Elections and mainstream broadcast media

By Andy Oram
November 6, 2008

Yesterday I posted a blog titled "Don't say the Internet has changed elections" that garnered a lot of interest and some alternative viewpoints. That blog was all about how elections still rely overwhelmingly on mainstream broadcast media. But an interesting inverse is that the mainstream broadcast media also rely on elections.

According to a Boston Globe article, TV stations count election ads as a crucial part of their revenue. They have much better profit in even-numbered years than odd-numbered years, because nearly all elections in the US are held during the even-numbered years, and that revenue is part of the TV business model.

So the candidates are helping to keep a declining industry alive. This isn't a direct subsidy like the government gives to public broadcasting (not to mention the corporate welfare in tax breaks and bail-outs), but in my opinion it still fits in the category economists call rent-seeking. A socially critical function (i.e., democracy) is being exploited for a totally different purpose, and democracy would actually be better off without the "value" that TV advertisements bring.

But I'm not placing the blame on the TV stations or the candidates. To quote from a comment I added to my blog: "Maybe the Internet hasn't developed enough (reliability, ease of use) to be worthy of replacing mainstream broadcast/print media. Maybe the latter will always be with us."

To return to the theme of yesterday's blog: if the Internet really became a dominant force in elections, it would drastically cut revenues to mainstream media, speeding up the inevitable shake-up that all information-based industries such as publishing, journalism, music, and film are facing.

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