The Chilly Amazon

Winter’s approach reminds us of its Chilling Effect. On we pedestrians especially and regularly.

Amazon’s marketplace dominance reminds us of another Chilling Effect: on media content.

The cliché, if not the whole truth, has long been “Content is King.” I’ve used the expression, right here in this space.

And it is true. People don’t buy tickets to technology, they buy what technology delivers or affords or presents. (I recall Syd Silverman of “Variety” newspaper as first to state this.)

If content is king, then Distribution is the king’s loyal Knight-in-Charge and Enforcer.

But Amazon’s control of, first, the market for books, more recently, audio media, and, according to William Grimes’ “New York Times” article (“Art Collections a Click Away,” October 1, 2013, p. C1), on the horizon art, gives us pause.

If nowhere else, and surely there is, the history of the motion picture industry is both instructive and unambiguous.

For the first half of the 20th century, the movie industry was a vertically integrated oligopoly. That is, the same people who made the movies also distributed them and exhibited them in theaters. Five, or among those more generous, seven companies owned manufacturing, wholesaling and retailing.

When I went to the Paramount picture palace in my youth, I was going to a theater (once) owned by Paramount Pictures. And the theater, a magnificent structure that the city fathers (anticipating Joni Mitchell’s lyric) later yielded to the allure of a gravel parking lot, received their content from Paramount Distribution, a wholly owned subsidiary of Paramount Pictures.

I hasten to note that Amazon’s “control” of the marketplace for books has not reached the level of control exerted by the movie major companies. For movies, the oligopoly controlled 80 percent or more of the film market (and bricks and mortar theaters wholly comprised that market back then); Amazon’s control is a little better than 30 percent of book sales.

Nor do I intend to launch a Let’s-Bash-Amazon campaign. Read Alex Beam’s September 19th “Boston Globe” column (p. A-13, “Amazon Hate-fest Isn’t for Me”).

Instead, it’s worth noting why critics have long feared monopoly and oligopoly control of media. The reason for concern isn’t only, or even most importantly, about what so many suspect: the money.

It’s about content. (That again.)

As a medium’s marketplace of owners shrinks, so too does the diversity (as opposed to variety) of content.

Less risky subjects are raised. Content that’s controversial or that might rock the boat appears less often. Subjects of more “mainstream” appeal are more likely to be presented.

And, as publishers homogenize their title lists, fewer courageous writers – or at least writers willing to raise unpopular subjects and arguments – emerge.

The examples of a century’s worth of media content history reveals precisely this pattern. Certainly this was the case for the movie industry until the 1948 Consent Decree.

Once the radio industry consolidated and became networked, format-driven content became its catchphrase (as opposed to “free form”).

And the broadcast television industry, where three giants controlled 90 percent of viewership 90 percent of the time from the mid-50s to the mid-70s, didn’t loosen-up until the intrusions of cable, satellite, consumer VCRs, and an alphabet soup of other technologies began to emerge at the end of the 1970s.

So who cares? Readers should care. Writers should care. Publishers should care. And so should distributors and retailers.

The systems theorists have been clear. And they’ve been correct. We are all in this together.

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