If 2012 marks the surpassing of compact disks by digital music, equally profound changes are also on the horizon with respect to television. While electronics producers struggle with declining profit margins on increasingly affordable and high-resolution boxes (i.e., the hardware), the real innovations just beginning to take shape are software and content driven.
Apple, Google, Facebook and others are all competing to devise new and winning formulas to bring technological convergence into the purview of mainstream broadcasting. For Apple, this may mean a new television set of its own making whereas Google has already launched its own platform promising both traditional and original programming. Google TV presents itself as “a new experience that combines TV, the entire web, and apps – as well as a way to search across them all.”
Much like their counterparts in the music sector, traditional broadcasting companies and cable providers understand full well that profound changes are underway. For governments too, this shifting digital landscape raises large and consequential matters of which three stand out.
First and most widely recognized is the matter of Canadian content. A myriad of regulatory issues present themselves, reflecting philosophical divisions over the meaning of culture as either a largely market determination or a societal endeavour meriting additional support. Continental versus national parameters are naturally at play; it is not unimportant that most all of the new, large and powerful software companies seeking to reshape television are American-based.
Second, there is the matter of how governments communicate with and inform the citizenry on policy and service issues in both affordable and equal ways. Public sector television advertising has come to denote a large and influential expenditure justified on the basis of its coherent reach across large segments of society. Governments today are ever-more challenged to rethink their own messaging and mixing of channels, and this task will only grow more complex as digital media offerings multiply and fragment across traditional and new providers.
Third, and perhaps least recognized, are questions of public engagement in a digital universe that is increasingly entertainment-centric. Facebook may house important political discussions from time to time, but its primary mission is to become a one-stop platform for entertainment and mainly hedonistic forms of communication.
If social media is to be the policymaking platform of the future, it is not clear that outsourcing such a venue to the private sector is the ideal way to go. As one British columnist recently asked, perhaps it is time to consider nationalizing Facebook in light of its monopolistic ambitions and the public interest stakes at hand. As with Microsoft yesterday – and to some degree Google today – such a course of action is too costly and overly complex, but the underlying concerns should not be ignored.
Compounding the complexity of this third matter is demographic change and widening social and consumption cleavages in terms of media access and usage. Most studies indicate that older people tend to watch the most television, most of it via traditional boxes and cable providers. For private and public advertising, then, identifying and reaching this group is a relatively straightforward affair. Moreover, through the television era of the 20th century, informing more than engaging was government’s primary mission here.
By contrast, younger people have less and less affinity with traditional offerings much as they are flocking to smart devices and social media networks. These groups most targeted by Google and company, with the prospect of more individualized consumption patterns a near certainty. For governments, communicating and informing will also become more challenging and costly, whereas consulting and engaging such diverse and dispersed groupings may well risk becoming altogether elusive. YouTube is a telling example.
Initially lauded as a source of self-expression and empowerment, Google’s most recent pronouncements are to add sophistication and more polished offerings (in line with its fledging television ambitions). It is hard to fault Google for targeting entertainment and commercialization as it relentlessly pursues profitability: the offsetting questions of public engagement are first and foremost for governments to address.
The collaborative potential of today’s still-nascent Web 2.0 era is real; it emerges organically within a more networked civil society and competitively, orchestrated by market investors and incentives. The underlying and ever-evolving digital universe in terms of infrastructure and content does not come with an obvious or guaranteed role for public sector engagement. Governments must instead think creatively and aggressively as to how best to nurture it.
Jeffrey Roy is a professor of public administration at Dalhousie University (firstname.lastname@example.org).