The next rebirth of the media

November 29, 2004

We naturally assign great importance to things that are right in our faces. With the media, we’re impressed with all those new television channels because we see all the programs they carry. We know high definition TV is big because we see the flat screens and the flawless pictures. We may notice that more and more music, radio and TV are poking onto the Internet.

But we don’t really get it, not the big picture. In fact, the entire media landscape is undergoing basic, fundamental, change. A decade from now, much of what we take for granted will be morphed beyond recognition.

What’s vanishing is technical scarcity, and media franchises built on scarcity — as most are — will either remake themselves or die.

That’s a conclusion you couldn’t help but draw from a recent four-day gathering of academics and executives that I attended on the future of television, held in New York by the International Radio and Television Society Foundation.

Start with what media analyst Tom Wolzien calls the capacity explosion — exemplified by the DSLs, cable modems, wireless and other Internet hookups — which has multiplied the number and size of information channels we get.

Add the rampant growth in home media capabilities, especially the ability to put aside content and view it when you like. Wolzien estimates the capacity to store movies, music and data of all kinds at home is rising 72 percent a year, while storage costs are falling. What it costs to keep 57 movies today will store 2,000 five years from now.

With broadband Internet flowing in to your PC, personal video recorder, IPOD, even your cellphone, you will be able to access what you like, when you like.

That’s good for some. For others, it’s a calamity. Think about TV broadcast network affiliates, as a group of us did at the IRTS conference. Affiliates are the core of the TV industry. The networks — chiefly ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox — reach much of the population through major market stations they own. But for nationwide reach, they rely on affiliation contracts with hundreds of independently owned stations, which make a good deal of their money selling ads alongside network programs.

Those affiliates are hugely profitable, and if our analysis was correct, they are heading for extinction.

Why? For starters, their technology is obsolescent. Because over-air TV signals have a limited radius, networks needed local stations to retransmit programs. But now, some 90 percent of households get TV via cable or satellite.

Plus, the rising audience generation expects to download content from the Internet onto computers and recording devices, watching whenever they please on their monitors — now reborn as household TV sets.

TV will migrate to the Net, and if networks can reach a national audience online, why bother with costly affiliation contracts? By cutting out the needless re-transmitters they keep the entire advertising dollar.

But what becomes of broadcast affiliates once they’re no longer affiliates — indeed, once they’re no longer broadcasters either, since their audiences won’t be getting them over-the-air either? When you click on to your online news and entertainment options, why will you choose your local ex-ABC affiliate?

You won’t, unless it has something unique to offer — namely, the very content that has been most sorely neglected in the current era of non-regulation: local programming.

By this logic, the surviving TV ex-affiliates will be local content specialists, with intensely local news and current affairs programming the heart of their operations: From micro-coverage via C-SPAN-style narrowcasts of local government, to real-time traffic updates, to aggressive development of all manner of nonfiction programming, including weather, talk, sports, schools, condo and civic association politics, consumer affairs, even local music and arts.

They would partner with other information providers — the local business paper, alternative weekly, student press, community rags — and become an online portal that links to coverage from parts of their communities that are now voiceless.

This strategy would put affiliates on a collision course with metro newspapers, which are way ahead in becoming premier online local news sources. But TV stations have the local franchise for pictures and sound. And that’s where the online informational world is heading.

By competing aggressively some will survive, and it’s competition that might actually end up leaving the public better informed and better served.

Correction: Clear Channel informs me they own 1,200 radio stations, not 1,300, as I wrote in my last column.

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