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History of Electronic Media Essay

The history of providing information has been shaped by innovations and innovators. This paper attempts to chronicle the different factors and events that led to the media landscape of today.

1) Congress and the FCC began deregulating broadcast and cable television in the late 1970s. Describe the ideologies which motivated these deregulations. What changes in the television industry occurred as a result of these deregulations? Include two of the following in your discussion: Financial Interest and Syndication Rules, Telecommunications Act of 1996, media ownership debates in the 2000s and intellectual property regulations in the 2000s.

The Financial and Syndication Rules, or more popularly known as Fib-Syn, were implemented by the Federal Communications Commission in 1970 with the objective of increasing programming diversity thus breaking the monopoly of the three major TV networks in the United States: CBS, ABC and NBC. Its rationale was to democratize UHF airwaves making it easier for independent television producers to penetrate the television market. The rules primarily targeted two areas to disempower the big networks: freeing television programs from the ownership of the networks after its first run and the introduction of in-house syndication arms in the major networks.

The idea was to discourage the networks’ monopoly on tv programs and restricting the networks’ part in syndication. These steps would substantially reduce production incentive and lead to the separation of production and distribution practices in the big networks. The FCC justified the implementation of Fin-Syn as beneficial for independent television producers since it gave them the larger part of production profits and allowing them a foothold in the business of syndication. The democratization of syndication would lead to a wider distribution of shows and prevented the networks from its exclusive use in their affiliated stations. Supporters of the rule envisioned a television industry where innovative and  much more diverse programs would be available to the viewers ( McAllister , www.museum.tv).

The Telecommunications Act of 1996 was promulgated by the FCC to address issues regarding the rapid development of telecommunication technologies in the United States. It contained new rules and regulations regarding TV, Radio, Cable, Telephone and Internet services. President Clinton, when he signed it into legislation, proclaimed that the act would “stimulate investment, promote competition, provide open access for all citizens to the Information Superhighway” (Clinton, White House press release 1996).

Upon closer inspection, the Telecommunication Act of 1996 was the final step in disassembling the provisions of Fin-Syn Rule. The act loosened rules on media ownership in traditional media forms such as TV and radio, thus empowering them to compete with emerging media technologies such as cable and the Internet allowing for the development of new and innovative services.

However, the implementation of both the Financial and Syndication Rules of the FCC and the telecommunications Act of 1996 met harsh criticisms once they were fully implemented.

The introduction of Fin-Syn bred more problems than solutions. Most critics pointed out that instead of empowering independent TV producers, it just shifted the competition from one Goliath to another. Instead of  competing with the big networks, the independent TV producers where now pitted against large production organization such as Disney/ABC and  Warner. In the end, it was these larger TV production companies that benefited financially from producing television shows with independent companies opting to produce cheaper productions such as talk shows and game shows. Thus, it produced more conventional shows rather than innovating the television industry.

Eventually, television groups especially television distributors called for a change in the implementation of Fin-Syn which eventually led to FCC totally removing the rule in 1995. Studies showed that although there were periods of diversity on TV programs from 1970s to the 1990s, the general conclusion was that there was no significant changes in the programs in the implementation of the FCC rule (Einstein, p. 5). With the disappearance of the rule, productions and distribution companies started to merge especially in the big three networks. This culminated in the emergence of FOX Network and its merger with Paramount and Warner Bros., a step followed by Disney when they bought and merged with ABC Network.

The deregulation that resulted from the implementation of the 1996 Telecommunications Act fueled much debate on media ownership and responsibility. Questions arose on whether the the Act did deliver its promise of innovative media services from increased competition and serve the public interest with increased diversity in media programs and information. Critics cite that the only ones who benefited from the Act were media moguls who were able to merge with other media corporations and in essence creating media monopolies that could have the power to control information. William Melody reveals that media entrepreneurs will always look for profit and economic efficiency leading to media monopolies which threaten freedom of speech (Melody, p. 32). Concerned groups have also reasoned that public interest have always been the core value of media regulation and not profit, and to diminish government control on ownership would mean violating public inters. Deregulating media ownership can only lead to a monopoly of information resulting in less diversity, Neumann noted that the creation of media conglomerates have led to the mass media having similar “content and world-view” (Neumann, p.130).

On the other hand, those who were in favor of the Act identified it as a much needed move in revolutionizing media. By allowing media corporations to merge, it has led to a more comprehensive and cohesive delivery of information. Supporters also point out that instead of eliminating diversity, viewers have had much more program options with th emergence of 24 hours news channels such as CNN and FOX News and specialized channels such as Discovery and History (Compaine, www.reason.com). In fact, Adam Thierer revealed that instead of the lack of diversity of programs, audiences are actually experiencing “information overload” due to explosion of media options. He pointed out that today’s media environment is “diverse and characterized by information abundance” (Thierer, p.2). The issue, as FCC concluded in revising the Telecommunication Act, “was whether media companies will be able to dominate the distribution of news and information in any market, but whether they will be able to be heard at all among the cacophony of voices vying for the attention of the Americans (FCC proceedings, p.149)

2) The three broadcast networks ABC, CBS and NBC did not face a broadcast network competitor until Fox emerged in the 1980s and the WB, UPN and Univision grew in the 1990s. Why did these networks emerge when they did? What regulatory changes aided their growth? How did they differ from the other networks in terms of their relationships with their affiliates? What audiences did they target and what types of programs did they use to do so? How did they change as they grew? You may choose one or more network(s) to illustrate your points.

From the 1950s to the 1980s, the big three networks dominated the American airwaves. Independent and local television networks would occasionally penetrate the national airwaves but most of these did not survive due to financial constraints. It was in 1986 however that the first rival to the big three emerged with the establishment of  FOX Network.It started out dabbling in TV business by producing and distributing shows for the three big networks. In 1985, Rupert Murdoch bought 50% shares in the 20th Century Fox  movie and television studios. When Murdoch finally achieved full ownership of the studios, he proceeded to buy television stations owned by Metromedia which gave Murdoch a foothold in the major U.S. cities such as New York, Washington, Los Angeles, Dallas, Houston and Chicago (www.teletronic.co.uk). This move would spur Murdoch to create a “fourth network”.

In a brilliant move, the new Fox network labeled their new venture as a “satellite-delivered programming service”(www.teletronic.co.uk). This enabled Murdoch, who was not a citizen, to bypass FCC rules such as foreign-ownership and the definition of FCC of a “network” as “airing more than 20 hours of programming per week”. These enabled Fox to operate unhindered by the FCC rules on networks, thus being able to still distribute its TV productions to other networks but only airing 2 hours of primetime shows as opposed to the 3 hours of the big Networks. When it was launched in October 1986, almost 96 stations were connected to Fox enabling it to reach 80% of American audiences.

Before making it big, Fox had to start from scratch in expanding its audience share. The network first major release was the “Late Show” with Joan Rivers. They hoped to capture the 11:30pm late-night slot and targeting young audiences. This strategy however failed as ratings fell with viewers switching back to their previous stations. Despite these failures, Fox continued to lure the younger to middle -aged viewers with shows such as “Tracy Ulman” which won the station its first Emmy, “Married…with  Children” which would be its first biggest hit and “21 Jump Street” which was its first drama. These shows were some of the first forays of the network into the Sunday prime-time slot. Although they were received lukewarmly at first, these shows would gain momentum in the coming years. The success of Fox would lead to FCC relaxing the Fin-Syn rule and redefining their concept of “network”, which would finally result in the elimination of the Fin-Syn Rule in 1995. (www.museum.tv)

The success of its first primetime shows would lead to Fox introducing documentary-style shows such as “America’s Most Wanted” and “Cops”. But their biggest success would come in when Fox reintroduced animation to the primetime slot with “The Simpsons”. The animated show would penetrate the top 30 primetime ratings and would then become the longest running comedy show on television (www.teletronic.co.uk).

Soon, Fox found its niche by veering away from conventional shows, like game shows and  talk shows, by introducing reality-based shows and shows that targeted the young viewers. Fox owner Rupert Murdoch would change the media landscape when it snatched exclusive rights to air the National Football League in 1993 (Kimmel, p.162). This move would cement Fox’s role in the ratings game. As of today, Fox’s main draw is its reality-based shows such as American Idol that have dominated airwaves since its release in 2002, capturing much of the 18-49 viewer demographic (tvbythenumbers.com).

With success comes controversy. Such was the case of the Fox news network as critics accused it of being biased towards the U.S. Republican Party (Greenwald, p.4). Despite these, Fox shows and its affiliated cable channels still rake in much of the ratings with Fox News attracting 2.4 million viewers in the first quarter of 2009 (Gold, www.latimesblogs.latimes.com)


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