McAdams On: Rebranding Broadcast, May 16, 2011

NOT A NEWSFLASH: Broadcast television needs an extreme makeover. First of all, why are we still using the term “broadcast?” The industry needs a new descriptive. Desperately. The other guys co-opted “innovation.” Broadcast came along and said, “We innovate, too. Mobile DTV!” Too late. The spectrum vultures own the word. (And, um, mobile video’s kind of been out there for years.)

Broadcasting has innovated, to be sure. Digital television started with broadcasting, and it’s the only video distribution system doing any justice whatsoever to high-definition TV. But those things are now so 1999, which in American cultural time is a fossil era.

It’s also true that the digital transition was a huge metamorphosis for the 70-year-old industry. It came at great expense with no evident return on investment, and was followed immediately by the economic implosion. The industry took a gut punch, but there is no time to for laurel-resting. Vultures have keen eyesight.

Broadcasting needs to redefine itself. People know that cable TV is carried on wires. They know that satellite TV comes from birds, and adoption rates demonstrate people have no objection to antennas.

Most have no clue how broadcast signals travel. It would be nice to rebrand the platform “Cloud TV,” but that now denotes nonlinear delivery. “Atmospheric TV’s” sounds too much like a New Age music network. Following the satellite and cable logic, broadcast should call itself “wireless” TV.

The industry’s lobby should replace all forms of the term “broadcast” in the public lexicon with “wireless TV.” It should rename itself the “Wireless TV Association.” First of all, the reference is accurate. People would easily grasp the concept. Second of all, it would drive the wireless industry batty. This makes for excellent cat-fighting among Washington lobbyists, a truly underappreciated spectator sport if ever there was one.

As with all rebrandings, this one should have substance. A lot of rebrandings fail because they’re done backwards. Folks figure they’ll slap a new name on something and then figure out what it is. This is seriously unwise in a world where every literate person with access to electrons is bombarded constantly with information. Audience alienation in today’s media environment is lethal. There are too many other places to go. So before broadcasting becomes wireless TV, it should consider the implication of the term. It denotes a delivery platform.

TV stations continue to conduct business as programmers, i.e., similar to a cable network. They certainly are, in part, but more prevalently, they are programming providers, like cable and satellite. TV stations unfortunately have become overly dependent on those competitors to distribute their signals, and they’re now paying the price. If over-the-air reliance were even in the 30 percent range, Fox wouldn’t be shaking down affiliates. But this is what retransmission hath wrought.

It’s time for TV stations should conduct business from a platform perspective, especially in markets with high reliance on over-the-air reception. Doing so means comparing broadcast as a platform to cable and satellite. Both have somewhat logical organization of content and premium offerings. TV stations don’t have that now, but they do have, a) the most popular programming, and b) the best value proposition.

Two things would need to be fixed immediately, however: VHF reception and a programming guide. Fox and ABC don’t come in with an indoor antenna 24 miles from the transmitter in Los Angeles. That’s not good, but it’s also not the case in every market.

The programming guide is a matter of cooperation, coordination, and who gives up 1 Mbps to run it. While it may appear to promote competitive programmers, it’ll also likely get more of an audience than the weather map. TV stations in any market that can get those two things down should promote wireless TV as if it were the new iThing. They should do a deal with Dominoes for a free indoor-antenna installation with every large single-topping delivery pizza. The tag is “Let us Put $100 a Month Back in Your Pocket!”

The effort begins there and evolves as diginets are developed and adopted. “More Channels--FREE!” English subtitles on foreign-language programming would be good, too. There are a ton of international channels in Los Angeles I would watch more often if they were subtitled--for the language skills alone. Programming guides also should evolve into universal remote apps as soon as possible, so the entire operation becomes touch-screen intuitive.

Broadcast engineers are now working on the next generation of technical standards for over-the-air TV. They’ll consider things like 3D transmission, advanced compression and interactivity. That’s all good, but what the industry needs more than follow-on features is a new way of thinking of itself. After all, that’s all innovation really is.