QUSTIONING TECHNOLOGY: A Broadcaster Attacks His Own Industry

In a scathing critique of the over-the-air broadcasting industry, TV visionary Barry Diller set the stage for this week's gathering of broadcasters in Las Vegas by urging his colleagues to end "a strategy of inaction, reaction and defensiveness" that threatens the very existence of free television.Diller, who founded the Fox television network and is now developing a new programming service on a chain of 20 UHF stations, delivered his blunt warning in an April 1 address before top media executives at the Variety/Schroder Wertheim Big Picture Media Conference in New York City.As the era of digital television looms, Diller said, "I don't know a single broadcaster who genuinely has a clue what the platform will really mean. So focused are they on the task of preserving every condition of their existing system and privileges, they don't acknowledge any lapse in responsibility or any real understanding that they've been given their spectrum in return for programming in the broad public interest."The former chairman of Paramount Pictures and Fox said its not just regulatory and competitive forces that broadcasters must face in the coming months. "But (it's) the broadcasters themselves and what they are doing -- or more accurately, not doing -- to respond," Diller said."How can we not acknowledge the danger in the face of over 15 years of almost continual decline in the broadcaster's share of all viewers?" he asked. "And yet, the industry continues to cling to the status quo, propagating more versions of the same ideas and models that have reigned throughout the decline."Broadcasters, said Diller, have "done a marvelous job of keeping meaningful change at bay" while having "virtually destroyed the credibility of the broadcast industry as a unique keeper of the public trust. By any account, the public interest obligations except in the most token form have been reduced to a joke."Broadcasters resist kid's quotas, but what have they done without them?" he asked. "They balk at ratings but praise producers for the act of pushing the envelope rather than the results of it. They spend money to fund studies -- not to gain a better understanding of their real impact on viewers -- but more to provide themselves a defense against attacks by proving that the other media are worse offenders."Diller said if television stations are to survive in the intense competition ahead they must create new voices and establish their own brands, not copy each other. "With all local television stations looking, talking and acting almost exactly alike with the same blue-blazered newscasters fronting the same endlessly meaningless lead murder stories with the same shots of yellow police ribbons and the same graphics and syndicated slog and all the rest, a true opportunity exists for an alternative," he told the media conference."If we succeed...then this digital future offers nothing less than a flattening of the playing field with cable, satellites and any other multichannel providers with a critical distinction: it's free and has universal accessibility to the public," Diller said. "If we fail, we face the very real possibility that this next revolution may not be televised unless, of course, you can pay for it."Diller rejected the argument that giving broadcasters free digital spectrum is corporate welfare as long as they provide true public service in exchange. "Broadcasters must be given the rope to build a bridge or hang themselves. And to receive that rope they must demonstrate their meaningful commitment to the public interest. They'll get no sympathy for claims of poverty or lack of influence. They have only their committment to their social contract to support them."Noting that political ads represent only 1.3 percent of the $30 billion dollar advertising pie in an election year, Diller urged his colleagues to embrace the concept of offering all political messages for free if its linked meaningful campaign reform. "The net loss: probably none," he estimated. "The gain: immeasurable."Diller called on Eddie Fritts, the president of the National Association of Broadcasters, to stop using the oft repeated "cynical strawman claim" that it's pointless for broadcasters to give up money and time when the same old campaign issues will continue."He (Fritts) conveniently forgets the proposal has fundamental linkage to hard and true campaign finance reform," Diller said. "But then pitching anything but the party line -- even if the party's long over -- has never been (Fritt's) strong suit."

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