Local Broadcasters Can’t Catch A Break. Mostly Their Fault.

A writer’s strike, shitty programming and the Internet. Oh my!

Viewer’s are leaving appointment television by the droves and broadcasters are scrambling to do something, anything to keep them firmly planted on the couch during prime time. I’ve covered the topic of declining viewers in the past, but the trend in hemorrhaging viewership of major network programming and in turn local broadcast stations is accelerating, even as the number of overall television viewers are up and as many cable shows enjoyed their best ratings during the month of April. The “Big Four” networks lost 9% of their viewers over the 2008 April/May period from 2007 and last year they were already down 5% from 2006.

Image courtesy Los Angeles Independent Media Center

During the writer’s strike from November 5, 2007 to February 12, 2008 broadcast networks complained in advance that their ratings would suffer, but that it was a temporary setback in their business. Well, enough time has passed for the numbers to come out and set a table for them to eat their words. A good summary of the broadcast losers and cable winners over the past few months can be found here.

Local broadcasters lose along with the large networks simply because they’ve tied their fortunes to them for so long and most refuse to ween themselves from the sweet teat of content their parent organization provides. This is the case despite the fact that most local broadcasters have a news and production department and have the ability to create programs other than carbon-copy newscasts with thin content. With really nothing of worth on the horizon from the big four, it looks like even tougher times are cracking the dam and the flood waters are about to break loose.

Not only is there the proliferation of popular original content by cable providers, telco companies are getting in on the act by way of “triple play” services of their own through Verizon’s FiOS and the AT&T U-Verse service.

Dinosaurs of the broadcast television age.

There are many other reasons broadcasters need to be concerned:

  • Even after being force-fed the poor content contribution from the parent networks, broadcasters still haven’t figured out how to leverage themselves into “new media” – code for “The Internet”. Although all broadcast stations have a website, only a few actively promote it and work to cross-pollinate content between their web presence and the broadcast medium. Fewer still have channels on YouTube or look to push some of their content online and work alternative business models in an blatant, lame attempt to keep people watching the 30-second spot during a show they schedule at a specific time.
  • With so little attention being paid to their online presence (or lack thereof) one would expect that local broadcasters would be working feverishly to create some fresh and exciting programming to bring their viewers back. And anyone who thought that would be wrong. Only a few stations like KPIX’s “Eye on the Bay” and WCVB’s “Chronicle” (and a few others) make the effort and reap the benefits of it. When was the last time a local TV station produced a local show (even a newscast) that they felt they had to tune in and watch?
  • Sales of DVRs connected to satellite and cable providers are skyrocketing. This isn’t the fault of the broadcaster, but it is a reality that continues to gain in popularity and that broadcasters will have to deal with as users skip past the 30-second spots.
  • While broadcasters hope that their audience is so enamored with their “quality programming” that they will rush out to buy off-air antennas and coupon converter boxes to watch the free over-the-air DTV signals they provide and then sit back down in front of a TV at a specific time, the cable companies are looking forward to the transition date as they expect to gain most of the 10% of OTA viewers that lose their analog signal.
  • Another less than helpful development is the FCC’s “localism” proposal. More stringent paperwork requirements that have nothing to do with making the station “more local” will drain resources and manpower for other business efforts while contributing nothing to the local television product. The idea that local stations currently aren’t responsive to local issues and events is utter bullshit. Anyone that’s spent any time in a local TV station’s newsroom knows that the sole focus is about being on the scene first to report about even the most trivial of happenings (e.g. fender-benders, salad bars that can kill you, nine liveshots during the ‘A’ Block at 11pm in the dark parking lot of courthouse about a trial that happened at 2pm, etc.).
  • As broadband Internet service continues to spread across the nation and increase in speed IPTV will continue to evolve and provide a competitive platform to cable, telco and traditional broadcasters. This year Japan is running trials of a new Internet Television set that they hope to have on the market by early next year. Well, if anyone can do it, the Japanese can!
  • And, if formal, buttoned-down businesses getting into the content creation and delivery game wasn’t enough bad news, what do broadcasters do when the average person can do it with just the cost of a computer, a webcam and a decent connection to the Internet? My guess is “run in circles, scream and shout“. Services like Yahoo! Live and UStream make this possible and roll out new features and capabilities regularly. Not everything on these and similar sites are really “compelling” viewing, but for every hour spent here, they are not spent in front of a traditional television.

The new 'Broadcaster'.

While many of the issues above are out of the control of broadcasters, the fact that over the years they paid no attention to their over-the-air signal (except to force “must carry” on a cable system) and as a result they lost the exact people they want to retain with this coupon converter box program. I lost track of how many times I lobbied for my stations over the years to promote its free, over-the-air HD programming on the transmitters we spent millions building, but was regularly rebuked because they were afraid to “lose” a viewer should the Nielsen home not be counted if they happened to be watching the digital signal instead of the analog one. Well, live by the fear of Nielsen; die by the fear of Nielsen. Years ago, many stations gave away small, outdoor UHF Yagi antennas to viewers that called in and asked for one. Good luck getting anything free, outside of the broadcast signal, from your local TV station today.
One shining ray of hope for broadcasters, and what almost all are pinning their futures on, is their current effort to deploy free mobile digital television via their DTV transmitters by early 2009. This assumes there’s anything worth watching and much of an audience – especially a young one – to care.