Access to information, the channels through which it travels, and the ability to store it can be described as the foundations and building blocks of the mediated communication process. These were all scarce resources both in the physical and electronic mass media ages. Scarcity, asserts McChesney (2013), “is necessary for something to have value in exchange and to augment private riches” (p. 218). Indeed, scarcity in itself contributed to two fundamental processes: (a) it allowed the control of communications by the few at the expense of the many, and as a result it was also a source of power through which social control could be achieved; and (b) it served as a justification for intervention in and regulation of communications and the media by governments and other bodies of authority.
The relationship between the scarcity of information, its distribution networks, the capacity to store it, and the desire to control it is as old as human-mediated communications. It originated in communication on stone, clay, parchment, and papyrus and continued in the invention of paper and the printing press. The physical elements over which communicated messages were transmitted were both limited and often either costly or requiring expertise to produce. The ability to create messages that these media would transfer was (and still is) reliant on the acquisition of the appropriate skill set through different kinds of educational processes. As Meyrowitz (2010) notes, the mastery of writing, as an example of a communication process, is not a “natural human ability, [thus] writing systems segregate those who can read and write from those who cannot. Different stages of mastery of writing and reading foster different levels of authority” (p. 57). Hence, once human societies’ communication was reliant on mediation through technological means, the door opened to a variety of control mechanisms, mostly possible owing to a scarcity problem: of material, space, or education.
Scarcity, therefore, dictated the structure of media industries and contributed to the ability to control them. The technological limitations of so-called old media, which contributed to this scarcity, were exploited to achieve and maintain dominance and authority. While these patterns date to the beginning of human societies, they endured and strengthened with the appearance of electronic media. The technological limitations of the old media, which contributed to scarcity, justified the social control of content (Verhulst, 1998). It was scarcity of the electromagnetic spectrum that dictated the evolving structure of electronic media in the USA (Krasnow & Goodman, 1998), even though some media historians question the justification for the commercially controlled design that emerged as a consequence (Douglas, 1987; McChesney, 1993). And scarcity was also the rationale behind the development of public service broadcasting in Europe, established in an economy of scarcity (Jakubowicz, 2010; Verhulst, 1998).
The outcome of scarcity-induced regulation of media is detrimental to the choices made regarding the information that is eventually available over the distribution system or media channels. Both the physical scarcity that served as the impetus for a limited number of broadcasters, and the economic scarcity that led to the creation of cable and telephone monopolies contributed in time to the evolution of a scarcity of content—or at least to the fear of such an evolution (Schejter & Yemini, 2007). Traditional policy dictated the management of the scarce resource of information because the “[o]ccupancy of scarce analogue spectrum or ownership of costly production and distribution infrastructure created barriers to entry and reinforced existing value chain dominance” (Brown, 2013, p. 220). The outcomes were regulatory measures seeking “diversity” to ensure decentralization and diffusion of voices, measures whose need and success is a matter of opinion.4
Indeed, scarcity was a major cause for the distortion of free communications and a key consideration in the regulation of media systems. The introduction of new technologies challenged the scarcity explanation (Sanz, 2014). Abundance of information, of channels to access it, and of space to store it are an achievable contemporary norm. The digital transition and packet form of communications allow much information to travel far and fast and require very little space for its storage. The digital environment in which contemporary communications operate has transformed from operating within economics of scarcity to functioning within economics of abundance (Kushida, Murray, & Zysman, 2015). One illustration of the magnitude of this abundance can be gleaned from the following figures. While in 1960 the number of media minutes theoretically available in the typical American household divided by the number of minutes of actual consumption was 98, in 2005 it was 20,493 (Neuman, 2010). In other words, there are currently “about two weeks...of unique mediated content theoretically available for every minute of every day” (Ibid, p. B9).
Contemporary abundance has been described in different terms, including abundance of information (Neuman, 2010), communicative abundance (Fenton, 2010), “true media” abundance (Corn-Revere, 2010), audiovisual abundance (Gariataonandia & Garmendia, 2009), digital abundance (De Vinck & Lindmark, 2014), knowledge abundance (Stewart, 2015), and content abundance (Goodman, 2004). However, many of the social patterns that characterized the old media forms were preserved. This happened even though the dominance of the information dissemination and acquisition process has at times moved to the hands of new actors that did not exist previously. In the world of distribution and consumption of news, for example, news aggregators such as Google and Yahoo! took over the role previously held by the news media, disrupting accepted norms and challenging existing business models (Greenberg, 2013). However, these changes in themselves did not necessarily translate into diversity in the content of these news portals (Fenton, 2010), nor in the media themselves (Redden & Witschge, 2009). In fact, “there is growing evidence that despite an abundance of choice, media content tends to be replicated across platforms” (Webster & Ksiazek, 2012, p. 51), and as Karpinnen (2009) points out, “there is little consensus on whether the technological and socio-cultural changes in the contemporary media environment have actually led to a meaningful plurality of voices and whether there is more or less diversity than before” (p. 152).
Incumbent industrial structures as well need to reinvent themselves to cater to customers in the new environment (Einav & Lipson, 2015). At the same time, the lack of full comprehension of the nature of the fragmentation of media audiences (Webster & Ksiazek, 2012) challenged accepted models of revenue derived from advertising (Leurdijk, Nieuwenhuis, & Poel, 2014) but are yet to result in an accepted sustainable model for the industry. Early observers of the transition in contemporary media (at a time that of our four characteristics only abundance was apparent) argued that in fact the new environment would not develop differently than its predecessors did but would also be subject to strategies, in particular to be used by intermediary service providers, that would work to monopolize the market, which would eventually fail to satisfy the needs and interests of all citizens and consumers (Mansell, 1999). Indeed, “abundance of media content, contrary to the claims of de-regulators, is not a basis for the dis?mantling of media policy. Rather, new media dynamics require new policy approaches” (Goodman, 2004, p. 1393).