McAdams On: Mt. Wilson

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 transmissions.

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 course.

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 inaccurately.

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.