Friday, December 03, 2004

The Technology Liberation Front: Senate hearing / testimony on media ownership

[This was posted by Adam Thierer at The Technology Liberation Front blog on September 28, 2004]

The Senate Commerce Committee held a hearing today on media ownership regulation and I was invited to testify. Here's the link to my [Adam's] testimony.

All the charts and tables you will see in the appendix of my testimony will appear in my forthcoming book Media Myths: Making Sense of the Debate over Media Ownership. I strongly encourage you to take a look at Ben Compaine's excellent remarks when they are posted, as well as everything else he's done on the issue. No one knows more about this issue than Ben.

Posted by Adam Thierer at September 28, 2004 12:05 PM"

Thursday, December 02, 2004

More Competition or Less in TV? You Decide

The debate on media competition constantly keep returning to television. Yeah, there's a declining newspaper industry and a robust radio business. There are thousands of book and magazine publishers. Oh yeah, the Internet. But the 600 pounds gorilla in the room is always television.

So lets look at what really matters in TV land, eyeballs.
Over the period 1960 to 1980, there commercial broadcast networks dominated the television landscape. The were ABC, CBS and NBC . On average during that period that had a combined prime time rating of 56%. That is 56% of all households with television sets were tuned to one of those networks on a average weekday night.

But with the development of cable, competition from new networks, videos and other distractions, the audience share of those big three networks has declined steadily. By 2003, the three old broadcast networks were averaging only a 38% rating. But, you note, these networks have become part of larger media conglomerates, with extensive cable holdings.

I added up all the networks owned by each of the media conglomerates: Viacom includes CBS, Nickelodeon, MTV, TNN, BET, TV Land, among others. Besides ABC Disney owns ESPN, Disney Channel, , Minority interests in others. I added the still pending combination of USA Networks with NBC. Add to the mix the Fox Networks, which did not exist until 1986, along with Fox News, FX, et al. An Time Warner, which started the WB network to add to CNN, TNT, HBO and the like. These five entities combined has a prime time audience rating in December 2003 that was 5% less than the rating of three networks pre cable, pre-Fox.

Call me what you will (except late for dinner). But that looks to me like despite all the mergers and acquisitions in the television business, there is greater competition, less concentration, than in old days of highly regulated broadcast television. The old dominate networks are getting fewer eyeballs relative to the population, not more. And to do it they are having to produce a wide range of programming in order to satisfy not only the middle of the road mass market but the many niche markets, from all news to wrestling, that had been underserved in the good old days.

Link to this entry

Competition and the Media

About this Blog

This forum is about media ownership and competition. Notice I don't say media concentration. They are two sides of the coin. As more competition is generally viewed as better than less, I favor speaking about the degree of competition in the media industry.

It is also about empirical data on the subject. It seeks to add to an informed debate. Not one based on anecdotal stories or worst case scenarios. It is perhaps a cliche, but nonetheless accurate, that honest participants can haggle over the interpretation of data (see my piece about Tom Wolizen’s data). We can even have differences of what questions need to be asked. But having some hard numbers should, indeed get in the way of a good argument.

This forum also has a high regard for the First Amendment. To those who seek that the government take this or that remedy, let us recall that this lead-off amendment to our Constitution was created because of the prime fear that it was a powerful government that must be kept out of the media business. Any tinkering with any restrictions on private voices needs to be certain that it does not erode this distinction.

This forum is not about the usual laments of the perceived growing economic clout, negative social impact, worrisome cultural affect or dangerous political trends of media ownership trends. There are plenty of sites that whip up these passions. This forum does not start, a priori, that overall media competition is leading us to bad places.

The changes proposed by the FCC in broadcast ownership rules in June 2003 were only the latest in decades of government attempts to fine tune what we see, hear--and to a much lesser extent-- read. And government response to a perception of possible unhealthy growth in media ownership concentration was responded to as early as 1978, when the Federal Trade Commission held a two day public symposium on the subject. It was about that time that I was getting involved in creating an empirical look at who owned the media.

When U.S. media pundit A.J. Liebling wrote that freedom of the press belongs to those who own one he summed up the emotion that separates the media business from virtually any other enterprise. The press -- or today more generically the mass media -- stands not simply for the power to convey information, but more crucially for the assumed ability to shape attitudes, opinions and beliefs. The media are the vehicles for education--and propaganda. Who controls these outlets and what the players' intentions are for their use has been a contentious issue at least since the 15th century, when both Church and State recognized the potential of the printing press and immediately sought to control it.

Does Ownership Really Matter?

In the end, of course, one must ask whether this concern about who owns the media really matters. To what extent, if any, do changing patterns of ownership have an effect on media content, economic functions, or audience impact? We have assumed it does, but what do we really know? With your help, I aim to help address these and similar questions that are relevant to the policy debate, while commenting on current topics and issues.