Testimony

Overcoming Mythology in the Debate over Media Ownership

By Adam D. Thierer
September 28, 2004
Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation
United States Senate

Good morning, my name is Adam Thierer and I serve as Director of Telecommunications Studies at the Cato Institute. Thank you, Mr. Chairman, for your invitation to testify here this morning on the important issue of media ownership regulation. This hearing is especially timely for me since I have a new book on this issue due out early next year entitled, “Media Myths: Making Sense of the Debate over Media Ownership.”

I chose that title because I have come to the conclusion that the debate over media ownership is being driven more by myth than reality. That is, while critics of media liberalization have had great success employing heated rhetoric and extremely emotional rationales for media regulation, claims about a lack of “diversity,” the end of “localism,” or the supposed “death of democracy” simply do not square with reality.

Objective facts reveal that such rhetoric and claims are baseless. Indeed, by all impartial measures, citizens are better off today than they have ever been before. Regardless of what the underlying business structures or ownership patterns look like, the real question in this debate must be this: “Do citizens have more news, information, and entertainment choices at their disposal today than in the past?” The answer to that question is unambiguously “yes.”

There are 7 leading myths about modern media. I’ll quickly summarize each one for you.

Debunking the Media Myths

The first, and probably most commonly repeated myth, is that diversity will disappear absent extensive government regulation of the media. The reality, however, could not be more different. Today’s media environment is more diverse than ever before and is characterized by information abundance, not scarcity. Citizens enjoy more news and entertainment options than at any other point in history. To the extent there is a media diversity problem today, it is that citizens suffer from “information overload.” The number of media options has become so overwhelming that most of us struggle to manage all the information at our disposal. Consider that in 1979 most households had 6 or fewer local television stations to choose from, but today the average U.S. household receives 7 broadcast television networks and an average of 102 cable or satellite channels per home.1 Also, the number of radio stations in America has roughly doubled from about 6,700 in 1970 to almost 13,500 today. And there are more magazines and periodicals being produced now than at any time in our nation’s history. In 2003, there were 17,254 magazines produced up from 14,302 in 1993. 2

A second common myth is that “localism” in media is disappearing. The truth is, while we do not really know exactly how much local fare citizens demand, citizens still receive a wealth of information about developments in their communities. That is, although citizens are increasingly opting for more sources of national news and entertainment, local information and programming are still popular and will not disappear in a deregulated media marketplace.

The third myth concerns concentration and the mistaken belief that only a few companies control the entire media universe. Contrary to this widely circulated myth, the media marketplace is vigorously competitive and not significantly more concentrated than in past decades. A McKinsey & Company analyst recently noted that “There are more than 100 media companies worldwide… and entertainment and media are still fragmented compared with other industries such as pharmaceuticals and aerospace.”3 An FCC survey of various media markets across America from 1960 to 2000 also showed that, “Collectively, the number of media outlets and owners increased tremendously over the 40-year period,” with an average of a 200 percent increase in the number of outlets and a 140 percent increase in the number of owners.4 Media expert Eli Noam of Columbia University has nicely summarized why we must understand that “bigness” is a relative term in media: “[W]hile the fish in the pond have grown in size, the pond did grow too, and there have been new fish and new ponds.”5 But, in any event, competition and concentration are not mutually exclusive. Citizens can have more choices even as the ownership grows slightly more concentrated as it has in some sectors in recent years.

The fourth myth involves assertions about the future of our democracy somehow being at risk. These arguments strike me as quite preposterous since increased media availability and communications connectivity have given Americans the ability to learn and debate more about our democracy than ever before. More importantly, civil discourse and a healthy democracy are the product of a free and open society unconstrained by government restrictions on media structures or content. If government can simply ordain any ownership structures or business arrangements it wishes in the name of serving “democracy,” then it raises serious censorship concerns.

A fifth myth is that regulation is needed to preserve high quality journalism and entertainment. I find these arguments very troubling since, at root, media quality is a subjective matter. Government should have no say over, or even attempt to influence the quality of news or entertainment in America. The good news, however, is that with so many media outlets available today, citizens have a wide range of options from which to choose, meaning they can decide for themselves what level of “quality” they desire.

A sixth myth is that the First Amendment justifies extensive media ownership controls, or can be used as a regulatory tool to mandate access to media outlets. This is, without doubt, the most dangerous of all the media myths. In reality, the First Amendment was not written as a constraint on private speech or actions, but rather as a direct restraint on government actions as they relate to speech. If the First Amendment is to retain its force as a bulwark against government control of the press, it cannot be used to justify ownership rules or “media access” mandates.

A seventh and final myth is that new technologies or media outlets, including the Internet, have little bearing on this debate or cannot be used as justification for relaxing existing media ownership rules at all. To the contrary, new technologies and outlets do have an important relationship to this debate and call into question the wisdom of existing media ownership restrictions. In particular, the rise of the Internet and the World Wide Web is radically changing the nature of modern media. (Anyone who thinks differently might want to ask Dan Rather what he thinks about the impact of new technologies on traditional media!) With 72% of Americans now online and spending an average of nine hours weekly on the Internet6 surfing through the 170 terabytes of information availalble online-which is seventeen times the size of the Library of Congress print collections7-I do not see how anyone can seriously argue that the Internet is not fundamentally transforming our media universe.

More generally, my research finds that all media compete in a broad sense and that citizens frequently substitute one type of media for another. What else explains cable stations stealing so much audience share from traditional broadcasters, or that 88% of Americans now subscribe to cable and satellite TV even though “free, over-the-air” television remains at their disposal?8 What else explains how satellite radio, an industry that did not even exist prior to December 2001, today boasts over 2 million subscribers and is rapidly eating into traditional radio’s market share? Or the fact that millions of Americans purchase daily editions of national newspapers such as the USA Today, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times? In fact, 49 percent of The New York Times’ daily circulation is now outside the New York area and it offers home delivery in 275 markets.9 Such statistics reveal a healthy, competitive market at work; a market in which citizens exercise their right to be as finicky as they want in substituting one media option or outlet for another.

Conclusion

Our media world has changed, and changed in almost every way for the better. To the extent there was ever a “Golden Age” of American media, we are living in it today. There has never been a time in our nation’s history when citizens had access to more media outlets, more news and information, or more entertainment. This conclusion is supported by a solid factual record. Advocates of media regulation, by contrast, continue to base their case for government regulation on emotional appeals and baseless “Chicken Little” doomsday scenarios.

In such an age of abundance, the question of who owns what, or how much they own, is irrelevant. No matter how large any given media outlet is today, it is ultimately just one of hundreds of sources of news, information and entertainment that we have at our disposal. “Indeed,” as the FCC concluded when revising these rules, “the question confronting media companies today is not whether they will be able to dominate the distribution of news and information in any market, but whether they will be able to be heard at all among the cacophony of voices vying for the attention of Americans.”10

I completely agree with the FCC. The media world has changed and so must the rules that govern it. Thank you for inviting me here today to discuss the facts about media in America.


Table 1. The Media Universe of Yesterday and Today


Table 2. Media Outlet Ownership in Select Markets


Table 3. S-Curves for Various Technologies


Table 4. The Relentless March of Technology


Table 5. Media Trends of Yesterday and Today


Table 6: The Expanding Video Programming Marketplace On Cable and Satellite TV
News: CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, C-Span, C-Span 2, C-Span 3, BBC America
Sports: ESPN, ESPN News, Fox Sports, TNT, NBA TV, NFL Network, Golf Channel, Speed Channel, Outdoor Life Network
Weather: The Weather Channel
Home Renovation: Home & Garden Television, The Learning Channel, DIY
Educational: The History Channel, The Biography Channel (A&E), The Learning Channel, Discovery Channel, National Geographic Channel, Animal Planet
Travel: The Travel Channel, National Geographic Channel
Financial: CNNfn, CNBC, Bloomberg Television
Shopping: The Shopping Channel, Home Shopping Network, QVC
Female-oriented: WE, Oxygen, Lifetime
Male-oriented: Spike TV
Family / Children-oriented: Nickelodeon, Disney Channel, Cartoon Network, WAM (movie channel for 8-16 year olds), Noggin (2-5 years)/The N Channel (9-14 years), PBS Kids, Hallmark Channel, Discovery Kids, Animal Planet, ABC Family, Boomerang, The Family Channel (FAM), HBO Family
African-American: BET, Black Starz!
Foreign / Foreign Language: Telemundo (Spanish), Univision (Spanish), Deutsche Welle (German), BBC America (British), TV Asia, ZEE-TV Asia (South Asia) ART: Arab Radio and Television, The Filipino Channel (Philippines), Saigon Broadcasting Network (Vietnam), The International Channel, HBO Latino
Religious: Trinity Broadcasting Network, The Church Channel (TBN), World Harvest Television, Eternal Word Television Network
Music: MTV, MTV 2, VH1, VH1 Classic, Fuse, Country Music Television, Great American Country, Gospel Music Television Network
Movies: HBO, Showtime, Cinemax, Starz, Encore, The Movie Channel, Turner Classic Movies, AMC, IFC, Sundance, Bravo, (Action, Westerns, Mystery, Love Stories, etc…), Flix, Other or General Interest Programming: TBS, USA Network, TNT, SciFi Channel



Table 7. 2003 New Magazine Launches by Interest Category


Table 8. A Clear Channel Radio Monopoly?


Table 9: Internet Radio Stations
LaunchCast radio.yahoo.com
Rhapsody www.listen.com
Live 365 www.live365.com
Net Radio.com www.netradio.com
eoRadio www.eoradio.com
Totally Radio www.totallyradio.com
Soul Patrol www.soul-patrol.net
SnakeNet Metal Radio www.snakenetmetalradio.com
Recovery Net www.recoveryradio.com
Beethoven.com www.beethoven.com
Web-Radio www.web-radio.com
Radio@Netscape www.spinner.com
NPR Online www.npr.org
VH1’s SonicNet.com www.sonicnet.com


Table 10. Do the "Big 3" own everything?


Table 11. Cable Ratings Share Now Tops Broadcasters


Table 12: An Assortment of Media Fun Facts
General Media Facts or Trends:
  • “A weekday edition of the New York Times contains more information than the average person was likely to come across in a lifetime in seventeenth-century England.”11 A 1987 report estimated that more new information has been produced within the last 30 years than in the last 5000.12
  • According to Ben Bagdikian, there are 37,000 different media outlets in America. That number jumps to 54,000 if all weeklies, semiweeklies, advertising weeklies and all periodicals are included, and to 178,000 if all “information industries” are included. And yet Bagdikian is a leading critic of media deregulation and the title of his most recent book is The New Media Monopoly!13
  • An FCC survey of large and small media markets across America from 1960 to 2000 revealed that, “Collectively, the number of media outlets and owners increased tremendously over the 40-year period,” with an average of a 200 percent increase in the number of outlets and a 140 percent increase in the number of owners.14
  • By 2007, the average American will spend 3,874 hours per year using major consumer media, an increase of 792 hours per year from the 3,082 hours per year that the average person spent using consumer media in 1977.15
  • As of 2003, household penetration rates for various new media and communications technologies were very high and growing fast: VCR (88%); DVD (50%); DBS (24%); cell phones (70%); personal computers (66%); Internet access (75%). With the exception of VCRs, none of these technologies were in American homes in 1980.16
  • In 2002, the average consumer spent $212 for basic cable, $100 for books, $110 for home videos, $71 for music recordings, $58 for daily newspapers, $45 for magazines, $45 for online Internet services, and $36 on movies.17
  • A three minute coast-to-coast long-distance phone call which cost roughly $1.35 in 1970 only cost 15 cents in 2003.18

Television / Video Competition:
  • 88% of Americans now subscribe to cable and satellite “pay TV” sources even though “free, over-the-air” television remains at their disposal.19
  • The FCC has found that, “In 1979, the vast majority of households had six or fewer local television stations to choose from, three of which were typically affiliated with a broadcast network. Today the average U.S. household receives seven broadcast television networks and an average of 102 channels per home.”20
  • There are more than 308 satellite-delivered national non-broadcast television networks available for carriage over cable, DBS and other systems today. The FCC concludes, “We are moving to a system served by literally hundreds of networks serving all conceivable interests.”21

Newspapers and Magazines:
  • In 1900, the average newspaper had only 8 pages.22 In the year 2000, by contrast, according to the Encarta encyclopedia, “Daily general-circulation newspapers average[d] about 65 pages during the week and more than 200 pages in the weekend edition.”23
  • There were 17,254 magazines produced in 2003, up from 14,302 in 1993. “For virtually every human interest, there is a magazine.”24
  • There were 440 new magazine launches in 2003, up from 289 new launches in 2002.25 Another source puts the number much higher at 949 new launches last year.26

Radio:
  • The number of radio stations in America has roughly doubled since 1970. As of March 2004, there were 13,486 radio stations in America, up from 6,751 in January 1970.
  • Satellite radio (XM & Sirius), an industry that did not even exist prior to December 2001, today boasts over 2 million subscribers nationwide according to company reports.

Internet / Online Services:
  • 72% of Americans are now online and spend an average of nine hours weekly on the Internet.27
  • The World Wide Web contains about 170 terabytes of information on its surface; in volume this is seventeen times the size of the Library of Congress print collections.28
  • Although less than 10 years old, online auction giant E-Bay has grown so massive that it now handles more daily trading traffic than the Nasdaq Stock Market according to CEO Meg Whitman.29
  • Online search giant Google recently reported that its collection of 6 billion items includes “4.28 billion web pages, 880 million images, 845 million Usenet messages, and a growing collection of book-related information pages.”30
  • The Internet Archive “Wayback Machine” (www.archive.org) offers 30 billion web pages archived from 1996 to the present. It contains approximately 1 petabyte of data and is currently growing at a rate of 20 terabytes per month. The site notes, “This eclipses the amount of text contained in the world’s largest libraries, including the Library of Congress. If you tried to place the entire contents of the archive onto floppy disks… and laid them end to end, it would stretch from New York, past Los Angeles, and halfway to Hawaii.”31


Notes

1. Federal Communications Commission, In the Matter of 2002 Biennial Regulatory Review - Review of the Commission’s Broadcast Ownership Rules and Other Rules Adopted Pursuant to Section 202 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, FCC 03-127, June 2, 2003, p. 15, http://hraunfoss.fcc.gov/edocs_public/attachmatch/FCC-03-127A1.pdf, cited hereafter as FCC, Media Ownership Proceeding.

2. The Magazine Handbook 2004-5, (New York, NY: Magazine Publishers of America, 2004), p. 5, http://www.magazine.org/content/Files/MPA%5Fhandbook%5F04.pdf

3. Michael J. Wolf, “Here Comes Another Wave of Media Mergers,” The Wall Street Journal, February 21, 2002.

4. Scott Roberts, Jane Frenette and Dione Stearns, “A Comparison of Media Outlets and Owners for Ten Selected Markets: 1960, 1980, 2000,” Federal Communications Commission, Media Ownership Working Group Study no. 1, September 2002, p. 2, http://hraunfoss.fcc.gov/edocs_public/attachmatch/DOC-226838A2.pdf

5. Eli M. Noam, “Media Concentration Trends in America: Just the Facts,” In the Matter of 2002 Biennial Regulatory Review - Review of the Commission’s Broadcast Ownership Rules and Other Rules Adopted Pursuant to Section 202 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, January 2, 2003, p. 2, http://www.citi.columbia.edu/research/readings/mediaconcentration.pdf

6. FCC, Media Ownership Proceeding, p. 148.

7. Peter Lyman and Hal R. Varian, How Much Information? 2003, School of Information Management and Systems, University of California at Berkeley, 2003, http://www.sims.berkeley.edu/research/projects/how-much-info-2003/printable_report.pdf

8. Federal Communications Commission, Tenth Annual Video Competition Report, January 5, 2004, p. 115, http://hraunfoss.fcc.gov/edocs_public/attachmatch/FCC-04-5A1.pdf, cited hereafter as FCC, Video Competition Report.

9. Robert J. Samuelson, “Bull Market for Media Bias,” The Washington Post, June 23, 2004, p. A21.

10. FCC, Media Ownership Proceeding, p. 149. Vol. 52.

11. Richard Saul Wurman, Information Anxiety (New York: Doubleday, 1989), p. 32. Likewise, William Van Winkle of Computer Bits magazine argues that, “A Sunday edition of the New York Times carries more information than the average 19th-century citizen accessed in his entire life.” William Van Winkle, “Information Overload,” Computer Bits,, February 1998, http://www.computerbits.com/archive/1998/0200/infoload.html

12. Susan Hubbard, in Carol Collier Kuhlthau, ed., Information Skills for an Information Society: A Review of Research (Syracuse, NY: ERIC Clearinghouse on Information Resources, December 1987).

13. Bagdikian, p. 29.

14. Scott Roberts, Jane Frenette and Dione Stearns, “A Comparison of Media Outlets and Owners for Ten Selected Markets: 1960, 1980, 2000,” Federal Communications Commission, Media Ownership Working Group Study no. 1, September 2002, p. 2, http://hraunfoss.fcc.gov/edocs_public/attachmatch/DOC-226838A2.pdf

15. Joe Mandese, “Study: Media Overload on the Rise,” Television Week, May 17, 2004.

16. Various sources.

17. Plunkett’s Entertainment & Media Industry Almanac 2002-2003 (Houston: Plunkett Research Ltd., 2002), p. 7.

18. Noted in Christina Wise, “The Good Ol’ Days Are Now: Cox,” Investor’s Business Daily, April 19, 2004, p. A22.

19. Federal Communications Commission, Tenth Annual Video Competition Report, January 5, 2004, p. 115, http://hraunfoss.fcc.gov/edocs_public/attachmatch/FCC-04-5A1.pdf, cited hereafter as FCC, Video Competition Report.

20.FCC, Media Ownership Proceeding, p. 15. “Non-broadcast television programming continues to proliferate. Today, there are more than 308 satellite-delivered national non-broadcast television networks available for carriage over cable, DBS and other multichannel video program distribution (“MVPD”) systems. In 2002, the Commission also identified at least 86 regional non-broadcast networks, including 31 sports channels, and 32 regional and local news networks. We are moving to a system served by literally hundreds of networks serving all conceivable interests. Programming in particular abundance are sports, entertainment, and informational in nature. The four largest broadcast networks own both broadcast and cable channels. Their share of viewership is far greater than their share of the channels received by the typical American household. Of the 102 channels received by the average viewing home, the four largest broadcast networks have an ownership interest in approximately 25% of those channels.” Ibid., pp. 48-49.

21.FCC, Media Ownership Proceeding, p. 48-49.

22.Benjamin M. Compaine, “The Newspaper Industry,” in Benjamin M. Compaine and Douglas Gomery, eds., Who Owns the Media? Competition and Concentration in the Mass Media Industry (Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 3rd Edition, 2000), p. 7.

23.”Newspaper,” Microsoft Encarta Online Encyclopedia, 2004, http://encarta.msn.com/encyclopedia_761564853/Newspaper.html

24.The Magazine Handbook 2004-5, (New York, NY: Magazine Publishers of America, 2004), p. 5, http://www.magazine.org/content/Files/MPA%5Fhandbook%5F04.pdf

25.Ibid., p. 7.

26.Samir Husni, Samir Husni’s Guide to New Magazines 2004, 19th Edition, http://www.shgncm.com/shgncm/

27.FCC, Media Ownership Proceeding, p. 148.

28.Peter Lyman and Hal R. Varian, How Much Information? 2003, School of Information Management and Systems, University of California at Berkeley, 2003, http://www.sims.berkeley.edu/research/projects/how-much-info-2003/printable_report.pdf

29.Leslie Walker, “EBay Gathering Puts Highs, Lows On Full Display,” The Washington Post, July 1, 2004, p. E1, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A17604-2004Jun30.html

30.”Google Achieves Search Milestone With Immediate Access To More Than 6 Billion Items,” Google Press Release, February 17, 2004, http://www.google.com/press/pressrel/6billion.html

31.”Frequently Asked Questions,” Internet Archive Wayback Machine, http://www.archive.org/about/faqs.php