Fight for control of the TV

New Television, Old Politics
March 18, 2005

This book charts the progress of telecommunications from an era in which the scarcities of the electromagnetic spectrum seemed to indicate that there could only ever be a narrow choice between state-dependent channels, into a new era of abundant channels, and from the era of analogue transmission to digital. That changeover is far from complete, and most of the cultural consequences are still not easy to define. The whole complicated transformation is, moreover, only one stage in a long evolution still far from complete.

Perhaps the most deep-seated of the beliefs to be challenged in the new age is that of the necessary limit to market competition. There are no longer any "natural monopolies" in the radio spectrum, not even telephone administration. Old monopolies have collapsed as new technologies have invaded the terminals, the transmission systems, even the switching equipment. The state has been driven out of that territory in which messages are sent around a society.

Most devastating of all, perhaps, interactivity has returned to that part of communication in which the message was for generations a one-way affair, what we used to call mass communication. Meanwhile, convergences of various kinds have rendered obsolete what once seemed an inexorable demarcation between telecommunication and the media.

This great transition had its prophets in the Seventies and Eighties: some predicted a loosening of the state's control of culture, a diminution of the tendency towards homogenisation. To these, the fax machine, the satellite, the computer network were all going to bring an end to the state's ability to license and control information. Dictatorship by ideologues would be no longer possible. Control would pass to the users and above all to new entrants to the electronic information markets.

Differences between societies in the ways in which telecommunications were organised would begin to disappear; for example, between the US reliance on localism and the UK on national networks. Others predicted the opposite: that deregulation would lead to massive industrial concentrations, to less diversity in editorial perspectives, to a narrowing in the national origin of materials in the media markets. But Hernan Galperin argues that neither of these lines of prophecy has been fully vindicated and the consequences have been neither as good nor as bad as predicted.

In the event, nation-states have continued to impose their own patterns and preferences on the new emerging global system. The UK has maintained its careful balance between public and commercial networks, while the Government has taken huge financial benefits from the sale of the spectrum.

Japan has run the spectrum in pursuit of its special areas of industrial advantage (3G telephony). France has been less bothered about recovering spectrum released from analogue use in its determination to preserve public channels.

The US, with policy constitutionally split into a diversity of political agendas, has bred its own special gridlock. National difference has found its way into the multinational, multilateral era.

This book contains some extremely useful historical chapters that take us back from this era of media abundance to look at the evolution since the Twenties of the political attitudes that led to the telecommunications sphere as we know it.

In the Sixties, we failed to see that among all the machinery of modernity that might reshape our world, it was to be the telephone (a domestic luxury for which you waited two years) that was most going to change our industrial world and many of our political convictions. We had hardly ceased struggling over how one terrestrial channel should be managed before a hundred came along. The transition to digital TV is steadily reordering the cultural world.

Anthony Smith is president of Magdalen College, Oxford.

New Television, Old Politics: The Transition to Digital TV in the United States and Britain

Author - Hernan Galperin
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Pages - 311
Price - £50.00
ISBN - 0 521 82399 4

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