As we come round the first bend of the track, the pack is starting to form. Leading, surprisingly, are the Streaming Apps. Once considered the new kids on the block, the Netflix-Amazon-Disney wunderkinds are leaping ahead. Not sure what will happen in the stretch run but they are sure frisky now.
In second place is Cable TV; it’s been around for a while and is fading quickly but don’t count out the Spectrum-Comcast Gang yet; they know how to make programs — and money. They will adjust. For now, they are in free fall.
Then there are the upstarts, the Cable Cutters, with their myriad apps and their mix of biggies like Amazon and Apple. The Cutters have rejected the big cable-pay TV companies in order to pick their own programming consortium, now a confusing and increasingly costly mix.
In the rear, at least for now, are the Content Creators — with Tiktok, Roblox and Minecraft, young and aggressive, letting watchers make their own stuff — and in the process dissing the Big Tech powerbrokers. They won’t win the race this year but watch out — it’s what your kids and grandkids are doing when they come home from school.
And the race is on — although just in its infancy. You have more choices than ever before — Should I do Paramount+ with or without advertising? Do I need the Hallmark app? — but it’s all a bewildering mix, unless, of course, miraculously, the government swoops in to bring order or some mega-aggregator pulls it together to make viewing life easier. Don’t hold your breath for either. We’ve got a horse race here.
The war for television primacy is here
What I am describing — and what we are all watching — is the war for television primacy. The battle effects almost every American household: TV — one of the few unifying forces in our cultural window. Everyone (about 97%; three hours a day) watches TV, whether they get it from one of the half a dozen major cable companies or choose to download their own apps to stream programming.
And the future of news, entertainment — and democracy — just may be up for grabs as we watch this unfettered, unregulated commercial free-for-all unfold. After all, during the pandemic, with people shuttered, TV news viewing went up dramatically (of course, so did readership for the NY Times and Washington Post). TV is our lifeline, to evenings on the couch watching movie premieres on streaming channels and to the kind of information that will help us figure out how to stop mass killings.
So I wonder, as I try to figure out my own mix of pay TV and streaming and how much I am willing to pay — $232.39 a month now for Spectrum’s Triple Play — where is it headed? And I worry: the boomers (my generation) are mostly stuck in traditional cable TV, from CBS to AMC to Fox. But the Millennials have increasingly cut the cord (about 5 million a year) and switched to streaming apps. And as they do, news from CNN and Fox is largely lost. How can self-governing survive a paucity of news?
I called Evan Shapiro, an Emmy and Peabody-award-winning TV producer who ran the IFC and Sundance channels. He has helped create 150 TV shows, most prominently “Portlandia.” He also writes a smart substack newsletter, Media War & Peace, where he recently bemoaned: “2022 is bringing this wave of nausea to all corners of the media ecosystem, to companies huge and small.” Subscriptions are down.
Shapiro surprised me as he breathlessly surveyed the media landscape offering some controversial suggestions. I fear that news, an artifact of a different era, will be marginalized in this emerging world of TV entertainment, but he disagreed.
“News will be prime” — and a commodity, he says, adding, “Consumers will pay for news. It will be more valued than ever.”
Shapiro points out consumers “touch the news product a few times a week. Maybe check it out daily,” making it of “major importance” for both subscription and free models.
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Could the fairness doctrine be reprised?
What surprised me: he saw the need for Congress to regulate — bring back the fairness doctrine, eliminated in 1987 under President Reagan, to cover all platforms — TV, cable, the internet. The doctrine insured balanced broadcasting. If we still had it, the new right values of Ben Shapiro and the late Rush Limbaugh would be countered on radio, Shapiro says. It also would mean a very different Fox News and MSNBC, both fixed in their opposite politics.
Broadcasters hated the doctrine — a rule not imposed on other news media, a product of an era of limited news channels. The government had to balance things out. Today, we are in an era of scarcity opposite — a mind boggling abundance of choices. Do I want HBO or ShowTime? Hulu or Peacock? Should I explore the Samsung stations that came with my smart TV? Or just stick with the 1,200 channels Spectrum offers?
A fairness doctrine might not pass constitutional muster in an era of abundance. Regulation of TV was based on using public airwaves. So the public had a right to regulate content; they owned the airwaves. But streaming comes over the internet and we are still arguing over whether that’s private or public. Thus far, the Supreme Court has sided with private.
“Governmental regulation of the content of speech is more likely to interfere with the free exchange of ideas than to encourage it,” the court ruled in a definitive 1996 case.
But so much has happened since then, including waves of hate speech and misinformation that seem linked to violence and fractured democratic debate. Shapiro insists it is time for Congress to act, pointing out that no federal legislation has been passed since 1996. Government should regulate the internet — make platforms responsible for content, he declares.
And while social media has moved to control content — on vaccine policy and on advocacy of violence, for example — no one is too pleased at giving them huge power over speech.
Nonetheless, Shapiro says, regulations are coming. “They are very popular on both sides of the political aisle.” And from what I can tell the public craves order in the social media-TV universe. We are very close to the disappearance of the computer versus TV. As Shapiro says, “It is all TV.” The screens have merged; information and entertainment and social media will be available in the same place. Will we choose to regulate content?
If we do, Shapiro asserts, “it means good things for democracy.” But two big issues loom: As the screens merge, who will control the operating system? Shapiro says Google and Apple lurk as the control masters, threatening a virtual monopoly on what we see and read. And that would put information power in already dominant hands, a danger to our information universe.
And the second issue is whether the Supreme Court will interpret free speech guarantees as permitting internet regulation. In 1996, the judges referred to the “unproven benefit of censorship.” But smart regulations are not censorship. Now is the time to find a middle ground between keeping the emerging mega-companies under control but allowing for reasonable regulations. It will not be easy.
Rob Miraldi writes regularly for the USA TODAY Network on the First Amendment. He taught journalism for many years at the State University of New York. Twitter @miral98 and e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.