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Emergence of Internet video is changing the regulatory landscape

Madison, Wis. - 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 “Stars Wars” - yet - but it has logged a reported seven 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.

Disruptive net

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 website, 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.

Hanging Chad?

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 seven 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.

Big picture time

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.

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

The opinions expressed herein or statements made in the above column are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Wisconsin Technology Network, LLC.

WTN accepts no legal liability or responsibility for any claims made or opinions expressed herein.


michael responded 8 years ago: #1

"At a time when a couple of filmmakers in Madison can create a series that gets seven million hits on the Internet, is it really necessary to subsidize public access television channels?"

Please don't confuse the popularity of an entertainment video on the Internet with the mission of local public, educational, and governmental access. These channels and facilities offer members of the community access to tools and training to produce programs of specific local relevance. The governmental channels open the doors of local governance to public insight and participation.

The youtube video you cite is an example of "internet broadcasting," whereas local PEG channels excel in "narrowcasting" - covering local issues for the local community that no commercial broadcaster will bother with.

Patricia responded 8 years ago: #2

If you had asked the "Chad Vader" guys about what they thought about PEG facilities, you would have found out about another important aspect of what PEG facilities offer - education. Vonda & Sloan are defenders of PEG facilities. They got their start learning how to create content at their public- access facilities. The potential of an audience to see your content isn't enough. Training to make that content interesting, entertaining or compelling is also necessary. Personal one-on-one, give-and-take instruction is the most effective method of learning media production and public access facilities offer not only an outlet, but also often the most inexpensive, broadest-available facility for that training.

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