Thursday, October 09, 2014

The Powers That Were

In 1979, I read a remarkable book entitled The Powers That Be by the late David Halberstam, a remarkable thirty-plus year history of the news media told through the lens four powerful institutions.

A political writer for the The New York Times took issue with the title in a review of the book, noting that it was really “the powers that were,” since the institutions Halberstam used as a lens for this history were “still evolving.”

On the heels of the Watergate Scandal, this was a heady time for news outlets and journalism.  But the reviewer believed the trajectory was up but in this case “were” came to mean “peaked.”

We know now that at that very moment changes in policy and technology were already underway that would spell the destruction of “mass media:”

  • Months after President Nixon resigned over Watergate, efforts his administration set in motion unleashed cable television;
  • While Halbertstam was busy autographing copies of his book, Federal government funded scientists were networking eleven universities into the Internet.
  • A case was inherited by Judge Harold H. Greene that led to the long overdue breakup of Bell Telephone’s monopoly unleashing innovations in telephony.

Dr. Clayton M. Christensen, who was a few classes behind me at BYU became the leading expert in what he coined as “disruptive technology” in the mid-1990s.

He later modified the term to “disruptive innovation” and distinguished it from “sustaining innovation,” for which it is often mistaken.

For example, to me, Uber will ultimately help sustain not destroy the vehicle-for-hire business.

A book I read the year I retired and am rereading now entitled, The Master Switch by Tim Wu, is a much broader history of the cycles of innovation in communications than Halberstam was able to know or write from his vantage point back then.

Wu reminds us that Americans became united in a common culture during the 30-50 years Halberstam’s book covered.

We lament the cocooning and fragmentation engendered by such outlets today as Fox News but it has been more the norm in our nation’s history than that brief period when “mass media” ruled.

My parents bought a television during that span between 1950 and 1955 when the percentage of American households with one went from 9% to 64.5%.

People including ranchers where I was born and spent my early years, were proud in that Yellowstone-Teton nook of Idaho because just south another BYU alum, Philo T. Farnsworth, the inventor of “electronic” television had sketched the idea out in a high school chemistry class there.

He got ripped off by RCA, one of the conglomerates, like Bell, which regularly held back even “sustaining” innovations such as FM and Fax and wireless cell phone technology at the time, all of which had been invented decades before.

Nearly six decades after our family’s first TV set, mine is among the nearly 15% of households that cut the cord to cable television and now only stream content to my set via the Internet.

As roadside billboard companies do by hiding their now almost complete obsolescence (two-tenths of one percent use them) behind other somewhat less blight-full forms of “out-of- home” media, pay-TV is hiding just how “disruptive” the Internet is by folding the numbers into “video entertainment” which includes a lot of others.

Still, consultants forecast that spending on even the larger category will peak next year.  Over 97% of households now have a television including a fourth with one in the master bedroom, just shy of the proportion in the living room.

But the time spent watching per day has been essentially flat now for a decade, even among young children the age I was when I had to watch the “test pattern” and wait patiently until programming began on Saturdays.

Cable television focuses on telling us that 90% and change have cable subscriptions while only 9% watch it “over-the-air” and fees are eclipsing ad revenue for local stations.

But disguised is not only that the $90 billion dollar cable television market has peaked but it is inhabited by channel flippers.  When you look at cumulative audience, a measure of unique customers over a specified period of time, even the most popular cable channels reach 35% by the end of the average week.

I’m not gleeful about “disruptive innovation.”  As Wu illustrates, when these communication technologies fragment, it gets very messy for a while.  Remember phone service in the late 1980s after the breakup of the Bell monopoly?

But it is a fact of life and a relatively brief inconvenience compared to being denied technological improvements for decades.

That is essentially what “net neutrality” is about, learning from the lessons of the past.

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