CN Mar 9 2017

Can the development of television, and radio before it, teach us anything about what the next few years of digital communications will bring us?

In some ways, yes, says Walter J. Podrazik, co-author of Watching TV.

“This inherently is important because of how do you make money in this medium?” he asks. “And the answer is by being a gatekeeper. Now a gatekeeper has a lot of different definitions…In a more general sense it’s the corporation, the business entity, that owns the station, or owns the distribution service. And then, it’s how do you receive it? Who are the gatekeepers for your receiving it? So the gatekeeper one is to get on there. Gatekeeper two is to be the one that gets the signal to the potential audience.”

So in that sense, today’s world isn’t much different from radio’s peak years in the 30’s and 40’s, or television’s in the 60’s and 70’s. There’s a battle on to determine who can own the most content, and who can own the means of distribution.

Of course, with digital communications there’s vastly more content, and an almost infinite number of channels through which to distribute it. But the premium content – the stuff most people want – that content is quickly becoming the property of a few very large companies, just as with the radio and television companies before them. And we’re also starting to see consolidation of both the content-makers and the content distributors.

“So when you’re looking at how the players are lining up now, the moves when Comcast acquired NBC/Universal—so remember, you’ve got now one-stop shopping from a business point of view,” Podrazik explains.”So you’ve got— well, what’s the formula here? What’s going on? Well, who makes money? A lot of people make money in the media business…So you might have a creator of a sci-fi series that’s on the sci-fi network, which is distributed through Comcast, which you then tune in in your home. Well, boy, if you’re Comcast and you own the sci-fi network, and you own the production company, and you own the distribution—you’re covered pretty well…And so that’s why the ownership of the content becomes more and more important, because no one, including the businesses whizzes, know exactly what’s going to be the state of the industry in say, a dozen years. But you’re going to want content to put out there.”

Consolidation of content and distribution may just be the natural law of economics, and something we all have to live with. But so many observers have pointed out that the Internet’s strength is its diversity of topics, interests and views. That’s why the battle over internet neutrality has been so important, and why today it’s even more critical than ever.

“But the cudgel is not necessarily in place for these new generations of entrepreneurs and delivery systems,” asserts Podrazik,  “and that’s why the whole discussion of net neutrality—in fact the whole question of whether the FCC had jurisdiction over the discussion of how the over-the-air—the wireless—would be handled is very important, because in effect, once you remove someone coming up to you with teeth to enforce the regulations, once you remove that, then you’re saying, ‘So please, make sure you’re a good citizen. Do good. Do no harm.’ Maybe you will, maybe you absolutely will. But history has shown that you probably need to be reminded…”

Podrazik, the historian, reminds us that Edward R. Murrow, after the first broadcast satellite was turned on, called up on our TV screens two simultaneous live pictures – one of Alcatraz Island and the San Francisco Bay and the other of the State f Liberty. Nothing like it had ever been seen before. Podrazik says Murrow’s enthusiasm for the technical feat was qualified.

“And to Murrow’s credit, he said, ‘This is very impressive.’ But he later said, ‘Now let’s see what we do with these tools.’ And that is probably the most important thing—lesson to take, from past history, which is, what do you do with the tools? And that’s the wild card factor here. And that’s where the changing of generations in attitude—not necessarily in age, but in attitude – because there could be new generation people who are 70 years old. But the willingness to say, ‘I don’t care how you used to do it. I don’t care how you usually do it. Here’s how I’m going to do it.'”

How those tools get used, and the degree to which the public will get to continually define for itself the shape and citizen-power of today’s digital infrastructure, these are still very much unanswered questions. “So that’s what’s playing out now is, people deciding where they want to put their time and their dollars,” Podrazik says. “And it comes back to content, which means, what will have the content that matters to me?”

And in an ironic positive conclusion, Podrazik says the gates are still at least partly open.

“And you guys haven’t figured out how to turn it off yet!”

We like to think that our TV show is also pretty good radio. Listen to the show in your earbuds on SoundCloud.

And read a full transcript of the show HERE.CN transcript March 9 2017






About Ken

Ken's the host of Chicago Newsroom. A former news director, reporter and radio program host, he's also a past Vice President of the Chicago Headline Club.
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