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Twilight of the Trinity


by Glen Emerson Morris

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The problem facing television advertisers has aptly been described as Titanic. Ratings are down by the bow and sinking, despite which rates, like the stern, continue climbing through the roof. It seems like only a matter of time before this technology sinks out from all but the most affluent advertisers, and even they may find themselves treading water soon.

Anyone wanting to tap out an SOS will find themselves equally out of luck. Recently, Morse code was officially retired as an international media for distress communications because global communication satellites have made it obsolete. This is somewhat ironic, since David Sarnoff raised the money to found NBC from the rich contacts he made as one of the few radio operators in the country in contact with the Carpathia after it rescued survivors from the Titanic. If the Morse code Sarnoff used, if indirectly, to found NBC can become obsolete, it's not surprising broadcast media can too.

The major networks are facing a compound problem. Not only is their technology monopoly obsolete, but so is their business model. From the beginning, the major television networks defined themselves as their service (the network distribution system,) and not their product (TV Shows.) Sure, Hollywood could make films, but only NBC, CBS, and ABC could make them appear on millions of TV screens, simultaneously, in homes coast to coast. So, the networks considered the ability to distribute entertainment more important than owning the content itself. This model is turning out to be gravely flawed in the long term, even if for very forgivable reasons.

In the age of the cellular telephone it's hard to fully appreciate just how cutoff most people were from each other in the first half of this century, and what a technological miracle it was for the CBS and NBC radio and TV networks to offer programming that was heard simultaneously on every network affiliate nationwide. More is made of the completion of the trans-continental railroad, but that only marked the point where America became a single economic entity. The CBS and NBC networks marked to point America became a single cultural entity. For advertisers, it was the beginning of a golden age; millions of consumers in one place, conveniently reached with one buy, and nearly as many free lunches available with media sales reps.

However, despite the free lunches, the price of network ads was far less friendly. Advertisers faced an industry monopoly, with no real alternative to the big three for radio or TV advertising, and the sales reps never let them forget it. Given the number of decades this system was in place, it's not hard to see why options like cable and the Internet were ignored by media buyers long after they were viable alternatives. Unfortunately for advertisers, and especially for the networks, the public didn't ignore cable or the Internet.

Now, it's difficult to avoid the fact that networks are increasingly overvaluing their network service just as network distribution of media is becoming commodity priced. It's also clear that the networks are going to pay for their practice of not owning the content they carried. Content is king on the Internet, and the distribution network is taken for granted. The major networks are dependent on others for content, and they are about to face competition from much better equipped adversaries; a variety of well funded video services from government, religious, consumer, and corporate sources.

Just consider how much competition other governments could give the major networks. Over the next five years, many of the former government financed shortwave broadcast services will migrate to the Internet with video feeds. Names like Radio Moscow, Radio Tokyo, Radio Australia, well known to the relatively small set of international broadcast listeners, will morph into serious competition for what's left of the American television audience.

Some of these services rival or exceed the major networks in quality, and may prove serious competition. The BBC is likely to offer an Internet video service similar to its Internet radio service, which features a variety of audio on demand feeds of its most popular programming. For instance, people can log on to the BBC Website and listen to dozens of back episodes of Allistar Cooke's "Letter to America," a fifteen minute weekly radio commentary he's produced for the BBC for the last fifty years. The BBC has thousands of TV and radio programs it owns and can put on the net at will, unlike the American networks.

The BBC has the content to compete, it just needs the presence. While the BBC could never realistically expect to be carried on as many cable systems as CNN, once broadband Internet service is available to most consumers, the BBC won't need cable systems to be a major player. Neither will a lot of other people, businesses, religions, and (fill in the blank,) and advertisers should take note.

Broadcast television may not quite be ready for retirement yet, but it is sinking, and it's continued decline is a mathematical certainty. It's clear it's time to start considering the alternatives; what lifeboats are available at what price, how cold is the water, how many sharks.

Copyright 1994 - 2010 by Glen Emerson Morris All Rights Reserved

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