January 24, 2006
The Antique MediaBy Thomas Lifson
The power structure of the American media is undergoing a convulsion that surpasses even the revolution wrought by the advent of television broadcasting sixty years ago. At first, television was politically neutral, and neither party took comparative advantage of it. When John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon held their famous televised debates, television came of age as a power—granter in the electoral sphere.
But television also contributed to the rise of a new concept of 'mainstream media' — ostensibly neutral voices, reporting the objective news in a detached manner. Because of bandwidth limitations in VHF broadcasting, only three national television networks emerged, and rather than segmenting the market with politically distinctive news reporting and analysis, each network positioned itself as the 'mainstream' outlet, so as to appeal to a broad plurality of viewers. The race for advertising dollars in a three—member oligopoly makes such behavior the only rational management policy if all three players have a reasonable chance at gaining the biggest market share by playing to the dominant middle of the market.
Television news in turn destroyed the afternoon newspaper industry. Nobody needed or wanted an after—work news update that had been edited and printed around noon at the latest, when television could provide a much fresher update free of charge. Live (at first) and in color (a bit later).
This creative destruction left all but a handful of cities with only one newspaper. The monopolist press lords also embraced the 'mainstream' approach — supposedly detached and neutral reporters and editors reporting reality as it is to Americans awaiting the word from them.
Thus was born the Mainstream Media (MSM), a label beloved of bloggers, who consider themselves challengers to it.
As American education came to be dominated by the Left, and as the Washington Post demonstrated the power to take down a sitting president via investigative reporting (with Richard Nixon once again playing the loser's role in marking a new era in media history), the journalism establishment as a whole moved sharply to the left.
Young idealists pursued careers in journalism to 'make a difference' instead of report the news. And as the monetary stakes involved in ratings for network and local news grew, top jobs as news anchors and even star reporters became lucrative and glamorous. The oligopolies at the network and local news market levels made news a profit center of great significance, as well as a chance to get pre—remote control viewers to leave their televisions on one station for the evening.
As Hollywood demonstrates on a daily basis, activism, glamour and money are a dangerous combination.
The emergence of talk radio, cable television and especially the internet changed everything.
When Rush Limbaugh created modern talk radio, most cities of any size had at least two or three dozen radio stations. In search of a niche audience, radio stations were happy to latch on to the under—served market of conservative listeners. Rush demonstrated the concept when the FCC 'fairness doctrine' was repealed, and stations could air a political view without having to offer free time to alternative views.
As television viewing options proliferated with the arrival of numerous cable networks, while the American electorate polarized further into liberal and conservative spheres, a huge market niche emerged, and was spotted by Roger Ailes and Rupert Murdoch, undoubtedly cognizant of Rush Limbaugh's enormous following.
Conservatives were alienated by not just the three broadcast networks but by CNN, which adopted the same leftist faux—neutral political style. Even if only 30% of the electorate defines itself as conservative, that group could be the largest market share in a five—player national television news environment. MSNBC made it a six—player environment, with CNBC and other cable networks offering degrees of competition as well.
Fox News Channel spent an enormous amount of money breaking through barriers to entry in distribution. Persuading cable systems to add Fox News Channel to their line—ups was expensive. As much as ten dollars per subscriber household in some deals publicly revealed. But it was worth it to News Corporation. The profits reported by FNC have amply rewarded shareholders in recent years.
The term for what Ailes and Murdoch accomplished is 'market segmentation.' It is a phenomenon that regularly occurs in markets as they grow and mature. But so far, the other television news competitors are stuck in the old mode of thinking. It is a loser's game, though they haven't figured out that point quite yet. Much as General Motors continued to offer bland middle of the road vehicles intended to please everyone while BMW spotted the performance car market, the competitors of FNC have not figured out the new rules of the game.
The once dominant broadcast network news divisions are no longer mainstream, they are antique. Their assumptions and instincts are based on technologies and resulting market structures that no longer define the state of the art. But their antique character is far surpassed by that of the daily newspaper industry.
Newspapers, of course, are in a death spiral, a case I made almost two years ago. The expense, time, and resources consumed in leveling forests to put ink on paper and transport heavy newspapers to readers' hands are simply not sustainable when news consumers can look at their computer screens and find far more printed information, far more usefully displayed, at much lower cost.
Someday, people will regard the yellowing remnants of long gone daily newspapers as charming reminders of an era when production was much more costly, requiring much more labor and craftsmanship, and took much longer to accomplish. Antiques have great charm, and they embody nostalgia for bygone eras.
Those newspapers which survive will be analogous to knockoff Louis XIV chairs, produced with more modern technology by very different purveyors, serving very different markets than the original craftsmen who produced the genuine antiques.
Internet websites like blogs are an even deeper challenge to the antique media than Fox News Channel was to the antique networks. There are no serious barriers to entry for bloggers. The capital requirements are low to non—existent, and global distribution takes place with no pesky distributors, longshoremen, retailers, or other encumbering interests in the way.
Some day a new industrial structure will emerge for the internet—based media, but the shape and characteristics of that structure will remain unknowable for some time to come.
The antique media are run by bureaucracies. Their hierarchies check (edit) and make decisions based on a daily work cycle. After a certain number of hours, they go home, and re—start the cycle the following day.
The blogosphere is run by networks of like—minded people, who anxiously check and correct each others' work on an ongoing basis. Call it peer review, call it 'the wisdom of the many' or call it the contest of ideas. It is bracing, lightning fast, and cannot be equaled by any bureaucracy as a means of checking and improving information flow.
The blogosphere never sleeps. It works 24/7. An individual blogger may log off, and when he or she returns, find email and links criticizing what was previously posted. An immediate response, not defined by work hours or news cycles, is demanded. And usually happens. Or else the blogger loses audience to other entrants in the free—for—all marketplace of ideas.
America's media will never be the same. It will take a long time for antique practices to die out, but die out they will. The antique media are on their way out.
Call them what they are.
Thomas Lifson is the editor and publisher of The American Thinker.