When I was a kid, broadcast TV was king. We would wait all week for The Wonderful World of Disney on Sunday night, and all year for the networks to show The Wizard of Oz again. Now you can probably get The Wizard of Oz anytime you want on pay-per-view, if you don't already own some version of it on DVD. But everybody's too busy to watch it, because there are 200 cable, satellite and radio channels to wade through.
Today my kids don't even know that TV is available over the air with a rabbit-ear antenna. They think of broadcast television as the sorry, provincial little local station that employs those unknown, hairsprayed news anchors they see advertised in billboards over the highway.
I went to the National Association of Broadcasters conference this year. One of the big news stories there was that the head of the group for 20 years, Eddie Fritts, was retiring. A lot of people seemed to really love this guy, but I didn't know much about him, so I didn't write about his retirement.
It seems to me that today's broadcasters don't need another seasoned lobbyist like Fritts to fight for their interests in the hallowed halls of government. What they need is a really good technology visionary. They need someone to show them they are no longer in the business they think they are in the business of broadcasting local-interest news and feature stories, or what broadcasters call "localism." They are networking companies now.
Broadcasters have been given a 19-Mbit/second digital channel to the American home. That's one heck of a gift. But they haven't done much of anything with it yet. They pretty much have all the digital broadcasting gear they need, and they are buying some high-def equipment as the prices come down. A rare few of them sometimes even have conversations about what it might be like if they tried to broadcast stuff to all those people out there with cell phones and PCs. Imagine that!
It's true that broadcasters are sort of in a funny world. They have a one-way net in an interactive Web world. They have zero control over what kinds of receivers people can buy to get their content.
But they have their own issues they need to come to grips with. As a group, they remind me of my Unitarian church. There is always some dissenter who will argue against any new idea, and there is never enough money available to implement half the good ideas people think up even if you could get everybody to agree on them.
The average broadcaster is just too busy trying to track down and pump up a local story for the 6 o'clock news to think about what business they really ought to be in. And their trade group, NAB, is too focused on cozying up to Beltway power brokers to think differently about the industry's future.
TV broadcasters could build a really cool U.S. network again someday. But they will need a Good Witch of the West to show them how to follow the Yellow Brick Road that modern technology has paved for them.
By Rick Merritt, editor at-large for EE Times