Thursday, October 12, 2006

Of You Tube, Media Ownership Mandates, and the First Amendment

The news about Google's proposed acquisition of You Tube for $1.6 billion (no, you can't write about this without also including a reference to the price tag!) made me recall the FCC media ownership hearings a week ago in LA. Remember, the five FCC commissioners trucked out to the Left Coast to hear the assembled crowd decry the concentration of control in the media that, in their view, has stifled the free flow of information.

So, I pulled out my press accounts of the hearing. Communications Daily reported in its October 5 edition that the vice-president of the Directors Guild of America told the FCC: "The robust independent production community that existed a decade ago has been destroyed. The pool of entities producing content today, a diversity of source, is almost non-existent." Much of the testimony was of this tenor.

Of course, with self-publishing, video-producing and sharing, and social networking Internet sites such as You Tube and My Space wildly popular, and receiving millions of hits a day, it is hard to know what to make of an assertion that "the pool of entities producing content today... is almost non-existent." To state the obvious: The pool of entities producing content has never been greater. We all know that, more and more, programming content put up on You Tube or Google Video or My Space or --yikes!--the FSF Blog may be viewed in a short time by millions of viewers around the world.

Maybe Mr. Hackford meant to say there is much less content being produced by members of the Directors Guild of America. Or much less content being produced by "directors" that live in California. Or much less content of the type that he prefers. Or that the proportion of programming now viewed on what he calls "television" screens is diminishing everyday compared to that viewed on what I call computer "monitors". Or whatever.

Mr. Hackford proposed--quite predictably--that the government should mandate that at least 25% of primetime programs be produced by firms not owned by networks or Hollywood studios. Ummm...I assume, in order to satisfy his union constituency, for purposes of calculating the 25% mandate, the Directors Guild wants to ignore video programming on sites like You Tube and Google and hundreds of others that appears screens that we don't call TVs and is available 24/7, not just in primetime. This is silly in today's world.

But in today's diverse media environment the argument that the media ownership control crowd is making is more than silly. It is constitutionally offensive. Government mandates on the amounts and the types of programming that media outlets can carry are inconsistent with core First Amendment values. This isn't the pre-cable, pre-satellite, pre-Internet 1960s or 1970s anymore when three broadcast networks dominated primetime. It ought to be primetime for the free speech values embodied in the First Amendment.