Thursday, June 25, 2009

Pretty fundamental

Bill Thompson isn't keen on the idea of broadcasting levies because...

"They want to keep us all in a world where vast numbers of people spend most of their precious leisure time watching a flat-screen television on which the limits of interactivity are set by an electronic programming guide and, if you're very lucky, a red button that lets you vote on your most-disliked Big Brother housemate.

Of course the unions want to protect the jobs of their members, and they cannot be criticised for this, but sometimes bad things happen to good people. Many fine writers, including my partner, are suffering because book publishing is going through enormous turmoil, but there is no subsidy on offer to them.

In broadcasting actors are out of work while directors and production crews see budgets cut and funding dry up, and journalists are living with uncertainty.

This is happening because the age of television is ending, just as the age of printed textbooks and user manuals is ending, as the age of the hand loom and the wheelwright and the scribe ended before them. It is a hard change to live through, and those who are only skilled to work in the world of television will inevitably fear it, just as print-only journalists fear the online future.

But this is not a reason to distort the growth of online services in order to give television a few more years."

And that's all fine if there is a genuine universal hunger for full-on interactivity all of the time. If - when the dust settles - it turns out that lean-back media has no audience and that there isn't a sizable slice of the population that doesn't wish for passive consumption as opposed to engaging with everyone they can reach in a collaboratively-filtered reputation-managed world.

Either way, there's a significant burden of proof to justify killing the most attractive industry in the UK and depriving us of it's products.

But what if (as I strongly suspect) a large percentage of the population just want to be entertained in their living rooms. In the absence of effective collective action, this demand will suck content in from where it can get it. It will suck it in from markets that are structurally protected. The end result will be screens dominated only by quality US content and crappy US content.

I'm OK about yielding to Asia's comparative advantage in rice production. But if the sections of the population that are least interested in interactivity (and I suspect that there are social classes that are more represented in this group than others) then the consequences are quite serious, aren't they?

It will be a disaster for a sector that is comparable to financial services in it's contribution to the economy. It will choke off thousands of hidden subsidies to local arts and performance projects.

And what does ..."distort the growth of online services" mean? It seems to assume that there is such a thing as a working undistorted market in anything?

I thought we'd buried that idea finally over the last year?

Digital Britain has advocated a massive handout to hardware and connectivity suppliers in order to help them distort the market away from people who used to create valuable content and sell it, because the spending on connectivity and hardware has rocketed while revenues for creators has tumbled.

And why do people pay for connectivity, set-top boxes, flat screens and iPods? To watch things that they can get for free - that's why. Programme-makers have been subsidising Apple and Humax for years!

Hardware and connectivity levies would have provided a tiny bit of compensation for these losses - and I do mean tiny.

And another thing: The Labour Representation Committee was founded all of those years ago to ensure that time/cash rich people didn't have a monopoly on political representation.

With this fetishisation of interactivity, it looks like we're going to turn the clock back to the time when 'active citizens' - those Dickensian busybodies - are the ones who step in to speak for working people who are too busy or preoccupied to 'engage'. Public service broadcasting - and PSB journalism - has always kept these people informed and helped them to be represented.

That, and representative democracy....

It seems that all of this has to be swept aside because the lobbyists who have dominated the Digital Britain response have collectively ensured that HMG will cast all caution aside in order to subsidise a genuinely expensive unwanted 'demand' for connectivity and interactivity.

This is not just about panhandling Unions demanding that their jobs should be be preserved. It's about democracy, culture, equality and representation.

It's pretty damn fundamental.

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