Sunday, August 23, 2009

Here's what's wrong with the American media

Once upon a time the TV networks provided a public service. They also were highly profitable. What happened to them? The Reagan Revolution and deregulation happened to them. Here is an analysis by TexasTom at Daily Kos:
until the eighties, only one of the major TV networks was a publicly traded corporation. CBS and ABC were both privately held, and (especially in the case of CBS) were owned and managed by people who had a sense of the public obligation associated with their networks. Today, all the networks are part of large, publicly traded corporations who see their news departments as another profit center...and that's about it. For Time-Warner, CNN isn't about making a fair profit by serving it's's just about the profit, period. The same thing can be said at the other networks. Over on the newspaper side, it seems that the few newspapers that didn't become part of large publicly traded groups are the ones that seem to be weathering the current recession -- probably because they aren't having to cut staff just to meet debt service payments.

The evidence that we're seeing in recent years is that news media as publicly traded corporations doesn't seem to be a winning bet.

The second point, of course, is deregulation. In the sixties, an activist FCC actually refused to allow the sale of the ABC network to a multinational conglomerate (ITT) on the basis that such an ownership change would not serve the public interest. Note that the argument that ABC was unprofitable and needed the infusion of cash from the conglomerate did not sway the FCC. The FCC also imposed limits on the amount of advertising that stations could run (that's why infomercials didn't appear on TV until the eighties), requirements for some "public service" programming, ownership restrictions, and much, much more. Note that the broadcasting business was extremely profitable (especially for major and medium market television stations) during this era of heavy regulation.

Starting in the eighties, the era of deregulation began. Throughout the eighties and nineties, rules were eliminated and ownership limits were relaxed. We're all familiar with the results -- the almost total demise of actual news reporting by any radio stations (even so-called "news" stations are really mostly opinion and talk anymore), and the steady concentration of ownership. The latter means that while we have the illusion of more choice, the reality is that we have less choice because all those different channels are controlled by the same companies.

Strangely enough, all that deregulation has resulted in a less profitable broadcasting business. Once again, the conservative mantra of deregulation seems to be wrong...

One reason why that deregulation has been such a disaster for the broadcast industry is the rise of cable and satellite TV. Back in the seventies, much of the left saw the then new cable TV industry as being the salvation of television. No more would the "lowest common denominator" rule the dial. Unfortunately, those folks never saw the rise of E!, VH1, Bravo, A&E, and the multitude of other channels that are essentially devoted to mind-numbing trash. How did they end up being so wrong about cable?

Unfortunately, the rise of cable coincided with the era of deregulation. The result is that the cable industry was never adequately regulated, and the result was a level of ownership concentration that makes the broadcast business look diffused by comparison. Big companies bulked up by buying a whole bunch of cable networks and forcing cable systems (and, later, satellite services) to carry all of them on the lowest tier. Viewers were forced to buy on an "all or nothing" basis, which prevents those viewers from being able to easily vote against channels that they see as worthless by cancelling their payments for those particular channels. It's all structured to maximize corporate profits, of course -- and it does so very effectively. Public service of any sort is not even a consideration.

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