In the not too distant past, radio and television were invented. As a tool of instant communication, these discoveries were immediately recognized as a national resource. The government took steps to regulate and administer these airwave technologies in a manner that they thought would best serve our ill-defined “national interest.”
The product of America’s media now dominates the global culture. Our movies are viewed worldwide, product tie-ins are manufactured on the Pacific Rim, and we are, I suspect, the world’s largest consumer and producer of music, despite the rise of file sharing.
Prior to the rise of these technologies, communication was slow and based primarily on the printed word. Actors and musicians were relegated to live performing arts. Musical phonographs, Morse code and the telephone, were the interim technological steps.
While radio and television may seem like the zenith of communication, the web now occupies the future of communication. It returns to a reliance on the written word, but it also combines audio and video. Apple’s iChat AV combines live video and audio. It is the precursor to what will be live, interactive, remote and on-demand audio, video and text communication. The instant polls on many news websites and the experiments in web voting are all indicators of a great technological convergence.
It would be easy to look at the activities these inventions have spawned and say that the licensing of the radio and television resources to the highest bidder has paid off handsomely. Artists have launched careers, masses have been entertained for free, and news reports are worldwide instantly. Our social fabric is immensely richer because of our new ability to communicate.
But, the web also shows us what can occur when a resource is not sold to the highest bidder. The best definition of our national interest is one that promotes democracy and liberty, not business. The bidding process for our airwaves has created a financial need for commerce that has overshadowed the value of democracy and liberty. As consumers of media, we have grown fat and complacent, and are overfed and force-fed large quantities of advertising, which is the inevitable result of the bidding process.
Radio and television offer the opportunity to communicate, but advertising is the least democratic of all human endeavors. Advertising is marginally protected by free speech, and its activity can best be described as one of selling, spin, and lies. As radio and television has become the primary vehicle of political communication, our political debate has taken on the characteristics of advertising. Where we once had a young, intellectual, agrarian nation that supported public education, we have used this new technology to become complacent, ill informed, and divisive.
In the case of radio, we have music samples, which are intended to be sold, interspersed with other ads for other products. Since music content is also a system of monopoly control, what we really have is a situation where the music is free, only if you listen to the commercial messages that it is packaged with. If you listen to the music without the commercial message, then that is considered stealing.
Likewise, television program content is reduced to allow for more ad time. Since advertisers seek more return for their advertising dollar, the content on radio and television becomes more and more narrowly focused to attract a specific demographic group. Rather than promoting democracy, these national treasures continually promote divisions, and the content becomes more and more outrageous to maintain and attract certain viewers and listeners.
Where radio and television should be elevating the level of consensus in our democracy, instead it is guilty of dumbing-down our citizenry, and increasing the partisan divide. Both parties now accuse the media of a bias, and as a solution seek to create a popular format that will promote their own narrow view exclusively.
Paid advertising also has the effect of promoting large businesses over small businesses. As the advertising revenue constantly underwrites our artistic culture, small businesses simply do not have the resources to complete equally for airtime. Main Street and the local marketplace are ignored, since the big ad buyers are from Wall Street.
The final insult to the citizenry of this system is that the consumer pays for the price of the advertising he is forced to endure. The cost of advertising is buried in the cost of every item purchased. A highly successful campaign may only net a 3% response for the advertiser, which means that 97% of the people have just had their time stolen from them for no purpose at all. All advertising does is divert a needed purchase from one prospective vendor to another; it increases the volume of products sold only marginally.
The rising tide of anger at unsolicited faxes and telemarketing phone calls needs to be expanded to radio and television commercials and pop-up ads. We are paying dearly for the “free” content we expose ourselves to; it steals our time, our minds, and our liberty. Maybe, if we paid via a subscription for content on the web, radio and television, we would not be so quick to let trash and divisive ideas enter our lives. How much is your life and liberty worth to you? Would you be willing to pay less for the products you buy and more for the information you receive?
I suspect people are more afraid of a society with less advertising than they are of a nation with less liberty. Is this essay worth more than the time you spend with an ad? Send me a dollar and prove me wrong, or a good counter-argument, and I’ll send you a dollar:
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