Over the past few months, it has become hard to avoid stories about cable customers cutting the cord, declining broadcast ratings, increased viewing of streaming TV and advertisers moving budgets from TV to digital video.
Even TV executives are beginning to admit that the thing they feared most is finally happening -- technology is enabling fundamental shifts in TV viewing and business models. We're not yet in an on-demand, a la carte world, but today more than ever consumers can get what they want on their terms.
And large media companies are responding:
- CBS introduced CBS All Access, proving networks can reach viewers directly, without TV stations or cable companies
- HBO announced that HBO Go will be available as early as April to viewers without cable subscriptions
- Dish launched a low-cost streaming programming bundle called "Sling TV," with Sony and Verizon right behind, enabling viewers to drop cable in favor of these less expensive online options
But what about local stations? While it's not easy for CBS, HBO and Dish to make these moves, it's easier for them than for the local stations they are leaving behind. When CBS goes to consumers directly, stations become optional. When Dish provides streaming ESPN, stations are left out of that bundle.
It's one of the reasons local media is a tough business these days. Newspapers felt the tech pinch first, thanks to online classifieds and national news sites. On the web, Patch tried valiantly but failed to make a business out of local news. Local radio is dealing with Sirius and Pandora, and now local TV stations are beginning to feel the crunch.
Is it inevitable that TV stations suffer the same fate as their print counterparts? Will they too slash newsroom staffs, rely more and more on syndicated, national content and let advertisers encroach on editorial?
And does it really matter?
The answer to that last question is -- loudly -- "yes." It matters a great deal, because credible local journalism plays a vital role in our communities.
Think of the stories broken and covered by local stations that have made an impact on our lives -- the first protests in Ferguson, Mo., the deadly San Bruno gas explosion and its complex aftermath, the Boston Marathon bombings even the shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald in 1963 -- all stories broken and covered by local television station reporters and photographers.
Are we willing to leave government oversight to the Internet? Is it enough for a blogger with a buddy at city hall to decide when to report corruption? Or, not to report it, depending on the buddy's involvement?
Even the little stories that enrich our experience of our communities -- the new restaurant, the museum opening, the heroic crossing guard. We're not going to learn about those with a Google algorithm or by scanning Yelp reviews.
Local TV doesn't have to suffer the same fate as other local media. The future for stations is not as gloomy as it was for their print predecessors. Television stations can reinvent themselves and serve viewers moving online. It won't be easy but it will be far easier than it was for newspapers, for several reasons:
- Unlike escalating costs of presses and paper, the cost to produce high-quality television has plummeted in recent years. It's one way in which television has benefitted from advances in technology.
- Unlike the Internet 15 years ago, the environment for online television is relatively developed. Nearly every home has devices capable of streaming video -- smart TVs, tablets, computers and phones. Stations don't have to launch online programming in hopes that audiences will come. TV audiences are already online, and advertisers are there too, embracing online video at healthy rates.
- Online TV consumption is largely of on-demand programming, not live streams. On-demand programs are much less expensive to produce and require much less infrastructure than live programming, and there is a great deal of overlap in the skills needed to produce for the existing broadcast business and the new digital one.
The hard parts?
- Admitting there's a problem. Too many TV station executives are not acknowledging the trends, and are not making plans for their digital streaming future.
- Figuring out new programming. It's likely that local news, done the way it's been done for decades, will need to evolve to suit an online audience. No time like the present to figure out how.
- Investing, hiring and planning to support the digital future. This is actually easy, once you've done #1. Costs to get into streaming TV are low and increasingly the right hires for digital will serve broadcast well too.
Local station leaders are fond of describing themselves as stewards of the public trust. They hold licenses to use our airwaves and they have a history of supporting local institutions and serving their communities with strong local reporting.
If they take their stewardship seriously, they must make sure they survive the coming changes so that stewardship can continue.