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Nov 10

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11/10/2006 10:45 AM  RssIcon

Every once in a while, I get asked by the popular press about the future of television. What those folks are really asking about is the future of broadcasting.

But I want to know if they mean television broadcasting’s short-term or long-term future.

Broadcasting, the free call letter station type, is still the best way to reach a lot of people at the same time. Here’s an example:

“The Saints’ return to the Superdome Monday night scored the highest rating ever for ESPN.” That was from an ABC station’s press release referring to last September 25th’s game.

“Viewers in almost 11 million homes had their sets tuned to Monday Night Football.”

In fact, that was the second highest rating ever for a cable broadcast. Only CNN’s coverage of the 1993 debate between Al Gore and Ross Perot rated higher. And, the September 25th’s game had the highest ratings of any network or cable broadcast that night. Football will do that. Good for them.

The average audience for Monday Night Football fell to 16.4 million viewers last season from 16.8 million a year earlier, making for the show’s lowest ratings the lowest ever. Hence the move to ESPN and cable. Still, 16.4 million is 49% more than 11 million. Too bad for MNF’s current advertisers (I wonder if their ad rate is 49% less, too).

At its worst, broadcast still kicked cable’s ass. And it probably always will.

The future of broadcasting...short-term. Forgetting the broadcast versus cable debate (and yes, I know that cable has significantly reduced broadcast’s ratings—I took Introduction to Mass Communications too...heck, I even taught it for a while), broadcast is in trouble. The Internet, IPTV, mobile TV, video games, blah, blah, blah.

To survive in the short term, broadcasters only have to do one thing...provide programming that people actually want to watch. They just need to learn to do that on more than just the TV screen.

The networks are doing that. The business models are a bit shaky, but that will work itself out.

And the local broadcaster? Provide programming that people actually want to watch...exclusive programming.

What do people in your market want to watch that you can negotiate the exclusive rights for? You do that now with syndicated programming, but there is more. Is it a small college sports team or high school sports? Whatever it is, you better find it fast, because you are not the only outlet for network programming in your market.

The future of broadcasting...long-term. To me, long term is 10 years or so. If all the doomsday predictions about America running out of oil are true, then folks won’t be driving as much, unemployment will skyrocket, and there will be less disposable income.

Remember that Intro to Mass Communications class when the professor talked about radio during the Great Depression?

“When Americans listened...they forgot their problems. The radio gave the people entertainment and hope in some of the worst years of their lives.” That’s from the University Museum at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale’s website.

If things become as bad as some people think, at-home entertainment will be the only entertainment for a lot of folks. For some of those, it’ll be free ad-supported broadcasting...maybe even free over-the-air broadcasting, if things get really bad.

If your broadcast programming is “broadcasting” on TV and the Internet (live and VOD), then your future might not be so bleak.

And just as they did in the age of radio in the Great Depression, advertisers will still need to reach your audience.

Of course, the future is uncertain. We might not have an oil-crisis-triggered depression...it might be a recession. But the future of television broadcasting can be bright, just based on what the word “broadcasting” means...and what it delivers.

Michael Silbergleid is the editor and associate publisher of Television Broadcast. He can be reached at msilbergleid@silverknight.com.

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