Saturday, February 18, 2012

The New Commons

There is an industry that requires permits to operate. It has hours where it isn't allowed to operate. It is even sometimes zoned into areas it is allowed to operate and areas it is not allowed to operate. The businesses are required to at least not harm the area within which they operate. Ideally they add to the area. These people are street peddlers. They have operated for centuries. Typically being single person operations, they have never had the power of wealth or prestige. Because of this, they have had to bend to the legitimate (and often illegitimate) whims of public pressure.

Through technology, a new commons has developed. Television and radio are the new commons. The Internet is as well, but I won't be discussing it specifically. More people gather in front of their radios and televisions than gather at large public spaces like zoos. Yet television and radio have managed to largely escape the regulatory burdens that apply to other players in the public square. There are of course historical reasons. The first reason is that the infrastructure was fairly expensive. Transmitters and receivers were almost entirely and have almost always been purchased privately. The greater concern was ensuring the system was built. At this point though, the costs of the system are almost entirely sunk.

There is no real innovation taking place in television or radio. The conversion to digital has seen channel capacity increases of between 4 and 8 times. The use of the additional capacity has been minimal in television. The digital system is on the verge of collapse in radio. This has been caused by digital radio technology not being adopted on consumer devices due to licensing difficulties with the underlying technology. In the case of television, public broadcasting stations have been the most prolific in using additional channel capacity. A number of private stations have added no channels and many others have only added a constant loop weather channel.

While the waste of current channel capacity is disappointing, the greater concern is the absence of good content and the proliferation of poor content. Educational content is almost completely absent from private stations. Children's programming is almost exclusively confined to Saturday morning - thereby meeting the minimum regulatory requirement - and that programming is not often high quality and is often sprinkled with numerous attempts to market to young children. For adults, weekday news programs are often little more than long form infomercials. Local stations are increasing selling news reports in their local news blocks. Advocates will of course argue that the programming is entertaining. To this I would reply that our highest calling isn't to be entertained. I would also add that there can and should be space on television for entertainment. I would just like to see space for other important things. Additionally we have almost all political commentary coming in the form of 30 second ads by anonymous groups.

China of course does not live in fear of regulating the commons. They recently implemented regulations for content during prime time. They mandated news coverage. They limited entertainment programming. They encouraged things like documentaries. They have gone further and banned commercials during movies and dramas. They have the revolutionary idea that the commons should be used for more than separating you from your money.

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