Prof. Stephen McDowell is a John H. Phipps Professor of Communication and serves as Director of the School of Communication at Florida State University in Tallahassee, Florida. The Indian Medialogue presents, in two parts, an interview with Aradhana Sharma, where Prof. McDowell talks about the challenges to policymaking in an increasingly fast changing media landscape.

In the first part, he focuses on dynamics of vertical mergers, net neutrality, discriminatory practices of content distribution and business strategies of corporate media. He illustrates his points with help of instances from India and North America. Excerpts. 

ARADHANA SHARMA: You have looked at policy both in North America as well as South Asia. In an increasingly globalised world where do we see the state in managing the media landscape?

STEPHEN MCDOWELL: The past model (North American context) was that the newspapers and print was relatively free and the electronic media had to get licences to use their radio magnetic spectrum. So the focus was on different platforms.

I think with the new organisation of media there are no clear distinct platforms and also sources, they are not all licensed anymore. So you don’t have to have a licensed radio or TV station. Even on cable TV for instance, many of the speciality channel providers don’t have any broadcast license. So there is no real public obligation they have under a broadcast licence and they can carry any content as long as it is not obscene, it is a commercial decision.

Policy-making in the age of vertical mergers 

I think the change in the role of the state is shifting away from platform based licensing to looking at market structures. One of the key issues is vertical integration, where content providers may also own distribution networks, to make sure that they don’t misuse their control over distribution. For example, a cable TV network like Time Warner owns content and it also owns distribution, Comcast has bought NBC in the US. So these are big content producers and a distribution network. So, one of the challenges for policy is to make sure who should be included or excluded from distribution networks. This is also an issue around the internet, about net neutrality- non discrimination on the net. It is an area where is very difficult to identify the platform, both nationally and internationally.

Another way that public policy can serve the public interest, especially in expanding the diversity of voices, can be by insuring that the cable TV networks don’t discriminate against certain type of content. Regarding commercial agreements on the internet among content providers and distribution networks too there are issues of net neutrality and meeting the volume of traffic – how much will people pay for high volume of traffic? But more importantly, the question is that they should not discriminate against certain type of content. For instance Comcast should not slow down content from a competing provider. Fair competition needs to be enforced to ensure that practices are less discriminatory.

Vertical mergers and the Indian regulatory framework

ARADHANA: Should we be worrying about and guard against similar practices in India through a regulatory framework?

STEPHEN:  I think one thing that India has done is to ensure that the content provider can’t say that it won’t provide content for DTH satellite so even if it has a contract with a cable service distributor they can’t have an exclusive contract to only distribute through cable, they will also have to give it to DTH.

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Prof. McDowell with students of CCMG, Jamia Millia Islamia

One way to make sure, if you think that the country is best served by having a variety of platforms and a wide range of content, is to try and make sure that there are no tie-ups that exclude certain content. It may be tough as there is often more content than can be carried on a platform and providers have to make their own decision as to what is viable. Also getting exclusive contracts is a way to ensure greater audience size, but some larger regulation has to be there to guard against discrimination.

Nation-state and the transnational  corporate media networks

ARADHANA:  Have different countries responded differently to this challenge of the transforming mediascape and the spread of transnational media corporations?

STEPHEN:  One thing that people noted about India is that English language channels have not done very well, domestic content still remains popular. There may be internet content that comes from outside and is not partnered by local providers, but with TV people have to be on the ground, like cable networks and even DTH where people get a subscription on the ground. So, governments still have a lot of power. Though it might be possible to have a satellite dish that may pick up channels that are commercially available, in most cases people are going to go with DTH or satellite. So, in terms of that the government still has a large policy role. The governments do have an important role when it comes to the large distribution and content providers, even though there was this idea starting with 80s that somehow the direct broadcast satellite would break down all the barriers. Now there are claims that the internet will break down all the barriers, but governments still seem to have the ability to say that certain types of content would be either blocked or at least discouraged. So, it is not that transnational networks have totally eroded the state.

Building a broad audience vs. Catering to niche audience 

ARADHANA:  How is the corporatisation of the media changing the landscape?

STEPHEN:   One of the critiques is that if the private media is concerned about audience building then the way news and public affairs are presented would be different, than if broadcasters see themselves as  the BBCs model that many public broadcasters imitated to almost inform and educate, rather than entertain. It was a kind of an uplift model, well maybe even an elitist model, but supposedly had a higher public purpose. The commercial broadcasters are not just looking at entertainment, but beyond at segments. Building a broad audience is very difficult due to the number of options available. So commercial channels are looking at niche audience rather than addressing the larger public as the competition grows.

In the US, we see that even news channels are looking at building a niche, where the focus is more on providing opinion which largely corresponds to that of the target viewers rather than building their audience through reporting news. That is how they self identify. We can see that a handful of organisations providing accurate and incisive news and information are also catering to a certain kind of educated elite audience. Even that is now a niche market.

(To be continued)

Prof. Stephen McDowells research and teaching interests address media policies and new communication technologies, internet governance, international and intercultural communication and communication policies in Canada, South Asia and North America. 

He was in Delhi to present a paper at the international conference on “Contours of Media Governance: Teaching, Disciplinarity, Methodology”, organised by Centre for Culture Media and Governance, Jamia Millia Islamia on February 25-27, 2013.

Aradhana Sharma is a PhD scholar with CCMG.