Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Media Content is Becoming More Complex, More Socially Involving

So much of what critics of media industry structure harp on is how the big media players dumb down the media. They’re only interested in earnings, goes the litany, so they pander to the lowest common denominator. We are becoming a nation of couch potatoes. Video games teach violence and take kids away from what they should be doing after school—homework and watching C-Span.

Now along comes a book, from an author with solid credentials and no obvious political agenda, that turns these arguments on their head. The best of television today is far more engaging, complex, and brain exercising than television has ever been before. Even the lower rungs of programming are better than the their equivalents 10 or more years ago. The best selling video games, it turns out, are those that stimulate the most thinking and involvement. The Internet augments and magnifies the richness of other media. In essence “Everything Bad is Good for You: How Today's Popular Culture is Actually Making Us Smarter,” the title of Steven Johnson's latest book.

As you are among a small self-selected audience that is reading this Blog, you may already be of a predisposition to have read Johnson’s book. If not, you will be at a huge disadvantage in any discussion of media ownership and structure. Because one of Johnson’s central tenets is that the content of the mass media has risen to new highs in narrative structure, in sophistication and intellectual development because of the increase in competition among the media. He makes a convincing argument that the marketplace—economics—is one of the major forces driving the change (the changing neurology of the brain and changing technology platforms are the other two).

Johnson develops his themes through 210 fast paced pages, so I cannot do them justice in this brief entry. But here are a few of his assertions—all backed by substantive exposition:

• He has dubbed his most central argument The Sleeper Curve—after the 1973 movie in which Woody Allen’s character in Sleeper awakes 100 years in the future where he finds chocolate has been determined to be a health food. In similar fashion, Johnson holds that today’s most debased forms of mass culture—video games, television drama and sitcoms—turn out to be “nutritional after all.”

For decades, we’ve worked under the assumption that mass culture follows a steadily declining path toward lowest-common-denominator standards, presumably…because big media companies want to give the masses what they want. But in fact, the exact opposite is happening: the culture is getting more intellectually demanding, not less.

• Johnson compares television's popular dramas of the 1970s and 1980s, such as Dallas and the groundbreaking Hill Street Blues and St. Elsewhere, with today’s dramas, such as The West Wing, The Sopranos and 24. The latter group have substantially more multithreaded plots, a larger number of regular characters, more sophisticated relations among the characters and fewer obvious “flashing arrows” to tell viewers what’s important and what’s ephemeral. Viewers have to deal with far more ambiguity and fill in many more blanks around the plots than in the old narratives. In short, they have to think far more as they watch and after each episode ends.

The reason that these newer narrative forms are so attractive to the producers is that, like a good book, they reveal themselves further with repeated viewings. Viewers of Seinfeld, the successful situation comedy, find nuance, references to long ago plots and similar discoveries on second and third viewings. Thus, producers have found that the syndication value of these programs is enhanced because repeated viewing is actually sought after by the audience. Moreover, DVD sales of these programs are a new source of revenue precisely because they stand up to repeated viewing. Johnson calls this model MRP—Most Repeatable Programming. This replaces the old model from the days of only three networks, LOP—Least Objectionable Programming. Which stands up better to repeated viewing, Happy Days or Friends?

Even the programming that is often derided as crass, such as the reality shows, has redeeming qualities far in excess of the programming of yore, such as The Price is Right. "The Apprentice may not be the smartest show in the history of television, but it nonetheless forces you to think while you watch it, to work through the social logic of the universe it creates….” People actually discuss the strategies used by contestants on the reality shows. “You don’t zone out in front of shows like The Apprentice. You play along.” Apple’s Steve Jobs calls this type of media “sit foward,” rather than the "leaning back" media that characterized most television programming in the past.

Johnson’s conclusion is that “dumbing down” is not the natural state for popular culture. It is just the opposite. Like the overlooked trend of increased media competition rather than less, in media-mediated culture far more trends are pointing up. It’s a state of affairs that even a cultural elitist should support.

Email this entry
Link to this entry

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

U.S. Has Most Diverse Media "in the World" Concludes Canadian Research Scholar in Harvard Study

In most industries the central concern about the degree of competition is economic: the degree of pricing power that the players have. For the most part, the agenda behind the contentious issue of media ownership policies centers not on prices but around diversity of content. Except for the occasional mention of allegedly unchecked cable rates, we don’t hear people complaining about the pricing of newspapers, magazines, or, heavens knows, Internet access or content.

No, media ownership debates are at heart a surrogate for the degree of choice that viewers and readers and listeners have. That is why the F.C.C. made a valiant, if controversial, attempt to construct a “diversity index” as a piece of its supporting documentation for its ownership regulation policies.

As the debate over the F.C.C.’s index reminded us, the quantification of “diversity” does not lend itself to easy metrics. Is it measured by different formats (print, audio, online)? Different genres (comedies, news, documentaries, dramas)? Languages (available in English, Spanish, Serbo-Croatian)? By “voices” (number of different owners)? Does audience size matter? If there are 1000 equally accessible voices but 80% of the audience at any moment or any day chooses to watch/read/listen to 1% of them, does that mean there is less diversity than if the audience was equally divided among all 1000 voices/owners?

In my media myths study (see link at right) I address this to a point, citing in particular research by Mara Einstein, who found by one approach to diversity that under the F.C.C. network rules in the 1970s and 1980s, designed to promote diversity, actually lessened it. But that looks at only one piece of the elephant.

Now along comes a new study conducted at Harvard's Kennedy School, “Measuring Media Diversity: Problems and Prospects” that, as its title promises, quite successfully lays out the problems involved in grappling with a definition of media content diversity. This is a concept that its author, Richard Schultz, characterizes as a “conceptual bog.” One intriguing aspect of this study is that it was compiled by a Canadian who is a senior member of the faculty of Montreal’s McGill University. Thus, the perspective is a bit less incestuous than an American who has been immersed in the U.S.-centric debates for years. And it is from this perch that he can make this initial observation:
No country arguably has had a more explicit commitment to the promotion and preservation of media diversity than the United States. Some scholars date the adoption of diversity as a goal of public policy in the United States to the 1879 Postal Act which provided for subsidized postal rates for magazines.
Schultz’s paper explores the “meaning of media diversity and the complications that conceptualizing media diversity pose for developing a non-contestable, if such is possible, measurement system.” He parses the controversy around the F.C.C.’s attempt to develop its Diversity Index. But in my entry today I will skip down to his findings and conclusions.

First, he summarizes that “the United States today already has one of, if not the most diverse media universes, perhaps galaxies is the better word, in the world. Those who argue the opposite simply have not shown ‘the beef’.” Then he nails the real issue:
The critics are more concerned about the quality, or lack thereof, in American media and the fact that for the most part it is commercial and market-driven… In part the issue is not diversity per se or even diversity of owners but rather diversity of types of owners. The critics just don’t like corporate domination of the media….
Clearly I agree with Schultz. But here is someone who is looking at the issue from the outside and sees without blinders the implications of what the media ownership critics really want: not more choice but less. They want owners who will not give us the choice of the "O’Reilly Factor," "C-Span" or "60 Minutes," but three channels of C-Span. Their choices for films would not be “Batman Begins” “Chocolat” or “Dumb and Dumber” but ten flavors of Michael Moore. What they seem to want is not our choices but their choices.

Democracy is not just about politics and government. It is about voting -- choosing -- in our daily lives. Democracy can be and has been sloppy: we have not always made the most enlightened choices. But they are our choices. The same holds for the choices we make about what media-provided content we consume. I recommend Richard Schultz’ analysis for your open-minded consideration.

Schultz expects that his paper will be available online soon. I will provide a link when it is.

Email this entry
Link to this entry

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Penn State Study Finds Media Diversity Fostered by Vigorous Media Entrepreneurship

A new body of research just being developed appears to support the contention that the media industry is being driven by upstart entrepreneurs rather than by the staid big media companies. The research is in a formative stage. But if further work supports the findings to date it would bode well for the diversity and quality of the media.

The research has been lead by Anne Hoag at the School of Communications at Penn State (and a colleague during my brief stay there). She teaches a course called Entrepreneurship in the Information Age. She recently presented a paper, “Media Entrepreneurship: Definition, Theory and Context,”at Babson College's entrepreneurship conference.

Hoag found that “media entrepreneurship appears to be relatively dynamic and healthy compared to all U.S. industries – on average the media industry was more turbulent during the 1990s and had more nascent entrepreneurship at the turn of the 21st century.” Turbulence is considered healthy in the entrepreneurship literature, as it suggest vibrancy—new entrants coming in, others closing down. This stands in contrast to the 1950s through the early 1990s, when trends in organizations per capita showed that media entrepreneurship overall was rather stable.

Her research did not find that media entrepreneurship was equal in all segments. As might be expected, the older, mature publishing sector showed the least activity. Activities associated with visual productions—theatrical film, television production and the like -- were the most active.

Prof. Hoag’s paper opens with a general observation:

Recent scholarship has shown that new and small firm growth and a corresponding decline in conglomeration and concentration starting in the 1970s has shifted the source of economic growth and innovation toward the entrepreneurship and small business sector. In fact, new firms have been shown as the main source of net job growth.

Then she asks:

Does the evidence support such a claim when applied to media industries? In particular, does it hold up when the term “innovation” is translated into media industry performance concepts like diversity (in content and voices), access (to the media and communication networks for the public), quality (in both content and access technologies) and new processes with democratizing effects.

This line of inquiry is important because it can add empirical data to the work that already shows the ferment in the media industry. The headlines announcing any big media merger sticks in the minds of viewers and readers, seeming to support the perspective of big media getting more powerful. The reality is just the opposite, as can be seen in articles and research here, here and here.

Hoag has opened a useful line of inquiry. You can follow her reserach at her new blog.

Email this entry
Link to this entry