societal institution in democracy. Inspired by public-sphere theories in relation to the media, conglomeration critics express worries about the conglomerates’ power in controlling the flow of information and open debate in society. Opponents claim that the danger to democracy is a myth, given the extension of choice and emergence of new alternative sources of information.
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