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View From a Hydro Wire (Media Commentary)

Issues to be explored in 1999


Welcome to the Center for Media Commentary! Each month, we will be offering a commentary on some aspect of media then offering strategies for using the issues in classrooms. If you have ideas for commentaries please e-mail them to us. If you wish to contribute to our Commentary center, e-mail us for guidelines.

January 1999: Media Ownership - The End of Democracy?

Anyone who watches television, reads a newspaper, or pays attention to the media at all, has probably noticed that corporate media production makes news and entertainment virtually indistinguishable. Spectacle, sensationalism, commercialism and celebrity-watching have become the daily diet dished out by broadcast and cable media.

I was watching CNN the other night, and I may as well have been reading a magazine: CNN Sports Illustrated, CNN Time, CNN Entertainment Weekly. The Cable News Network has split itself into specific focuses. What's happened to plain old news? And why would CNN be supporting these magazines? The answer is quite simple, but the picture is not good for media consumers. With a little bit of research, I discovered that four major conglomerate corporations own many of the major companies, news agencies, and magazines we see daily. Even more startling is the non-media holdings of these conglomerates which create major conflicts of interest. General Electric, the owner of NBC Network, manufactures parts for nuclear reactors and electric power plants, and engineers military jet engines. Westinghouse, owner of CBS Evening News handles toxic and hazardous waste and manufactures missile launching systems and surveillance radar for the U.S. Military. What are the ramifications of producing Dateline NBC or the CBS Evening News with one hand while the other makes weapons for the military?

But let's take a step back and look at the four companies in question. The information here has been compiled by Mark Crispin Miller, professor of Film and Media Studies at Johns Hopkins University. For a more detailed look at the four major companies (Time Warner, Disney, Westinghouse and General Electric), visit his website at

The four companies in question are:

Time Warner



General Electric

We will look at Time Warner's holdings and then a possible scenerio for the promotion of a movie put out by Time Warner through its companies.

Time Warner is a media conglomerate.

Record Companies owned by Time Warner: Warner-Chappell Music, The Atlantic Group, Warner Audio Books, Atlantic Classics, Elektra Entertainment Group, Warner Brothers Records, Warner Music International, Columbia House, Time-Life Music

Magazines owned by Time Warner: Time, Fortune, Life, Sports Illustrated, Vibe, People, Entertainment Weekly, Money, In Style, Time For Kids, Parenting, Baby Talk, Martha Stewart, Living, Sunset, Health, Hippocrates, Asia Week, Who

Book publishers owned by Time Warner: Oxmoor House, Little Brown & Co.,Time Life Books, Warner Books, Book of the Month Club, Sunset Books

Cable companies owned by Time Warner: Cinemax, HBO, E!, Home Shopping Network

Motion Picture companies owned by Time Warner: Warner Brothers, Morgan Creek, New Regency, Savoy Pictures, Warner Brothers animated, Looney Tunes

TV stations owned by Warner Brothers: Warner Brothers Television, Witt Thomas Productions

Time Warner also owns Turner Broadcasting which owns: the Atlanta Braves, the Atlanta Hawks, Hanna Barbara Cartoons, Newline Cinema, Fine Line Cinema, Castlerock Productions, CNN, CNN Radio, Headline News, CNN International, Cartoon Network, TNT

Most people think they make their own educated well thought out, well researched decisions about consumer purchases, choice of entertainment and information. But are we really free to make our decisions about a movie or news headlines?

How does conglomerate media ownership affect you and me? Here is a possible scenerio with the release of a movie:

--a movie is released by Warner Brothers

--the movie is advertised on Warner Brothers TV

--Seagram's will be the booze of choice in the movie

--a Seagram's billboard uses the movie's star to advertise its products

--E! runs lead stories about the film the week before the movie is released

--Columbia House features the movie's soundtrack on the front of its catalogue weeks before or after the film is released

--Little Brown & Co. Publishers releases a picture book or children's book about the movie

--CNN reports on the movie the week it is released, selling the release of the movie as news

--Time, People, and EW magazines publish reviews of the movie

--these magazines will be full of information and images about the movie and the celebrities starring in the movie

--these magazines will be "placed" in the movie wherever magazines might be found

You decide whether or not you're making all your own entertainment decisions!

Another issue is the government. Check out Mark Crispin Miller's website to see how some companies like Westinghouse own the CBS Evening News reporting on the government and also sell billions of dollars worth of products to the government, one of its best customers.

Canadian Newspaper Scene

Here in Canada, newspaper ownership has been an issue over the past few years. With the start-up of a brand new national daily, hostile take-over bid threats and block sales of newspapers, the story of the Canadian newspaper scene reads like a 1940s movie script. Many people are concerned about newspaper ownership in Canada. The concern, of course, is that when one company gains control of a large percentage of the news- making market, our way of thinking and our view of the world and community is largely shaped by news. Studies show that we still go to newspapers for the majority of our news. Internet news is over-rated and TV news still comes in byte-sized doses. We are entertained by TV news but when we want in-depth information about world and local events, the daily newspaper is where we get it. When news is controlled by a certain few empires who may or may not have political or commercial interests, our democracy is at risk.

At the center of the debate about newspaper ownership is Conrad Black, head of Hollinger, Inc., who has cornered the newspaper market in Canada. As well, Black owns the Chicago Sun Times, the London Telegraph and the Jerusalem Post. Last fall The National Post was launched, Canada's only national newspaper, according to Black. But Black isn't the only individual owning large chunks of the newspaper industry. Following is a break-down of newspaper ownership in Canada:

Southam Inc./Hollinger Inc: Will control 40.7% of daily newspaper circulation in Canada. Together the companies publish 57 dailies and 124 non-dailies. Southam is publisher of 33 dailies, including the National Post, The Ottawa Citizen and the Montreal Gazette, and 16 non-dailies.

Quebecor/Sun Media: Will control 21.7% of daily newspaper circulation in Canada. Quebecor publishes four daily newspapers including Le Journal de Montreal, Le Journal de Quebec, The Winnipeg Sun, and the Sherbrooke Record. Also publishes 56 weeklies. Sun Media will publish six daily newspapers and 96 weeklies. The Sun Media also owns 60% controlling interest in CANOE (Canadian Online Explorer) network of online products and a 29.9% interest in CablePulse24, a 24 hour local news station based in Toronto.

Torstar Corp.: Will control 14.2% of Canada's daily newspaper circulation. Publisher of the Toronto Star, Canada's largest daily newspaper, the Hamilton Spectator, Kitchener Record, Guelph Mercury and Cambridge Reporter. Also publishes 50 community weekly newspapers. Also owns Harlequin Enterprises, the world's largest publisher of series romantic fiction.

Thomson Corp.: Will control 10.7% of daily newspaper circulation. Publisher of six daily newspapers including the Globe and Mail, the Winnipeg Free Press and the Chronicle-Journal of Thunder Bay.

Power Corp.: Will control 5.7% of daily newspaper circulation, including La Presse of Montreal and Sherbrooke La Tribune.

Halifax Herald Ltd.: Will control 2.3% of daily newspaper circulation.

Brunswick News Inc (Irving Family): Will control 2.2% of daily newspaper circulation. Four dailies including the Moncton Times and Transcript.

*newspaper stats taken from the December 22, 1998 issue of the National Post


track the movies reviewed and "celebrity news stories" covered in Time magazine to see how many are by companies owned by Time-Warner

compare the front pages of newspapers owned by the same company. How different are they? Can you tell they are owned by the same company? Do they reflect the local community judging from its front page stories?

compare the front pages of national newspapers. How different are they? Do certain stories get more space than others? How are the various political parties handled in the headlines?

choose other companies and attempt to trace some of the holdings of these companies. Coca-Cola, Nike, Microsoft are examples. Study the impact of these conglommerates.

February 1999: Greeting Cards

Raise your hand if you've bought a greeting card--birthday, valentine's, Mother's Day, whatever--in the last year. Ah, most of you. How many of you flew out to the local pharmacy and grabbed one that sort of applied to the significant other to whom you wanted to give the card? Uh-huh...quite a few of you. So why do you do it--buy greeting cards, I mean? Wouldn't your time be better spent making a card or even thinking about something significant to say--something personal--from your heart not some lowly paid greeting card writer from Toronto? I know what you're're thinking, what would it look like if I didn't give mom a card or if I didn't go out and spend four bucks on a witty little saying about how old someone was getting? It would look terrible. We're expected to buy greeting cards.

Wait a minute. Expected to buy a card? By whom? By everyone, you say? But why do we expect a card and why does everyone expect one from us? You don't know. People...just...are.

Is that a sheep I hear baaaa-ing?

Interesting concept--the greeting card. I did a little research into its origin and this is what I found:

The first known greeting card was created for businessman Henry Cole by artist John Calcott Horsley in 1843 in Britain. A thousand were produced for Cole to give to his business associates. In the 1870s American lithographer Louis Pang popularized the greeting card further in North America through mass production techniques. Today, the U.S. Greeting Card Association even hands out Louie awards acknowledging outstanding greeting cards. A card-of-the-year is handed out annually.

Today, the greeting card business is booming. At Christmas, Canadians (Canada has a population of just under 30 million) is expected to send out 100 million Christmas cards, most of which will be discarded (pardon the pun!)by New Year's.

In the U.S., Hallmark is a $3.7 billion company. So, who is buying the majority of greeting cards? Carlton Cards Canada research has shown that 82 percent of Christmas cards are bought by people over 35 and that 84 percent of the buyers are women.

While the greeting card hasn't changed much in concept-- buy one from a rack in a store, lick the envelope and drop it in a mailbox on your way somewhere--a new type of greeting card is appearing on the horizon that might change our greeting-card-buying-habits. E-greetings sent through the internet seem to be all the rage these days since you can design your own cards, personalize the messages and even send animated graphics. For those who are less creative, web-page designers like Brian Muntz will offer you a bank of cards to send via e-mail. He believes E-greetings will eventually replace traditional greeting cards when the majority of the population gets online. Right now, the majority of e-greeting senders are males who are under 25 years of age, the direct opposite of the main consumer of greeting cards, so the change might not be as swift as Muntz believe, but E-greetings have now accounted for about 1% of Hallmark's sales.

I think E-greetings replacing traditional Christmas cards is a great way to use technology. Most of us buy Christmas cards in an impulsive, last-minute manner. We are effectively throwing away 4 or 5 bucks (the price of a book we say we don't have enough money to buy!) simply because of a tradition that says you must buy someone a card. That someone will display your card for a week or so for others to see how popular they are and then the card will be thrown away. When you think about it, the whole greeting card concept is ridiculous. The majority of senders don't write anything personal or meaningful inside--just their names. And what about Christmas cards? Christmas-card-sending has become absolutely arcane. People actually keep track of who sent them a card so they can reciprocate next year. Or some people quickly send out a card if they receive one from someone whom they weren't planning on sending a card too. Now, there's a card from the heart! And what about those who actually do send a card from the heart but refrain from sending to the recipient again because said recipient failed to reciprocate?

The greeting card institution has done an effective job advertising to us. Who can forget those Hallmark commercials that could bring tears to your eyes in 30 seconds? Newsflash: a greeting card will not miraculously patch up an intensely hateful relationship with your father. A greeting card will not undo the damage of words spoken to a girlfriend. A greeting card will not prompt your daughter to fly across the world after years of silence. A greeting card does not make all well with the people you generally don't treat very well throughout the year. Genuine love, caring and community do all that. (Note: a cell phone will not do any of the above either!)

My challenge to you: don't buy a greeting card in 1999. Make the card, write your own words, draw a picture, whatever. Time and meaningful thought is what it's really all about. What's that? You don't have that kind of time to spend on someone you say is really special to you? It's easier to run out to the pharmacy the night before and grab a card off the shelf and feel proud of yourself for the manufactured syrupy words in golden font on the inside.


March 1999: Shopping For Ourselves: The Mass Media Grocery Store

When I begin talking to students about media literacy and mass media, I try to get them to see the prominence media play in their lives. Typically, we take a media inventory, in which students write down the number of hours they watch TV, listen to music, watch video rentals, read books, etc. From these numbers, I give them a short lesson in the number of hours in a week (168), 56 of which is taken up by sleep, about 40 taken up by work/school, leaving only 60 or so hours. Students realize that if 40 hours of a week are taken up watching TV (easily done when you consider sports Saturdays and Sundays) not much time is left for other meaningful activities like playing sports or community involvement. Usually, students are astounded by their weekly media intake.

Then I go for the jugular.

I give them a lesson on the media literacy grocery store, a concept I heard during a seminar by Calvin College professor Quinten Schultz in 1989. It goes something like this:

Existing in a world of mass media and popular culture that reaches us in multudinous ways is a lot like stepping into and living in a grocery store. We all have our carts, into which we will place our media "items." The size of each of our carts will depend on our age, station in life, and general attitude about life. The size of the cart will determine how many items we place into our carts on a given day.

Usually, we have a list of items of interest which we put into our carts, but many times we put items into our carts with little thought (channel hopping, mall crawling).

Every time we turn on the radio, click on the TV, open a magazine, surf the Net, or play video games, buy a Coke, go to McDonalds, watch a Nike commercial, read the price board at McDonalds, we are placing something in our cart.

The items we place into our carts become part of ourselves: you've heard the phrase, "You are what you eat," meaning if you eat junk food all the time, you'll reflect the health content of what you're taking in (ie, you won't feel very good). If you eat good quality, balanced foods, you'll feel better and be healthier. The same can be said about media. What you place in your carts. We form our identities through the kinds of media items we place in our carts. For example, a teenager's choice of music, TV shows, video game preferences, etc will probably reflect what he wears, how he styles his hair, how he talks and perhaps his general attitude about life.

We put things into our carts because of the way we are. A teenager's grocery cart of media will look a lot different from a child or someone in his or her thirties. What we put into our media carts and what we take out will continuously change throughout our lifetimes.

A lot of media shoppers spend their whole lives racing through the media grocery store in search of what will make them popular or "in," what will make them feel good. These people are often looking for the "common look and attitude" dictated by their favourite actors, models, athletes and musicians. Simply put, we become whom we choose to communicate with, watch and listen and read. We are what we "eat." In North America, we have a non-stop identity crisis. We continuously ask ourselves "Who Am I?"

The good news is we do not need to go through the grocery store alone or without guidance. We go through with our parents in the beginning of our lives. Children today go through the world of media as critical thinkers thanks to media literacy units and course in schools. In Ontario elementary schools, for example, students learn critical thinking skills about media in grade one already. The need for media literacy has never been more crucial. One day, all parents will be media literate and one day all schools will teach media literacy as a basic skill students need for their lives.

Activities There are a number of activities you can do with your students to affirm in them that they are affected by media (most think they are not!):

"3 Minute Product Drill": Create a handout in which you write down 3 categories--soft drinks, running shoes, and Fast Food Restaraunts. Place 10 blank spaces below each one. Tell them that you simply want to test how many of these things they know. Give them one minute to list as many of each thing as they can. When they're finished, ask how many wrote Coca-Cola, Nike, and McDonald's as their #1 choice in each of the categories. Discuss reasons for this. The biggest reason is that these companines spend near the top in advertising dollars in their categories. Could we be influenced by advertising?

"Logo Identifcation": Collect 25 popular logos that do not have the company or product name written on them. Ask students to identify them. Discuss reasons why they understood colour, fonts, styles, etc in the logos.

"Idenfiying Jingles and Music": Collect some commercials of the day which are strong on music or sound. Cover your TV screen and play the commercials top see how many students recognize without hearing the product or seeing the image. Have students write a journal response based on their observations, asking them to explore reasons for the discoveries.

"TV Show Theme Songs": Tape some familiar TV show theme songs. Libraries will sometimes have tapes with recent TV show songs. Ask students to identify the song and even write some of the words down.

"Pop Music Used for Commercials": Find popular songs that have been used in advertisements. Play the original songs and see if students can identify the product in their association to the music. You may want to follow-up on the original meaning of these songs and how that meaning has now been shifted to sell a product. For example, here in Canada, the Bank of Montreal, one of our national banks, ran an ad campaign in which they used Bob Dylan's classic "Times Are a Changing," to promote their new philosophy in banking. Or Bob Seeger's hit "Like a Rock" is known to many TV viewers as the "Chevy Truck" ad. The original song has been lost.

April 1999: National TV Turnoff Week, Are You Ready for the Challenge?

In the coming month millions of North Americans will voluntarily turn off their TVs for sever days. During the week of April 22-28, they will discover that life can be more constructive, rewarding, healthy--even more informed--with more time and less television. That's the goal of National TV Turnoff Week, an innovation of Washington, DC-based TV Free America, a non-profit organization. In order to promote "richer, healthier, and more constructive lives, families and communities," the organization encourges TV watchers to tune out television and tune in to all that it displaces: creativity, productivity, healthy physical activity, civic engagement, reading, thinking and doing.

According to AC Neilsen stats, the average American watches three hours and 46 minutes of TV each day--more than 52 dyas of non-stop TV watching per year. By the age of 65, the average American will have spent nearly nine years of her life watching TV.

That TV has become akin to video wallpaper is a concept that author Neil Postman has been espousing for years. In his book Amusing Ourselves to Death (Viking Press, 1986), Postman says, "We no longer hear TV's faint hissing in the background or see its flickering grey light. And the peek-a-boo world it hass constructed around us no longer seems even strange." Postman goes on to say that lifelong TV viewers (by now, most of us!) no longer see the world of TV as bizarre, that we unconsciouly accept TV's view of the world as reality.

Naturally, television's portrayal of violence and sex has always been of concern, but TV's biggest impact on our lives has been its promotion of consumerism. We easily buy into the falsely portrayed upscale lifestyle of sitcom characters or the successful-future projections into which TV ads thrust us daily.

However, while we should be concerned about what is happening to us when we soak in television, what about what is not happening while we watch TV? What about the projects we're not getting involved in, the music we're not playing, the time we're not spending drawing or reading or writing? While some TV programs are excellent, the very gfact that significant hours or our waking moments are handed over to television is alarming, especially where children are concerned.

Brain-research studies have shown that countless hours of TV watching have adverse affects on learning and brain development, according to educational psychologist Jane Healy. Healy, author of Endangered Minds: Why our Children Don't Think(Touchstone Books, 1991), explains that growing brains are shaped physically by experiences. Neurons in the brain, she says, respond to sensory stimuli, which build new physical connections--called synapses--to neighbouring cells. The synapses form networks that are the neurological foundations for reading comprehension, analytical thinking, sustained attention, and problem solving. Active interest and mental effort by the child are crucial to the formation of these networks.

In short, the more work the brain does, the more it becomes capable of doing. Yet by ages 3 to 5--the brain's critical period for cognitive and language development--the average child is watching approximately 28 hours of television a week, which leaves little room for the creative process necessary for brain development.

The Challenge TV-Free America invites us all to take a break from television. What about you? Could you survive without TV for a week? I challenge you and your class or your family to participate in National TV Turnoff Week. To resist the temptation offered by your TV. unplug it or move it to an inaccessible area in your house; if you have children, tape a TV TURNOFF ribbon (make your own) across the screen.

During National TV Turnoff Week, fill your free time with new activities--go to the library, visit a bookstore, go rollerblading, e-mail a friend, play a board game (set up a tournament you play each night). Conscious substitution is key, especially for children, though past Turnoff Weeks have shown that adult males have the greatest difficulty resisting TV.

Individually or as a family or classroom, keep a journal throughout the week. Tell what you did, how you filled your time, how you felt about the absence of TV, what you missed about TV. As a media educator, get your school involved in a Turnoff Week; get the media involved by calling a local reporter to cover the story.

For more information about instituting National TV Turnoff Week in your church, school or community, visit the TV-Free America website at or call (202) 887-0436.

Click here for May - August '99 Media Commentaries