THE BLOG

NBC Does Digital...Wrong

05/25/2011 12:30 pm ET
  • Charles Warner Blogger at Media Curmudgeon.com; Teacher at The New School, NYU

The same week that the New York Times announced the "involuntary layoffs" (HR speak for "terminations") of 15 newsroom employees, NBC announced "that it will start a 24-hour local news channel along the lines of cable's New York One. It will de-emphasize the identity of the NBC network's flagship station, WNBC, Channel 4 in New York, rechristening it a 'content center,' and making it one part of a larger local media effort," according to a story in none other than the New York Times.

As newspapers decline in circulation, advertising revenue, and employed newsroom personnel, television stations appear to be attempting to increase news content by using their new digital channels to distribute news to stem the declines in their audience levels and advertising revenue.

WNBC-TV acquired these additional digital channels when Congress passed the Digital Television and Public Safety Act of 2005 that put into law the new digital TV transmission system, which the FCC instituted in order to manage the TV sections of the radio spectrum more efficiently. The law mandated that all TV stations, except a few in small markets, had to broadcast a digital signal by February 17, 2009.

Because digital signals take up less spectrum space than analogue signals and they can carry more data when compressed, less spectrum space is needed, thus allowing the FCC to auction off for billions of dollars portions of the UHF and VHF spectrum to companies that want to use the freed-up spectrum for voice and data services, which is what happened when Verizon and AT&T recently won the majority of the freed-up spectrum in an FCC auction.

Local television stations can use their new digital channels for either two high-definition (HDTV) channels or up to five standard-definition (SDTV) channels. Because TV networks are now delivering HDTV programming, especially in prime time and for major sporting events, virtually all TV stations are broadcasting one HDTV channel and, so, they can have two additional SDTV channel at their disposal. It works out this way because HDTV signals have twice as many lines in them as SDTV signals, thus making them twice as clear, crisp, and lifelike.

NBC's announcement was significant because it was the first TV station to make public its decision of what it was going to do with this new local TV station digital channel capacity. Furthermore, according to the Times:

NBC will begin to take the same steps with the other stations it owns, in cities like Los Angeles, Chicago and Philadelphia. NBC owns 10 stations; two of them, in Miami and Hartford, Conn., are for sale. The reasons for the reshaping of WNBC are tied to the coming expansion in digital capacity for local broadcasters as well as the sharp decline in profitability for local stations. Stations will soon be able to add a number of separate channels as digitalization will make possible the division of the local broadcast spectrum. (NBC may also add a separate channel devoted to local lifestyle coverage, like real estate listings and restaurant reviews.)

Congress created the FCC in 1934 to manage the electromagnetic spectrum to keep radio stations from interfering with each other and to ensure that they would "serve the public good, convenience and necessity." The assumption was that since the spectrum belonged to the public, those who used it free (stations) should pay for it by doing some sort of public service.

The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) and station owners (led by corporate owners) have lobbied away most of the public service requirements over the years in an effort to increase station profit margins. And so what does NBC do with its new digital channel that it gets to use free? It uses it to bolster up its margins (remember CEO Jeff Zucker manages for margins, not ratings, and certainly not for public service) in an attempt to turn around "a sharp decline in profitability for local stations."

NBC asked itself "how can we make more money with these free new channels," not "how can we serve our community better with these free new channels." It probably didn't ask community leaders or its audience what it wanted, either. Why do you think NBC decided to go with a 24/7 local news channel? To serve the public interest? No, it chose news because that's virtually the only product WNBC-TV produces -- news. It can repurpose its news product from WNBC-TV local news to the digital local news channel without hiring any new people. Here's what NBC's John Wallace, president of local media, said:

Though it will offer round-the-clock live news, NBC is not planning to employ additional staff on the new channel, relying instead on expanding the duties of its present employees, many of whom will have to be retrained, Mr. Wallace said. He called it "a work-flow change." He said, "There will be no added staff; we'll just use them differently."

Producers, for example, whose previous focus has been "getting the show on the air at the assigned time," will be re-trained to produce video segments instead of shows, aiming to spread the segments across the various local NBC platforms.

So NBC's decision was not to hire new people, to make its current news personnel work harder, and to make up for declining revenue instead of considering something that might serve the community better than another headline news service to compete with New York One and Cablevision's News 12 news channels.

Of course, NBC didn't ask me, but if it had, I would have suggested that it consider putting up a New York Green channel and fill it with environmental-news-you-can-use content. Many viewers, especially younger viewers with children, are interested in how to save money while they save the environment. Viewers might be thrilled to have a channel that gives them related news stories and tips on how to lower carbon emissions, on how to live greener, on how to save the planet, and to know where local politicians and candidates stand on green issues and what local government is doing to lower emissions.

If you live in New York, what do you think? Do you want repurposed news from WNBC-TV 24/7 or would you like some green niche news? Let WNBC-TV know. Unless we call them out, they won't be motivated to serve the community more than they have to. If you live in a market where NBC owns a TV station, give them a piece of your green mind.

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