Perhaps no region on earth has been as affected by the dramatic pace and extent of media development since 1990 as North America, where most have ready access to new media, such as the Internet and the latest telecommunications devices, as well as the traditional newspapers, radio and television. Even traditional media have undergone profound change as convergence and crossownership brought them together in vast media conglomerates dominated by a handful of global corporations. Digitization has taken hold in the United States and Canada, increasing commodification and crossownership of all forms of communication, from movies and music to the written word, and bringing together once separate domains of print, broadcasting, telecommunications and computer technology. Yet all is not monolithic on the North American scene. This increasing concentration of ownership has evolved at the same time as increasing fragmentation of media markets and outlets. Explosive growth in cable and satellite television channels, musical variety and the Internet, have given citizens many more choices and in some cases easier access to outlets for their own creative and political expression. Throughout North America, increasing cultural diversity has also led to products and policies serving multicultural needs in an information society. As a less powerful, less populous neighbor with close economic and cultural ties to the United States, Canada’s history has been one of resisting cultural and economic domination. This theme continues in the current era, in the face of evolving trade agreements attempting to drop restrictions and barriers.
At the risk of becoming irrelevant in the Internet era, North American media have been quick to establish their online presence, with virtually all mainstream newspapers and broadcasters now posting news on Internet sites, and an increasing number of community newspapers and local broadcasters joining the trend. The accessibility and effectiveness of those Web sites vary greatly. Media whose primary goals are to inform and educate, such as public broadcasters, have used the Web to enhance that mandate, with some of the most accessible interactive sites. Those who simply aim to generate revenue post a bare minimum of news content, and charge fees for access to their most valuable online resources, such as archival databases. The digital age has also changed the way journalists work, with significant cost savings and staff reductions as large media organizations pool resources and share material. Reporters use satellite phones and internet hookups to file stories from offsite, including abroad, and at times the same reporter writes stories and shoots television footage. In some cases the changes have eliminated locally based correspondents; instead parachute reporters travel to the scene with little knowledge of the region and situation. While these reporters may serve to entertain and persuade those back home, they can be ill equipped to educate and inform.
The leap to cyberspace
Dynamic communities: Enhancing multiculturalism and diversity
Focusing the moving picture
North America has been as profoundly affected as any place on earth by the communications revolution of the past decade. Globalization, digitization and the Internet have swept aside old barriers between media, the regulatory regimes that controlled them and the businesses that supply and profit from them. On this continent, where access is exceptionally high and delivery systems wellintegrated, continentally and globally, the technological tidal wave that began in the 1990s, which has continued after a brief meltdown in 2001, now touches everything from ways of governing, educating and doing business, to peoples everyday lives. In some ways, the wired world is a positive change for North Americans: access to information, education, entertainment and consumer goods is easier, faster and broader; the pace of business more rapid and recordkeeping easier. New outlets for creativity and multiculturalism abound in this increasingly fragmented, multichannel universe, where products no longer need appeal to mass audiences. But in other ways, North Americans are experiencing the down side of McLuhans global electronic village. His metaphor of an external nervous system applies: stress and sensory overload are escalating as workplace pressures invade private space. Privacy is under attack and advertisers deliver a relentless barrage of unsolicited messages.
The leap to cyberspace
Just how wired are North Americans? Their homes and workplaces generate and receive a tangle of cables, wires and signals from multiplying media. Telephone and cable television are available to nearly everyone but since 1995 they have increasingly carried signals linking computers to the Internet. That single change has profoundly altered the media landscape, as traditional media — newspapers, radio and network television (illustrated in Chart 1) scramble to adapt. Radio and television have gone digital and established their presence online, making it possible to see and hear them on Weblinked computers. Meanwhile newspapers, suffering a sharp decline in readership, are trying to woo new customers with online editions and special Webbased features.
North America leads the world in home Internet use. Approximately 34 percent of the world's 531.3 million home Internet users in 2002 were based in the U.S. and Canada (Nua, 2002). More than half of North Americans households are now online . In September 2001, about 143 million Americans (54 percent) were using the Internet at some location and 50.5 percent of U.S. households had Internet connections .
Internet access occurs even more frequently outside the home in the U.S., where 19.6 percent used the Internet at work in 2002. School use encompassed 11.9 percent of the population, while 10 percent went online at public libraries . In Canada, 55 percent of households were connected to the Internet in 2003 and households with at least one member using the Internet regularly nearly doubled from 35.9 percent in 1998 to 64 percent in 2003, with some of that access occurring outside the home (Statistics Canada, 2004). Chart 2 illustrates more statistics on the use of media and communications devices.
However, North America has a digital divide: In the United States, 25 percent of lowincome households (US$15,000 or less) were using the Internet from some location in September 2001; meanwhile 80 percent of upperincome Americans (US$75,000 or more) were online . In Canada, home access was 35 percent for lowincome households (CDN$20,000 or less) in 2001, while upperincome households (CDN$100,000 or more) had an 83 percent access rate from home. The gap between the highestincome and lowestincome Canadian households widened from 39 percentage points in 1997 to 48 points in 2001 (Reddick and Boucher, 2002). Another digital divide is urbanrural. Access to broadband in North America is primarily in cities; much work remains to link rural communities .
At the risk of becoming irrelevant in the Internet era, traditional North American media have been quick to establish their online presence ...
Uptake of Internet technology has been extremely rapid since 19931994, the generally accepted date when a commercial network became widely available (Thomas, 2003) and the public buzz began about the information highway. The 2002 level in Canada was more than double the 1997 total of 29 percent and a remarkable advance from the seven percent online in 1996 (Statistics Canada, 2003b). As of late 2001, 99 percent of public schools in the United States had Internet access, up from 34 percent in 1994 (National Center for Education Statistics, 2002). Meanwhile, in 2000, 96 percent of U.S. public libraries had Internet access. Libraries are the number one point of access for people without home access in the United States (Bertot and McClure, 2000).
At the risk of becoming irrelevant in the Internet era, traditional North American media have been quick to establish their online presence, with virtually all mainstream newspapers and broadcasters now posting news on Internet sites, and an increasing number of community newspapers and local broadcasters joining the trend. The accessibility and effectiveness of those Web sites vary greatly. Media whose primary goals are to inform and educate, such as the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) in the U.S. and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) in Canada, have used the Web to enhance their mandate, with accessible, interactive sites. Those whose aim is simply to generate revenue post a bare minimum for public consumption and charge fees for access to their most valuable online resources.
1997 1998 1999 2000 2001 2002 Canada Internet users*1 4,212.62 4,500.07 4,838.61 Homes with access to cable
highspeed Internet (millions)2
1.6 4.3 4.8 7.4 9.4 9.9 Availability of household equipment – Percentage of homes with:2 Telephone 98.6 98.1 92 97.8 97.4 Colour TV 98.7 98.7 98.9 98.9 99.2 VCR 84.7 87.8 88.6 90 91.5 CD player 58.1 65.7 70.2 74.1 70.9 DVD player 19.8 Personal computer 36 45 49.8 54.9 59.9 Internet access 13 24.7 33.1 42.3 49.9 Cellular telephone 18.6 26.2 31.9 41.8 47.6 Satellite dishes 2.7 5.7 10.5 14.7 United States Internet users*1 4,406.21 5,014.91 5,375.06 Utilization of selected media Households with:3 Telephone service (%) 93.9 94.1 94.2 94.4 Television (millions) 97 98 99 101 Cable television (millions) 64 66 67 69 VCRs (millions) 82 83 84 86 Media usage and consumer spending
(hours per person per year)3
Total 3,368 3,368 3,434 3,472 3,519 3,560 Television 1,561 1,560 1,588 1,633 1,643 1,655 Radio 1,082 1,075 1,066 1,056 1,047 1,040 Recorded music 265 260 261 269 278 289 Daily newspapers 159 156 154 151 149 148 Consumer magazines 82 82 81 80 80 79 Consumer books 92 95 95 96 89 88 Home video 55 56 57 57 57 58 Video games 36 43 61 70 79 90 Box office 13 13 13 12 12 12 Consumer Internet 34 61 99 124 149 164
Chart 2: Media and equipment usage in North America.
* Per 10,000 inhabitants; 1. ITU.; 2. CCTA, Canadian Cable Television Association, Annual Report 20022003; 3. U.S. Census Bureau, Statistical Abstract of the United States (2002).
The digital age has also changed the way journalists work, with significant cost savings and staff reductions as large media organizations pool resources. Reporters use satellite phones and Internet hookups to file stories from offsite and at times the same reporter writes stories and shoots television footage. Some media have all but eliminated locally based foreign correspondents, instead using local freelancers or parachute reporters who travel to the region when the need arises, with little knowledge of the place or situation. While these reporters may serve to entertain and persuade those back home, they can be illequipped to educate and inform.
In the runup to the millennium, the North American economy cashed in on technological innovation (as Chart 3 illustrates). From 1996 to 2000 the IT sector in the United States accounted on average for seven percent of GDP and grew 21 percent annually, accounting for 28 percent of overall real economic growth. U.S. businesses are also IT consumers, who spent US$258 billion on IT goods and services in 2000. That year, American consumers spent US$121 billion on computers, software and peripherals plus another US$44 billion for communications services, while IT expenditures by governments totaled US$20 billion. ITproducing industries employed 5.6 million American workers in 2000 . Chart 4 shows details on revenues from selected communications sectors.
However, things changed dramatically in 2001, when a recession hit the entire U.S. economy, taking its greatest toll in the information technology (IT) sector, which includes telecommunications as well as the computer industry. Employment in the IT producing sector declined by 11.2 percent compared to a two percent decline in other private sectors (U.S. Department of Commerce, 2003). Investments in IT were down as well: in the fourth quarter of 2001, U.S. businesses invested US$408 billion in IT equipment and software, a drop of 16 percent from its peak a year earlier, during the dot.com boom . Recent economic forecasts indicate that the IT sector is recovering, with communications services contributing strongly to this recovery . However, job losses in communications industries have been significant . Chart 5 compares North Americas software and ICT investments from 1990 to 2000.
A major round of innovation is coming from broadband access, which is available in sufficiently populated regions of North America, giving those who can afford it faster service. Broadband is highspeed transmission of 200+ kilobytes per second, and its use has rapidly expanded, particularly in Canada. In the U.S. in 2001, 20 percent were using broadband while 80 percent had dialup connections . Among Canadians, fully half of those who were online in 2002 used broadband . A concerted infrastructure push has placed Canada third in the world in this technology. Chart 6 shows Canadas increasing rate of broadband access. One major factor is its cost to consumers: in the U.S. monthly fees for broadband access average US$53 while in Canada the total is about US$32 (International Telecommunications Union, 2003).
While the speed of Internet access was increasing, so was mobility. North Americans in 2003 were well on the way to wirelessness, widely anticipated as the next step in this dynamic evolution, as cellular telephones and personal digital assistants (PDAs) multiplied and an increasing number used wireless laptop computers (Stone, 2002). At the same time, digitization is enhancing the availability of wireless products and services.
On the entertainment front, digital technology has made hundreds of channels available to households via satellite and cable television. How this equipment hooks up, however, is changing rapidly, with digital cable and satellite hookups the latest trends in a rapidly evolving landscape.
Satellite dishes on roofs are becoming part of the Canadian landscape, proclaimed Statistics Canada in October 2003. Satellite and MDS (Multipoint Distribution System) surpassed two million customers in 2002, reaching 20 percent market share. By comparison, cable operators took more than 20 years to attract two million subscribers (Statistics Canada, 2003a).
Satellite hookups can bring in channels from overseas and for the large immigrant community in Canada and the United States, links to channels such as AlJazeera, the Arabiclanguage television network based in Qatar, are lifelines for those eager for news directly from their homelands. The apparent popularity of AlJazeera in the West raises the prospect of greater diversity in the North American media diet in years to come. Numbers of North American viewers were not available but a recent CBC Radio investigation indicated they could be significant (Dyer, 2003). However, there has been such controversy in Canada over AlJazeeras content, which some consider antiSemitic, that no cable channel was actually carrying the channel in late 2004, despite a ruling in July 2004 by the Canadian Radiotelevision and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) that it could legally be broadcast. The CRTC approved a license for the several foreign broadcasters at the time, but set special restrictions only for AlJazeera, requiring that its content be monitored by any cable company that offers it, for possible violations of Canadas hate laws. So far, no cable operator has been willing to take on this responsibility (Thompson, 2004; Martin, 2004). It is worth noting that the CRTC refused repeated applications from the U.S. network Fox News, for similar reasons, finally granting Fox permission to broadcast in Canada in late 2004. Notably, the regulator did not require Fox to monitor content in the same way as AlJazeera.
The multichannel video market opened to competition in Canada in 1997, changing the industry dramatically. Clientele jumped 20 percent from 1997 to 2002, from eight million to 9.6 million, and wireless competitors, which had virtually no customers in 1997, have captured a substantial share of the multichannel video market (Statistics Canada, 2003a). Cable no longer carries only television, but also supplies a significant portion of Canadian Internet hookups. And as satellite and MDS operators entered the multichannel video market, the shift towards digital technology began in earnest.
The recording and motion picture industries have also gone digital, with compact disc (CD) and digital video (DVD) players largely replacing audio and video cassette recorders, and MP3  technology making it easier to download. Meanwhile digital cameras have left film-processing outlets as deserted as those selling recorded music. Digital products are readily downloaded on the Internet, but are also easily shared, with a resultant level of product piracy that has the entertainment industry panicking about lost sales.
Dynamic communities: Enhancing multiculturalism and diversity
While the number of media, channels and communications devices has multiplied since 1990, the number of corporations that own and produce content for them dropped dramatically. The result has many concerned about the future of democratic communication and the public sphere.
About ten vertically integrated media conglomerates, most of which are based in the United States, dominate globally . Because it requires enormous amounts of capital to purchase or launch mainstream media, and owners have the ability to control what is published, concerns about exclusion of divergent points of view have been growing. Others (Winseck, 2002; Murdock and Golding, 1989) point to increasing commodification of services essential to democratic participation in the public sphere. Convergence, another key trend, operates at three levels in this increasingly fluid, interlocking system. First, digital technology is making possible the increasing physical integration of networks, equipment and products. Second, organizations are merging companies from diverse sectors to create vertically and horizontally integrated conglomerates. Lastly, traditional divisions between sectors are breaking down . North America is no stranger to integrated telecommunications, as Winseck (1998) points out. His term reconvergence describes the continental telecommunications scene, which in the early days of the telegraph and telephone, featured integrated and interlinked North American companies. The difference today, Winseck notes, is that government and corporate policies have gone from preventing to promoting convergence .
In the 1990s, a mantra of economic competitiveness captured the political agenda in both Canada and the U.S., and regulations preventing a single owner from holding firms in different sectors or cross ownership of different media in the same city or region, were swept aside. The resulting round of mergers left four media conglomerates essentially controlling the Canadian media and telecommunications sector, while in the U.S., Microsoft and a group of conglomerates often called the Big Ten wield enormous power over communications within and outside the country (yet it is important to note that four of the Big Ten are based outside the U.S.) (Mosco and Schiller, 2001). The U.S. regulatory regime has protected newspapers from control of these media conglomerates, unlike Canadas, which has allowed telecommunications, broadcasting and print media to be coowned. However, the regime in the U.S. is changing following recent decisions by the Federal Communications Commission to ease restrictions that prohibited cross ownership of telecommunications and broadcasting networks (McChesney and Nichols, 2003).
A major factor influencing the nature of media corporations is the composition of boards of directors. ... These boards are a far cry from representative democracy, yet they control the main forum for debate about public issues in the public sphere, with little accountability to the public.
A major factor influencing the nature of media corporations is the composition of boards of directors. Board members interlocking relationships with other institutions and organizations in fields such as trade, industry, services, banking and education, in addition to their role in the community and their relations with government, are important. Many studies have found interlocking relationships between board members and the institutions covered or not covered by the media they were overseeing. These boards are a far cry from representative democracy, yet they control the main forum for debate about public issues in the public sphere, with little accountability to the public. There is a growing public resistance in North America to perceived corporate control over news agendas, with much of this resistance using email and the Internet to mobilize.
Canada protects its print media from majority foreign ownership. However, some of these regulations are threatened by free trade agreements, despite specific exemptions for Canadian culture. McKercher (2001) describes how one restriction in the 1993 North American Free Trade Agreement designed to prevent splitrun magazines with substantially American content from being sold in Canada was challenged successfully by the U.S. before the World Trade Organization. Thus, Canada has had increasing difficulty, in the current environment, protecting its own cultural products.
Focusing the moving picture
North America is a moving picture: every frame is different, nothing stays still. On this dynamic continent, communications media are multiplying at a pace so rapid it is nearly impossible to grasp. Here we have tried to seize the moment. Picture two distinct societies coexisting in space and time, communicating ceaselessly through networks of interlocking signals. Canada, a vast and rugged land, welcomes a steady stream of immigrants with a pledge of harmonious coexistence known as multiculturalism. The United States, a beacon of liberty, offers a melting pot bubbling with energy and opportunity.
In both countries, citizens expect to be listened to by their governments. And they are speaking out now about the state of media development. In the U.S. in late 2003 resistance was mounting to a decision by the Federal Communications Commission to ease restrictions on cross ownership of different media in the same geographic area by a single company. McChesney and Nichols (2003) found that media ownership was the second most discussed issue by constituents in 2003, trailing only the war on Iraq. In Canada, meanwhile, a Senate committee held hearings in the summer and fall of 2003 in response to public concerns about media ownership and control of the news by corporate interests (Thomas, 2003). These concerns were highlighted when the owners of the countrys largest newspaper chain intervened in news decisions and editorials, rather than leaving them under local control, and prominent journalists were dismissed for refusing to comply (Harper and Fraser, 2002; Simon, 2002).
As a smaller, less powerful neighbor sharing the continent with the worlds acknowledged media superpower, Canada has a unique perspective to share with other nations. Its history has been one of resisting cultural and economic domination. Canadas public broadcasting system, which has also allowed private broadcasters to flourish (McChesney, 1997), took a distinctive path in an effort to preserve the Canadian identity that resides in its culture. Other aspects of communications policy have supported this goal. Canada has also steered a careful line between two dominant language groups, English and French, as well as regional disparities and rivalries.
Indeed, each of North Americas societies has put its own stamp on its communications media. It is not easy to focus these moving pictures to mirror and reflect the dynamic societies they represent. But this is the mammoth task at hand for policymakers, as well as the communications industry. Unless they truly represent the societies they serve, neither media nor regulators will sow their seeds in fertile ground.
About the authors
Mahmoud Eid is an Assistant Professor in the School of Journalism at the University of Regina.
Email: mahmoud [dot] eid [at] uregina [dot] ca
Carrie Buchanan is a SSHRC doctoral fellow in mass communication and a sessional lecturer in journalism at Carleton University.
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Paper received 3 October 2005; accepted 27 October 2005.
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North America: Multiplying media in a dynamic landscape by Mahmoud Eid and Carrie Buchanan
First Monday, volume 10, number 11 (November 2005),
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