Tuesday, May 31, 2005

A Critical Need for Restructuring the Media Industry Before It’s Too Late?

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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Friday, May 27, 2005

Peercasting as the New Western Frontier

I hope that somewhere along your educational path you were exposed to the seminal work of historian Frederick Jackson Turner. Perhaps to refresh your memory, in 1893 he presented his view that the key component to the unique American character of democracy was the settlement of the American West. That is, the availability of vast stretches of free land away from the initial settlements of the East Coast provided a safety value for those who were dissatisfied with their circumstances. The expansive western frontier offered anyone an opportunity to build a farm and become an independent member of society. Free land thus tended to relieve poverty in the Eastern cities while on the frontier it fostered greater economic equality.

What does this have to do with the media? Here’s what: Though it may be a tad premature to know with certainty, in the equally unlimited expanses of information available through the Internet and its related ecosystem I see the makings of a similar safety value for expression and communication. Today it is Blogs, Live365 streaming radio and Podcasts. Tomorrow it is likely to be the video version of streaming radio and Vodcasting. Better than a soapbox at Hyde Park Corner, reaching farther than leaflets handed out in Times Square, more user-controlled than letters to the editor, may be for the Information Age what free land was for the late Agricultural/early Industrial Age.

While large media companies may continue to provide us with the entertainment and high production value news that they do so well — and that so many people choose to use – bubbling from below is what may be viewed as a revolution in peer communication. There are, according to multiple sources, perhaps 10 million blogs. One service alone claims more than 5000 Internet radiocasters. Apple is adding a Podcast facility to its popular iTunes service while broadcast and Google and similar services .

We’ve already seen how the old Newsgroups and Listservs helped aggregate and invigorate communities of interests. Peercasting takes this a liberating leap further, removing the structure and limiting format of those tools. What inevitably happens is that no matter what the cause, what the rant, what the subject, someone—or many ones—will sooner or later write a comment or send an e-mail to the blogger that says “Hey, yeah. I agree.” Or, “Yeah, I have the same problem. Let’s talk.” Soon there is a community of five or 19 or 3000 people from around the world exchanging bits. In most cases that alone will be satisfying to the bloggers/xcasters. They will have hard evidence that someone is listening.

In a very few instances the bloggers' community may actually evolve into a larger organized group or association. Their message might get the attention of first more mainstream Web sites and bloggers and, in rare cases, the mainstream media. (Of course, “rare” might be 0.1%, but out of 10 million that would be 10,000 “breakout” sites). Even that need not happen for my “safety value” hypothesis to be validated. Most Americans did not head West, though all knew that they could. The free land of the American West enabled those who were most motivated and most dissatisfied with the opportunities where they were to have hope. They did not see themselves as being stuck. Nor did every city slicker who headed West prosper. But it was the opportunity that helped shape them and the spirit of this country for over two centuries. And today’s dissatified or motivated peercasters are learning that, for the first time, they too will be heard.

Blogging and podding and vodding or whatever else these formats might be called should not be viewed as a veneer or a Potemkin Village of phantom access to the world stage. The move to the Western frontier was real. Similarly this digital outlet that gives voice to the leafleteer, corner orator or anyone with a point of view or a story to be told is real and meaningful. We saw in Howard Dean’s meteoric rise the power of the Internet is getting the word out and in raising money. It happened for the most part under the radar of the mainstream media.

In the next decades peercasting will be become the norm to one degree or another. It will not replace traditional mass media but will add a significant dimension to what and how the media is viewed. And, I believe, peercasting will have an overall positive effect on the American -- and no reason why not the rest of the world’s – experience with the expanded boundaries of this new frontier. I think that’s how Frederick Jackson Turner would describe it.

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Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Radio Redux: Radio Has Been Less Local Than You May Think

In an article in last Sunday’s Boston Globe, Michele Hilmes, a professor of media and cultural studies at the University of Wisconsin, wrote how radio is being reinvigorated and reinvented by new methods of transmission such as the Internet, satellite and even podcasting. Her conclusion is very compatible with the discussion in my new study of the considerable robustness of the radio landscape, turning 180 degrees the argument that the radio industry is becoming more consolidated and less local.

Prof. Hilmes wrote:

Radio thus becomes a gatekeeper again for individual producers, creating culture out of their local environments combining bits and pieces of music and information drawn from all over the world, now finding a wider audience not in their geographical communities but in the global associations that the content itself builds for them. This model is at once much more like early radio, the one created by amateurs and small businesses in the 1920s, and completely different in its time, space, and community-shifting qualities. But it is radio, after radio, and stronger than ever.
I couldn’t agree more. Unfortunately, in her introduction to her main argument she perpetuates more erroneous history of the radio industry. She asks: “What was radio?” Then she explains “In the United States, it was always primarily a local phenomenon emanating from that local station downtown or out on the beltway.” She laments that today “A drive across the country brought in not the staticky succession of widely divergent, colorful local accents and tastes, but the same hit list of songs and raucous DJ patter, wherever you went."

However, it was the radio industry that actually developed the network model later adopted by the television industry. Today, radio is largely a local medium serving primarily local advertisers and local audiences. But at its pre-television peak, radio was dominated by four national networks: NBC, CBS, ABC and Mutual. By 1947 94% of all stations—and all of the largest—were part of one or more networks. Even more germane for understanding policy today, the nature of the long-term contracts that the networks had with their affiliates gave these four networks the final say on most of what local stations programmed.

With four networks providing the bulk of radio programming, radio looked much like television did prior to the 1980s: hundreds of local stations that relied on national networks for their content. In 1937, for example, during typical weekday evening prime time hours, the Milwaukee AM radio station WTMJ (owned by the Milwaukee Journal newspaper) broadcast all NBC Red network programming (NBC had a Red and Blue network. Blue was later spit off and became ABC). The bulk of its afternoon schedule was network as well.

After television gained audience share in the 1950s, radio localism began to take the form of “Top 40” formats. Packagers such as Todd Storz and Gordon McLendon helped stations across the U.S. implement their formula. From 20 such stations in 1955 there were hundreds by 1960. Although the names of the disc jockeys may have been different – Hy Lit in Philadelphia, Alan Freed in New York — the sound was the same. They subscribed to national “tip sheets” to identify the emerging hits and Top 40 play list services.

Thus, it was back in the 1940s through the 1960s when one could drive across the country and hear the same programming on the stations with the strongest signals and largest audience no matter what city you were in.

I’ll have more on radio another day. Stay tuned.

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Friday, May 20, 2005

WOTM FAQ #3: Are the Media Monolithic? Can they Suppress the News?

A FAQ series featuring some real questions I have answered from time to time.

I received an email this week from a stranger. I reprint it below with my response. I hadn’t heard about the ”conspiracy” about the 10 Downing St. memo until I did some quick Googling about the issue. One of my first finds was an article by Washington Post ombudsman Michel Getler in which he noted that two self appointed “media watch dog” groups had been circulating via email a charge that U.S. media had been suppressing the story since it broke in the UK on May 1.

My correspondent evidently was alerted by one of these emails that spread like kudzu. Who needs the Associated Press when we have e-mail propagation? But I get ahead of myself. First, read the email I was sent:

I just read your rather interesting piece, The Myths of Encroaching Global Media Ownership, and am hoping that as an expert you might be able to shine some light on a more specific, media-related conundrum for me.

In just about every other nation the press has been reporting, starting two weeks ago in Britain, on the internal minutes of a British meeting in which President Bush and Prime Minister Blair made clear they were fixing the facts to further their desired goal of war on Iraq. It also made clear that the decision to start war with Iraq was set as of July 2002, in contrast to our president's claim that he hoped to avoid such a conflict up until March of 2003.

My question is not whether the president has been misleading the public; I believe there is abundant evidence to demonstrate that. Instead I am wondering if you can offer any possible explanation as to why our own media would, across the board, take a pass on this story for two weeks, the potential bombshell just now beginning to trickle in? It should be noted that the exact same pattern emerged with the Abu Ghraib scandal-- a story breaking abroad but not being reported on in the U.S. media until weeks

I personally can come up with only two explanations for our media's reluctant and stingy coverage: the interests of a pressuring party, or parties, are being put before the citizenry's right to unadulterated information; or alternatively, the media is itself manipulating and omitting important stories to further an agenda more important to them than informing the masses. Sounds a bit sinister, but are there less outrageous options? That the media wanted to make sure the story was legitimate first? Two weeks seems a ridiculous amount of time for that.

As you can see, the whole thing is indeed a conundrum. That is, unless I've already whittled the puzzle down to the correct options. I would very much appreciate any new insights you can offer me.

My response:

Neither of your "hypotheses" would hold up to an understanding of how editors think and work at the dozens of major news organizations (not to mention the reliable sector of the Blogosphere).

1. For one, I personally was aware of the story from an article in the NY Times in early May. So the story was out there, if not with the ubiquity you would have preferred.

2. You're question has been addressed by the Washington Post's ombudsman, who wrote in part:

When I asked editors at the time why there had been no coverage, I was told that "it was a story that, in the best of all worlds, would have been in the paper, but we were tied up with [British] election coverage."

In subsequent questioning, editors agreed that this story should be covered and said they were going to go back and do that. On Friday, a solid story by reporter Walter Pincus was published on Page A18. Nevertheless, I have to say I'm amazed that The Post took almost two weeks to follow up on the Times report.

3. Last Thursday an article in The Minneapolis Star & Tribune reported: "The underlying reality is that the United States has moved beyond the debate over the reasons for invading Iraq, said Daniel Hofrenning, a political scientist at St. Olaf College in Northfield. Most Americans are focused on seeking positive outcomes from the war, not reason to blame the Bush administration for starting it."

4. The "media" are not monolithic. The news organizations are extremely competitive. They have consistently lead with pieces about various reports that have not found WMD. The pressure to "break" news lead to CBS News' using the dubious memo on Bush's National Guard service and Newsweek's just admitted mistake in using shaky information about use misuse of the Koran at Guantanamo. If anything, the growth in the number of news organizations and the end of the 24 hour news cycle with the spread of the real time Internet news cycle has lead to a greater probability of stories embarrassing to government -- federal, state, local, school boards, etc -- than may be reasonable.

5. If "they" or our government were even remotely complicit in "hiding" big stories it would have been something like Abu Ghraib, not the British memo. The fact that more editors didn't pick it up may reflect the "culture" of editing (See Herbert Gans' landmark work from 1979, Deciding What's News. I mention it in my new study.) The British memo surfaced in the midst of their Parliamentary elections and therefore would naturally be pertinent domestic news in the UK and I would guess it was initially viewed by most US editors as a British domestic story.

Editors are not supposed to wear their political ideology on their sleeves (or on their news pages) though of course indirectly that seeps through-- hence the constant debates about whether the news media are overtly liberal (See Bernard Goldberg's book Arrogance) or too conservative (FAIR, et al). The fact that both sides seem to feel so morally indignant suggests that overall (that is, not every individual operation all the time) they are probably doing their job.If YOU were an editor, you might have played the story differently. That's why the Blogs are so much more opinionated than mass media-- they are often run by people who have a well articulated ideology they want to promote.

We all need to be less paranoid. Most of the time things are exactly what they seem to be. In this case, is was a broad consensus from a wide range of decision makers of all sorts of personal political stripes who, by and large, did not see the story as front page news. Perhaps it was poor news judgment. But I see no dark side to it. And, of course, the story was out there all along. Anyone who feels that the U.S. media doesn't provide everything they need only has to open up Google News daily to get it all.

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Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Media "Reform" Conference Finds Plenty of Media Available to Report on It

A conference of a sort was held last weekend in St. Louis called the National Conference on Media Reform to “mobilize to fix our broken media system.” According to the conference Web site, among its grievances are “shoddy journalism”, “government-funded propaganda,” and “corporate consolidation.”

In a column reporting on the event, Mediachannel.org's Danny Schechter summarized the goal of the organizers: “To redirect the most powerful arsenal of communication technology humanity has ever known away from serving corporate interests and into the hands of our citizens and public needs.”

As best I can tell the event was totally the faithful preaching to the choir. If you look through the list of speakers there is no one invited to speak, on even a token basis, to articulate the positive, to question the assumptions of the organizers. To be sure, it was their conference (Robert McChesney, John Nichols and others from The FreePress.net) and they could invite whomever they wanted. But I wonder if this is what they mean with their mantra of “diversity” and "media democracy." I think it safe to presume that the conference organizers and attendees share the rhetoric of Mediachannel.org. Part of that group’s mission statement is “to provide information and diverse perspectives and inspire debate, collaboration, action and citizen engagement.”

Makes me wonder how these folks would program the mass media with their vision of democracy should “they” succeed with their agenda. Does media democracy mean imposing their values for someone’s else’s values? How would media content be any different if “they” took over without it being less responsive to the “people” than it is now? If the marketplace does not determine what gets watched, read and listened to, then another, alterative mechanism must be in place. And if that mechanism is anything other than what the audience chooses from a plethora of options it must be less democratic than the existing system. Recall that when there were only three commerial networks, the PBS network rarely achieved a rating greater than 2%, about one tenth of commercial network ratings.

I was also struck in viewing the conference’s Web site how much they touted the media coverage the conference received from multiple outlets:

  • A video stream archive provided by Cambridge Community TV [my home town local access TV organization] from selected conference sessions.
  • Daily editions of the Media Minutes radio show -- with interviews and audio highlights from the conference.
  • MP3 audio files of panels and sessions that will be posted throughout the weekend.
  • Links to the "best of the blogs" reporting from St. Louis.
  • Pacifica radio affiliates across the country broadcast live from the keynote event.
  • Highlights from the conference on LINK-TV, Free Speech TV, Chicago's CAN-TV and community televisions stations from across the country.
  • And in the coming weeks, they promised, their site will include archived audio and video recordings and full transcripts of the sessions.

I suppose they can complain that CBS did not cancel their prime time schedule for live coverage. Or even provide a 90 second report on the evening news. But then, I could grouse that neither did CBS report on the press conference releasing my new study, "The Media Monopoly Myth", which provides data that undermines the entire premise of the media reform movement almost as thoroughly as their own recounting of how the Internet and radio provided substantial exposure erodes any argument that a handful of companies control our access to information. In promoting the media that gave an outside voice to the conference they blew away much of the explicit rationale of their movement.

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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Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Where are Newspapers at "Dominant" Media Companies?

Quick: Name the three most influential newspapers in the United States today.

Did you say The New York Times? The Washington Post? The Wall Street Journal? There may be one or two others: The L.A. Times; maybe, in its fashion, USA Today. Even in this age of falling newspaper circulation, these newspapers often set the agenda for what gets covered by the TV news operations. I can't count the number of times I've seen a story on ABC Evening News or CNN that is straight from the pages of the Journal the day before.

Quick again. Which of the five monster media companies that Ben Bagdikian says in the 7th edition of his Media Monopoly book "decide what most citizens will or will not learn" owns these papers?

Answer: None. For all the properties these five (Time Warner, Viacom, News Corporation, Disney, and Bertelsmann) own, not one is a national newspaper or even a moderately influential one. Sure, all but Bertelsmann reach a large television audience (though a smaller one than 20 years ago). Yet on the crucial news and information scale they are at best second tier players when it comes to agenda setting. Indeed, even the Watergate story, perhaps at the pinnacle of reportorial events of the second half of the 20th Century and within the broadcasters' heyday, it was The Washington Post that did the heavy digging.

This observation of the disconnect between the presumed "power" of some five or whatever number media companies and the absence of any of the important print media in their portfolios is courtesy of Jack Shafer, who is the media critic for Slate. In his review last August of Bagdikian's latest iteration of the multi firm "monopoly" series Shafer writes:

But the Big Five determine what the majority learns only in those places where the newsstand sells only the New York Post and Time and where TV receivers have been doctored to accept signals only from CNN, ABC, CBS, and the Fox News Channel —which is to say nowhere.

I repeatedly hear this litany of five dominant media companies. Yet not one of them is dominant across all-- even most-- mass media. None of the first four (Bertelsmann is not in the television, cable, or radio business in the U.S.) is even dominant in television, as they split up, along with GE's NBC/Universal, about half of the all households on a typical evening. Five players sharing 55 million households may be a good business, but it ain't dominance. GM, Daimler-Chrysler, Ford, Honda and Toyota each sell lots of cars, but none dominate the market the way GM did into the 1970s when it alone accounted for just shy of half of all cars sold.

The other half of households are watching someone else's programming or perhaps reading someone else's newspaper. To be sure, some might be reading Time Warner's People magazine instead of watching a Fox produced movie on Viacom's Showtime cable channel. They could also be among the millions doing something else altogether: online bidding at eBay, watching the Spanish language Univision network, downloading music at iTunes, reading this or one of millions of other Blogs -- or maybe helping their kids with homework.

I know there's a small cadre of media bashers who get no solace from this analysis. To them (and I am confident none will be reading this Blog) it really makes no difference how many providers there are. To them, so long as the media are driven by private enterprise and the marketplace anything they produce is tainted.

But for everyone else, I ask once again: Do you have more choices in types of programming and selections of viewpoints today than 20 years ago? Or if you're under about 30 -- and your choice 20 years ago was mostly in the form of Mr. Roger's Neighborhood, Sesame Street or Dr. Seuss -- do you truly find that you can't locate the music, art, opinion, film, entertainment, sports, or games that you would prefer to have over what is out there?

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Tuesday, May 10, 2005

"Bill of Media Rights" Further Decomposed

Adam Thierer, in his Blog today, takes apart the underlying presumptions of those who hold that the First Amendment is fundamentally about the people's right of access to private media. The First Amendment "does not serve as an affirmative grant of access to privately owned media."

Rather than repeat Adam's well reasoned and documented argument, you should read it for yourself. Even those who might be sympathetic to the so-called Bill of Media Rights will learn some history and law along the way they might find worthy of debate.

One point Adam brings up was the Supreme Court's Red Lion decision in 1969, which established the justififcation for the right of the government to impose content mandates on broadcasters that only five years later were prohibited to be placed on print media in the Miami Herald v. Torinillo case. I've been waiting for 10 years now for a case to make its way through the courts that would directly challenge Red Lion. The argument that television and radio outlets, which once were severely restricted in number by primitive technology and bad regulatory decisions, should be given lesser First Amendment rights than print has been fatally undermined by improvements in using spectrum and the proliferation of channels being made available by cable, the Internet and finally fiber to the home. Soon it will be easier-- and certainly cheaper-- to construct an audio or even video soapbox than a print soapbox. (Pardon the mixed metaphor-like construction.)

Should you decide not to click to Adam's article, I did want to at least highlight his pentultimate paragraph. Referring to what seems to be the real agenda of many of those who support the ideas behind this so-called Bill of Media Rights, he says they are saying:

The American people want what WE want and what WE want is something different that what we see on networks or outlets that WE don't control. That's why, so they say, it is so important that the government give US control over more of the decisions about media in this country. You see, WE are the enlightened ones who will tell the rest of your ignorant runts what you really need to read, see, or hear. And it all begins by giving US just a little more say over how media is regulated in this country.
This conclusion is much of what I was saying in my entry here yesterday. From ground level, it is manifest in the e-mail exchange I included on page 43 of my new study. My correspondent admits that her anger at Clear Channel Communications is over what she perceives as their support of the Bush Administration. If they had manifestly liberal leanings -- well, it sounds like she wouldn't be so concerned about their ownership position.

As a long time pluralist, I would not want to taint everyone who thinks the media can be better with a single brush. But I believe there is a close parallelism between respect for market mechanisms in the media and democracy. Either you believe that the people have the right to make their decisions about their leaders or about the content they consume based on their own choices -- even if sometimes the choices seem like bad ones to others of us-- or you will head down the road to some form of benevolent authoritarianism.

Scratch some of these media "reform" activists and you will likely find a frustrated editorial writer/producer/publisher-- monopolist.

Monday, May 09, 2005

"Bill of Media Rights" May Not Be What it Seems

An advocacy group that calls itself the Media and Democracy Coalition held a news conference in Washington today to announce The Bill of Media Rights.

The Preamble starts positively enough, proclaiming "A free and vibrant media, full of diverse and competing voices, is the lifeblood of America’s democracy and culture, as well as an engine of growth for its economy." No quibbles from me about this. Indeed I hold that this is exactly where we are in the U.S. today. But the very next sentence quickly devolves into mythsville: "Yet, in recent years, massive and unprecedented corporate consolidation has dangerously contracted the number of voices in our nation’s media."

I think to myself: The word of the press conference was spread cheaply and efficiently by an e-mail blast. The Web site, which provides a link to the pdf of the "Bill," is easily accessed by anyone in the world with a Web connection. No "big media" needed. So by the second sentence I'm asking, "Where's the beef?"

My problem-- and everyone's problem -- should not be with the principals but with the implementation of the rights. One right, for example, is:

"Newspapers, television and radio stations, cable and satellite systems, and broadcast and cable networks operated by multiple, diverse, and independent owners that compete vigorously and employ a diverse workforce."

We already have multiple and diverse. What is meant by "independent?" Independent of whom, of what? Of government? The primary direct role of government in media today are those regulations on broadcasters that limit their free speech rights compared to other media. Recall that the fines levied for the Janet Jackson "malfunction" could not have applied if the same had happened on cable-only ESPN. The Clear Channel stations fined for Howard Stern's speech will not be repeated once he moves over to satellite radio. So if independent from government, then that implies cutting the curbs on broadcasters. I don't think that's what the coalition has in mind.

Independent of non-media institutions? Or corporate ownership of any sort? Would that include ownership by Big Labor as well?

What about the right to "Programming, stories, and speech produced by communities." That sounds a lot like public access cable, municipal channels, university and other publicly-owned radio stations (20% of all radio stations are non-commercial). It sounds like the millions of Web sites and Blogs, such as the Media Bill of Rights Web site.

But I'm afraid that many of the organizers behind the Bill of Media Rights want something more. Between the lines of this document it sounds much like Robert McChesney's prescription. He tries to make the case that we cannot have a democratic society so long as the media--no matter how many firms--are privately owned, profit-seeking and supported by commercialism. Media reform, he writes in his book The Problem of the Media, is prevented because the people think there is diversity and that the media "give people what they want." We're not smart enough to make our choices without some higher authority to guide us. Thus, the mass audience cannot be left to the whims of the marketplace to choose what they watch, read and hear. His prescription, right out the "Bill of Media Rights" is for change that favors small, locally owned or family based media organizations, perhaps some owned by nonprofits, by labor unions or other noble institutions.

I suspect that if the idealists behind the Bill of Media Rights had their way, CBS' "Survivor" would be replaced by the local School Board meeting; Fox's "24" would become Bill Moyers 24/7 and "American Idol" would be "Monday Night at the Opera." Any choice so long as it's not a mass market choice. That's democracy!

Well, at least we'll have the diversity provided by Netflix (unless the Hollywood studios fall under the control of Michael Moore's production company).

[If you have not found it before, Robert McChesney and I were central participants in an online "debate" about media ownership a few years ago at opendemocracy.net. It remains fresh and appropriate. I think time has reinforced my position. But if you're a fan of Prof. McChesney I think his contributions will be fulfilling. To read in the order posted, start at the bottom of the listings.]

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

My New Study: "Media Monopoly Myth"

The New Millennium Research Council released my newest study today, The Media Monopoly Myth: How New Competition is Expanding Our Sources of Information and Entertainment.

Consistent with my findings over the past 25 years, it provides new empirical data that undercuts the myth that U.S. media ownership is over concentrated today. The study finds that fears about media control have reached the level of Urban Legend, not based on fact. What my study found is that we are often looking at inappropriate “metrics” to prescribe what to do when it comes to media ownership. We’ve got rules that were designed for the world of the 1950s and 60s. And here we are in 2005 when the Internet and all things digital are making a mockery of our continued attempts to pound the square pegs of media ownership policy into the round holes of today’s media landscape.

I found that most fears about media control and program choices are just that, “fears." They are based on anecdotes, conjecture and social agendas. The facts simply do not make any kind of case that Americans have something to fear when it comes to current media ownership.

Current measures for media ownership do not take into account the massive shift over the last 10 years. Two-thirds of Americans are now using the Internet for a variety of purposes including listening to radio, streaming video and reading online news content from around the country and the world. The approach in the U.S. to regulating media ownership should not be fixed by the environment of 1980 or even 1995.

Drawing on my own research and incorporating that of others, among my findings:

  • Americans have more choices available to them when it comes to media content than ever before. Television viewers have more choice from more sources than at any time in the history of the medium.
  • Who owns the media does matter for content, but not always with the outcomes in the direction proclaimed in the common wisdom.
  • There is no support for the contention that media ownership by chains or conglomerates leads to any consistent pattern of lowered standards, content, or performance when compared with media owned by families or small companies
  • Publicly owned newspaper chains are less likely to have an ideological agenda they want to promote than those that are family controlled.
  • Television stations with cross-ownership—in which the parent company also owns a newspaper in the same market—tend to produce higher quality newscasts.
  • The largest television industry players control less of the market today than they did in the past. Contrary to the widespread perception that television is more concentrated than 30 or 20 or 10 years ago, by a number of critical measures, there is more competition. The market share of the three traditional television networks—CBS, ABC, and NBC—has declined substantially since 1980, while new networks from newer players have become increasingly competitive for viewer attention.

  • The report also addresses radio competition as well as the impact of the Internet on sources of information, news, entertainment and culture.

    The report was launched with a news conference with commentators Adam Thierer of The Progress & Freedom Foundation and Adam Clayton Powell III, at University of Southern California. An archived audio stream of the news conference is available at the NMRC home page.

    The New Millennium Research Council (NMRC) was created in 1999 to develop workable, real-world solutions to the issues and challenges confronting policy makers. Its work has focused primarily in the fields of telecommunications and technology.

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