November 1, 2010

Eschew Nichification

“The country’s 24-hour politico-pundit-perpetual-panic-conflictanator didn’t cause our problems, but its existence makes solving them that much harder,” Jon Stewart commented at the Rally for Sanity on the National Mall last Saturday. It is an important observation as well as a challenge.

I was proud in the late 1970s and early 1980s, as president of the National Cable Television Association (NCTA), to lead the charge for freeing that new medium to realize a multichannel future. Our message was the promise of a “diversity of voices” that would overcome the stranglehold of the three networks.

Before cable, the business economics of television were built around common denominator programming designed to attract the largest audience. The common television experience made the medium a unifying force that reached across region, employment, and education to accentuate our similarities. The TV programs discussed at the white shoe law firm in New York were the same ones talked about on the shop floor in Akron or the diner in Fresno.

The economics of cable channels work in the opposite direction. Today television is all about isolating niches that can be turned into profit centers. Virtually limitless channel capacity means that each niche has to fill 24 hours. The result advances triviality and conflict to a par with hard news.

I will always be proud of the honor of being the speaker at the launch of CNN on June 1, 1980. It was a momentous event that I heralded as, “A new era in telepublishing.” It is hard to recall, but back then CBS, NBC and ABC decided what video news was. My comments envisioned a world where TV began to look like the newsstand with all its niche publications. The results exceeded my wildest expectations. The impact of niche news channels has been especially surprising.

A recent POLITICO/George Washington University Battleground Poll identified the power of such news telepublishing. Eighty-one percent of those polled said they received their news about the midterm elections from cable channels. Disturbingly, however, it appears that voters are avoiding divergent voices and turning to channels that reinforce preconceived notions. Rather than the debating voices we envisioned at the dawn of 24-hour news, television has become a collection of video comfort zones.

Make no mistake about it; I’m not advocating going back to the bad old days (even if it were possible), but the promise of new communications technology to bring about informed dialog remains unfulfilled. The complaint used to be about media bias. Now channels proudly position themselves with their bias.

The potential of new communications networks to reverse this trend is not lost, however. What was once the new media of cable television is new no longer. Interestingly, it is the cable that delivers all those channels which also delivers the Internet with its rampant diversity of voices. Navigating to correlate and compare those voices is the new opportunity.

The old media belonged to those who bought ink in 55-gallon drums or owned broadcast licenses. While the new media of cable was more diverse, it still was limited to those with the financial wherewithal to produce programs and get on cable systems. Technological evolution has now eliminated those chokepoints. The connected media of the Internet makes anyone with a computer or smartphone an information publisher.

The technology that enables such rampant content creation also holds the answer to organizing it in a way that breaks out of information comfort zones. The same Internet economics that make it easy to publish also make it possible to create an idea commons that pulls those voices together and is fair and balanced in more than name. Instead of sheltering opinion in a single niche-focused cable channel or Web site it is possible to aggregate all shades of opinion in one place.

There is an old media precedent for such an aggregator. The modern newspaper was the creation of the 19th Century’s Internet, the telegraph. Like the Internet, the telegraph delivered timely information that had previously been inaccessible. The result transformed the newspaper business from local rags promoting a single political view (sound familiar?) into a business that collected news and exercised an editorial function to choose among reports. In the great newspapers that editorial function aimed to present all sides to a story and separated editorial commentary from reportage.

The low-cost economics of the Internet hold the same promise. Imagine a new kind of information service that unites in one place Keith Olbermann and Bill O’Reilly, the far left blogger and his/her counterpart on the far right, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. On a single service delivered to your desktop, tablet, or mobile device, technology can make it possible to contrast and compare ideas.

“We can have animus and not have enemies,” Stewart said Saturday, “but unfortunately one of our main tools in delineating the two broke.” Call me a cockeyed optimist, but that is not an insurmountable problem. New communications technology led us to the current situation; newer technology can lead us out. The process of finding our national voice has not reached its conclusion, but has only just begun. Information comfort zones that stifle inquiry can yield to information commons where the diversity of voices is celebrated.

The recent Pew Research Center study found, “The public’s assessment of the accuracy of news stories is now at its lowest level in more than two decades.” It is no coincidence those two decades just happened to be the rise of news nichification.

The “new media” opened a diversity of voices that became silos of stubbornness. A “newer media,” by expanding such diversity even more and then organizing it by topic rather than tenet, can offer the opportunity to do something about information silos…to eschew nichification.