The balkanisation of the media industry into many competing – and often niche - suppliers.
"Too often in today’s world, groups speak to themselves, not to one another: Jews to Jews, Christians to fellow Christians, Muslims to Muslims, business leaders, economists and global protestors to their respective constituencies. The proliferation of channels of communication – email, chat-groups, the Internet, online journals, and the thousands of cable and satellite television channels – mean that we no longer broadcast. We narrowcast.”
- Jonathan Sacks, The Chief Rabbi, 2002
The media industry defines ‘narrowcasting’ in technical terms. For industry professionals it implies the transmission of programmes via exclusive media – like subscription-based cable television. The opposite of narrowcasting is broadcasting and this takes place on media platforms – like terrestrial tv – that are available to all (albeit often at a cost).
For the rest of us ‘narrowcasting’ also has important cultural and political implications.
One of these implications is potentially worrying – a tendency towards sensationalism – and another – an opportunity for more diverse media output – could be good for democracy and for conservatism, in particular.
Narrowcasting and a tendency towards sensationalism
Once the majority of people got their news from BBC1 at Nine’o’clock. Today – whilst the BBC is still Britain’s dominant broadcaster – people consume many alternatives to the old media. They can get their news from Sky TV or whenever they want it – from the internet. They also have more options to avoid news altogether. Viewers with ’Freeview’ can, for example, happily hop from channel to channel without having to watch any current affairs programming.
This needn’t concern us if we do not think that an informed citizenry matters. But it should worry us if narrowcasting makes it more difficult for a moderate national conversation to take place. In the era of narrowcasting only major events or sensationalist opinions will lift people out of the niche media bunkers - their 'designer newsfeeds' - that many might descend into. This might suit incumbent or extremist politicians. Opposition parties with moderate opinions will struggle to win attention for their case against incumbents. More extreme parties, however, with stand-out policies on crime or immigration, might prosper.
Any advocacy groups wanting media coverage in the narrowcasting era may also have to find sensationalist ways of grabbing attention.
Narrowcasting and the possibility of real media diversity
While the trend towards sensationalism is a real danger, conservatives should, on the whole, welcome the possibilities of narrowcasting.
The BBC is not a friend of Britain’s conservative majority and its dominant market share has meant that the conservative case on topics like the family, the European Union, and tax cuts have often gone unheard. Instead, with honourable exceptions like Radio 4’s Moral Maze, the BBC has been dominated by ‘red corner questioning’.
The same used to be true of America. The big US networks of NBC, CBS and ABC – the old media - dominated the airwaves and their output was favourable to the liberal left. Their monopoly has been broken by new media like talk radio, Fox News and the bloggers of the webroots.
The same diversity could emerge here and the creation of a British conservative infrastructure could be a vital part of a new politically and culturally-effective conservative coalition.