We often think of media as just another industry – providing services in exchange for money. And they are if you look at things from purely an economic point of view. But when you add social, cultural and political dimensions to the mix, then it becomes clear just how different media is from other commercial enterprises. For starters, media differs in the commodity it sells. It does not sell material products or physical services like other businesses, it sells thoughts, ideas, emotions and cultural patterns. What this means is that a business may sell clothes but the media sells clothing fashion.
Then, there’s the question of power. Almost all enterprises, commercial or otherwise, wield some amount of influence over state mechanisms once they cross a certain threshold of size. But this influence is often indirect, passing through layers of middlemen and lobbyists, taking the form of closed-room deals and backdoor policies. But the media’s power is more direct than this. They can shake the government to its core by the content they publish or not public.
The exceptional command media holds over public opinion allows them to drive not just what people think but also frame how they think about it. This puts them in an ideal position to make or break power. All we need to do to illustrate this point is recall the mission journalism of the late 1980s that helped bring down the Panchayat regime or the private media’s relentless coverage of King Gyanendra’s failings that helped spark the People’s Movement II and lead it to success. Admittedly, with the rise of social networks and citizen journalism, the media’s grip over the information sphere has begun to loosen in recent days but it still holds an enviable position of power over other businesses and industries.
Another point where the media differs from commercial enterprises is its business model. For commercial establishments, their primary or even the sole source of income is the sale of their products or services. For media though, their “product” matters very little to their income. They earn through secondary means like advertisements, product placements, distribution rights, etc. That may depend on their product i.e., news, views, entertainment programs and so on. But it is not the product itself. This is why they have the freedom to change the content they deliver. A channel may choose to show an animated children’s show in place of a soap opera at a particular time and still make money. However, a soap company cannot decide as easily to stop producing soap and begin making towels without risking its future.
However, while media organisations may certainly be more powerful than the other institutions of society, they are not separate from it. Media does not exist in a vacuum and while influencing society, is also influenced by it. For example, media is dictated by government regulations, religious and cultural norms, etc.
Especially with the advertising industry, the media has a symbiotic relationship. Media institutions rely heavily on the income from advertisers and advertisers, in turn, depend on media to communicate with their customers. However, advertisers hold a larger sway in this relationship because the abundance of outlets and the popularity of social media means they have plenty of means for communication but media organisations don’t have other sources of income. So, the media go out of their way to please advertisers.
They reflect their ideology and even censor themselves to help the advertisers sell their products at any cost. The media is only free and fair up to the extent their advertisers allow them. So, it would not be controversial or far-fetched to say that the media texts and discourses are the work of advertising. So, ultimately, all the power of the media discussed above actually lies in the hands of advertisers.