McAdams On: Mt. Wilson
9/11/2009 12:29:42 PM
Los Angeles just came dangerously and almost unknowingly close to losing its Emergency Alert System. The Angeles National
Forest Station Fire took out around 250 square miles and came within shouting
distance of Mt. Wilson, where virtually all the city’s TV and radio
transmitters reside. Even if the tower and building structures, many of them
concrete, survived, power sources and transmission lines were vulnerable to
fire. A telephone line through which the Mt. Wilson Observatory transmitted
live Web shots went down for several days.
There were folks who commented on the coverage here to the effect that the
transmitters didn’t matter much. The majority of households have cable or
satellite, and therefore would have been unaffected by the loss of broadcast TV
Such was the attitude in Congress when the DTV transition deadline was
established a couple of years ago; less so this year, when the new
administration had to deal with it. But the attitude remains. Who cares about
broadcast television? It would sometimes appear that network executives don’t
considering the loss of reception many of us experienced post-transition. Fox
and ABC here in L.A. have generally given me a “that’s too bad” brush-off.
We all know the broadcast industry missed the boat with DTV, when it could have
hammered home the message of free,
multichannel service. I was told confidentially that broadcasters didn’t
promote their own service more for fear of losing advertising from cable operators.
I will not share here my thoughts about that particular excuse; they’re rather
There are still millions of homes in the country that rely exclusively on
over-the-air television for everyday reception. I’ve never seen demographic
details, but I suspect they’re a very mixed bag. The assumption on Capital Hill
and among many is that broadcast-reliant households are inhabited by toothless
hillbillies, confused senior citizens and illegal immigrants. I am none of the
above, and I don’t have a pay TV service.
The reality of over-the-air reliance is actually much greater than lobby-stoked
hot air would let on. Telecom companies, which still have the most powerful
lobbyists on Capital Hill, have long agitated for the spectrum occupied by
broadcasters and have long shaped the debate around broadcast TV. Thus, the
perception that only a handful of destitute slackers rely on it persists, quite
Every household in the United States depends on broadcast TV and radio. It
remains the nation’s singular Emergency Alert System, and is the only one that
can reach more people than any other communications platform in existence. Not
everybody tweets, texts, Facebooks, e-mails or otherwise has their nose buried
in an iPhone. Even if they did, these platforms depend on networks with more
nodes and therefore more vulnerability than broadcasting (though the Station
Fire was a searing lesson in singularities).
As unfashionable as broadcasting is, and as passé as it seems to be, it still
represents one of the most important infrastructures in this country. The
people of New Orleans know this. The people of Los Angeles came dangerously
close to finding out.