Who controls the gatekeeper?

I was reading the presentation made by NAB CEO, Edward O. Fritts, to the U.S. Senate committee on the switchover from analog to DTV. One of the issues he raised was the role of the gatekeeper.

Fifty years ago, the first viewers used a set-top dipole or an external antenna to receive television. Now we find that the majority of metropolitan viewers around the world use cable or DTH satellite, with rural viewers relying mainly on satellite. This places the cable and satellite operators in the commanding role of gatekeepers, controlling the channels we can watch.

Conventional terrestrial television is managed through frequency allocations determined by the government. So we have two gatekeepers: commercial concerns and governments. In democracies, governments answer to the people — the viewers — whereas the commercial operators answer to only their shareholders. This works most of the time, but there can be issues.

In many parts of the world, there is ongoing deregulation. The PTTs have been broken up and sold off. With this sell-off has gone much of the responsibility for control. We are now moving to a much more diverse delivery of TV channels. Telcos and cable operators are rolling out triple-play services. Mobile devices, DVB-H and 3G are beginning to offer video content.

My concern is the role of the gatekeeper. Who should that be — government or corporation? Can we trust either? It all depends where you live as to the control that the government exerts. Digital switchover plans in Europe come under the aegis of the EU, although there is little coordination between states. However, the European Commission notes that the switchover encompasses various networks, business models and services, and any differentiated treatment of market players or platforms must be justified.

It is in the interests of all parties to resist fragmentation so that European players can compete with global businesses. This would indicate a light touch from the regulators.

In this light-touch environment, would we still see local interest services, ethnic minority programming and accessible services for the sensory-impaired? Will they be moved to IPTV services, or will free terrestrial transmission remain as the delivery channel? Digital television certainly allows more channels to be carried in a given bandwidth, but public services must compete with mainstream entertainment for the bandwidth. There has to be a balance between the needs of society and the economy. The EU sees the need to retain control over advertising, the right to information, and the protection of human dignity and minors.

The impending switchover will help bring these issues into focus. At the same time, the re-allocation of spectrum will place conflicting demands on the gatekeepers from pressure groups, each with very different agendas.

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