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Tech Giants v. Public Television: The Battle for Hearts and Minds in the Information Age
October 18, 2018  | By Alex Strachan  | 2 comments
The big picture is ever-changing. There’s a global battle going on to influence and shape what we watch in the comfort of our homes, with implications that go far beyond whether we choose to watch Survivor or The Voice, or both.
At this time of year, industry insiders are fixated on which if any of the new fall shows show signs of breaking out. That seems only logical — the system has worked that way for the past 50 years, after all — but as the ascendancy of Netflix and Amazon has shown us, there’s a lot more going on than what one chooses to watch at 8 p.m. on a Thursday night.
We know that technological change is fundamentally changing the way we watch TV. What’s more important, and potentially further reaching, is how that technological change is already changing how we think, how we make decisions, how we vote and even who we vote for, and why.
TV as a medium is global. While CBS, NBC, ABC, and Fox — largely in that order — jockey for attention in the U.S. media market, Facebook, Amazon, Google, Apple, and Netflix’s reach extends across borders, from America to Azerbaijan and Australia, and then back again.
It’s for this reason that public broadcasting — PBS and NPR here, BBC in the UK, NHK in Japan, CBC in Canada and so on — has never been more essential to the culture than it is right now.
PBS and NPR were never about making money. As a group of UK-based broadcasting CEOs noted this past week in an open letter to leading newspapers across Britain, “public service broadcasting,” as they call it there, supports and helps sustain social cohesion, informs people’s understanding of the world, shapes the public conversation and contributes to western ideals of human rights, intellectual freedoms and social justice around the world — so-called “soft power,” in the words of Harvard University political scientist Joseph Nye, a view of the Information Age in which, to use Nye’s words, “credibility is the scarcest resource.”
At its best, and PBS strives for nothing less, public broadcasting is vital to our democracy. It reaches tens of millions of people, in virtually every home with a working TV and a cable, satellite and online connection, and shares high-quality, accurate and predominantly impartial news and arts programming. Despite the weaponized arms race for attention between cable news outlets on opposing sides of the political spectrum, survey after survey shows that when people really want to know what’s going on around them, in an age of fake news, echo chambers and social-media bubbles, public broadcasting remains the most important trusted source of news for those viewers who want to think for themselves and weigh the facts before making a key decision.
Traditional TV, if not dying exactly, is fading. We know this. We don’t need to look at the viewing numbers for streaming services like Netflix to confirm this — even if Netflix were to release those numbers (which it still hasn’t. TVWW can faithfully report, though, that Netflix has 130 million subscribers globally, ahead of Amazon Prime Video’s estimated 75 million subscribers. Now you know.).
What’s telling, though, is that even in an era of “alternative facts” and “fake news,” thoughtful viewers still find time for Ken Burns’ The Vietnam War, or choose Judy Woodruff and PBS NewsHour or Christiane Amanpour and Amanpour & Co. over Fox News’ Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson or whoever’s shouting at whom on CNN these days.
Global technology players like Facebook and Google are becoming the gatekeepers to what we watch and, in some cases, how we think. If anyone is to hold Google and Facebook to account, though, it won’t be Larry Page or Mark Zuckerberg but rather those mainstream news outlets that prioritize the public interest over next quarter’s profit statement.
No one — least of all myself — is saying Netflix and Amazon need to be reined in. In the perfect world that technology and innovation keep promising, there’s no reason why we can’t have both — Netflix and Amazon to keep us entertained, and PBS and NPR to tell us what’s really going on, and why it matters. The world isn’t just about algorithms, after all. Silicon Valley and Silicon Valley can co-exist in this brave, new, wired world.
Market analysts tell us that Netflix needs to keep growing in order to survive, as it’s currently carrying about $30 billion in liabilities and is said to be heading for a negative cash flow of $4bn this year, the difference between its expenditure on content, marketing and talent weighed against what it’s making from subscriptions, estimated to be about $16bn.
Public service broadcasting doesn’t have to worry about growth in order to survive, though. It’s already here. As the old saying goes, use it or lose it.
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PBS has a paywall for deep archived content,Passport,only for folks ponying up for a donation,preferably a $5/month sustainer minimum. So there is indeed a Netflix-style component to PBS. There is no "list" of what is availalble-you gotta ask first. Add to that,outrageous salaries and perks for those on top. Philly's Bill Marrazzo's 2016 package was $842,832(source-billypenn.com). Only WNYC's head made more. WNYC has a budget double WHYY and contributes more than a few network programs. WHYY-radio's Fresh Air and not much else. I'm anti-Fox and try to boycott any of their advertisers,but PBS has some answering to do.Fred Rodgers still is seen as a PBS icon,with a recent documentary and an upcoming biopic-yet there is very little Fred,save the Daniel Tiger spinoff(animated,not puppets or a real human to be seen,which was one of Fred's raison d'etre),to be seen. PBS should be the shining city upon the hill-for everyone. What would Fred Do?
Oct 19, 2018   |  Reply
I thrive on PBS as well as NPR for excellent drama, history, political discussions and cultural programming. Have been for decades. Thanks for your perspective.
Oct 18, 2018   |  Reply
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