posted Jun 04, 2003
in Communication Ethics

Communication Ethics book part for Radio and Television. (This is an automatically generated summary to avoid having huge posts on this page. Click through to read this post.)

Radio and television (which at the level I'm covering them are similar enough to treat as two aspects of the same technology) are entirely different beasts.


Television/Radio added

With radio and television, content could be broadcast quickly, even immediately ("live"), to any number of people around the country or the world. The customer had to invest in technology capable of receiving these transmissions, but the general public found radio and television more then compelling enough to invest billions of dollars in. Fast forwarding to today, we find that content with broad appeal can be broadcast profitably, news-type content can be broadcast multiple times per day (entire channels can be dedicated to what is essentially the same hour of content, like CNN), increasing the frequency of transmission to "hours" from "days". "Niche" content can also succeed on a smaller scale, though there is still a relatively high break-even point. The schedules of broadcast content started its intricate dance with the American public as each started to schedule their lives around each other.

Radio and television also broke free of the tyranny of the written word. Radio was one of the first technologies that could handle sound directly (the only competition are records and when you consider that a truly viable technology is a judgement call), and television introduced the even more exciting world of video. It was a long time before this truly strained copyright law, as it was not until the 1980's that the mass-market consumer had any easy, practical means of reproduction of video (via the VCR). Concern about the equivalent of recording from a radio did not exist until the 2000's (the ability to record a digital stream directly from a digital radio), because the mass-market consumer did not have the technology to widely reproduce and distribute a recording with any quality. So we can see that one of the pressures on copyright law is the availability of technology that can produce or reproduce content in a given medium.

Radio and television have their own constraining factors too. The expense necessary to put together even the simplest of professional-quality programs is quite high, which introduces the concept of "cost of entry". In theory anybody could start up a television program or network; in practice, it is vastly more difficult then simply having a printing press print 1000 copies of something. Large transmission towers must be constructed, electromagnetic spectrum must be allocated (extremely limited in television before the advent of UHF), and a large staff must be hired to run this station. Thus, only a limited number of large networks could afford to take full advantage of the medium. This has changed with the wide-scale use of cable, and its corresponding ability to transmit low-quality programs without an expensive transmission tower, allowing "public access" channels (probably only due to Federal mandate, though it's hard to know for certain), but the networks still dominate.

The issue of what we now call "monetization" also appeared, brought clearly to mind by the inability to charge for a physical artifact like the printed word. I am aware of three basic viable models: The advertising-based model, the government tax model used in the UK, and a subscription model where an encrypted signal is broadcast and special decoders must be rented (only feasible relatively recently). This also interacts with the economies of scale; you can't make money advertising if only three people are watching your show, whereas forced taxation allows you to target smaller audiences, as long as you can get government funding. An echo of this problem can be seen on the Internet, except the advertising solution isn't working as well.

Of all of the media discussed in this chapter, I think radio and television have been most deeply affected by the way the industries monetize the medium; one need only compare a day's programming from the BBC or PBS to NBC to see the differences.

 

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