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 below the last part of his two parts interview with Aradhana Sharma, where talks about the challenges to policymaking that emerge from a media milieu marked by cross-media ownership, perplexing notions of (self-) regulation, rapidly changing media technology, etc. Excerpts.
(The first part of the interview is available here).
Policy approaches to regulation
ARADHANA SHARMA: There has been a lot of debate around self-regulation. What are the perils and promises of self-regulation?
STEPHEN MCDOWELL: Government regulation is hard to put in place and it is harder to impose. On the other hand self-regulation is when the industry tries to set standards which all players must aspire, but it does not necessarily have the enforcement and the penalties. Building media ethics is good, but unless there is something concrete, it is a hard act to follow. The Hacking scandal in the UK, it was extreme, it had everything – phone tapping, bribery – a lot of which was not just issues of the press but came under the basic criminal law, just like the 2G scandal in India. So, some kind of combination of ethical standards, professional standards amongst the industry are welcome but if there are specific laws, related to the press or others, the press has to abide by the same rules as everyone else.
ARADHANA: Can there be a uniform approach to regulation across platforms or should there be specific policies for each platform?
STEPHEN: As much as possible policymakers should try and get universal approaches and principals that can be applied on different platforms. Platforms will change, for example we have seen the growth of mobile devices and content so rapidly, so even the idea of the computer or browser being central to thinking about access, have changed. So the platform has changed from wired internet to mobile internet. So there are a range of possibilities now and there may be new platforms coming along too.
For instance, even if you want to focus on journalism, now you have bloggers, people putting information on Twitter, Facebook and then formal journalists. Even here the platforms have increased. So, the real challenge is to keep up with platforms. That is why universal approach and principles are likely to be more useful.
Technology overtakes policy?
ARADHANA : Can we then say that technology is overtaking and policy, and policymakers are not being able to keep pace?
STEPHEN: Certainly, the space is not as stable as it was 20-30 years ago where you had specific and defined sectors like television, radio and print. Now with the investment in telecommunication structure as well as software packages things are changing very fast. In the past, if you wanted to make a TV network you had to build a production station, now you can reconfigure existing software capabilities and create these new communities relatively quickly. In case of Facebook there are no new technologies really, they just did something that people liked in terms of configuration of features and use. If you see in terms of chat or uploading pictures and many of the other things it allowed you to do, they are not new. You can come up with a new product relatively quickly using existing hardware and software with reconfigurations of technology. We consider Twitter and Facebook to be something like a new medium, but here you didn’t have to build anything other than software and a bunch of servers to handle the traffic. In terms of technological innovation you don’t have to build anything new. That’s quite different from having to get a licence for a radio tower or TV stations or have to get licences for cable and telephone lines to run them on the street.
(Left to right: Prof. McDowell, Prof. G. Ravindaran, Aradhana Sharma, Prof. Biswajit Das)
Cross-media ownership and the Indian media players
ARADHANA: How do you see the issue of cross media ownership? In India, many media players have tried to justify it by saying that it is the only way to achieve profitability.
STEPHEN: It is tough, because countries all over the world see that there are these massive media conglomerates outside their country, the ones based in United States and some in Europe. One way of looking at it is if a news organisation could distribute a newspaper, TV and web serving multiple platforms then they are not dependent on one particular distribution platform and a particular revenue stream. But the other side is when they own newspapers, cable, cable distribution, etc and are really large integrated organisations. The justification in case of the latter is to be competitive not just nationally, but to keep up with technological changes and partner with international content providers. To get into the content production game, and not just into the distribution and programme buying, you have to have firms that are comparable to what you see in the US or Britain. So, it is often presented as a national industrial strategy too. It is not just a way to survive and be competitive.
One advantage for India because it is so large and diverse that right now there is lot of niche newspapers and TV markets. Still large companies are developing multilingual programming in an integrated kind of a strategy. In the industry cycle, right now, because of greater incomes or advertising revenues as well as rising literacy rates the newspapers are doing quite well, but there will be a period when they will start to falter and then you will probably see more consolidation. The growth and diversity in the sector, because of the size of the Indian economy, the different language groups, may last for 10-20 years. Once those things start to see a downturn there generally tends to be consolidation. For instance, there are so many satellite channels but only a portion of them will be profitable in the long run forcing many to sell out.
It would be useful to have other viable options that do not always depend upon those business strategies like FM or a public broadcaster to achieve some balance. But public broadcasters often don’t end up providing that alternative, as they get caught up politically.
(Left to right: Prof. McDowell, Prof. Peng Hwa Ang, Sunil Abraham)
Public as a stakeholder?
ARADHANA : Can the public/audience be seen as a stakeholder in the highly competitive commercial media environment that we live in today?
STEPHEN: Well, people can certainly decide what they want to watch. And if they have choices like what content they are willing to pay for on the television and on the web, it will have a direct affect. The trouble is with the standards people have come to expect. I think it is hard because we (the audience) don’t think what kind of information and communication we need as citizens, not just as consumers and how do we get access to that information. Since we can’t create it, we are stuck -if TV stations have all decided to have highly rambunctious debates it is hard to find some kind of public information that you could choose and support. But if the broadcasters or content providers are smart, they will all identify niches.
One of the critiques from political economists is that the dynamics of advertising and audience based economic imperatives may lead to certain types of programming. Now, if you do have subscribers based models then you could find niche for certain kind of material but again it is not going to be broad-based public service media. I think there is so much segmentation that people are identifying that there is a market for people wanting to hear what just one political party has to say. But the upside is that there may be a niche for people who want high quality business and political news with nuances and analyses.
Prof. Stephen McDowell’s 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.