Nicholas Garnham

Nicholas Garnham worked in television before starting his academic career. He worked for the BBC, serving as film editor from 1961 to 1964 and then director and producer from 1964 to 1968. His credits as a freelance Director/Producer include Through the Eye of a Needle, Border Country, In Search of Paradise, and The British Museum. He also served as the Governor of the British Film Institute (BFI) from 1973 to 1977.

Garnham teaching at the Polytechnic of Central London (now Westminster University), where he established his name as an expert in the political economy of communication and communication regulations. Today, he is Head of the Media Studies School of Communication and Director of the Centre for Communication and Information at Westminster University and a member of the European Association for Evolutionary Political Economy.

Editors' note: Garnham published a version of this paper in Cultural Studies 1.1 (1987). In it, he introduces a neglected dimension of cultural formation within cultural studies, i.e., the constitution and the formation of cultural industries, the intensification of cultural distribution, and therefore access to audiences and what contribution cultural studies can offer to policy making. We do not often see this level of analysis studies of cultural consumption (p. 2).


1. introduction

In conceptualizing the cultural industries as central to any analysis of cultural activity and of public policy, we stand against a whole tradition of idealist cultural analysis. This tradition--Raymond Williams critiques it in Culture and Society (1958) and other works--has defined culture as a realm separate from, and actively opposed to, the realm of material production and economic activity (p. 54).

By and large, public cultural policies have evolved from within that (idealist) tradition. Public intervention in the form of subsidy is usually justified on the grounds (1) that culture possesses inherent values, of life enhancement, which are fundamentally opposed to and in danger of being damaged by commercial forces; (2) that the need for these values is universal, regardless of class, gender, and ethnic origin; and (3) that the market cannot satisfy this need.

The "creative artist" occupies a central place in this ideology. This person's aspirations and values--stemming from unfathomable sources of genius, inspiration, or talent--are the source of cultural value. However, situating the arts at the center of the cultural universe no longer means showering them with money, but we should define the policy problem as one of finding audiences for their work, rather than the reverse.

2. my project

I make the case that most of those people on the left who have challenged this dominant view of culture as elitist have tacitly accepted the remaining assumptions of the tradition they reject. This accounts for their limited success in shifting the terms of the policy debate and the effortless ease with which they have been incorporated (p. 54). Thanks to this cultural policy-making tradition, public intervention in the cultural sphere is marginalized, making it purely reactive to the process which it cannot grasp (pp. 54-55). This tradition has been rejecting the market; thus, most people's needs and aspirations have been met by the market as goods and services. I try to answer the following research question: How should one formulate this new approach?

3. approach

theoretical framework: political economy

Analyzing culture from a political economic perspective means that we have to focus on the dominant private market sector, which in turn conceptualizes culture as the production and exchange of symbolic meaning, that is, as a material process of production and exchange determined by the wider economic processes of society (p. 54).

As a descriptive term, "cultural industries" refers to those industries in our society which employ the characteristic modes of production and organization of industrial corporations to produce and to disseminate symbols in the form of cultural good and services--usually as commodities. These include newspapers, periodicals and book publishers, record companies, music publishers, and so on. We characteristically find in all of these cultural processes the use of capital-intensive, technological means of mass production and/or distribution, highly developed divisions of labour and hierarchical modes of managerial organization (p. 55).

analytical method or technique: interpretation

3. Findings

For most people, cultural consumption is confined to so-called free-time. If we assume a working week (including travel) of 45 hours and sleep time of 48 hours per week, we have 75 hours per week in which to fit all other activities. On average, people spend 20 hours per week watching television. The point here is that consumption is time-consuming in the sense that the most popular form of culture, namely, the narrative and its musical equivalent, are based upon the manipulation of time itself, and thus offer deep resistance to attempts to raise the productivity of consumption time. This scarcity of time explains:

The various cultural industries compete in the same market for labour. In their work, film-makers, writers, musicians, or electricians move from film to television to live theatre. The electronic engineer may work in manufacturing or broadcasting. Journalists move to and from newspapers, periodicals, radio, or television. Trade union organizations reflect this unified labour market. We can thus see that a shift in one place affects the structure of the whole sector. The introduction of a new television channel restructures broadcasting, film, and advertising (p. 56). We can explain the particular economic nature of the cultural industries in terms of the general tendencies of commodity production. Thus we find competition driving the search for profits via increased productivity, but it takes specific forms (pp. 56-57).

a contradiction

A contradiction lies at the heart of the cultural commodity. On the one hand, we have the drive to expand the market share or the form this takes in the cultural sector, audiences. This is explained by the fact that, in general, because one of the use-values of culture is novelty or difference, cultural industries need to create new products, which are all in a sense prototypes. That is to say, the cultural commodity resists that homogenization process which is one of the material results of the abstract equivalence of exchange to which the commodity form aspire (p. 57).

This drive for novelty within cultural production means in general the costs of reproduction are marginal in relation to the costs of production (the cost of each record pressing is infinitesimal compared to the cost of recording, for example). That is, the marginal returns from each extra sale (of a record say) tend to grow, leading in turn to a thrust towards audience maximization as the preferred profit maximization strategy.

On the other, the cultural commodity is not destroyed in the process of consumption. My reading a book or watching a film does not make the commodity any less available to you. Moreover, the products of the past drive on and can be easily reproduced cheaply anew. Thus, it is difficult to establish the scarcity on which the price is based. Cultural goods and services (broadcasting) tend toward the condition of a public good. The drive to audience maximization leads to the observed tendency towards a high level of concentration, internationalization, and cross-media ownership in the cultural industries (p. 57).


Cultural industries have developed a number of strategies to limit access in order to create scarcity. These strategies include (pp. 57-58):

the nature of use-values

The third characteristic of the cultural commodity lies in the nature of its use-values. These have been difficult to pin down in any precise term, and the demand for them appears to be similarly volatile. As I suggested, culture is above all the sphere for the expression of difference. Indeed, some analysts claim that cultural goods are pure position goods, their use-value being markers of social and individual differences. We can conclude that the demand for any single product is impossible to predict. If they wish to establish a stable market cultural industries are forced to create a relationship with an audience to whom they offer not a simple cultural good but a cultural repertoire across which the risks can be spread. For instance, in the record industry only 1 in 9 singles, 1 in 16 LPs makes a profit, and 3 per cent of the output can account for up to 50 per cent of turnover. By the same token, films in the top ten films out of 119 in the UK market in 1979 took 32 per cent of the box-office receipts and the top 40 took 80 per cent (p. 58).

The drive to audience maximization, the need to create scarcity by controlling access, and the need for a repertoire brings us to the cultural point in this analysis: The key locus of power and profit lies in cultural distribution, not in cultural production. In other words, access to distribution is the key to cultural plurality. The cultural process is as much, if not more, about creating audiences or publics as it is about producing cultural artefacts and performances.

the editorial function

We need to recognize the importance of what I call the editorial function, the function not just of creating a cultural repertoire matched to a given audience, but of matching the cost of production of that repertoire with the spending powers of that audience. These functions may be filled by somebody or some institutions, such as a publisher and a film distributer. This function has been ignored by many cultural analysts, a function as creative as writing a novel or directing a film.

Taking all these various factors into account, we can now understand why our dominant cultural processes and their modes of organization operate the way they do. That is, the dominance of broadcast television stems from its huge efficiency as a distribution medium, with its associated economies of scale. For this reason, the notion that the technologies of cable and VCR are fragmenting the (British) market (pp. 58-59).

As I have suggested, power in the cultural sector clusters around distribution, the channel of access to the audience. Here, we typically find the highest levels of capital, ownership concentration and multinationalization, the operation of classic industrial labour, and the relations of production with related forms of trade-union organization. These characteristics are exhibited to their highest degree in (p. 59):

We should raise one more question: How should we view the relationship between the market and the cultural process? As I suggested at the outset, one tradition (the socialist) regards culture and the market as inherently inimical. This view is powerfully reinforced within the socialist tradition by opposition to the capitalist mode of production (p. 60).

It is crucial to separate the concept of the market from the concept of the capitalist mode of production, that is, from a given structure of ownership and from the special features derived from labour as a market commodity. In terms of this relationship between producers, distributers, and consumers of cultural goods and services, the market has much to recommend it, provided that consumers enter that market with equal endowments and that concentration of ownership power is reduced, controlled, or removed.

However, we must be clear that the removal of the power vested in private or unaccountable public ownership will not remove the need for the function I have described as editorial, whether such a function is exercised individually or collectively. Even within the capitalist mode of production the market has, at crucial historical junctures, acted as a liberating cultural force. Think of the creation of the novel and the newspaper by the rising bourgeoisie in the 18th century and of the working men's clubs and the working-class seaside holiday in the 19th century.

5. concluding remarks

The cultural market--as it has developed in the last 150 years in the UK as a substitute for patronage in all its forms--cannot be read as a destruction of high culture by vulgar commercialism or as a suppression of authenticate working-class culture, but should be read as a complex hegemonic dialectic of liberation and control. What this analysis of the cultural market brings home to us is the need to take the question of scarcity and thus of the allocation of cultural resources seriously, together with the question of audiences: who they are, how they are formed, and how they can best be served. The only alternative to the market which we have constructed has tended to subsidize the existing tastes and habits of the better-off or to create a new form of public culture which has no popular audience.

Works Cited

Garnham, Nicholas. 1987. "Concepts of Culture: Public Policy and the Cultural Industries." In Studies in Culture: An Introductory Reader, ed. Ann Gray and Jim McGuigan. London: Arnold, 1997, pp. 54-61.

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