"Why does it matter?" is of course
the first question that springs to mind since obviously if
there is a vast choice available through narrowcasting, people
can presumably opt in and out of the same - or an even broader
- range of programming that was previously available to them.
The same could, of course be said, of ready availability of
junk food that is bad for the health but good for the bottom
line of the companies selling it and we would argue that there
is indeed a great similarity.
In the latter case, human habits evolved over a period where
there was frequent scarcity and having reserves of fat could
well be a life preserver: Nowadays, of course, it's far more
likely to be a life degrader or ender.
The same in many ways is true of human habits when it comes
to new experiences, particularly ones that require effort
before gaining full enjoyment: A large number of people will
settle for that with which they are comfortable and not bother
broadening their experience.
That, in our view, lessens the chances of them using their
full potential and ultimately means that their lives are less
satisfying albeit in a bovine way they may be happier.
The benefits of
At the heart of our argument is the
serendipitous experience - walking into an art gallery or
museum for a specific experience but happening on something
unplanned that excites the senses; listening to a radio station
for one reason but catching the start of something else that
interests enough to stay listening, widen perspectives, and
sometimes be enthralled by a new experience or perspective.
That is far less likely to happen if listening is to a particular
genre of music, a particular politically biased talk station,
a sports-only station, or even in many cases a news station
since however widely the latter may range the remit does not
usually permit examination of a topic in depth.
That of itself is the main reason we so rarely recommend listening
to US radio in our weekly suggestions - very few programmes
go into depth on a topic and where their reports are limited
to a few minutes they are - to be frank - generally going
to add very little to what people interested in a later listening
Contrasted with public broadcasters such as the Australian,
British and Canadian Broadcasting Corporations they are snack
services and we would contend that the US has over the years
paid a very heavy price for the narrowness of outlook that
has emanated from US broadcasters when it comes to understanding
the likely effects of particular actions in other cultures:
Indeed as we are writing this we have just heard a report
on NBC finally calling what is happening in Iraq a civil war.
To anyone with an elementary grasp of facts and respect for
language we would contend that there has been a civil war
for quite a while now and the refusal to accept it has been
an ostrich act accentuated by an administration that ha a
reputation for bullying and vindictive retribution to those
who contradict what it wants to believe.
The terrible thing about this is the effect it's had, particularly
on the Iraqis who could justifiably not feel concerned about
any attack on the US that produced deaths in less than the
hundreds of thousands based on a simple calculation related
to casualties and population size, the attitudes to the US
in most of the world, the costs - human for those in the armed
forces and their families (we don't really care a fig about
those in comfortable berths at home in this regard) and ultimately
in financial and security terms for not just Americans but
for people all over the world.
We would not argue that a different media could have prevented
what has happened from taking place but it would certainly
have been better for the US in the long run had there been
more telling of uncomfortable truths - upsetting as they may
have been to advertisers and audience - if only because it
could have provoked more productive thought about possible
options before it was too late.
Is there any way
back? Or what can be done?
From the above, it is clear that we
think that it would be preferable were broadcasting to be
more broad but we don't really see any way back in a commercial
environment where the advertisers rule.
The question in practical terms therefore is whether it is
possible to stem a move to narrowing output by non-commercial
broadcasters, something that has already begun happening at
the BBC World Service which has narrowed its range to concentrate
more on news. The result has been a larger audience but we
have seen no figures on listening time - we still listen but
do so less - nor on how far the audience appreciate what they
are now getting - we appreciate the service less since the
news content is repetitive-when you've hear a story once you
don't need to hear it again in the next bulletin and the one
after that and the one after that with only minor changes
- and often the information is available elsewhere.
The change, in other words, looked at from a narrow perspective
has been positive since there are more listeners but on a
broader one may be less positive or even negative.
The same is true of what has happened elsewhere in the world
and from other broadcasters but the marketplace as such is
a poor mechanism for determining the best overall value to
a society of its broadcasters when the sole or dominant determinant
is the interests of salespeople -- snake-oil or otherwise.
To counter that we can only suggest that people who do value
the benefits of the broad be more vocal about it. When a US
broadcaster - and CNN for example has produced some strong
long radio programmes over the past couple of years - does
actually make the effort they should make the effort to let
them know it was appreciated and also, where applicable, to
let sponsors of programming know of the appreciation.
It would also be valuable for academics, who probably could
set up such studies if motivated, to conduct deeper examinations
and surveys of attitudes.
In the meantime, those of us fortunate enough to live in a
country where there is a strong public broadcaster should
also provide feedback to them and others to know of the things
that are valuable and appreciated.
With luck a combination of more thorough evaluation of the
effects and appreciation of programming combined with feedback
will preserve much of the good and maybe increase it.