• WisPolitics
2/20/2007

The Emerging Frontier Of Internet Video Is Changing The Regulatory Landscape

By Tom Still

The column below reflects the views of the author, and these opinions are neither endorsed nor supported by WisOpinion.com.

One of the mega-hits of the Internet video era is “Chad Vader,” a comedy series created by and starring Madison filmmakers Aaron Yonda and Matt Sloan. The series tracks the sometimes pathetic life of Darth Vader’s lesser-known and inept brother, who is an overbearing shift manager at “Empire Foods.”

This homegrown series may not be “Star Wars” – yet – but it has logged a reported 7 million views on YouTube, a site through which people worldwide can upload, tag and share videos. When the Internet search engine giant Google bought YouTube in late 2006, it signaled that user-provided Internet video is a business with staying power.

Aside from the fact that “Chad Vader” is simply funny stuff (you can watch the first six episodes online), it symbolizes the coming-of-age of the “new” Internet media – and what that medium means to more conventional video news and entertainment sources.

For better and sometimes worse, the Internet has been the most disruptive technology of our time. When Communism fell and use of personal computers and the Internet began to catch fire, a revolution of political, economic and cultural importance quietly spread. The democratization of communications accelerated at a pace unseen since the dawn of television. The days when only those with huge amounts of working capital (newspaper owners, television and radio station owners) could communicate with mass audiences were pretty much over. Today, anyone with a laptop, a web site and some compelling content can potentially reach the world.

That’s why despots hate the Internet. It’s one thing for a dictator to control a relative handful of newspaper plants and television stations, but it’s quite another for a totalitarian regime to block information that may be easily called up on a wireless laptop.

Even in a representative democracy, however, the emergence of the new Internet media is having profound effects. One example in Wisconsin is the debate over statewide “video franchising.”

The Legislature is considering a proposal to allow AT&T, the world’s largest telecommunications company, to enter the subscription television market, improve its Internet services and provide computer-linked telephone service. That would essentially set up competition between AT&T and cable companies, the largest of which in Wisconsin are Time Warner Cable and Charter.

The cable companies (largely unregulated by the state) have been nibbling away at the phone companies’ business for years; so many lawmakers may think it’s only fair that the phone companies get a crack at penetrating the cable markets. That’s pretty much what federal regulators envisioned when they rewrote telecommunications law about 10 years ago.

But opening up the market won’t be that simple. Wisconsin municipalities, which have collected fees from cable companies for years, want to make sure they secure a similar arrangement with AT&T. Those same municipalities want AT&T to pony up money to support local public, education and government television channels – collectively known as “local access” channels.

That brings us back to Chad Vader and YouTube, which may be the public access channel of the 21st century. At a time when a couple of filmmakers in Madison can create a series that gets 7 million hits on the Internet, is it really necessary to subsidize public access television channels?

Local officials in some parts of the country are asking that very question. In Gainesville, Fla., late last year, both the Gainesville City Commission and the Alachua County Commissioners declined to create a local access channel because they didn’t think it was needed. They cited the growth of the Internet and its rapidly expanding array of video choices.

Granted, local access television can be a vital part of community democracy, but it’s no longer the only game in town. The Internet, with blogs, podcasts, YouTube and more, is changing that landscape a lot faster than local regulators can regulate.

As members of the Legislature consider state “video franchising,” they should keep the big picture in mind. The Internet is changing the telecom world. Governments need to create regulatory frameworks that anticipate change; that expect new technologies. They should not be clinging to regulatory frameworks that lock them into a specific technology, because such an approach will ultimately impede progress.

“Chad Vader” may be Darth’s incompetent brother, but he’s also a symbol of a new video world.

-- Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.
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