The Commodification Of Culture And Its Implications For The Television Industry:

An Examination Of The Culture Industry Thesis

by Brian Grant

The culture industry concept is a thesis proposed by Adorno and Horkheimer of the Frankfurt school. It contends that cultural industries exist to enforce (and reinforce) the capitalist ethos. This essay discusses the specifics and the ramifications of the concept for culture and society, with particular regard to its consequences for the television industry. The key claims of the thesis are as follows:

  • The more difficult something is to reproduce, the more is it fetishized and sustained.
  • As culture is used by capitalism to control the individual consciousness, so too does it become "industrialized" and commodified.
  • Where art was once also a commodity, in a capitalism it is to all extents a commodity, and is often successful through the evocation and manipulation of desires.

With this is mind, let us define what we mean by "culture industry". Although history has not respected this, Adorno and Horkheimer coined the "culture industry" term to replace the concept of "mass culture", which they felt had a semantic at odds with the truth. I will use the two terms interchangably. Today, the term "mass culture" (and also "pop culture") is itself part of the mass culture, and is usually used with positive connotation. It should be stated that "industry" does not necessarily imply industrial production means, although many works of culture commodification do indeed reach us in this way. Rather, it refers to the standardization and psuedo-singularity of cultural items, and to the regulation of how they are promoted and distributed.

I contend that much of the effects of capitalist life, no matter how pleasant or unpleasant, are results of inherencies in the capitalist system and need not be intended consequences of design. Many scholars of capitalism and its alternatives despair at the manipulation of people by other people in 20th century society, but capitalism, especially when viewed as accepted and normal, instigates these manipulations. It is seen as natural and normal to do one's best to succeed in society, and capitalism has great facility in negating all alternatives to itself. The Frankfurt School were skilled in discerning the flaws in society but less adept at projecting a suitable replacement for it; Marx is still waiting for society to destroy itself. Perhaps capitalism will be crushed under the weight of its own cultural trash, but it is likelier that mass culture will continue to perpetuate itself. And this seems reasonable, for a greedy consumer has little use for acquiring taste.

The Characteristics Of The Commodification Of Culture

Henry Ford, while not the inventor of the production line (it was Eli Whitney with his cotton gin) nevertheless inspired such techniques of assembly enough to have his name put to it. Fordism was a series of piecemeal additions to a product, most properly carried out in the manufactory on a black Model T, later to inform the development and dissemination of most industrial production, including works of culture. It does not stand alone as an example of a means of production transposed onto the realization of an artisitc vision. Rather, it is symptomatic of society, and how culture acts within it, as interdependent but lesser, as a function.

It seems oxymoronic to talk of "culture industries" as though culture was merely a product; there exists much of a person's culture that will not be industrialized or is safeguarded against it. Further, the implied malignant meaning of "culture industries" suggests a means of production precluded from producing anything of real worth. It is not so simple as that: a capitalism is not so clever as to be unexploited by the ingenious, nor is it likely that any creator living under a capitalism can be truly free from it. All artists could be considered as having at least a peripheral role in the culture industry. If capitalism can successfully belittle all alternatives to itself, then even its opponents must articulate with it in order to survive. It moves then, in a seemingly unstoppable fashion, towards a greater control over its increasingly unthinking society. It becomes aligned to despotism, pursuing homogenity because it can fulfil all of the homogenite's needs.

So, by a culture industry producing commodified culture, we mean an industry and a product where each purchase reinforces the politics of the dominant worldview: Horkheimer's insistence that cultural industries served the ideological role of perpetuating the capitalist ethos. This is unusual, in that the relationship is apparently the reverse, with capitalism seeming to perpetuate the production. But the above-mentioned homogenity of culture and apparent lack of alternative to capitalism are good support for Horkheimer's claims. The polarization of culture into mass and high distinctions is further evidence: mass culture is a satisfier of those desires that capitalist living provokes, high culture is that which cannot engage with capitalism. The semiotics of the mass, especially when allied to democratic notions, perceives itself as ordinary and decent and the high as abnormal and elitist. This nullifies the irony of how the masses perpetuate a vertically integrated industry (and society) though their fear and hatred of the perceived elite.

Freedom is another irony. It is key to Western democracy, an ideal much-vaunted and often claimed as reality. But freedom here is subjective stuff, in that it is under the thumb of the overarching ideology. Free time, for example, is defined in opposition to work time: a worker in work is not free. Further, not only does work decide leisure, but also the means of pursuing it. The culture industry performs a vital role in this cyclical manipulation of freedom: work evokes certain desires for escape, and the escape, when it comes, is underpinned so much by the ideology that it fits the leisuring worker to work once more.

We may consider a capitalist society as the conglomeration of many smaller mini-capitalisms which serve and are served by the whole; these include companies, corporations, industries, governments, movements and institutions. Such a wide integration of components ensures capitalism's survival; heterogenity is skeletal at best amidst such similarity, and capitalism works by using and increasing our similarities to one another. The needs and tastes of the consumer do influence what is available according to supply and demand, but capitalism strives to provide a product which legitimates itself by creating demands for a ready-made supply. Our needs are thus diluted, evoked or otherwise interfered with, and nowhere is this truer than with culture. Evoking the need for "luxuries" led to the triumph of marketing, the common belief that experiences should cost money. Artforms are designed to be profitable, their marketing designed to kindle a need. Using mass media, the capitalist can espouse spurious ideas about educating and speaking to a wide audience for the purpose of common good, as if his enterprise was stubborn to the demands of financial success. But his product, and its communicating means, and its precursing publicity, and its reason for existing at all, are firmly influenced by money and judged primarily on surplus value.

Where in many instances a culture once was lived, now it is expected to be performed and widely available. There are arts with traditions far lengthier than the capitalist tradition, but not all these can be considered autonomous, or high, art. If there is a demand of interest (and thence funding) in the marketplace, the culture industry will attempt to sate it, producing for mass consumption and, where possible, self-regeneration. The success and future of such an enterprise depends on finance. Artificialites of the enterprise, such as performance, organized space, entry fee, mass reproduction on a variety of media &c. are presented as normalities; the audience buys into a culture much as they purchase a fine imported wine.

The culture industry is the logical consequence of capitalist industrial production. It purports to offer escape from mundanity in a fashion requiring the minimum of effort. Since the worker is paid for his efforts over time, it seems natural that he should pay for a period of time requiring no effort. The escape he experiences is largely a flawed attempt to make extraordinary the realities of his life; those things he identifies with are symbolic of existing society. Most alarmingly, he knows what to expect before the experience begins, for it is a standardized (and recognisable) form, masked with the pseudo-individualization of a novel appearance. He may not realize that his reactions are standardized, too.

Television As Part Of The Culture Industry

It is bland and fair to say that television has changed the world. According to the culture industry concept, however, these changes are not as revolutionary as they may seem. In fact, the changes wrought and brought by television are nothing fundamental, rather a progression of the prevalent ideology.

This sets up a contradiction. Television is a cheap and readily available means of dissemination and propagation, at least in the Western World, and one characterized as necessary by most of its users. The range of channels and programmes and the wealth of information that is transmissible should guarantee a broad-based output, and such an output should cater, in some degree, for an audience as various as the population itself.

Homogenity in broadcasting is quite understandable where commercial television is concerned. Commercial television is largely supported by advertising, and therefore requires popularity; consistently the most popular shows are those aimed at a passive and uncritical audience. This state of affairs tallies with the pervasiveness of the capitalist ideology. Those aspects of the society's culture here represented are familiar interpretations either of reality or of real issues. The programmes are soap operas, chat shows, gameshows, most sports events, sitcoms, certain films, TV films or dramas, and most childrens' television. It is reasonable that representations of pop culture will be popular with audiences and advertisers alike.

Public service broadcasting should be exempt from this, as it should have less a need for mass appeal and more a need for mass acceptance. PSB's responsibility is not to be popular, but to celebrate diversity in a quality fashion. It should be cogent and relevant to society, but should not necessarily seek to uphold society. Insofar as possible, PSB should have autonomy and should complement the autonomous arts. It will also have responsibilites in current affairs, and as such requires public confidence in its trustworthiness and ability.

PSB, however, does have commercial ambitions. It deals badly with the success of its commercial neighbour, and, by constantly having to legitimate the licence fee, is forced into competition. Notions of the democratic will, which is largely allied to the will of the masses, places an overweight emphasis on such things as viewership figures and lessens the desire for heterogenity. PSB competes to entertain in such a sphere; this cannot but "normalize" the style and substance of both kinds of broadcaster. Just as PSB embraces the commercial preserve, so too does commercial television espouse broadcasting opportunities previously deemed inappropriate for financial gain.

It seems unreasonable then, at least in hindsight, to expect any type of television to perform a role exterior to the social conditions of the time. Rather, television is a form of social, commercial and political manipulation, a form which aims at integrating its audience. The semiotics of “mass communication” are rarely examined: such a description of TV's role and actions is one successfully kept from its consumers, who are encouraged to believe that all they see and hear is normal, and when change occurs, progressive. Cultural expectations are thus aligned with the expectations of investors, the goals of entrepreneurism and the purposes of technological innovators. Such an interaction saw advertising appear on our screens, as well as satellite subscription broadcasting, pay-per-view, commodification of sports, sponsorship (and vested interest), music television and TV shopping; such an interaction readies the consumer for digital television and the imminent redefinition of what we mean by "broadcasting".

In many senses the television, moreso than other media, has the viewer as a cultural tourist. Technology has made possible the penetration of many varieties of culture into the mainstream, in concert with financial and cultural demands necessitating the importation of much of a channel's schedule; there is undeniable closeness of cultures available at any time. We supplement our imports with evidence we obtain ourselves. In keeping with the broadcaster's rationale, such information will be transmitted as pre-interpreted (or, for some, "pre-digested"), which is fundamental for popular acceptance. This induces preconceptions. Primarily, we are encouraged to judge other cultures on the terms of our interpreters, who must balance the expectations of the mini-capitalisms who support them with their own experience, and, more importantly, the evidence captured on camera. In effect we exalt ourselves. It is a triumph for our society to be able to report from outside itself and to comment on what it sees. Politically, such reportage represents the logical progression of broadcasting's origins in militarism: television is a tool of the society used in pursuit of its own ideals. It is difficult to imagine it otherwise.

Capitalist democracy does restrain itself from absolute exploitation of the medium. That which is popularly unpalatable has stayed off the screens, censorship being employed as a regulator. The balance between necessary and possible amounts of advertising has largely been ascertained. The watershed is employed as a differentiator, and watchdog bodies exist to prevent socially harmful excesses. In effect, television's notions of acceptability depend on those beliefs of its society that are considered inviolable.

With such a progressive and pervasive medium there emerges new possibilities for exploitation. Certainly cable and satellite broadcasts have widened the perception of what is appropriate, introducing regulations of their own, including midnight and 2 a.m. watersheds. Further advances are expected in digital broadcasting, including imports from other cultures with different value systems. What should be remembered, however, is that despite television's progressing ability to disregard certain cultural and democratic strictures, it will never shake off the demands of capitalism. No matter how esoteric, shocking or taboo any broadcast may be, no matter how far it steps outside the norm, it will still exist to perpetuate capitalism. This, and not mass culture per se, is the rank opposite of autonomous art. It beds down with society to comment on what cannot be part of society. The hardcore pornography industry, particularly in the US, is the best example of this at present.

Television's role in society can be identified through what it does and what it does not. The efforts of the Frankfurt School and those the school has taught have instigated a pertinent understanding of TV's role within the capitalist structure, and the father-like influences of this structure within television's own make-up. These insights have largely kept their relevance. Study of them can lead to great comprehension both of the society and the culture industries operating in it, and often to a cynicism bordering on resignation. The opacity of familiar structures is something cleverly maintained, and recognition of where the transparencies are (and what lies behind them) does not imply that a solution will be found. The dominant ideology is an unyielding one; it would not be dominant if it were not.


Fifty years ago the Frankfurt school wondered why a revolution predicted eighty years previously had not taken place. Their conclusions, much like this one, are of little practical value. The hope was and is that a better understanding of present conditions would lead to an understanding of how meaningful change might take place. Television as a microcosm (and a metaphor) teaches us that such change is far from probable; capitalism pervades the medium, the industry and the society. We may be critical and disillusioned with television, but in isolation this is futile stuff.

The symptoms of a social condition that we see on television are many and familiar. Similar symptoms have, in various times and various forms, provoked accurate diagnosis of a cultural sickness that is ostensibly untreatable. This is where Adorno and Horkheimer made their mark.

A society which commodifies culture is a place of massive contradiction for the talented innovator. There are techniques by which the innovator can use and exploit this condition, these including satire and irony, manipulation of the medium, independent production and alternative distribution. He will aspire to creations that will be principally uninformed by the demands of the culture industry; their artistry will be paramount, their commodification incidental. Hopefully he will be judged on quality, not capital. He and his fellows will value their autonomy but know the paucity of opportunities in the autonomous exterior of society. It is therefore not hypocritical for them to engage with capitalism.

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