Tuesday, April 17, 2007

"Digital Distribution of Channels for Media to Explode"

According to Communications Daily [subscription required], Hewlett Packard CTO Shane Robison told the National Association of Broadcasters convention on Monday that the media industry will see an explosion of digital distribution channels this year. With respect to distribution channels, he is reported to have said: "We're at a crucial turning point right now where hype turns into reality...The tire-kicking phase is over...In the next year [the current handful of distribution channels is] going to explode to 10, 20, or more... "

How ironic that Mr. Robison was speaking to NAB convention attendees. While he is there, maybe he should kick some...tires! The NAB has been leading the charge trying to convince Congress, the Department of Justice, and the FCC that satellite radio constitutes its own separate product market on the basis that audio services delivered from the sky are uniquely different from audio services delivered over terrestrial or HD radios or iPods or the Internet or wireless devices and so forth. In an essay published yesterday on CNET, I suggested that, in today's digital environment, "there are a number of alternatives in the audio services marketplace that consumers may substitute for satellite radio, especially in the face of any price hike."

In the CNET essay, I urged: "What is most important now for sound communications policy is to move beyond classifying and regulating services based on the technology or slice of spectrum used for distributing the service. Whether evaluating the competitive impact of a particular merger or deciding whether to jettison archaic, unduly burdensome regulations devised during an earlier, generally monopolistic analog era, the important question should be: do consumers have reasonable alternative choices in the marketplace?"

I don't have the engineering and technology credentials of someone like a Shane Robison. But I have observed the changes in technology and communications markets for over thirty years now in various professional capacities, and I have a high degree of confidence in my CNET conclusion that, at this stage of the transformative digital revolution: "Increasing consumer choice depends on robust investment and innovation in new products and services. And robust investment and innovation ultimately depend on government officials appreciating that they should be wary of intervening in today's dynamic, increasingly competitive communications marketplace."

PS--There is a price to be paid, of course, whenever companies and trade associations look to the government to intervene in the marketplace to give them the proverbial "level playing field." And it is this: As quoted in a separate piece in today's Communication's Daily, NAB President David Rehr says the NAB hopes "to make sure that everything we do, everything we say, we say and do with an eye toward the Congress." Perhaps this statement was quoted out of context. But, if not, coming from the head of the association that represents the nation's broadcasters, it is more than a little chilling to think that the association, which ought to be mightily concerned with protecting the First Amendment free speech rights of its members against government interference, is rather more concerned with ensuring that everything that the broadcasters say and do is "with an eye toward Congress."