Something Old, Something New

Something Old, Something New

Media policy need to change in the digital age—but how?


It's become commonplace to divide the media into "old" and "new," neatly corresponding to analog and digital technology. Under this handy dichotomy the old media (print and broadcast especially) represent mass marketing and mediocrity; conglomerate ownership and economies of scale have produced mainstream, profit-driven programming. Variations occur at the margins, certainly, but even their collective impact pales before the market share of newspaper chains, publishing empires and the assorted television, cable and entertainment giants. In contrast to these old-media oligopolies, the new, digital media–fueled by desktop production and driven by global, networked distribution–seem wildly democratic. So out with the old and in with the new; the World Wide Web awaits!

If only it were that simple. First, the old media aren't going anywhere, and their dominance in our lives–radio and TV usage still outstrip the Internet by a factor of 20-1–will continue for years. Second, the old media giants have made their presence felt online, too, establishing digital beachheads that might not be making much money (yet) but that are certainly attracting their share of online traffic. This is particularly true of the hybrid (and hydra-headed) AOL Time Warner, whose multimedia reach extends to more than 70 percent of all online users in the United States, and fully a third of all time spent online. Thus, even if the long-touted media convergence has been slow in arriving, the distinction between old media and new–particularly with regard to the impact of conglomerate culture–is largely a false one.

That's why the public-policy battles now being waged to rein in the power of the old media (many of them last-ditch efforts to limit further ownership consolidation and to make the media more publicly accountable) are important to the future of the new media as well–particularly in the areas of ownership limits, spectrum management and noncommercial programming.

A combination of successful court challenges and the ascendant deregulatory spirit in Washington has put the existing cable-ownership limits–currently 30 percent of all cable households nationwide–at risk. As a result, we now face the specter of a single company controlling access to more than half of all households. Broadcast networks and station groups (two of which have already throttled commercial radio) are also poised to tighten their grip on key TV markets by acquiring more stations, far exceeding the current 35 percent national audience limit and further eroding local news and public-affairs programming. Perhaps most alarming, the old prohibitions against one company owning both a TV station and a newspaper, or a cable system and a TV station, in the same community are also under threat. In all these instances, the public's fundamental right to "the widest possible dissemination of information from diverse and antagonistic sources" (in the words of the Supreme Court) will be jettisoned in favor of lowest-common-denominator shows assembled by the conglomerate multimedia stables. There are more media outlets than ever before, but this numerical growth, as Consumers Union has pointed out, "has not been accompanied by a comparable growth of independent, diversely owned competitive communications services and media voices."

On one level, spectrum management–literally, the organization and oversight of the radio frequencies that make broadcast and other wireless transmissions possible–is dauntingly complex. But the current battle over spectrum is distressingly simple: In 1996, the nation's 1,600 TV stations were lent additional spectrum (a six-megahertz slice equal to that over which they've been transmitting analog signals for years). According to the FCC's original timetable, all stations were to be broadcasting digitally by 2003, and by 2006 they were to return their old spectrum (which could then be auctioned off by the government and used for other purposes). For a variety of reasons, the digital TV transition has progressed slowly; in the interim, industry lobbyists have been pressing for stations to be allowed to retain their additional spectrum and put it to various commercial uses, like data transmission, or auction it off themselves. As appalling as that may sound, it is not such a farfetched scheme, given the lobby's clout and Washington's belief in finding "marketplace solutions."

But this kind of corporate welfare is no solution at all. Not only should the spectrum be returned in a timely fashion but a portion of the subsequent auction proceeds should be devoted to noncommercial, public-interest content. Such programming, largely entrusted in the past to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and its PBS grantees, needs a much broader mandate in the digital future. And here, too, old and new media converge. For perhaps now, with the additional capacity that digital broadcasting affords, and with funding derived from the spectrum auctions, we can finally realize the original vision for public-service broadcasting, updated for the digital age. As the Carnegie Commission on Educational Television wrote back in 1967, "We seek for the artist, the technician, the journalist, the scholar, and the public servant freedom to create, freedom to innovate, freedom to be heard in this most far-reaching medium. We seek for the citizen freedom to view, to see programs that the present system, by its incompleteness, denies him."

The emerging broadband networks, which promise to bring broadcast and online technologies together in a platform that fosters interactivity and exchange, has the potential finally to realize that vision–but only if public-interest policies are in place insuring that the old-media giants won't be able to stifle competition and diversity in the new-media environment, too.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
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