This is the fourth and final post in a series looking at the trend toward consolidation in the media industry, and exploring why this trend should should matter to writers.
Yesterday, I explained that, for decades, the FCC pursued a policy of limiting ownership of multiple radio, network and cable television stations, wanting to foster competion and more widespread ownership.
In the '70s, deregulation became a popular movement. President Jimmy Carter championed the deregulation of the trucking, rail, airline, oil, finance and telecommunications industries. A number of these initiatives proved to be disastrous and led to crises (the savings and loan industry and the California energy crunch among these). Deregulation slowed down after that, although we have continued to see limited initiatives in the airline, electric utilities and, of course, the telecommunications industry. In 1985, the Seven Station Rule was relaxed to permit ownership of up to twelve stations by a single entity. More importantly, the Museum of Broadcast Communications said: "broadcasting has been increasingly seen as just another business operating in a commercial marketplace which did not need its management decisions questioned by government overseers."
During President Clinton's term, Congress passed the Telecommunications Act of 1996, claiming it would foster greater competition. Limits on the numbers of stations owned by a single company were increased to a maximum service area cap of 35%.
Instead of increased competition, the eighty media companies in existence in 1986 shrank to the seven giant conglomerates that now own ninety percent of the industry. Their publishing subsidiaries include HarperMorrow, Hyperion, Random House, Simon & Shuster, and Warner Books.
What does all this mean to citizens and writers?
First, let's address the traditional fears. Historically, the belief has been that concentration of media ownership would lead to a lack of diversity of opinion--and more importantly--a lack of information. Many cities, which had operated with two or more newspapers, now find themselves with only one daily paper. Other locations find that a single corporation owns their newspaper and one or more radio and television stations.
The good news here is that there is a counterbalancing force to this shrinking media pool: the growth of the Internet. People seeking alternate information and opinions are free to find these on the Internet. Single individuals wishing to voice an opinion can now blog and be heard by thousands around the world.
Also with the good news comes a threat. Telecommunications companies, trying to advance their business interests, are proposing changes that will neutralize the Internet's growth. The forces fighting the telecommunications industry are demanding Net Neutrality. I won't address that issue here, but will talk about it in future posts. Suffice it to say that if the telecommunications industry wins, the free-wheeling, independent, equal-voice-to-all Internet we know today will disappear.
A second fear may be more pertinent to writers. This is the fear that shrinking media ownership will lead to shrinking cultural diversity. Again, a quote from the Museum of Broadcasting: "The American example of relying more on competition than regulation also threatens traditional public service broadcasting which must meet increasing competition for viewers by offering more commercially-appealing programs, usually entertainment--rather than culture-based."
The same dynamic at work on your PBS station is at work in commercial media. Competition for audience (whether it be listeners, viewership or readership) is fierce. When a popular trend emerges, the media jumps on it like ravening wolves. That's why you find a glut of reality shows on television, hundreds of novels featuring vampires and every print publisher rushing to establish an erotic imprint.
There's a reason for this. Corporations must answer to their shareholders, who expect rising profits and fat dividends. Taking chances is dangerous when you must answer to your shareholders once a quarter. Kensington now claims to be the last INDEPENDENT U.S. publisher of hardcover, trade and mass market paperback books.
The burden of quarterly reporting means that it is makes more sense for a publisher to put its dollars on a safe bet--a proven author like Stephen King, Nora Roberts or James Patterson--than to gamble on an unknown. This doesn't mean that unknowns or debut authors are out of luck. It simply means that the funnel is a little narrower and your work must be a little stronger than in previous decades.
However, the Internet is also the counterbalancing force in this dynamic as well. E-publishers are springing up everywhere and the movement toward self-publishing continues to grow.
I believe that eBooks will explode when a viable (and affordable) eBook reader comes on the market.
I also believe that self-publishing will not become a viable alternative until it solves three enormous problems: (1) The need to develop a system to vet books for bookstores and libraries to ensure a quality product; (2) The need to develop a system for marketing (just slapping a book on Amazon or eBay will not drive traffic to it); and (3) The need to overcome a justly deserved reputation for publishing crap.
Finally, there is the issue of service delivery mediums. We are rapidly approaching a point when content will no longer by restricted by medium. By this, I am referring to the fact that our choices for service delivery are multiplying faster and faster. We already have portable cell phones, portable audio players, portable video players. Soon we will be able to receive content (whether it be audio or visual) on ANY medium we choose WHENEVER we choose. The book will be freed from the constraints of covers; CDs and DVDs will be available the moment a film is released; and the current television Big Fall Season will seem quaint and antiquated.
Pay attention to the trends. You'll be helping to make them.