Changing TV economics prompts fresh thinking about public airwaves

by Alex Alben, Seattle Times

When I was growing up in New York City in the 1960s, the local TV station that played the "Rocky and His Friends" show didn't go on the air Saturday mornings until 7 a.m. . This didn't stop my brother, Theo, and me from camping out in front of our family's TV set with its rabbit-ear antenna and watching the test pattern until the iconic moose and squirrel zoomed onto the screen.

Growing up in broadband Seattle today, my son and daughter have different challenges. The latest is how to post video from YouTube onto their MySpace sites. They watch video "on demand," on the Internet, TiVo and DVD. They rarely have to wait to see what they want within seconds of when they want it.

The rules of the TV game are changing rapidly. In the olden days before YouTube and iTUNES, television networks primarily distributed first-run programming like "Lost" or "CSI" through their owned and operated TV stations and their network of local station affiliates around the country.

Now the major networks are experimenting with making prime-time hits available directly from their Web sites or Internet portals. The concept of a local station monopoly on "appointment TV" is fading away. It will be replaced by prime-time programming "on demand."

Shifting economics between the networks and their affiliates already reflect this. We increasingly live in an age in which producers of high-quality TV shows will go directly to the consumer to monetize their investment.

This sea change in TV economics is occurring against the background of a mandatory review by the Federal Communications Commission of local TV station ownership rules and regulations. For example, the commission will consider lifting the ban against a newspaper also owning a TV station in its local market. Advocates of lifting the ban say that news quality will actually improve, if a local TV outlet can draw upon the depth and experience of local print reporters. Besides, the argument goes, in a world where people can go to the Internet any moment of the day to get news from sources around the world, the concept of maintaining independent control between territorial news outlets is outmoded.

The problem with an "anything goes" approach to media ownership is that it fails to take into account the forces working against diversity of opinion in the brave new digital world we live in. While it is certainly true that tens of millions of bloggers now blog daily about anything (and everything), the large media companies also enjoy tremendous power on the Internet and new digital networks. Most people don't get their news-sports-weather-finance information from a random set of blogs. Rather, they find high-quality programming from The Wall Street Journal, New York Times and network sites such as

The name of the game these days is getting Google and other search engines to find your site, either through paid key-word search or "search engine optimization." Major media companies, which are also broadcast owners, have the resources and right to make sure their sites are found and advertised, and as a result they will continue to enjoy the vast majority of "viewership" measured by online page views.

The fact that a fresh opinion can be found on an obscure blog doesn't mean that our government should change the way it regulates the responsibilities of television stations to offer local programming. In fact, in a world where the producers of high-budget film and television will increasingly "dial direct" to users' video terminals, local stations might find an opportunity to invest more in creating quality local programming, where they don't have competition from large media enterprises.

Imagine programs that drew inspiration from local topics: the post-Grunge music scene; the geologic time bomb of our local range of volcanoes; our distinctive coffee culture; or the amazing talent of Seattle's entrepreneurial geeks.

Local stations, after all, enjoy a government monopoly on a finite resource — the spectrum for VHF and UHF broadcast signals. To continue to enjoy their monopoly, local stations file simplified forms every few years when their FCC licenses come up for renewal. There are very few requirements to offer locally generated programming or even local news.

Most stations make their money by inserting their local ads into reruns of "Seinfeld" and other secondhand programming. Local TV needs to do more than simply exist as an "over the airwaves" channel for the distribution of content available in other formats.

Despite the changing economics of video distribution, is it really too much to ask that local stations address the informational interests of the people within the regions they are chartered to serve? If we let the FCC do away with all limits, we should expect that local TV programming will begin to look more and more like the static "test patterns" of an era long gone.

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The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey