Let me play Devil's Advocate here. An unintended consequence of the information technologies that have become widely available in the last two decades is a dangerous fragmentation of culture and community. Millions of blogs compete for our attention. We’re on the verge of hundreds of video options available via cable and satellite and the Internet. New players providing satellite radio are adding to the one or two dozen land based stations most of us can receive. Thousands of “radio” stations are available via the Internet and, via wireless connections—played through home audio rigs.
Our attention is being further subdivided by the new wealth of movies and video available on DVD. As recently as five years ago our choices seemed enviable: a few thousand titles available at a neighborhood Blockbuster. But with services like Netflix providing easy access to several times that number of titles, we now can spend our time watching classics, independent films, documentaries and even re-runs of past TV series. Who woulda thunk? With the flood of new DVDs being released weekly, shelf space at retailers cannot keep up.
And books. In recent decades 50,000, 60,000 or more new titles have been published each year. But it was between difficult and impossible to know about, yet alone obtain, more than a handful of them. The Waldenbooks in the mall stocked maybe 5000 titles, including backlist. The newer superstores helped, but only marginally. We weren’t distracted by this wealth of titles because we couldn’t find them. But then came Amazon and it’s imitators. So not only can we order almost any book published, but with their search engines we don’t even have to know they exist and we can still find them. This makes it even harder for a publisher to churn out a bestseller with the same volume as in the good old days. So much competition for our attention and so little time.
And magazines. Lots of small circulation titles like The Nation, The Weekly Standard, The American Prospect. But what’s happening to the mass circulation magazines, the ones that we all had in common? In 1980 Reader’s Digest had a circulation of 18 million. It’s now down by 44%, to 10 million and shrinking yearly. At TV Guide the downward spiral has been even more pronounced. In 1980 it was picked up at the newsstand by 18 million people each week. Now its half that number, 9 million, and falling. Who has time to read about TV when there’s so much to watch?
There are so many choices of media—within print, video, audio, online, in the movie theater—that every old channel, every traditional mass audience publication, every network, every frequency has not been able to sustain the kind of unifying, common influence that used to provide a national common thread.
Look at the fragmentation of television audiences: As the population has increased the notion of what constitutes a large television audience has diminished. When the comedy series “M*A*S*H” aired its final episode in 1983 most of us had only three networks to watch, so 106 million people tuned in—to this day the largest television audience ever. For the finale of “Cheers,” the next blockbuster TV sit-com, cable was in 62% of households and, more damaging, there were now six broadcast networks and dozen of cable networks. “Cheers” drew only 80 million viewers. By the time of the final “Friends" in 2004, multichannel television was in more than 85% of television households and the last show claimed only 53 million viewers, despite an additional 54 million population since”M*A*SH’s” day.
We are losing our common base for culture and discussion.
The same is happening with television news reports. During the Vietnam War, those of us who were around all had to share 30 minutes (counting commercials) on only one of three evening newscasts. So we all saw much the same thing and were able to share Walter Cronkite’s take on the war. Those three newscasts now have less than half the evening news audience they had then, while some of us watch reporting on Iraq on Fox, which gives us a different perspective than CNN which is different still than the 120 seconds from about Iraq I might get most evenings on CBS.
We are losing our homogeneity. Is that progress for American society?
The Internet creates new diversions like kudzu: 10 million blogs and counting. Podcasting. Streaming and archived radio. Peercasting is going to undermine the national desire for a very limited number of sources. We will not have a basis for common subjects for discussion over coffee at Starbucks.
The media industry must be reformed. It needs the restructuring that only the federal government can undertake. Congress is certainly on the right track, having already handed out free digital spectrum to the incumbent broadcasters. Good thing they didn’t have it auctioned off to other players. The shrinking media companies must not be permitted to get any more fragmented. We must write to the FTC and Justice Department urging them not to permit further divestitures, such as the recently announced sale of big multinational Bertelsmann’s magazines to the much smaller publisher, Meredith. The FCC must be convinced to limit the bandwidth available for wireless services such as satellite radio, Wi-Max and the like so newer services cannot be initiated. And certainly we cannot allow any further news services to find room on the multichannel video providers. Even better would be to roll back to the conditions that existed before 1986, thus taking the Fox, WB and UPN networks off the air as well as removing Fox News and MSNBC from the cable line-up.
Only that way can we be sure that we have the base of shared values, shared views and shared culture that we had in the Golden Age of the media from the 1950s until the 1980s.
Postscript: As I stated at the outset, I was taking the role of Devil's Advocate with this argument. In truth, I hold that if there was ever a Golden Age of media we are living it now. Media consolidation? Less choice? If there is any problem today (and I underscore that I don't believe there is a problem) it is that we have too many sources, too much choice, 180 degrees from a lessening of media diversity and sources.
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