After Thanksgiving – everyone’s thoughts turn to technology policy. Well, maybe not everyone, but reading Thursday’s New York Times, David Pogue wrote his column celebrating his 10th anniversary in the paper with observations about truths that he has discovered about the technology world. Many of those same truths apply to broadcast policy, and are particularly relevant with a week coming up in which the FCC may take its first steps toward dramatically reshaping the media landscape as it considers the future of the television spectrum, and potentially repurposing some of that spectrum for wireless broadband. Pogue’s first observation was that new technology does not replace old technology – instead it merely provides more choice to the consumer. He points out that TV did not replace radio, and that satellite radio didn’t replace radio either. Instead, these services became complements, perhaps eroding the audience of the established technology in some ways, and perhaps making the older technology redefine its mission, but the older technology survived, and remained relevant. We’ve written similar observations about the future of radio – it’s a technology that reaches masses with no incremental costs for adding new listeners – and is now and, for the foreseeable future will be, the most efficient way to reach large audiences with popular formats.
It is a similar story with other communications media. And we sometimes over-react to short term trends believing that some audience erosion for a particular technology will result in its doom, when in fact it may just result in some form of re-invention. In the last two years, we’ve seen print media go from being left for dead, to being part of one of the most talked about media deals of the last month – the merger between the Daily Beast and Newsweek to bring a print component to a new media darling. Television, too, is not dead yet – it still the most watched source of video programming, whether distributed over the air or through some multichannel video transmission source, with over-the-air programming about to get a new take as mobile DTV begins its roll-out in the coming months. Recently, there has even been the occasional article about consumers "cutting the cord" – relying on over-the-air TV, supplemented by web video content, to drop their cable or satellite connection. As Pogue suggests, all these media will continue to survive and offer choices to consumers. But Pogue does not take into account the potential impact of a fundamental change in regulatory policy that intervenes to disrupt the natural progression of the marketplace.
At next Tuesday’s FCC meeting, the Commission will begin its consideration of the future of over-the-air TV, as initially laid out in its Broadband Plan. While we will see the specifics of the FCC action this coming week, they are rumored to include proposals to encourage the compression of the TV band – encouraging TV stations to move into the VHF band (apparently, despite laws imposed by physics, not by man, which have thus far dictated that these channels suffer from more interference and worse coverage than DTV stations that operate on UHF channels), to share channels (by multicasting programming now appearing on separate channels, perhaps in Standard Definition instead of true HD), and, in some cases, to surrender channels entirely in exchange for some share of auction proceeds from so-called "incentive auctions." How these changes will be implemented will be seen after the meeting. Assuming that the changes are voluntary options afforded to broadcasters and not mandates, the changes may assist in the natural evolution of television. But, if mandated or otherwise forced (e.g. through spectrum taxes on some perceived value of the frequencies), then regulatory changes may artificially affect the natural progression of the media.
Pogue also notes his observation that people often have very personal reactions to technology, and those reactions can color their perceptions about whether change is good or bad – with two people looking at the same change but from different personal biases having completely different reactions to the same change. We have noted that how a personal bias can affect the reaction to regulatory events, for instance in reaction to changes in rules regarding HD radio, with some detractors being the first to comment on any post we write about that technology, convinced that it will do nothing but degrade the FM band, while others see it as a way to bring new life to radio. That same observation applies to the changes being considered for TV. Some, apparently including many at the FCC, see broadband, and wireless broadband in particular, as the way in which people will receive entertainment and information in the future – essentially dooming TV as we have known it for the past 70 years. Others see a renaissance of over-the-air television being upon us with the new potential of the Digital Television transition being recognized through new opportunities for programmers on multi-cast channels and, with mobile DTV just beginning to be rolled out, for new services that will reinvent the service for the future. After all, it has been less than 18 months since the digital transition for over-the-air TV was completed. Another truism we have heard about technology is that people tend to overreact to changes in the short-term, while underestimating those changes in the long term. Of course, those long-term consequences are the most difficult to predict. One hopes that the actions of the government in the upcoming week don’t reflect the attitudes of a few who overestimate the impact of new technologies and artificially restrict the choices of consumers in selecting their own media future.