John Merli /
12.06.2006 12:00AM
2006 in Review: TV Marries Next-Gen Media
WASHINGTON

What tentatively continued in early 2006 as cautious baby steps by broadcasters toward repurposing their valuable programming to non-traditional venues suddenly accelerated rapidly through the remainder of the year. The past dozen months also witnessed increasing amounts of broadcast content being reproduced for nonbroadcast purposes.

The suddenly ubiquitous presence of network news and TV series on the Internet--made technically feasible by the rapid expansion of broadband--began early this year when "NBC Nightly News" went online nightly following its West Coast feed. Anchor Brian Williams soon began drawing more news junkies to their computers each weekday with his informal "Daily Nightly" office chats previewing the evening's tentative story lineup.

To compete, ABC News began producing a live weekday online-only Webcast, which it streams several hours before airing the traditional "ABC World News" on the network. That same daily Webcast (with commercials) can then be downloaded free for several days from Apple's iTunes Store. (ABC News said the Webcast was prompting about 5 million downloads monthly by early fall.)

And not to be outdone, when Katie Couric took over at CBS News after Labor Day, her evening broadcast tried to do her competitors one better: Her East Coast feeds immediately began streaming and airing live, simultaneously, on the CBS News Web site and on local stations.

GAUGING GOOTUBE

The broadband-accessible universe for news and other video content took on larger possible implications for broadcasters this fall when Google purchased online upstart YouTube for an eye-popping $1.65 billion.

"Online video is exploding," said Josh Bernoff, principal analyst with Forrester Research. "It's not just YouTube. It's video of all kinds, from amateur to niche to shows that look a lot like television. It used to be it took a million consumers to make a show successful. In the online world, now, you can make money with far less."

Bernoff believes broadcasters need to understand they are now in the business of "bankrolling and promoting shows even more than broadcasting them, and that extends online." For the most part, he said, the industry has made a very rapid transition to this way of thinking in the last 12 months, which he finds "amazingly fast for such an established and traditional industry."

As for the YouTube deal, not everyone sees it as greatly affecting broadcasters, for now: "Zero impact," said veteran engineer and consultant Mark Schubin, "except insofar as broadcasters having a bigger target to sue for copyright in Google. Note the hundreds of thousands of clips that have been pulled since the [YouTube] sale was announced," he said.

HD CONFUSION LESSENS

Consumer acceptance of HDTV continued to accelerate this year, with prices predictably falling and sales increasing. A third emerging format, 1080p, added another sexy option for early adopters. By the end of the holiday season this month, American HD household penetration will approach 25 percent, while research indicates about a quarter of those homes owns two or more HD sets.

"Consider only three consumer products have ever cost more than $1,000 and sold in the millions of units: cars, PCs, and HDTV sets," Bernoff said. "I think Blu-ray versus HD DVD will continue to confuse consumers and create a hiccup in the DVD market for a year or so, but HDTV is still going strong. It's the cable and satellite operators that need to crank up their marketing and educational efforts for HDTV service, which is still widely misunderstood by consumers," Bernoff said.

REHR EYES POLITICAL SHIFT

When David Rehr took over at NAB this year, his strong Republican contacts were seen as a plus. Following November's elections that swept the GOP out of power on Capitol Hill, Rehr reassured NAB members (via the trade press) not to worry--that NAB is well-positioned to deal again with familiar Democratic leaders in both houses, despite the fact that his hand-picked lobby team skews a bit Republican for now.

Addressing the National Press Club in Washington this fall, Rehr called on broadcasters to renew their inherent strengths--especially localism. He also echoed some remarks from his first national convention address last spring, again prompting broadcasters to become more pro-active in pursuing industry priorities.

DEADLINE REDUX

In February, Congress officially extended the deadline for an industry-wide analog cut-off to Feb. 17, 2009. (The original cut-off was this month.) But while Washington may be counting on growing consumer awareness to help lessen the chances for any nightmare caused by the eventual turnoff, some analysts warned this year that the government is not doing nearly enough to alert Americans to the pending overnight switch in 26 months.

In July, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration proposed giving $40 subsidy coupons to purchase converter boxes only to those households that were not subscribed to either cable or satellite service (projected to be 16-18 percent of all U.S. television households). NAB and others view the proposal as too restrictive and potentially calamitous.

Schubin also is among the NTIA's critics: "What plan? When the CEA, the NAB, MSTV, and [Congress] all agree that NTIA's supposed proposal is wrong, I think they will change things."

WHITE SPACES

In October, the FCC took initial steps to allow low-power unlicensed devices to operate in "white spaces," the broadcast spectrum not currently assigned or being used. It will not allow fixed devices to operate in Channel 37 (radio astronomy and medical services); channels 52-69 (public safety and other mobile services); or channels 14-20 (public safety service in several cities).

NAB and MSTV, however, have cited studies demonstrating that unlicensed devices in white spaces could be an interference nightmare. Yet with major telecom legislation tied up in the Senate that includes white spaces, the November elections could make a big difference in how the overall bill fares, among other things.

Sens. Ten Stevens (R-Alaska) and Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) serve as co-chairs of the Commerce, Science & Transportation Committee--although Stevens, as the higher of equals--has been pushing the FCC to move faster on white spaces. At the same time, a key cosponsor of the white spaces provision is Sen. George Allen (R-Va.). Allen was defeated last month and will not return to Congress; Stevens will lose his chairmanship to Inouye next month, although a cochair arrangement likely will continue.



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