Sunday, February 25, 2007

What's the matter with the media?

Jesus General has a thought provoking post on how our media is failing in their time honored mission of informing Americans and Joe Gandelman expands on that theme. Both are must read posts if you're interested in media issues.

Meanwhile, James Joyner disagrees and says the fluff pays the bills. He goes on to say there's "no dearth of good reporting on matters of war, international affairs, and domestic public policy. Indeed, there’s more of it than most of us can keep up with." But he misses the point.

Those stories get short shrift when the focus is on Anna Nicole 24/7 for days on end and they don't sink into the public consciousness with a two minute news item tucked into endless speculation about who the father of Smith's baby is. It's well established that the average person needs three repetitions to retain information. For those of us who actively seek out the news, we can still find it in the dregs of the coverage but the average Jake isn't getting it. All they have to work with is badly skewed Limbaugh soundbites designed to promote disinfo.

I gave up on televised news years ago. I get my info almost solely from the internet and the odd print source. But the taxpayer is subsidizing the media industry with billions of dollars worth of free access to the airwaves and deserves a better product. They're never going to get one while the competition is limited to five or six major corporations. It's time to break up the monopolies and bring back the Fairness Doctrine.

Joyner points out that megacorps can absorb losses better than small operators but the losses were only initally incurred because the independent news sources were forced to compete with deep pocket corps who offered a dumbed down product that was more palatable to the public's purient interests and could contain costs with consolidation. If we leveled the playing field, and opened it back up to more players, we could restore some honesty to journalism and limit the ability of the spin machine to drive the news cycle.

The only downside I see in that is to the profit margins of the media mega-corps. I'm all for capitalism but sometimes what's good for business isn't necessarily good for America. This is one of those times.

[cross posted to The Reaction]


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Blogger whig said...

Just wanted to let you know I've added this blog to my blogroll as well.

4:07:00 PM  
Blogger whig said...

The public airwaves belong to the public, and we can reclaim them whenever we decide to do so. Let fairness and justice be done.

4:11:00 PM  
Blogger whig said...

A fair field and no favor could be accomplished by a broadcast tax, with regulations that provide funds to entrants that cannot afford access otherwise.

4:13:00 PM  
Blogger whig said...

There should be an allowance made for every person to a certain portion of spectrum, to which he or she may have use without fee, and which they can combine with one another to raise their shared portion.

4:16:00 PM  
Blogger Libby Spencer said...

Great points whig and thanks for the link. I'll add you here too if I haven't already, assuming I can make this new thing work.

I hate that they made me switch before I was ready.

4:29:00 PM  
Blogger whig said...

This is the opinion of my friend, Dan Sullivan, on the issue of a spectrum tax,

Set-asides are not necessary with a spectrum tax, and not particularly
appropriate either, since so few people actually want personal use of
the broadcast spectrum.

Rather, the tax should either be used to eliminate other taxes that fall
on productivity, or revenue from it should be dispersed on a per capita
basis. If the per capita amount is too small to distribute to individuals,
it can be distributed to counties in proportion to their populations. It
would then be up to each county to use the tax to reduce revenues,
provide services, or distribute as a supplement to a land rent dividend.

There would be no "fairness doctrine," as there would no longer be a
giveaway of spectrum use. The premise of the fairness doctrine, as
well as the doctrine of required public service announcments, was that
the person holding a broadcast license had been granted a windfall
from the public through a decision of the state, and was to reciprocate
with "service." The problem was that the state decided what was fair
and what constituted service.

It is much simpler to assess a spectrum tax based on how many people
are capable of receiving the signal, or, to be more precise, how many
are blocked from receiving other signals by the legal claim of the
license holder.


I am not stating an endorsement of his position, but he always has an interesting point of view on these kinds of issues.

5:46:00 PM  
Blogger Libby Spencer said...

That is interesting whig. I'm not sure I understand how it would work but I'm willing to entertain any idea that would change the status quo.

6:04:00 PM  
Blogger Dan Sullivan said...

How a spectrum tax would work

For the commercial broadcast spectrum, assessing value is fairly straightforward, and stations that do not run their own programming already use an assessment system to price air-time. (This is radio station, usually.) Basically, you pay according to how many people can get a strong signal from you.

The government would phase in a "spectrum tax" according to that same principle. That is, the number of people who can get a strong signal would basically determine what your signal is worth.

Assessment accuracy would become more important as the tax is phased in, so rates might be higher if the people who can get the signal are more affluent, more concentrated in a local area, etc. As with real estate taxes, the assessors would gather data from private market transactions to determine what additional value each factor adds.

Effects of a Spectrum Tax

License loosening

The spectrum tax would discourage people from holding mega-licenses. For example, KDKA radio, here in Pittsburgh, is grandfathered with one of the largest signal coverages in the country. (Signal coverage is determined by signal strength, measured in watts or kilowatts, tower height, directionality of transmitter, terrain, and the lack of interference from competing signals.)

KDKA's signal is so strong that people can pick it up hundreds, and sometimes thousands of miles away. However, their advertising is mostly local, and they do not benefit much from having distant listeners. Still, it costs them nothing to keep that signal, so they block people from having competing signals.

A spectrum tax would give them reason to let go of coverage they do not really need, and this would allow competing stations to be set up.

Syndication and Network Dropping

Stations find it less bothersome and less expensive to just run a syndicated program, even if that program sells less advertising than they would be capable of selling with a locally produced program. It might be a national talk show, or it might be a music or MUSAK program. Since holding the license costs them nothing out-of-pocket, and since they anticipate the license value will go up in the future, shows that merely serve as a place-holder still make them money.

With a spectrum tax in place, they would have an incentive to either put their license to a fuller use by aggressively seeking viewers, or sell the license to someone else.

Similarly, giant corporations have been "collecting" TV and radio stations. This is partly because these corporations have more money than they know what to do with, and they see each station as having a license that will grow in value, no matter whether the programming is attracting much revenue or not.

Under a spectrum tax, the collectors of broadcast stations would be more willing to sell the ones that are not doing well, and others would then be able to buy in and compete.

Conglomerate Ownership of Networks

Giant conglomerates that own entire networks (such as GE owning NBC) would discover that their corporate bureaucrats cannot manage a network as well as independent owners can, and that the profits NBC had been making for them had not been not the profits of enterprise, but the rents that had accrued to the broadcast licenses. As the government collects those rents in the form of a spectrum tax, it becomes more important to focus on the profits of enterprise, giving GE an incentive to sell to actual enterprisers.

In this regard, it is most likely that GE would finance the sale themselves, so the new owners (quite possibly the best of the current managers) would "rent to own" the network.

I should note, however, that many of the problems with TV news has to do with Cable TV. I have a separate proposal for reforming cable, but it is based on the same principles. The good thing about reforming cable is that cable franchises are granted at municipal and county levels.


9:02:00 PM  
Blogger Libby Spencer said...

That makes it much clearer Dan. Thanks. It's an interesting and smart proposal. If you're not already involved in one of the media reform groups, you certainly should be.

9:20:00 PM  

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