11/22/2008 08:11 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Making TV Local Again

Here's a scenario for you to consider. It's just a possibility, but I believe it could become reality. If the U.S. auto industry shuts down, local TV advertising by auto dealers will quickly dry up. Even if the Big 3 declare bankruptcy, consumers are not likely to want to buy a car from an automaker in that situation. If consumers don't buy cars, local dealers won't continue to buy advertising time on your local TV station. Those dealers are, typically, one of the biggest sources of local revenue for the TV folks. When that happens, you can pretty much figure out what happens. The dominoes continue to fall and the local stations trim already slim budgets even more. They still have huge costs associated with powerful transmitters and sizable staff.

Enter the low power broadcasters. I'm betting that many of you reading this don't even know they exist. Cable and satellite systems don't carry them because they aren't forced to by the FCC. Unless you use rabbit ears or an outside antenna to pick up your local TV signals, you probably have never seen the low power stations that likely populated your area. There are, in fact, hundreds of them scattered around the nation.

Some of them just pass through specialized, niche, programming. However, many operate much the way local radio did twenty years ago. You remember the days, the emphasis on local events - news, sports, weather, even funerals. Yes, I once worked for a very popular small market radio station where we led the noon news every day with funeral notices!

These low power, low cost, TV stations reach a limited area but can, in many cases, provide information and entertainment not available on the full-power outlets. It's not network quality material, but people do watch. Because they want to see the local high school football game, even if it's from a single camera perched in the stands. They want to see a local guy hosting a talk show, taking their calls. They want to see a program featuring bargains from local stores. And (and here's the key) they will visit the businesses that sponsor the programs. Yes, indeed, just like the old days of radio, these low power TV stations can drive customers to the Main Street Diner at costs FAR less than spots on their full-power counterparts.

If viewers begin to jettison expensive cable and satellite contracts, they'll be forced to return to local broadcast stations, both full and low power. The full power stations may offer multiple channels on their digital tiers, but few are using those new channels to do much that is truly local. That's where viewers might discover the low power stations that exist in their area and decide they don't need the bells and whistles of the full power stations, opting for true neighborhood information. IF (and it's a big IF) cash-strapped viewers are willing to give up cable and satellite, they might discover the "other world" of television. I'm betting, however, that cable and satellite are far down the list of cuts that most viewers are willing to make.

Perhaps they should re-prioritize. Dig out that old portable TV with the rabbit ears. Scan through the channels. You might be surprised by what you'll find!