I once took a week-long organized guided tour of Guatemala, sponsored by a German manufacturer of chemicals, magnetic tape and film media whose name is no longer relevant, although they did pay my way. The tour was exclusive for writers and editors of professional broadcast and film industry magazines from around the world. Our group toured across Guatemala by bus and plane, and we always attended a daily meeting for an hour or so focused on the theme of “Think globally. Act locally.”
That phrase came to mind while making a list of the most significant challenges facing local TV broadcasters and broadcast television engineers. Not counting EMPs or ISP meltdowns, which should top anyone’s list of technical nightmares, I narrowed my less scary list down to five. Instead of considering it a list of lemons, let's think of it a recipe for local lemonade.
Winning while losing
Opportunity No. 1: Make more money from a shrinking slice of the market pie. Broadcasters have lost control of viewing technologies and trends. The DVR is one example. YouTube, Netflix and Smart TVs are others. Does anyone remember when it was common for a local newscast to win the Nielsen ratings with a 40 or 50 share? What’s a winning share for local news these days? 11 or 12?
The good news is that many local TV stations continue to build a strong local brand. Today, the generally more travelled path to generating more local revenue is to create more original local, repurposed and hyper-content for over-the-air and Internet distribution. The key is the word local.
Different people watch or don’t watch your station for different reasons. What makes your channel different from the other 499 channels on their systems is that every one of your viewers lives in your local market. You can’t out-sports ESPN, out-movie HBO or out-cute Animal Planet, but you can out-local them all. What do local stations do best? They serve their local markets with local content and aggressively promote what they do. They think globally, and act locally.
More with less
If you remember what a broken record sounds like, the phrase “more with less” should remind you of one. “More with less” is a cyclical opportunity, and this cycle is back with a vengeance. Belt-tightening, streamlining and austerity programs aren’t new to local broadcasters, but they are a more difficult test during these times of rapidly evolving technologies, changing viewing habits and business models.
The good news is that station automation is maturing and more affordable, as is automated digital testing and automated spot and program delivery. Automation makes foreseeable operations simple and less expensive, and can sometimes free up qualified people to perform new tasks at the station without the expense of adding heads. Automation adds to local opportunities.
It’s nearly impossible to add new technology or people without a business plan that clearly identifies a healthy return on the investment. That is, of course, except for FCC mandates that don’t generate any return on the investment, unless you include keeping your license and staying on the air. Repacking and UHDTV are on the radar in this category. If any station charges more to air HD spots than SD spots, let me know.
Next on the lemonade list is the Internet, fiber to the home and mobile DTV. Bandwidth available to the general public in many markets by copper, fiber, cellular and RF is providing more room for growth, and dramatically improving many viewer’s Quality of Experience (QofE). The latest research reveals viewers are spending more time with digital devices such as computers, DVDs, video games and smartphones and spending less time watching traditional TV.
The Internet is conduit for content that continues to grow, and it’s driven by much stronger forces than entertainment. At the same time, the number of cable and satellite TV subscribers appears to be diminishing. Possibly the best news in recent memory for local TV broadcasters is the trend of viewers cutting the cable and choosing free over-the-air and the Internet as their television entertainment source. You may have noticed lately that the NAB is currently running an ad campaign touting the community benefits of local broadcasters. It’s another example of thinking globally and acting locally.
Television requires talent at both ends of the camera. The fourth opportunity on the list is the chance to find talented people who fit the broadcasting work ethic and lifestyle. It is like playing the piano; either you get it or you don’t, and there isn’t a much better test for broadcasting talent than working at a TV station. A degree in broadcasting does not make a broadcaster. Poaching a good employee from a competitor doesn’t count. Making a talented broadcaster from a candidate with potential is what counts.
A local broadcast station is a simple sales and marketing operation. Stations exist to sell advertising to advertisers. They necessarily hire people to create, promote and broadcast the programming the ads support. Everyone at a station needs to know how their job fits in and fully understand how others at the station and viewers at home depend on them.
I once heard a television station described as a combination of a factory, a warehouse, a hospital, a sales office and utility company. Not only do those words describe a well-designed broadcast studio facility, they also identify the turf of most of its workers. We create, mend, sell and distribute our product to our market. To do so, particularly under the stress of local news and production, takes more than specialized knowledge and loyalty. It takes talent to keep a station consistently cranking out a quality product 24/7.
Focus on focus
The fifth opportunity has nothing to do with selling ads, yet everything to do with ad sales. It is the need for local TV broadcasters to stay focused on their local market, constantly reminding locals what the station is doing for them. One might call it a “promise, deliver and prove” approach to marketing.
A local TV broadcaster can never serve its local viewers or community too much, and thinking globally and acting locally is exactly what local broadcasters do best. Every station has its niche, and the golden niche for local independents and network affiliates is a high local profile with a reputation for honesty and reliability.
Oops is for rookies
Even local viewers not connected to cable or satellites expect global-class quality and service. That’s what dedicated broadcast engineers provide and plan for. Isn’t it interesting that other sectors of the communications industry don’t always appear to take their similar technical responsibilities quite so seriously? Why is it that those who are paid by viewers and subscribers generally provide worse service than those who give their product and services free of charge to total strangers?
A couple of weekdays ago, cellular service from a major provider in my area failed at 1 p.m. Its cell phones indicated connection but didn’t work. Its cellular broadband network didn’t work either. I called customer service on my landline and was promised that cellular and data service would be restored by the next morning. The next morning? I was glad I kept the copper. Turns out, their system was down during prime time for more than four hours, reportedly because the main fiber was cut. How well would being off the air for four hours during prime time fly at your station? Station towers have fallen and many got back on the air in less time.
A major carrier had a huge single point of failure and didn’t have a workaround, thus demonstrating how to turn what should have been a hiccup into a newsworthy disaster. Apparently, their system was not designed by a broadcast engineer.