Yesterday, the FCC adjusted the restrictions on media ownership, allowing newspapers to own TV stations, and raising the ownership limitations on broadcast TV networks by 10%, to 45% from 35%. It's not clear whether the effects of the ruling will be catastrophic or relatively unimportant, and there are smart people on both sides of that question. It is also unclear what effect the internet had on the FCC's ruling, or what role it will play now.
What is clear, however, is a lesson from the weblog world: inequality is a natural component of media. For people arguing about an ideal media landscape, the tradeoffs are clear: Diverse. Free. Equal. Pick two.
The Developing Debate
The debate about media and audience size used to be focussed on the low total number of outlets, mainly because there were only three national television networks. Now that more than 80% of the country gets their television from cable and satellite, the concern is concentration. In this view, there may be diverse voices available on the hundred or more TV channels the average viewer gets, but the value of that diversity is undone by the fact that large media firms enjoy the lion's share of the audience's cumulative attention.
A core assumption in this debate is that if media were free of manipulation, the audience would be more equally distributed, so the concentration of a large number of viewers by a small number of outlets is itself evidence of impermissible control. In this view, government intervention is required simply to restore the balance we would expect in an unmanipulated system.
For most of the 20th century, we had no way of testing this proposition. The media we had were so heavily regulated and the outlets so scarce that we had no other scenarios to examine, and the growth of cable in the last 20 years involved local monopoly of the wire into the home, so it didn't provide a clean test of an alternative.
Weblogs As Media Experiment
In the last few years, however, we have had a clean test, and it's weblogs. Weblogs are the freest media the world has ever known. Within the universe of internet users, the costs of setting up a weblog are minor, and perhaps more importantly, require no financial investment, only time, thus greatly weakening the "freedom of the press for those who can afford one" effect. Furthermore, there is no Weblog Central -- you do not need to incorporate your weblog, you do not need to register your weblog, you do not need to clear your posts with anyone. Weblogs are the best attempt we've seen to date of making freedom of speech and freedom of the press the same freedom, in Mike Godwin's famous phrase.
And in this free, decentralized, diverse, and popular medium we find astonishing inequality, inequality so extreme it makes the distribution of television ratings look positively egalitarian. In fact, a review of any of the weblog tracking initiatives such as Technorati or the blogging ecosystem project shows thousand-fold imbalances between the most popular and average weblogs. These inequalities often fall into what's known as a power law distribution, a curve where a tiny number of sites account for a majority of the in-bound links, while the vast majority of sites have a very small number of such links. (Although the correlation with links and traffic is not perfect, it is a strong proxy for audience size.)
The reasons for this are complex (I addressed some of them in Power Laws, Weblogs, and Inequality), but from the point of view of analyzing the FCC ruling, the lesson of weblog popularity is clear: inequality can arise in systems where users are free to make choices among a large set of options, even in the absence of central control or manipulation. Inequality is not a priori evidence of manipulation, in other words; it can also be a side effect of large systems governed by popular choice.
In the aftermath of the FCC ruling, and given what we have learned from the development of weblogs, the debate on media concentration can now be sharpened to a single question: if inequality is a fact of life, even in diverse and free systems, what should our reaction be?
'Pick Two' Yields Three Positions
There are three coherent positions in this debate: The first is advocacy of free and equal media, which requires strong upper limits on overall diversity. This was roughly the situation of the US broadcast television industry from 1950-1980. Any viewer was free to watch shows from any network, but having only three national networks kept any one of them from becoming dominant. (Funnily enough, Gunsmoke, the most popular television show in history, enjoyed a 45% audience share, the same upper limit now proposed by the FCC for overall audience size.)
Though this position is logically coherent, the unprecedented explosion of media choice makes it untenable in practice. Strong limits on the number of media outlets accessible by any given member of the public now exist in only two places: broadcast radio and newspapers, not coincidently, the two media least affected by new technologies of distribution.
The second coherent position is advocacy of diverse and equal media, which requires constraints on freedom. This view is the media equivalent of redistributive taxation, where an imbalance in audience size is seen as being so corrosive of democratic values that steps must be taken to limit the upper reach of popular media outlets, and to subsidize in some way less popular ones. In practice, this position is advocacy of diverse and less unequal media. This is the position taken by the FCC, who yesterday altered regulations rather than removing them. (There can obviously be strong disagreement within this group about the kind and degree of regulations.)
People who hold this view believe that regulation is preferable to inequality, and will advocate governmental intervention in any market where the scarcity in the number of channels constrains number of outlets the locals have access to (again, radio and newspapers are the media with the most extreme current constraints.)
More problematic for people who hold this view are unequal but unconstrained media such as weblogs. As weblogs grow in importance, we can expect at least some members of the "diverse and equal" camp to advocate regulation of weblogs, on the grounds that the imbalance between Glenn Reynolds of InstaPundit.com and J. Random Blogger is no different than the imbalance between Clear Channel and WFMU. This fight will pit those who advocate government intervention only where there is scarcity (whether regulatory or real) vs. those who advocate regulation wherever there is inequality, even if it arises naturally and in an unconstrained system.
The third coherent position is advocacy of diverse and free media, which requires abandonment of equality as a goal. For this camp, the removal of regulation is desirable in and of itself, whatever the outcome. Given the evidence that diverse and free systems migrate to unequal distributions, the fact of inequality is a necessarily acceptable outcome to this group. However, in truly diverse systems, with millions of choices rather than hundreds, the imbalance between popular and average media outlets is tempered by the imbalance between the most popular outlets and the size of the system as a whole. As popular as Glenn Reynolds may be, InstaPundit is no Gunsmoke; no one weblog is going to reach 45% of the audience. In large diverse systems, freedom increases the inequality between outlets, but the overall size and growth weakens the effects of concentration.
This view is the least tested in practice. While the "diverse and equal" camp is advocating regulation and therefore an articulation of the status quo, people who believe that our goals should be diversity and freedom and damn the consequences haven't had much effect on the traditional media landscape to date, so we have very little evidence on the practical effect of their proposals. The most obvious goal for this group is radical expansion of media choice in all dimensions, and a subsequent dropping of all mandated restrictions. For this view to come to pass, restrictions on internet broadcast of radio and TV should be dropped, web radio stations must live in the same copyright regime broadcast stations do, much more unlicensed spectrum must be made available, and so on.
And this the big risk. Though the FCC's ruling is portrayed as deregulation, it is nothing of the sort. It is simply different regulation, and it adjusts percentages within a system of scarcity, rather than undoing the scarcity itself. It remains to be seen if the people supporting the FCC's current action are willing to go all the way to the weblogization of everything, but this is what will be required to get to the benefits of the free and diverse scenario. In the absence of regulation, the only defense against monopolization is to create a world where, no matter how many media outlets a single company can buy, more can appear tomorrow. The alternative -- reduction of regulation without radical expansion -- is potentially the worst of both worlds.
The one incoherent view is the belief that a free and diverse media will naturally tend towards equality. The development of weblogs in their first five years demonstrates that is not always true, and gives us reason to suspect it may never be true. Equality can only be guaranteed by limiting either diversity or freedom.
The best thing that could come from the lesson of weblog popularity would be an abandoning of the idea that there will ever be an unconstrained but egalitarian media utopia, a realization ideally followed by a more pragmatic discussion between the "diverse and free" and "diverse and equal" camps.