Beyond the Audiovisual Law, How to face convergence?

While it is true that there is no successful experience that frames this development at the global level, that of Argentina was a lost opportunity with important repercussions for the dynamic of the sectors in the market that generates conditions for a robust political debate…

Santiago Marino*/ Argentina, July 2014

Versión en español | Versão em Português

For the past five years, Argentines have debated a series of issues related to the media with unprecedented intensity. The exchanges focus on the political role played by large groups as well as their capacity to position topics on the agenda, economic issues, the creation of oligopolies, and the abuse of positions of power. The discussion also focuses on how the government regulated an activity that is central to democracy through the Audiovisual Communication Services Law (Ley de Servicios de Comunicación Audiovisual, LSCA).

Questioning the media is a positive aspect of this situation, but it is not without its downside. Polarized perspectives stand out in the discussions. Far from enriching the debate so that citizens (who are also users, receptors and consumers of the media) understand how much this affects their daily lives, a complex issue that involves technological, economic, political and socio-cultural aspects is simplified.

Much has been written about the LSCA and its complicated application process. Innumerable aspects were criticized correctly and in a balanced manner. On many occasions, the law was also assessed with bias and prejudice. Within that duality, the most firmly entrenched statement issued from critical spaces holds that “the law was born old.” This is an idea that obviates the wide range of issues involved with the debate and the approval and belated application of the law. It also limits the development of an exchange that articulates arguments and considers all of the variants at play, condensing in these four words an approach that does have some reasonable aspects.

The Process and the Exclusion of Key Issues

The LSCA was approved following several months of discussion in the public sphere and fora that provided spaces for citizen participation. Congress made changes to the original bill during this period. Following its approval, it was submitted to a judicial process that delayed its full application. This process also involved a series of poor decisions made by the administration. In October 2013, the Supreme Court issued a ruling that backed the constitutionality of the regulation as a whole.

This process forms part of a tradition of regulation that is historically beneficial to private-commercial interests and a strongly concentrated media system in terms of its ownership structure with centralization of content generation and significant participation of foreign capital. One of the main objectives was the inclusion of diverse sectors in the management of media (government, commercial and not-for-profit) and the creation of limits on the concentration of ownership. The latter was expressed in limits for number of licenses to be granted (24 to operate cable TV, ten for open radio transmission), market share (35%) and the elimination of cross-ownership in the telecommunications and audiovisual sectors and the operation of open and pay TV in the same area.

When it comes time to think about the basis for the claim that “the law was born old” and what that implies, we must consider two aspects. First, telecommunications companies were not allowed to enter the audiovisual system. Second, the issue of digital TV was not regulated. This means that it was only decided that current open TV license holders will not be affected by the analogue shut-off and that they will receive a “mirror” channel in the digital environment.

In this way, the potential that the LSCA has for the development of a system with greater diversity and democracy comes up against a content distribution structure with very high penetration that is strongly concentrated, and the convergence cannot make it more dynamic. Three different policies for three sectors of the audiovisual space (TDT, Cine and LSCA) coexist, working in parallel on topics that should be managed in an integrated manner.

Technical Definitions

The convergence of the telecommunications system (data transmission, telephony and Internet) and the audiovisual system (distribution of contents through a link that may be the air, cable or satellite, paid or free) is already possible in technical terms and becomes part of social use. When it was excluded from the LSCA, an important opportunity to guide the process, establish conditions of competition for a dynamic market and set conditions for levels of concentration of ownership was missed. This has only negative effects (economic and symbolic) for citizens, users and consumers.

Argentina’s media system, which presents high levels of concentration and a strong presence of foreign capital, also has been affected by the significant growth of high speed Internet service connections. In the upper echelons of society, a type of Web-based audiovisual content consumption is emerging that seeks to consolidate business models, oscillating between free access and pay portals. But there is no regulation here.

The expanding modes and social uses of the media demonstrate the coexistence of a series of phenomena: fragmentation of audiences based on the products offered, crisis of levels of mass consumption, diversity of viewing times (allowed by the Internet and widespread among young people), interaction via social media to discuss contents, and others. Many of these practices are not regulated, and the distribution process and business model, which are growing, have not been integrated either.

While it is true that there is no successful experience that frames this development at the global level, that of Argentina was a lost opportunity with important repercussions for the dynamic of the sectors in the market that generates conditions for a robust political debate.

*Santiago Marino, Ph. D. in Social Science Ciencias Sociales, Master in Communication and Culture. Director of Master in Cultural Industries program and researcher at UBA, UNQ, USAL.

Twitter: @santiagomarino