Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Looming End To Broadcast Television

I was born in 1948, the year the first commercial, broadcast television programming commenced and even on our very rural ranch way out in the Yellowstone-Teton nook of Idaho, I don’t remember a time when we didn’t have a television. My parents and paternal grandparents were always proud that Philo T. Farnsworth, a pivotal pioneer in the technology that made television possible , grew up in Rigby, Idaho.

Once we traveled the gravel road down the Upper Snake River Valley from our west Fremont County ranch back across the Henry’s Fork and then across Fall River to connect to US Hwy 20 at Chester, Rigby was one of the last of a string of small towns including St. Anthony, Sugar City and Rexburg, dotting the route of our semi-annual treks to the stockyard auctions in Idaho Falls and back when we didn’t head north over the Stateline to equidistant Bozeman, Montana instead.

As far back as memory serves me, until I had too many chores, I remember turning on the television each morning to watch what was called the Indian Head “Test Pattern” prior to when programming commenced. My bed each night was a pull-out Davenport sofa under a north-facing big picture window in our living room so I didn’t have far to go. I also remember that well into my teens, we watched the American flag waving while the national anthem played before stations went “off the air” for the night.

I won’t be surprised if my lifetime brackets the beginning and end of broadcast television. Its days are clearly numbered. I already see a day very soon when producers will deliver content directly to homes via the Internet and even cable and satellites will just be conduits to the web.

We’ll probably download selected shows the way we do movies now from Netflix and create our own networks of content. All of those broadcast TV signal towers that private pilots must dodge will be gone or, if left standing, will be mere reminder of another era along with networks and affiliates of another era.

You can hear the murmur of this transformation as ESPN, one of the earliest cable channels, re-directs viewers to the web to see programming although for the time-being, they require proof of a cable or satellite subscription.

Nielsen may also cease to exist because measuring viewership will shift to things used for web analytics. So-called “market areas,” contrived of huge spans of counties to reap as much as possible from unsuspecting advertisers, will more realistically devolve back to the neighborhood level where viewers may be able to select communication about products rather than having to dodge those arbitrarily sent to them.

We owe a lot to the original three networks I remember, ABC, CBS and NBC and especially to local TV stations back when they really were local as in “your community.” That’s when the “D” truly stood for Durham in WTVD (broadcasting since 1954) and the “Ral” stood for Raleigh in WRAL (broadcasting since 1956.) In fact those original VHF channels were designated for cities back then, something lost on today’s broadcasters.

Without local affiliates needed to provide delivery it will be interesting to see if the new delivery technologies will be adapted to increase local programing and delivery. Local news may truly devolve back to being genuinely“local” as viewers will have the means to receive much more relevant content down to the neighborhood and street level rather than the 22-county, two-sound-bite travelogues that substitutes that masquerade as local news today.

Of course, broadcasting networks and affiliates aren’t alone in coping with extinction and we can’t underestimate what a challenge it will be for them to realize their anticipated profits and investments out of gradually irrelevant and obsolete capital costs. Just ask the owners and investors in traditional landline telephone companies.

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