My work for Little Atoms just keeps getting more and more fun. This week’s edition features Neil Denny and I interviewing Tim Wu, the man who coined the term “net neutrality”, about his new book The Master Switch. I loved reading this book. In it, Wu presents the last century-or-so of communications history as a cyclical battle between the opposing forces of disruption and monopoly. The book is rich with detail, with a lightness of narrative touch which makes it a really comfortable read.
Although some reviews of the book have focussed on Wu’s proposals for legislation to enshrine net neutrality in the US, what I found most interesting was his related focus on the business of Hollywood, the development of massive media conglomerates in the eighties and nineties and their effect on artistic output. For Wu it is as important if not more so to look at the way communications markets act on free expression as it is to study law and policy. With a few notable exceptions, the history of communications has been a history of legislators happy to accommodate the business models of incumbent operators. Broadly, this is “entertainment that sells”, meaning entertainment that sells advertising: diversity and pluralism are sacrificed for reach. In this atmosphere, writes Wu, “mediocrity begets mediocrity”.
One of the most compelling sections of the book sheds light on Hollywood’s shift from auteur-centred film to film as vehicle for wider intellectual property promotion across a consolidated media landscape. Wu compares a list of the most expensive films of the 2000s (including Spiderman III, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Superman Returns, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen) with its 1960s equivalent and finds the recent blockbusters heavily skewed towards sequels based around “an easily identifiable property with an existing reputation, appeal and market value”, concluding “a film like Transformers or Iron Man doesn’t just earn box office revenue, it demonstrably drives the sale of the associated toys, comic books and, of course, sequels”. This, writes Wu, “has everything to do with the business’s being part of conglomerate structures”.
No wonder Hollywood is so keen to ramp up intellectual property protections. Reading The Master Switch it becomes clearer than ever that the effort the film industry puts in to influencing legislators (the MPAA recently hired former Senator and Presidential candidate Chris Dodd to fill Jack Valenti’s shoes, his salary alone is reportedly $1.2m) is nothing to do with fighting a rear guard action against online “piracy” and everything to do with shoring up its business against the disruptive new technology of the ‘net. It is a replay of the reconsolidation of the US telecommunications industry after Bell was broken up in the 1970s, a repeat of the pincer movement described by Wu with, on the one hand, elaborate and expansive political lobbying and, on the other, aggressive business practice. But whereas James Grimmellman can write of the Google Books settlement, “the Ninth Circle of antitrust hell is reserved for price fixers”, reports that the music and movie business deliberately block access to their back catalogues through punitive licensing arrangements, while steadfastly refusing to cooperate around compulsory licensing policy go pretty much unremarked. In another age, writes Wu, corporations of the size of Viacom and Disney would have attracted the attention of competition regulators.
The most tantalising thing about The Master Switch is that since Wu handed it in to his publishers, he has been hired by the US Federal Trade Commission as a policy advisor. So I asked him, purely theoretically of course, if he could only bring one anti-trust suit, would he pick Google (who he also labels “a monopoly” in the book) or one of the major media conglomerates? If you want to know which one he picked, you can listen to the broadcast, which goes out on Resonance 104.4FM on Friday night at 7pm, and which, if you don’t live in London, you can listen to online here. I’ll put a link to the podcast just as soon as it goes up.