Media Deconsolidation

In the US there is a tangle of communications laws that were added over decades by Congress as–one-by-one–broadcast, cable, and satellite technologies transformed the TV marketplace. The primary TV laws are from 1976, 1984, and 1992, though Congress creates minor patches when the marketplace changes and commercial negotiations start to unravel.

Congress, to its great credit, largely has left alone Internet-based TV (namely, IPTV and vMVPDs) which has created a novel “problem”–too much TV. Internet-based TV, however, for years has put stress on the kludge-y legacy legal system we have, particularly the impenetrable mix of communications and copyright laws that regulates broadcast TV distribution.

Internet-based TV does two things–it undermines the current system with regulatory arbitrage but also shows how a diverse amount of TV programming can be distributed to millions of households without Congress (and the FCC and the Copyright Office) injecting politics into the TV marketplace.

Locast TV is the latest Internet-based TV distributor to threaten to unravel parts the current system. In July, broadcast programmers sued Locast (its founder, David Goodfriend) and in September, Locast filed its own suit against the broadcast programmers.

A portion of US TV regulations.

Many readers will remember the 2014 Aereo decision from the Supreme Court. Much like Aereo, Locast TV captures free broadcast TV signals in the markets it operates and transmits the programming via the Internet to viewers in that market. That said, Locast isn’t Aereo.

Aereo’s position was that it could relay broadcast signals without paying broadcasters because it wasn’t a “cable company” (a critical category in copyright law). The majority of the Supreme Court disagreed; Aereo closed up shop.

Locast has a different position: it says it can relay broadcast signals without paying because it is a nonprofit.

It’s a plausible argument. Federal copyright law has a carveout allowing “nonprofit organizations” to relay broadcast signals without payment so long as the nonprofit operates “without any purpose of direct or indirect commercial advantage.”

The broadcasters are focusing on this latter provision, that any nonprofit taking advantage of the carveout mustn’t have commercial purpose. David Goodfriend, the Locast founder, is a lawyer and professor who, apparently, sought to abide by the law. However, the broadcasters argue, his past employment and commercial ties to pay-TV companies mean that the nonprofit is operating for commercial advantage.

It’s hard to say how a court will rule. Assuming a court takes up the major issues, judges will have to decide what “indirect commercial advantage” means. That’s a fact-intensive inquiry. The broadcasters will likely search for hot docs or other evidence that Locast is not a “real” nonprofit. Whatever the facts are, Locast’s arbitrage of the existing regulations is one that could be replicated.

Nobody likes the existing legacy TV regulation system: Broadcasters dislike being subject to compulsory licenses; Cable and satellite operators dislike being forced to carry some broadcast TV and to pay for a bizarre “retransmission” right. Copyright holders are largely sidelined in these artificial commercial negotiations. Wholesale reform–so that programming negotiations look more like the free-market world of Netflix and Hulu programming–would mean every party has give up something they like improve the overall system.

The Internet’s affect on traditional providers’ market share has been modest to date, but hopefully Congress will anticipate the changing marketplace before regulatory distortions become intolerable.

Additional reading: Adam Thierer & Brent Skorup, Video Marketplace Regulation: A Primer on the History of Television Regulation and Current Legislative Proposals (2014).

Originally published on 9/9/19 at The Bridge as, “Beware Calls for Government to ‘Save the Press‘”

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by Adam Thierer & Andrea O’Sullivan

Anytime someone proposes a top-down, government-directed “plan for journalism,” we should be a little wary. Journalism should not be treated like it’s a New Deal-era public works program or a struggling business sector requiring bailouts or an industrial policy plan.

Such ideas are both dangerous and unnecessary. Journalism is still thriving in America, and people have more access to more news content than ever before. The news business faces serious challenges and upheaval, but that does not mean central planning for journalism makes sense.

Unfortunately, some politicians and academics are once again insisting we need government action to “save journalism.” Senator and presidential candidate Bernie Sanders (D-VT) recently penned an op-ed for the Columbia Journalism Review that adds media consolidation and lack of union representation to the parade of horrors that is apparently destroying journalism. And a recent University of Chicago report warns that “digital platforms” like Facebook and Google “present formidable new threats to the news media that market forces, left to their own devices, will not be sufficient” to continue providing high-quality journalism.

Critics of the current media landscape are quick to offer policy interventions. “The Sanders scheme would add layers of regulatory supervision to the news business,” notes media critic Jack Shafer. Sanders promises to prevent or rollback media mergers, increase regulations on who can own what kinds of platforms, flex antitrust muscles against online distributors, and extend privileges to those employed by media outlets. The academics who penned the University of Chicago report recommend public funding for journalism, regulations that “ensure necessary transparency regarding information flows and algorithms,” and rolling back liability protections for platforms afforded through Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.

Both plans feature government subsidies, too. Sen. Sanders proposes “taxing targeted ads and using the revenue to fund nonprofit civic-minded media” as part of a broader effort “to substantially increase funding for programs that support public media’s news-gathering operations at the local level.” The Chicago plan proposed a taxpayer-funded $50 media voucher that each citizen will then be able to spend on an eligible media operation of their choice. Such ideas have been floated before and the problems are still numerous. Apparently, “saving journalism” requires that media be placed on the public dole and become a ward of the state. Socializing media in order to save it seems like a bad plan in a country that cherishes the First Amendment. Continue reading →

A decade ago, a heated debate raged over the benefits of “a la carte” (or “unbundling”) mandates for cable and satellite TV operators. Regulatory advocates said consumers wanted to buy all TV channels individually to lower costs. The FCC under former Republican Chairman Kevin Martin got close to mandating a la carte regulation.

But the math just didn’t add up. A la carte mandates, many economists noted, would actually cost consumers just as much (or even more) once they repurchased all the individual channels they desired. And it wasn’t clear people really wanted a completely atomized one-by-one content shopping experience anyway.

Throughout media history, bundles of all different sorts had been used across many different sectors (books, newspapers, music, etc.). This was because consumers often enjoyed the benefits of getting a package of diverse content delivered to them in an all-in-one package. Bundling also helped media operators create and sustain a diversity of content using creative cross-subsidization schemes. The traditional newspaper format and business is perhaps the greatest example of media bundling. The classifieds and sports sections helped cross-subsidize hard news (especially local reporting). See this 2008 essay by Jeff Eisenach and me for details for more details on the economics of a la carte.

Yet, with the rise of cable and satellite television, some critics protested the use of bundles for delivering content. Even though it was clear that the incredible diversity of 500+ channels on pay TV was directly attributable to strong channels cross-subsidizing weaker ones, many regulatory advocates said we would be better off without bundles. Moreover, they said, online video markets could show us the path forward in the form of radically atomized content options and cheaper prices.

Flash-forward to today. Continue reading →

I came across an article last week in the AV Club that caught my eye. The title is: “The Telecommunications Act of 1996 gave us shitty cell service, expensive cable.” The Telecom Act is the largest update to the regulatory framework set up in the 1934 Communications Act. The basic thrust of the Act was to update the telephone laws because the AT&T long-distance monopoly had been broken up for a decade. The AV Club is not a policy publication but it does feature serious reporting on media. This analysis of the Telecom Act and its effects, however, omits or obfuscates important information about dynamics in media since the 1990s.

The AV Club article offers an illustrative collection of left-of-center critiques of the Telecom Act. Similar to Glass-Steagall  repeal or Citizens United, many on the left are apparently citing the Telecom Act as a kind of shorthand for deregulatory ideology run amuck. And like Glass-Steagall repeal and Citizens United, most of the critics fundamentally misstate the effects and purposes of the law. Inexplicably, the AV Club article relies heavily on a Common Cause white paper from 2005. Now, Common Cause typically does careful work but the paper is hopelessly outdated today. Eleven years ago Netflix was a small DVD-by-mail service. There was no 4G LTE (2010). No iPhone or Google Android (2007). And no Pandora, IPTV, and a dozen other technologies and services that have revolutionized communications and media. None of the competitive churn since 2005, outlined below, is even hinted at in the AV Club piece. The actual data undermine the dire diagnoses about the state of communications and media from the various critics cited in the piece.  Continue reading →

Adam and I recently published a Mercatus research paper titled Video Marketplace Regulation: A Primer on the History of Television Regulation And Current Legislative Proposals, now available on SSRN. I presented the paper at a Silicon Flatirons academic conference last week.

We wrote the paper for a policy audience and students who want succinct information and history about the complex world of television regulation. Television programming is delivered to consumers in several ways, including via cable, satellite, broadcast, IPTV (like Verizon FiOS), and, increasingly, over-the-top broadband services (like Netflix and Amazon Instant Video). Despite their obvious similarities–transmitting movies and shows to a screen–each distribution platform is regulated differently.

The television industry is in the news frequently because of problems exacerbated by the disparate regulatory treatment. The Time Warner Cable-CBS dispute last fall (and TWC’s ensuing loss of customers), the Aereo lawsuit, and the Comcast-TWC proposed merger were each caused at least indirectly by some of the ill-conceived and antiquated TV regulations we describe. Further, TV regulation is a “thicket of regulations,” as the Copyright Office has said, which benefits industry insiders at the expense of most everyone else.

We contend that overregulation of television resulted primarily because past FCCs, and Congress to a lesser extent, wanted to promote several social objectives through a nationwide system of local broadcasters:

1) Localism
2) Universal Service
3) Free (that is, ad-based) television; and
4) Competition

These objectives can’t be accomplished simultaneously without substantial regulatory mandates. Further, these social goals may even contradict each other in some respects.

For decades, public policies constrained TV competitors to accomplish those goals. We recommend instead a reliance on markets and consumer choice through comprehensive reform of television laws, including repeal of compulsory copyright laws, must-carry, retransmission consent, and media concentration rules.

At the very least, our historical review of TV regulations provides an illustrative case study of how regulations accumulate haphazardly over time, demand additional “correction,” and damage dynamic industries. Congress and the FCC focused on attaining particular competitive outcomes through industrial policy, unfortunately. Our paper provides support for market-based competition and regulations that put consumer choice at the forefront.

Aereo’s antenna system is frequently characterized perjoratively as a Rube Goldberg contraption, including in the Supreme Court oral arguments. Funny enough, Preston Padden, a veteran television executive, has characterized the legal system producing over-the-air broadcast television–Aereo’s chief legal opponents–precisely the same way. It’s also ironic that Aereo is in a fight for its life over alleged copyright violations since communications law diminishes the import of copyright law and makes copyright almost incomprehensible. Larry Downes calls the legal arguments for and against Aereo a “tangled mess.” David Post at the Volokh Conspiracy likewise concluded the situation is “pretty bizarre, when you think about it” after briefly exploring how copyright law interacts with communications law.

I agree, but Post actually understates how distorted the copyright law becomes when TV programs pass through a broadcaster’s towers, as opposed to a cable company’s headend. In particular, a broadcaster, which is mostly a passive transmitter of TV programs, gains more control over the programs than the copyright owners. It’s nearly impossible to separate the communications law distortions from the copyright issues, but the Aereo issue could be solved relatively painlessly by the FCC. It’s unfortunate copyright and television law intertwine like this because a ruling adverse to Aereo could potentially–and unnecessarily–upend copyright law.

This week I’ve seen many commentators, even Supreme Court justices, mischaracterize the state of television law when discussing the Aereo case. This is a very complex area and below is my attempt to lay out some of the deeper legal issues driving trends in the television industry that gave rise to the Aereo dispute. Crucially, the law is even more complex than most people realize, which benefits industry insiders and prevents sensible reforms. Continue reading →

Clearly many groups contend there’s a “crisis” in journalism, even to the extent of advocating government support of news organizations, despite the dangers inherent in the concept of government-funded ideas and their impact on critique and dissent. 

Georgetown is hosting a conference today called “The Crisis In Journalism: What should Government Do,” (at which Adam Thierer is speaking), with the defining question, “How can government entities, particularly the Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Communications Commission, help to form a sustainable 21st century model for journalism in the United States?”

We actually resolved the question of “What Government Should Do,” Continue reading →