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The Great Giveaway
by Michelle Degen

Our government is generous. Very generous. In 1996, Congress passed the Telecommunications Act, giving away $70 billion worth of public airwaves to America's media giants.

Time Warner, the largest media corporation in the world, already owns sports teams, book publishers, and interests in over 23 cable stations. The Walt Disney Co. owns ABC, several magazines, and theme parks. And Viacom owns Paramount, CBS, and Blockbuster. There are nine of these controlling giants, and they have a monopoly over most of the media that Americans consume through television, magazines, and newspapers. This gift of $70,000,000,000 from America's taxpayers gives broadcasters broader control over airspace than ever. They pay no fees, no taxes, no rent, nothing.

What do we get in return? The FCC has established that as a condition for the $70 billion gift, the corporations must run programs that serve the public interest.

So broadcasters present us with Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire, a game show where women, clad at times in nothing more than bathing suits, compete on national television to be chosen by a millionaire for marriage. They also give us The Howard Stern Show, one of the most celebrated woman-hating shows on the airwaves. And now we have Dr. Laura's TV talk how, through which media executives can further spread homophobia and misogyny.

With stations broadcasting such programs as these, one must ask herself who sets the standards for what constitutes the public interest. Not the public. Not Congress. Not even the Federal Communications Commission. The government does not guarantee the public any direct power over what broadcasters show us or fail to show us. Instead, those nine media megacorporations define the public interest.

One could argue that the market, in this case, television consumers, define what will be shown. Yet as Robert W. McChesney points out in an article for People for Better TV, "Even when media are regulated preponderantly by markets, it remains, in the end, a political decision to turn them over to a relative handful of individuals and corporations to maximize profit."

Armed with enormous sums of lobbying money, media giants are able to remain in control of broadcasting, with the means to conceal or reveal, according to their own monetary priorities, as they choose. The way the rules are currently written, public interest groups don't stand a chance against the powerful, rich, and patriarchal megacorporations. Moreover, as McChesney states, "Virtually the entire American population has no idea that (media policy making) exists and that they have a right to participate in it."

Television is a powerfully influential tool and, put into the wrong hands, can be dangerous. Hollywood, both obsessed with and hostile toward women, does an outstanding job of creating detrimental images of females, and negative gender roles for both women and men.

Males on television are shown as angry, hateful, contemptuous, and often violent. Even children sense this. In a recent study by Children Now, almost three fourths of children described males on television as violent. These depictions are accompanied by the sexual objectification of women.

Hollywood allows for sexual intimacy, but not emotional intimacy. Perhaps most insidious of all is that our children, who watch on average more than 38 hours of television a week, learn through the media that destructive, unequal relationships between men and women are appropriate, even fun and dramatic, further perpetuating inequality and the wide gap between the genders from generation to generation.

Of course, the inequality promoted by the media is reflected in the media machinery from the top down. An examination of the top-rated entertainment series among the top 100 programs of the 1998-1999 prime-time season found that women were 21 percent of the writers, 15 percent of the creators, and three percent of the directors.

There is a direct correlation between the power and gender of those behind the scenes and the representations on the screen. According to Media Watch, a watchdog organization that challenges abusive stereotypes, a mere 38 percent of characters in the 1998-1999 television season were women. Women of color are far more scarce than white women. Viewers are more likely to see a female alien or angel (three percent of all female characters) in prime-time TV than they were a female Asian (two percent) or Latina (one percent) character.

The female characters who are represented are usually sidekicks or sex objects. Men are almost always in the lead roles. Ninety percent of the lead characters on children's programming are male. This disproportionality of men also shapes the news programs. For example, 87 percent of the guests on Sunday public affairs programs are men.

The FCC promised the public that broadcasters would show programs that serve the public interest. That has been an empty promise. The public, however, does not have to accept this. Many countries such as Canada, Germany, England, and France guarantee the public a certain amount of control over the airwaves. These countries make the effort to maintain a fairly healthy combination of public and private programming, with standards that at least address the need for fair representation of minorities and women.

Standards for the U.S. corporate media need to be set by and for the public. Public interest groups should then officially monitor the corporate media to ensure these standards are met. Furthermore, public television needs to be reclaimed, and separated from private corporate money. If we leave the media in the hands of corporations, not only will the public continue to dole out billions of dollars worth of free gifts to the megacoprations, but we will also have to be subjected to the sexist, distorted, and shabby programming that serves the agenda of megacorporations and its profit-driven interests.

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Copyright 2000 Michelle Degen - All rights reserved by author
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