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Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Commissioner McDowell's sensible thinking on media policy
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I want join my TLF blogging colleague James Gattuso in recommending that you read FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell's outstanding speech on media policy issues that he delivered at a Media Institute event yesterday. I just want to highlight two of the myths he debunked in his speech, (myths which I had discussed in my 2005 book Media Myths: Making Sense of the Debate over Media Ownership):

Myth #1: The public has not been given a chance to be heard. As McDowell points out, no issue has been more thoroughly studied in the history of the FCC:

In my 17 years of being in and around the FCC, I can’t think of any issue that has been examined more thoroughly. I can’t remember any proceeding where the Commission has solicited as much comment and given the American people as much opportunity to be heard. If anyone knows of an FCC proceeding where there has been more opportunity for debate over an 11-year period, please let me know.

That's exactly right, but the anti-media zealots like to propagate the myth that the public has somehow been frozen out of the process, or that important constituencies have not been heard from during these debates. It's nonsense.

The fact is that every whiner in the world has been given amble opportunity to comment in numerous FCC proceedings or at various FCC "town hall" meetings. I put that term in quotation marks because if you've ever been to one of those events then you know that they are more like carnival freak shows than legitimate town hall meetings. As McDowell rightly notes:

The public hearings have been a better measurement of emotion than dispassionate data; but they have been very valuable. At a minimum, they have provided our fellow Americans with the chance to vent their frustration with the federal government. We have been yelled at about the Iraq war, global warming, the tyranny of America’s copyright laws, and the need to legalize drugs, among other topics. And then there was the fellow in Los Angeles who had a very strong opinion about the Peloponnesian War.

So everyone and anyone who has a beef with the media, or the FCC, or just about anything else under the sun, has been able to petition their government again and again and again. Most of the folks who show up at those "town hall" meetings have been mobilized to be there by radical anti-media activists and they come armed not with facts, but with emotion-laden rhetoric. I had a guy interrupt an evidence-laden presentation I was making at one of these circus-like events and scream: "You just don't get it; this debate is not about facts; it's about emotion!" And so it is. And that's why this silliness will likely never end. So long as looney-toons have some sort of ax to grind with media, there will be radical media activist groups around who make preposterous, emotional claims and demand endless show trials to publicly make fools of themselves.

Meanwhile, the real world marches on...

Myth #2: The Consolidation / Choice Myth: The public doesn't have access to enough media choices, and media is overly consolidated. Again, McDowell lays out the facts:

Even though the newspaper industry was already facing challenges in 1960, it has undergone dramatic change in the 32 years since the newspaper-broadcast cross ownership ban went into effect. Now we have five national networks, not the three I grew up with. Today we have hundreds of cable channels spewing out of a multitude of video content produced by more, not fewer, but more entities than existed 32 years ago. In 1975, cable was in its infancy and had yet to develop programming. Now we have DBS, telephone companies offering video, cable overbuilders, the Internet and its millions of websites, iPods, satellite radio, cell phones, Wi-Fi, video-on-demand, digital video recorders, pay-per-view, etc. There is no disputing that the marketplace has been transformed by technological advances and business innovations into the most competitive multimedia environment in human history. Consumers have more choices and more control over what they read, watch and listen to than ever. As a result, at least 300 daily newspapers have gone out of business in the last 32 years because people are looking elsewhere for their content. Newspaper circulation has declined year after year. Since just this past spring, average daily circulation has declined 2.6%. Newspapers’ share of advertising revenue has shrunk while advertising for online entities, which are not subject to cross ownership restrictions, has surged. Is the cross-ownership ban still in the public interest, or is it a millstone around the neck of a drowning industry?

Again, McDowell nails it. But do you need more facts? Then check out this piece by Ben Compaine, and this piece I penned condensing some of the facts from my Media Myths book. Bottom line: We now live in a world of unprecedented media abundance that once would have been the stuff of science-fiction novels. We can consume what we want, when we want, wherever we want...and we can increasingly create our own media products, too.

Moreover, the traditional "mass media" is not getting bigger, it's getting smaller. We are witnessing the de-massification of media. In fact, as faithful readers of this blog know, I've had a long-running series of essay called the "media DE-consolidation series" that has had 19 installments summarizing just some of the major breakups and divestitures taking place in the media world today. Indeed, it's tough to find any company that is scaling UP these days. Everyone is slimming down and re-focusing on their core competencies. Or, as McDowell suggests, they are investing in new media sectors, which remains largely unregulated:

[H]ere we are, in the middle of another public comment period. Soon the Commission might be testifying before both Houses of Congress. Further deliberation ensues. While the FCC races ahead like “a runaway glacier,” as one analyst put it, the private sector has been busy working around the regulations of yore. Is it any wonder that most of the energy, creativity, capital and growth have been focused on areas that are less regulated? The ironic truth is: in many cases, media consolidation has actually become media divestiture. Companies such as Disney, Citadel, Clear Channel and Belo actually have been shedding properties to raise capital for new ventures. They are directing new capital investment toward new media ventures. That’s where America’s eyeballs are looking; so that means that’s where the ad dollars are flowing. The Hollywood writers’ strike is all about the concept of following the eyeballs and ad dollars. For instance, over one-third of Americans go online to get their news. That number is growing. Traditional media’s numbers are shrinking. While heavily-regulated newspapers and broadcast properties decline, unregulated new media is in its ascendancy.

Again, it's called reality, and the media critics need to catch a whiff of it. Thankfully, Commissioner McDowell provided it in spades in this speech. Good for him. Let's hope others are listening. But somehow I doubt it.

posted by Adam Thierer @ 9:06 PM | Mass Media

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