This week is the MediaGuardian Edinburgh International TV Festival 2011. As Informed Edinburgh explained, “The festival attracts a who’s who of the television industry, with over 2000 attendees, ranging from controllers, directors, and producers, to new media companies and distributors.” A major event for UK media, it has a sliver of U.S. interest generated from its keynote speaker – Google’s Eric Schmidt.
Interloper Schmidt did not disappoint, though his reception and impact were viewed quite differently by The Guardian – which found he did not understand UK’s media issues – and DigitalMediaWire – which found him prescient.
The speech and Q&A sessions reflected the gulf that separates U.S. from U.K. and the regulated television industry from the largely open Internet content business. As Schmidt commented, “Regulation has always favoured the regulated and at some level always shuts off new opportunities.” He rejected the notion that regulation to keep a multitude of voices serves a valuable social purpose. Instead he sees the competition being fierce and victory essential. “History shows that in the face of new technology, those who adapt their business models don’t just survive, they prosper. Technology advances, and no laws can preserve markets that have been passed by.”
The debate started at the festival is an important one. Schmidt is probably correct regarding the impact on disruptive innovation and the failure of lagging regulation to stop change. But the social value of media diversity is independent of efficiency. It begs a question whether society would be better with three or four search engines rather than only Google; meaningful networks to provide settings missing from Facebook; or television content that did not come from only four studios. The U.S. values efficiency so oligopolies and monopolies inevitably develop. The U.K. values media diversity so the industry is less efficient and faces challenges competing with the U.S.
Schmidt did his job well. This is a very important discussion for industry and government. The values – as well as the consequences – need to be better understood. And we can watch it live on the Internet.