This piece appeared in the Winter 2021 issue of NACLA Quarterly, The NACLA Transfer. Subscribe to print today!
IIn 2006, the historical study Journalists and money tycoons Ownership of Designated Media in Latin America. The project, led by Argentine proprietary media experts Guillermo Mastroni and Martin Becerra, represents the first collaboration of its kind between academics and journalists from most of South America and Mexico. In follow-up books 2009, owners of the word And Monopolies of TruthMastrini, Becerra, and fellow researchers updated the data for South America and added Central America and the Dominican Republic, and in 2017, the authors Information and Communication Concentration in Latin America (2000-2015) Detailed transformations in the media landscape in the region.
These formative works shed light on the state of media ownership in the region and shaped debates around media pluralism and democracy. Coincidentally, their publication came as progressive governments in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, Paraguay, Uruguay and Venezuela faced relentless criticism from media conglomerates, prompting calls from social movements for a debate about media focus and pluralism.
Historically, unlike in most advanced economies, the largest media outlets in Latin America have thrived under very lax – or almost non-existent – regimes. Media tycoons who established fanatical, family-controlled and politically interconnected media organizations controlled markets through political influence and monopolistic practices. With neoliberal globalization, some of these regional groups have expanded their influence through joint ventures and strategies of vertical and horizontal integration. Witnessing this trend, the region’s three largest markets provide examples of alarming levels of concentration: in Mexico, two television companies, TV Azteca and Televisa, focus 90 percent of national viewers; In Brazil, Grupo Globo, the largest media group, boasts of reaching about half of the country’s population of over 200 million people through its various outlets; In Argentina, four television companies account for more than half of the market.
Such influence in building public opinion also implies the concentration of power. As noted Yale legal scholar Owen Weiss once wrote, “Money is speech,” Latin American media moguls have a disproportionate opinion of the way political debates are framed. This gives them the power to influence political decisions, electoral outcomes, and a wide range of public interest issues.
As Pink Tide’s managements were dealing with a strained relationship with the company’s press, more and more Internet access became available in the area. The public has increasingly shifted attention away from traditional outlets and towards digital consumption and social media platforms. This has resulted in conglomerates adapting through convergence, seeking to integrate carrier services and increasingly diversifying through multimedia production.
Today, more than 15 years after the first book was released by Becerra and Masterini, is the Latin American media landscape becoming more focused? To explore these issues, I spoke with Becerra and Mastrini – both professors at Universidad Nacional de Quiilmes and Universidad de Buenos Aires – along with media researchers Isabel Ramos, coordinator of the Master’s Program in Communication at FLACSO Ecuador, and Andrea Cristancho Cuesta, Professor of Communication and Culture at FLACSO Ecuador. Central America José Simeón Cañas (UCA) in El Salvador. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Gustavo Fox: I would like to start with Professors Becerra and Masterini – both of you have been crucial to the study of media focus in Latin America. in your book Information and Communication Concentration in Latin America (2000-2015)You are suggesting that media focus is still the norm in the region. The conglomerates are now investing in multimedia production, especially in television, as well as the expansion of internet services such as Triple Play and others. Several commentators have argued that we are now seeing more forms of media than ever before, and for that reason, we shouldn’t worry about focus. But you argued the opposite: that we see fewer players in the telecom industry in the region. How do these two opposing realities work? On the one hand, there is focus, but on the other hand there is a fragmentation of information – the so-called “attention economy” – due to social media and attempts by traditional media to take advantage of it.
Martin Becerra: Yes, these processes occur simultaneously. There is a concentration of ownership, and there is a segmentation of audiences, audiences, destinations and usernames within the ‘interest economy’. Audience segmentation is a social process, but also a product – industries define consumption and consumer segments using precise targeting to mobilize advertising, fueled by the data mining economy.
Let’s take the example of broadcasting. Even a few years ago, the television sector was eyeing advances in pay television, which was and remains a niche market in Latin America. In the past two or three years, we’ve seen the transition from pay-TV to streaming, and niche audio-visual media have struggled to compete with OTT streaming companies on a global scale. Media companies such as Televisa in Mexico, Clarín in Argentina, Globo in Brazil, and others can no longer rely solely on traditional advertising, thus searching for new platforms and economic models that exploit data. These groups lagged behind in the work of data mining, processing, and marketing; Global companies that have been doing this for a long time are better equipped for this task. This is the gamble that these media companies are taking.
Guillermo Mastroni: I’m more careful than Martin. I still think that Latin American media groups don’t have the scale to compete on bigger platforms. The game is too complicated for them. What Martin described are defensive strategies in the sense that they resist an unfavorable environment. Digitization has negatively affected large national media groups. This does not mean that there is less concentration. Digitization, on the one hand, holds the promise of diversity. Low production costs allow many actors who were previously left out to emerge as producers. However, in terms of controlling distribution channels, it is still a highly concentrated sector. I would even say that we have moved from many national markets to a few global markets. In the TV market, we used to have as many national markets as countries. Today in the streaming market, we only have four or five global platforms. With OTT platforms on a global scale, it is very difficult to stand out.
I think there should be a general policy at the Latin American level to promote alternative OTT platforms. This is the only way, although there is no chance of implementation. As Martin said, when it comes to data usage and cultural consumption, we have to think not of national, but regional metrics — at least. Big telecom companies and platforms understand cultural consumption better than anyone else, including national governments and national production companies.
Of course, the public policy risk is that governments will use this data for political control. I’ve always had less of a problem with the state than with the market controlling everything. But this is not what is traditionally accepted in Latin America.
Megabyte: This contrast between concentration and fragmentation is interesting because it is used frequently as an economic and political argument. It would be foolish not to realize that at this point in time the technological barriers to entry into the information and communication industry are much lower, and this allows for a continuous reconfiguration of the model where you have global players, dominant national players, general national or regional players – and also very small players, who This reduction in barriers is good news for them. Very small book publishers, for example, or super-specialized forms of communication would otherwise disappear. The concept of “media desertification” is widely used in our country. Medium-sized actors who used to have regional or national reach within their countries, and which have revitalized culture and information markets, are under threat.
GF: How did the mainstream media manage to stay relevant, not only in economic terms but also in terms of audiences? And in the case, for example, of Clarín or Globo, which also have political inclinations, how important is it to maintain this audience, for the power of influence it gives them?
GM: We are in a period of great uncertainty due to digitalisation. We are now in the famous stage where the old is not finished with death and the new is not over yet. At the moment, large national groups do not have as much certainty as before regarding their production model for various reasons. We are in a phase of transition, and we must continue to pay attention to see how it develops. National media groups have lost their power with globalization as the state itself – and thus the national media – has become less important.
What Grupo Clarín did is, in my opinion, a smart response. Clarin [Argentina’s largest communications conglomerate with holdings in print media, radio, and television] It pivoted from content to communication infrastructure. This infrastructure is, for the time being, a national service, while content is becoming less national. We will see if in the future there will be a transnational, global or regional telephone service. But for now you still have to get phone service from Claro Argentina, Claro México or Claro Ecuador – there’s no way to buy directly from Claro yet.
In the telecom sector, there is no audience. There are users, and the behavior of users is completely different from that of the masses. Audiences have a link to a social imagination, while users are looking for a clear service.
In terms of consumption, Grupo Clarín is doing worse than ever in the field in which it used to be successful: securing mass audiences. Its ability to attract audiences has declined shockingly in the past ten years. It went from selling 1 million copies of newspapers on Sunday to selling 200,000 copies. This is an 80 percent reduction. TV ratings rose from 30 to 5 or 10, and possibly 15 if the show was considered a success. This is an important media outlet both economically and in terms of political influence.
So, defense strategy is to pursue business where national capacity is still an important factor. To me, it seems that this business has nothing to do with attracting audiences and more with providing services.
Read the remainder of this interview here, open access available for a limited time.
Transcribed and translated by Alejandra Mora Gómez.
Gustavo Fox PhD student at the University of Texas at Austin. His research focuses on media ownership, political communication, religious media, and human rights.