Monday, May 16, 2005

Optical Illusions and Media Ownership: A Lesson for Policymakers

Many years ago I was returning from a trip through Canada’s Maritime Provinces when I stumbled on a tourist spot called Magnetic Hill. It was what looked to be simply a hill you could drive down. At the bottom, you put your car in neutral, released the brake– and the car rolled backward– seemingly up the hill. It was a disconcerting feeling and it certainly strained credulity.

An enterprising local had built a strategically located raised platform which, for a small fee, one could climb upon and watch as cars drove “down” to the bottom of the hill and then rolled backward. Only from the vantage point of the platform could I see the optical illusion. Of course I knew that I could not roll uphill. But even as I stood on the platform seeing the truth my brain was still convinced that what it saw and felt when I was in the car was real. Very real. That was in 1971 and I still recall how vivid the illusion was.

What’s the connection between the Magnetic Hill experience and media ownership? Just this: Despite the overwhelming data that shows that media ownership is not becoming increasing concentrated, despite the documented robustness of competition among firms and formats that exists, despite the lack of anything other than the occasional anecdotal tale of ownership abuse, otherwise smart and rationale policymakers keep harping on “growing media concentration.” They think there is less local programming. They either refuse to climb the platform to understand the illusion – or they are so convinced that their senses are correct that they ignore what their intellect should tell them is the reality.

In some cases I sense that the people who are most influential in policy – many members of Congress – have the least clue to what is happening. Here’s what I mean. Last September I was asked to provide testimony to the full Senate Commerce Committee investigating media ownership. During the Q&A, North Dakota’s Sen. Dorgan complained the Clear Channel-owned radio stations in Minot, ND no longer provided the extended agricultural weather reports they used to do. This was his way of showing how they have degraded local radio. My response to him was that it is silly (not sure I used that word) for a radio station that otherwise is programming country or Christian or Pop music for a wide audience to take five minutes several times daily for a detailed report on soil conditions and temperatures for the 100 farmers within earshot, while thousands of other listeners are bored silly.

I continued that farmers have from the start been in the forefront of using information technology. In the mid-1980s they were early adopters of the TRS-80 personal computers from Radio Shack. With a 300 baud modem attached they could dial into to one of the nascent services offered by agricultural stations that provided data on weather, soil conditions and the like. Today, via the Internet, they access sites that can provide far more detail about their specific crop interests than could possibly be imparted on a public radio broadcast.

In Sen. Dorgan’s backyard they may go to the North Dakota Agricultural Weather Network. A click away is the U.S. Dept of Agriculture’s Joint Agricultural Weather Facility. Or the High Plains Regional Climate Center. So why settle for a radio report that is verbal and for which the farmer must be available at just the time it is broadcast? This is not the best use for the public airwaves when more detailed, more targeted, more timely information is available at a time it is most convenient for the farmer to access it, not when a broadcaster decides to air it. And the broader public hears the music, news headlines or general weather they tune in for.

It is time for more policymakers to learn that we are all changing how we get our news, information and entertainment. It’s not their Father’s media environment. It’s not even the media environment they grew up with. Besides getting hands on, they should be devouring the studies from the Pew Internet & American Life Project, such as “How the Internet Has Woven Itself into American Life.” This study finds “The Web has become the ‘new normal’ in the American way of life; those who don’t go online constitute an ever-shrinking minority.” This is not from a techno-cheerleading band of futurists. It comes from a highly regarded, sober, survey research based non-profit with a solid track record of empirical data mongering.

To media policymakers: It’s time to climb the observation deck and see that you have been following an optical illusion.

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