The End Is Near (Again)

Last month, Congress finally passed intelligence reform. This month, the FCC is releasing its latest figures on video competition. One of those documents seems to predict the demise of broadcasting; the other seems to hasten it.

Regarding the future of broadcasting, the most significant part of the annual FCC competition report is one line of one chart. It shows the percentage of U.S. television households subscribing to cable, satellite, or other multichannel video-programming distributor.
Just over a decade ago, in December 1993, it was 64%. By June 1998, it was 78%. A year later it was 81%. In June of 2000 it was 84% and a year later over 86%. The handwriting was on the wall. It couldn't be long before it hit 100%.

Last month, Broadcasting & Cable published its list of the top-25 television networks of 2004, based on revenues. The Pax, TeleFutura, Telemundo, and UPN broadcast networks didn't even make it onto the list. Univision was in 24th place, two below non-broadcast A&E. The WB was 19th, three below non-broadcast Lifetime. Fox was in 6th place, below non-broadcast ESPN. Even ABC was below non-broadcast QVC. The figures seem to point towards the demise of broadcast networks.

Then there's the intelligence reform legislation. It includes a resolution that analog TV stations be shut down by the end of 2006. Less than a year ago, fewer than 1% of U.S. television households had the capability of receiving digital television broadcasts, so a shutdown of analog then would have been roughly equivalent to a shutdown of broadcast television altogether.

Are we, therefore, on the verge of the end of over-the-air television? Perhaps the picture isn't that bleak.

Yes, the FCC competition report showed an ever-increasing percentage of homes with access to non-broadcast programming, but that trend ended in June 2001. The percentage actually dropped in June 2002, and June 2003 was unchanged from the previous year.

Yes, many cable networks are earning high revenues, but the number one and number two slots on the list were filled by the oldest broadcast networks--NBC and CBS, respectively. And, if the shopping networks and ESPN are excluded, the combined revenues of the six broadcast networks on the list exceed that of all the other non-broadcast networks combined by about $1.3 billion.

As for the intelligence-reform legislation, the part calling for the shutdown of analog television broadcasting in the U.S. is merely a non-binding "sense of Congress" resolution. It has no force of law.

Is it even a real sense of Congress? The reason the resolution appeared in the intelligence-reform legislation is because that act was being pushed in response to 9/11, and the completed transition from analog to digital television is supposed to free up communications spectrum for use by public-safety agencies. But there are also voters who watch only over-the-air analog television.

NAB president Edward Fritts responded recently to a question about the proposed analog shutdown date by quoting Representative Eliot Engel (D-NY). "If we impose a strict, hard return of spectrum of December 31, 2006, one can be sure that we will all be impeached on January 1, 2007."

It's not just ordinary viewers who might get upset. Disney's Moviebeam delivers Hollywood features to consumers via datacasting over analog PBS stations. But times have changed.

Although he's still concerned about a 2006 analog cutoff, Engel originally made his comments before the FCC "tuner mandate" kicked in. A much higher percentage of U.S. households is now equipped to receive digital television transmissions over the air. Whether they'll use that capability is a different story.