Al Gore May Not Have Invented the Internet, But the FCC Appears to Have Favored It
As an Internet health company that also syndicates medical specials to local TV stations, HealthCentral has an interest in the continued viability of both mediums. We advise our global healthcare clients on the advisability of a media mix with a consistent message that leverages the strengths of all media. It was with great interest, therefore, that I learned that Reed Hundt, the Federal Communications Commission Chairman under President Clinton, has just “confessed” (his words) that, “The broadband plan that will be published on March 17 actually will reflect … the end of the era of trying to maintain over-the-air broadcast as the common medium and the beginning of a very detailed, quite substantive, commitment to having broadband, the son of narrowband, be the common medium.”
While most consumers will dismiss this news with a yawn, the speech to Columbia University is worth viewing for its candor in describing how the government also allegedly put barriers in place to hinder the continued growth of broadcasting. In the speech, Hundt discloses, “This is a little naughty: We delayed the transition to HDTV and fought a big battle against the whole idea.” As the former technology chairman of the CBS Affiliates Board of Directors during that era, I can assure you that broadcasters were continually told that HDTV rollout delays were simply because the government was trying to help ensure all viewers were ready. Even more surprising is a statement in the speech where Hundt says that the administration decided “that the Internet ought to be the common medium in the United States and that broadcast should not be,” because “…the Internet would fundamentally be pro-democracy and that broadcast had become a threat to democracy.” Hundt also describes how Internet growth was supported by allowing consumers to connect via phone lines at no extra charge, thereby “…we stole value from the telephone network and gave it to…society.”
There are a multitude of reasons why, rather than celebrating victory, Internet marketers should be wary when viewing Hundt’s comments:
1) Broadcasters have know for a long time that with government support comes a government license. This requires them to provide lowest unit rate to politicians, carry public affairs programming even when it is not commercially viable to do so, comply with a myriad of record-keeping mandates, and even ensure that their hiring reflects the racial makeup of their local markets. Internet companies need realize that government “support” could come at the price of freedom, not the least of which could conceivably involve censorship or taxes.
2) “Stealing the value” of one medium to accelerate social engineering is a practice which threatens any media which happens to fall out of government favor. Sure, Hundt’s VP Al Gore may have “invented the Internet”, but what happens when a future administration favors an alternate medium?
I had the experience of being in New York City on Oscar Night 2010, and seeing the lower-third text crawl just moments after the show began, stating that a deal had been struck between Disney and Cablevision that would allow the program to be carried. If broadcasters provide so little value, what is all the fuss about every time a major program’s carriage appears in jeopardy? And now that consumers are re-discovering television via their new big screen HDTVs, record ratings for nearly every major televised event from the Super Bowl to the Oscars indicates that television, in the words of Monty Python, is “not dead yet”.
There is absolutely no doubt that Free TV is in significant decline, and if I hadn’t seen the inherent superiority of the Internet as a marketing medium, I would not have left broadcasting for the Web after a 17-year traditional media career. Additionally, the democratization that the Internet provides has been absolutely essential to the growth of HealthCentral and consumer-centered healthcare in general, and to encourage Internet access for all is a noble cause.
Nevertheless, it is hard to argue that all responsible media should have the right to sink or swim on their own, and that a level field is good for all players. Anyone finding confessions of potential regulatory bias to be charming rather than chilling—even when it favors their industry—is no fan of history.