Monday, June 02, 2003

What makes media diverse?

In light of the FCC's rather decision to slightly relax media restrictions, it's worth thinking about what makes media "diverse" (since the diversity argument seems to be the biggest objection to this change that's honest). The main candidates for a definition of diversity seems to be 1) number of channels and media outlets, 2) number of different owners. In addition we need to figure out how popularity and quality factor into all of this.

I think that both 1) and 2) are lame definitions. It's clear that the rise of cable, satellite, and the Internet have greatly expanded the number of media options and channels within those options than we had in 1941 and 1975. And though I generally belive that profit-seeking media companies will put customer satisfaction before their own personal indulgences, I also know that management is often only too keen to put their own interests before shareholders. (Mind you, I also belive that non-public companies, such as the BBC and NPR, are more self indulgent than public companies that need to sell audiences to advertisers). Does the obvious increase in 1) counter act the tendency for 2)? How can we tell which way things are going?

The popularity vs. quantity question makes it hard to answer this question. Media companies that are unpopular (in the sense that hardly anyone watches them) argue that their high-quality programming is drowned out in a sea of crass commercialism and so lousy ratings don't tell you anything about whether their stuff is any good. It could just be underappreciated. And by the same token, no one will argue that "Survivor's" high ratings make it in anyway more worthy than a History Channel documentary on WWII. (The History Channel, which I like, is a good example of a for-profit channel dealing in "quality" subject matter successfully). Underwatched "quality" programmers would argue that people don't wise up and switch to their stuff because they're brainwashed by large media outlets.

In some ways this echoes the lament of bloggers that a few A-list folks get all the hits and relegate everyone else to obscurity. Past success drives future success, so even an excellent B-list blog will be unknown forever because it was late to the party.

I think the right thing to consider is how easily can people alter what they watch and how flexible is the system to shocks. So if people suddenly stop liking (or being interested) in a certain channel, how easily can they switch to something else. This elasticity includes switching between different media, and between consuming media to doing other things (like spending time with friends instead of watching TV). It's important to consider switching between different media because newspapers, magazines, the Internet, TV, radio, cable, and satellite are substitutes, and it's important to consider other leisure time activity because public media needs viewers and so cannot afford to alienate large segments of their base by doing things to drive them away.

I don't know if the war in Iraq is a good test case for this, but it certainly represented an event where people dramatically changed what they wanted to see. I'm sure CNN and the other news channels enjoyed dramatic increases in viewership that have now evaporated (and there seems to be evidence that this happened in the blogging world also). I remember reading an article that news sites enjoyed an increase in foreign viewers as people sought media outlets that best reflected their own prejudices. At least a few of these folks are almost certainly now moaning about lack of "diversity". This to me suggests that people change what they view when they aren't happy with what they have now and that the system offers more choice than before. Both of these argue for relaxed ownership rules in the more substitutable world of US TV ownership.

One last point: People who argue that the FCC is ignoring the "public good" in relaxing media ownership rules seems to belive that lower cost and higher quality cannot be a part of it, perhaps because if it's good it must also be unpleasant (certainly this fits the "diversity is good" criteria given how deeply people loathe encountering an opinion they don't agree with.) Until the FCC finally lets spectrum be fully traded, it needs to try and make sure it's being used at least slightly efficiently, and in this age of the Internet, cable, and satellite, I would argue this means relaxing ownership restrictions and enjoying the lower marginal costs that brings.


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