“Future Of Media project”to examine the, um, future of media

The FCC has launched an “examination of the future of media and information needs of communities in a digital age”. The scope of the inquiry seems to be Everything-Anybody-Could-Possibly-Know-And-Then-Some, although speculation, surmise and other elements arguably falling short of “knowledge” or “fact” will apparently also be welcome. You have until March 8 to get your thoughts together and ship them to the FCC.

The Commission in turn has promised that it will “produce a report”. Presumably, that report will be based on comments submitted in response to the FCC’s inquiry, but the FCC stops short of any absolute commitment along those lines.

 A friend of mine once asked an acquaintance exactly what that person’s communications consulting business consisted of. The answer: “I write reports”. We have laughed about that ever since because we can’t figure out who would pay for such a service.

But it’s no laughing matter when the FCC sets out to write, perhaps with unrealistic ambitions, a report about staggeringly broad and unfocused topics. The Commission claims that the report will “provid[e] a clear, precise assessment of the current media landscape” and that its preparers – the largely unidentified “Future of Media project” (FOMp) – will “analyze policy options and, as appropriate, make policy recommendations to the FCC, other government entities, and other parties”.  

One thing is incredibly clear:  the report, and the FOMp as a whole, will necessarily implicate the possibility of government regulation of news and other content. To illustrate, an early contribution to the FOMp conversation – delivered by a post to the FOMp blog (http://reboot.fcc.gov/futureofmedia/blog) on January 25 – expresses concerns about the Supreme Court’s decision in the Citizens United case. It observes that, while that decision is likely to increase broadcasters’ revenues, that may not mean any improvement in broadcast journalism, since the commenter’s concept of good journalism may not be “the kind of journalism the market would support”. By contrast, another commenter (in a post dated January 27) suggests that “consumers of journalism” should be encouraged to “make appropriate financial contributions” to journalists, journalistic organizations or other producers of “work” which the consumers deem “valuable”. (The FOMp blog header, presumably written by someone on the inside of the FOMp, refers to that as “good content”.)

At this point, your robot should be dancing around, eyes aglow, arms flailing, screaming “Danger, Will Robinson! Danger!”

The Public Notice contains a list of 42 questions (many in several parts), sprinkled over these seven broad subject headings:

  • Information Needs of Communities and Citizens
  • Business Models and Financial Trends
  • Commercial Broadcast TV and Radio, Cable and Satellite
  • Noncommercial and Public Media
  • Internet and Mobile
  • Newspapers and Magazines (though the FCC technically has no jurisdiction to regulate these media)
  • Research and Further Questions.

The specific (and we use that adjective very loosely here) questions range from the specialist/wonky (e.g., “Are there changes in tax law, copyright law, non-profit law, noncommercial or commercial broadcasting laws or policies or other policies that should be considered”) to the infinitely generalist (e.g., “In general how should FCC policies change to better consider the information needs of communities in the digital era”). 

Some questions speak directly to broadcasters, soliciting statistical or anecdotal evidence. F’rinstance, Question 18 (an amalgam of at least five separate sub-questions, by our count): 

For local commercial broadcast television and radio stations, what have been the trends for staffing, the amount of local news and information aired, the audience ratings for such programming and local station profitability? What have been the roles of station debt, advertising revenue declines, government policies, efficiency improvements, and ownership consolidation (including combining the news staffs of commonly owned or operated stations)? What has been the impact of competition for audience from the Internet or other information sources? How are these broadcasters using the Internet, mobile applications, their multicast channels/additional program streams, or other new technologies to provide local news and information? How have these changes affected the availability of educational programming for children?

Remember, you only have until March 8 to pull all of that together.

At least one of the questions may be a trick question. Question 13, for example, asks:

Many media companies are struggling, but others are reporting healthy profits. What explains the differences in performance? What roles are played by debt levels, consolidation patterns, government policies, geography, diversity of and/or decline in revenue streams, technological innovation, cost reductions, and audience growth?

Excuse us, but if we knew the answer, we (a) probably wouldn’t be in the economic mess we’re in and (b) probably wouldn’t be too keen on sharing our insight for all our competitors to see. But maybe that’s just us.

And in case Questions 1-41 (with all of their myriad subparts) may have failed to elicit some, any, important kernel of truth, Question 42 takes care of that: “What questions have we failed to ask that we should?”

In other words, the FOMp wants to gather as much information as possible. So much so that it not only will review the answers it receives to these 42 questions, but also will draw from other proceedings, including a couple which have already been open for a decade or more and have already developed extensive records. Among the on-going proceedings which the FOMp plans to commingle are:  

  • Public Interest Obligations of TV Broadcast Licensees (kicked off in 1999);
  • Empowering Parents and Protecting Children in an Evolving Media Landscape (a relatively recent – 2009 – entry, but extraordinarily broad in scope, as we have previously reported);
  •  Broadcast Localism (circa 2004);
  •  Low Power FM (another golden oldie first unleashed in 1999);
  • Disclosure Requirements for TV Interest Obligations (from 2000);
  • A National Broadband Plan for Our Future (another recent item, but one with a staggeringly expansive reach); and
  • Preserving the Open Internet/Broadband Industry Practices (the ubiquitous issue of Net neutrality).

The FOMp has advised that, if you have previously filed relevant comments in one of those already-in-progress proceedings, you should not refile them in this proceeding. Presumably, FOMp folks will pore over each of the approximately 50 bazillion submissions in those dockets and cull any nuggets which might pertain to the 42 Questions.  However, going forward, if you have comments relevant both to the Future of Media inquiry and to any another proceedings, you should by all means file your comments in all proceedings to which they apply.  

All this occurs simultaneously – and may yet intertwine – with the work of other agencies which are engaging in similar proceedings (for example, the Federal Trade Commission recently held a two-day workshop entitled “How Will Journalism Survive the Internet Age”). 

In the spirit of the Reboot.FCC.Gov website we blogged about recently, you’ll be able to follow along on a special “Future of Media” page on that site and can continue to add to the discussion as new ideas come to you. The FOMp will accept comments through its website. However, it asks that comments of three pages or longer be submitted through the Commission’s ECFS system.

Then, somehow – we don’t know how and we certainly don’t know when – the FOMp plans to wade through the mass of information and come up with a finished product. The FOMp does make one promise: “We will remain mindful of the Hippocratic Oath of physicians, “First, do no harm.” In the spirit of the FOMp’s apparent concern about the quality of information available to consumers, we suggest that the FOMp might want to check its own sources a bit more carefully: “First, do no harm” does not appear in the Hippocratic Oath of physicians, or any other Hippocratic Oath that we’re aware of.