April 2002
Choosing diversity

Choosing diversity.

Spurred in part by recent US comment about the decline of classical music on US radio (See RNW April 22)and indeed on the way in which country music formats have been affected more by the audience the advertisers want than by the roots of the music (See RNW March 25), we have decided this month to consider the questions of choice and diversity.

At first glance the ideas seem almost identical but they are not. Choice in a country where almost everyone has limited musical or political horizons, for example, might well lead to plenty of choice but of the nature of counting the number of angels who could dance on the head of a pin rather than having a concept that the devil might also exist.

Choice is not the same as diversity but without choice there is no diversity nor, if there is there little diversity, is there that much real choice.

Currently, we would suggest, there is a considerable danger that in far too many areas of the world there is plenty of choice within a very limited range but little diversity and in far too many more neither choice nor diversity.

The question therefore, is: "What, from experience round the world, is the best means forward to broaden both choice and diversity?"

The Free Market approach.

Either many correspondents and commentators in the US are mistaken or the "free-market" approach, of which the US is the most important exponent, has significant drawbacks in encouraging diversity beyond a limited range. It's not that there isn't a pretty wide range within the free-market US radio industry (for example, within the broad spectrum of talk radio, see recent items in the Canadian National Post regarding Art Bell's show or in the New York Times on Tavis Smiley's show on US National Public Radio) but there is the question of whether developments are expanding or contracting real choice.

If they are expanding it, then the argument is over but our perception, perhaps with the notable exception of the range from the US satellite radio companies, is to the contrary. Indeed, if the brief given is to maximise profit with no wider concerns about the public interest, it might well be argued that the directors of a company are in dereliction of their duties should they do other than choose a format that enables them to do just this. Such a situation, we would argue, militates in favour of a limited range of offerings designed to entice a fairly broad range of listeners within a desired "demographic" rather than giving broader consideration of the longer-term effects of such a system.

Such indeed, we would suggest, was the situation before September 11 in the terms of broadcasters in general offering much of a world perspective to US audiences - and, judging by the latest Arbitrons - such indeed will soon be the case again as business and entertainment exert primacy over the idea of information. And therein may yet lie dangers that any society would sensibly wish to avoid.

And looking at Italian TV, the free market doesn't of itself limit an over-concentration of power in too few hands: We doubt the US would even consider allowing Mr Berlusconi to own stations in his position, never mind so many of them.

The State Broadcaster approach.

Even in the best days of the British Broadcasting Company andits successor, the British Broadcasting Corporation, we think there were drawbacks just as serious as in an unfettered free-market approach.

With the best will in the world and a system that promoted high-minded commitment to the perceived public interest, the BBC became stuck in its ways and delivered a product that was in its way just as limited as that of the US: More high minded it may have been with a worthy aim including education and information with entertainment but it certainly lacked somewhat in drive and innovation and the ways of those times cannot nowadays be replicated (Here we should also remember the existence of great US network symphony orchestras such as the NBC Symphony under Toscanini).

.In many countries, of course, there was neither the best will nor a concomitant commitment to public interest. The result was horrendous in terms of almost everything.

Taliban radio meets Joe Stalin isn't exactly a model we'd wish to promote and where there is a monopoly, true diversity goes out of the window.

A mixed system.

Overall we come down, therefore, in favour of a mixed system providing suitable checks and balances are set down. To us the checks and balances of power are the central genius of the US constitution and the lessons of that document can well serve us in looking at the best system for broadcasting. Those lessons will remain true however much digital broadcastng may expand the number of channels available for an area.

Whereas an unchallenged state broadcaster can easily be subject to too much political interference or become, even with goodwill, too unresponsive, a state broadcaster in a mixed system will always have to consider the examples of its commercial rivals.It will also have to find ways of keeping and attracting staff when there is competitive pressure from those commercial rivals yet do so, if its remit is properly thought through, in a non-commercial manner and in the public interest.

To have commercial rivals is invaluable to the society and the state broadcaster. The broadcaster certainly benefits from the lessons it can learn from the rival and from staff who have worked in the commercial sector and the society from the existence of a service which is about other values than treating it as advertising fodder (a commercial broadcaster, after all, is a company that delivers an audience to the advertisers in the last resort!).

Equally, we would argue, a commercial broadcaster benefits from the existence of a public rival. It has to bear in mind the examples set by that rival and will benefit by those examples both in terms of a fresh perspective and also in terms of the qualities of staff who may work in both sectors.We would also argue that, to a degree, a regulator can benefit diversity.

We have no problem with the concept that a licence issued to a commercial company against the bids of others should carry with it obligations I terms of performance. Formats in these circumstances should not be considered as engraved on stone tablets, and indeed they are not in most of the western world.To us, however, unless there is no rival offering to provide a service that adds more to the diversity available to listeners in any area, it is quite reasonable to expect a station to deliver what it has promised or lose its licence.

Internet stations.

As we have argued before, the Internet, where there is no theoretical limit on the number of stations that can exist, and which involve more deliberate decisions to access, should not be subject to the same rules as broadcasters who use spectrum that is in limited supply.

At the moment, however, the economics of the Internet, for both listener and station (even without the copyright cost implications of the US Digital Millennium Copyright Act), significantly constrain the take-up and delivery of Internet stations.

What it could, however, offer eventually is a unique on-demand access to searchable archives that terrestrial broadcasting will never be able to match.

Diversity and choice indeed! We just hope that it does not get choked in infancy by too many demands that it is not yet robust to accept..

Any views? Please comment on the above. For that matter, if you can put the time aside, we'd like your "Guest comment" pages this year to stimulate more feedback and dialogue.

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