Animating Cartoons and Automating Consumers

With advances in electronics art, entertainment and information delivery are being restructured creating a new information order. As technological development transforms the various elements of television, films and distant learning introducing the new domain of cyberspace, this is accompanied by the mergers and acquisitions. A Disney acquisition of ABC-Capital City for $ 19.4 billion, has been followed by Westinghouse’s acquisition of CBS for $ 5.4 billion and now Time Warner’s buy out of Turner CNN’s TV empire for $ 8 billion. The world of entertainment and information is the new sphere of global contention with US companies leading the pack.

There is disquiet on the ability of this highly monopolistic entertainment industry to manipulate values and opinions of people at the global level. Democracy needs multiple of sources of information — this has been the basis of regulation of the media in all countries. Suddenly, Disney is no longer the endearing figures of Mowgli or the Mickey Mouse but a giant Dinosaur capable of bringing in “animated, friendly” fascism through the television set. This is facilitated by the TV as a medium, as it “locks” most of the brain for processing visual and aural data. A couch potato is not the predilection of the individual viewers but inherent in such computationally intense cerebral processing. As a Rupert Murdoch, and a few such giant global players control most of the TV screens of the world, they can decide what the people should see and feel. Even without any conscious volition, the world as viewed through the eyes of Donald Duck is going to be more and more that of white American suburbia. With an additional push, we may get the Orwellian world of mind control with Big Brother Murdoch or Disney deciding what is good for the viewer anywhere in the globe.

Underlying the mergers and acquisition in the world of entertainment is the sheer potential of the growth of entertainment “products” and their market. Such products embody creativity and imagination. However, as the physical reproduction is cheap, once made, its replication is virtually at no cost. The products of the entertainment industry are therefore very high in monopoly rent and low on labour costs if successful. A monopoly empire spanning programming and distribution of such products therefore cuts down the possibility of “product failures” by shrinking viewers’ choice and inflate monopoly profits and rent incomes. The recent mergers are all in the direction of larger vertically integrated monopolies — in every case, it is the merging of companies producing films, serials, etc., with established television networks.

The viewers will have increasingly little options with only three or four global empires that are emerging. There may be a multiplicity of channels but not diversity of options, much like the cable television in India today where all Hindi channels broadcast films and film music as their staple fair. The enormous global market of the entertainment industry comes of course from the globalised world order where the multinationals (MNCS) need to use advertising to bulldoze into third world markets. Satellite vision and global markets, this is the MNC world of tomorrow and packaged along comes the world as viewed by Donald Duck.

The other driving force behind the rush of mergers and acquisitions is the nature of technological change in the communications industry. Entertainment, information and telecommunications are integrating as the elements of all these become same. Digitised data moving through cables can provide Television, video on demand and instant access to all the information in the world. The technology has already come of age — the commercial launches are now under progress. Traditionally, cable TV Companies, Telecom networks and main stream TV companies have been independent of each other. In most countries, regulatory authorities force them out of each other’s domain. All this is likely to undergo rapid change as technological development erases these boundaries.

The copper cable coming to every home as a telephone wire can be can be used to pipe television, video, etc., and so can the cable TV connection be used to bring in voice telephony. Technologically, the barriers between different domains are coming down. And therefore the clamour to  bring down the regulatory barriers as well. Newt Gingrich’s new manifesto is to do away with the telecom regulatory body — the Federal Communication Commission. The argument given is that it will promote “competition.” The  reality of  course is that a shake out of this kind will promote new monopolies cutting across old ones. This is what lies behind the right radical agenda of promoting competition.

While the media mergers have created big news, other strategic alignments are also taking shape. The Baby Bells — the regional Telephone companies, Microsoft and Oracle — the software giants, and various computer hardware companies are forming alliances for the communications’ future. Microsoft has staked its claim on the future with the PC and Microsoft packaged software as a gateway to the computer networks. Others, including Oracle, have argued for networked software with users having terminals common to television, video phones and computers. These are not futuristic projections but involve business plans and alliances worth billions of dollars. The world is moving towards Information Super Highways — very high bandwidth transmission network capable of supporting interactive TV, data communication, multi- media (video and audio) transmission. Nippon Telecom has promised to provide a fibre optic cable connection to every home in Japan by 2005. The mergers and acquisitions in the entertainment industry are also a defensive response to the impending onslaught of telephone and software companies that are looking over their fences. One of the main reasons for the relatively high license fees quoted by the private companies in the recent telecom tenders in the country are the expectations of high revenues for such services from the affluent overclass.   Does then technology inherently reinforce monopolies, centralising all systems? It is interesting to see that there is also a completely alternate structure of entertainment and education opening up through the current advances in communication technology. The Internet — the global computer network operating with more than 50 million users is not “owned” by anybody. Dozens of groups interact amongst themselves on a voluntary basis sharing information electronically. Of  course, it is used for pornography and by fascist groups as well. But it can not be owned or regulated! All you need in order to communicate with others is access to a computer with a modem. You can then “surf” the cyberspace through ordinary telephone lines — talking to others, looking at interesting information and in future down loading films, interactive educational programs, etc.   The paradigm of communications through the Internet is antithetical to the emerging global media empires. The media empires offer increased number of channels but no real viewer options. They are totally passive, operating the remote to zap the commercials and switch channels are about the only activity that viewers perform. Control over the physical media resources — studios, satellite, TV stations, cable networks, etc., provide the basis for reaching people. The information flow is hierarchic and uni-directional. As a contrast, the emerging computer networks promote interactivity and interconnectivity. A person can log on to Internet and traverse through bulletin boards which are set up by various interested groups. He or she can post information on such boards, get the information  of interest, load and view interactive programs, search data bases, all though the ubiquitous personal computer. There are Human Right groups, Peace groups, environmental groups, all connected to the Internet. It is a flat two way peer to peer communication and not the hierarchical world of one way television.   However, the world of Internet does promote other kinds of monopolies. The hardware elements and software packages — the building blocks of the network are all produced by global monopolies. The difference is that it does not centralise information and reduce people to adjuncts of their TV sets or computer terminals. The structure of information in the network is such that it is not possible to build global dominance by control of the physical resources of the network. As it provides connectivity, alternate resources can always be created by networking people.   The technological developments therefore do not fit into a pre-conceived frame work. If they help in re-inforcing existing inequalities, they also help in enhancing information access. The new information order therefore enfolds both possibilities. The world of tomorrow may not end up quite the way the Disneysaurs want. Animating the cartoons, and automating the consumers — this is the heart of the Disney entertainment world. Technology acclerates this process; at the same time, it also opens the window to the interactive world of Internet.