Who's watching you?

Do you know who watches the programming delivered by your station? If you are reaching for the latest ratings book so you can cite the number of viewers in specific demographic groups for various shows and day parts, stop!

This column is not about ratings and audience demographics. It is about the relationship your station has with its viewers.

Do you know their names, where they live and what they watch? Do you have the ability to communicate with them to better serve their needs? Are you building the tools and the skills needed to compete with those who have intimate knowledge about your customers and the ability to interact with them?

Chances are good that your answers to these questions are no. Why? Because you're a broadcaster. Your transmitters push analog and digital signals to the anonymous masses, the vast majority of which no longer use antennas to receive your signals.

You don't know them. They rarely communicate with you. And now you expect them to pay to watch your content if it is delivered by the cable, DBS and telco TV systems that serve your market. Some broadcasters may think this knowledge is trivial compared with the ability to leverage customer relationships to pad the bottom line with retransmission consent payments.

Maybe it's a good thing you don't know your viewers or talk to them. They might ask you why they should pay for the advertiser-supported content you have been giving away for decades. Perhaps they'll be sympathetic to your plight when you tell them that you want the same deal as all of those cable channels that they are paying for each month.

Here's why you need to worry about the future: Because analog TV could disappear in 2009. Because consumers may tell you and the rest of the TV industry where to stick it. And because they can spend the $50 to $100 a month they now send to a multichannel TV service to download the content they want via a broadband Internet connection.

A fork in the road

Be honest with yourself. Do you really believe that local broadcasting can survive the digital transition without changing the basic business model that has been in place since the middle of the last century?

I'm not talking about the DTV transition. That's almost over. I'm talking about the transition to a new digital communications infrastructure — the ability for anyone to access virtually any content at any time on a wide range of devices in the home, the office and on mobiles.

I'm talking about an emerging digital world, where the best coverage of that local news story comes from a viewer's video-enabled cell phone. I'm talking about the reality that a license to broadcast may stop being a license to print money.

We are approaching a fork in the road. One path leads to the digital cliff. The other leads to an intensely competitive digital world, where broadcasters will need to reinvent themselves in order to survive. Your survival will depend on the ability to leverage multiple infrastructures to get close to customers and the ability to create compelling content to meet their needs. Being a gatekeeper for media conglomerates that won't need your transmitters much longer will take you straight to the digital cliff.

Fortunately, the infrastructure to build relationships with viewers, and to create the new services that will help you survive, already exists. (Hint: It's called the Internet). A station's Web site may be the most important tool for the survival and rebirth of over-the-air TV.

But most stations are more concerned about the return on investment from new technologies they don't understand or control. Too many broadcasters think they do not have a back-channel to support one-to-one customer relationships, even as they rely on the infrastructure of competitors to reach those customers. Worse yet, they think they are in the TV business, not the information business, and that they are in the entertainment business, rather than the business of helping local advertisers connect with local customers.

David Kirkpatrick, a senior editor for Fortune magazine, notes that Web sites are the equalizer. “Regardless of their owners, they can all do the same set of things. In that fact lays the profound crisis facing all aspects of the media industry,” Kirkpatrick says. “It doesn't matter whether a Web site's owner once focused on publishing newspapers or magazines, broadcasting television or radio, making music or producing movies, or even selling soft drinks. Any Web site can host text, audio and video, it can facilitate connections and communication between users, and it can enable those users to create and display their own text, audio or video.” (See “Web links.”)

Case in point: When I need to get some information about a year-old local government story, I can't turn to a local station's Web site because the Gainesville, FL, stations do not maintain an archive of the stories they run in their newscasts. In fact, they do little more than use their sites as a shell to link to the Web sites of their network affiliates. Small wonder I go to the Gainesville Sun's Web site for news and www.wunderground.com to get the local weather forecast.

Radio is even further along. A local talk radio station turned to YouTube for a recent promotion. The station set up a contest for two tickets and an all-expenses-paid trip to Glendale, AZ, for the BCS National Championship game to watch the Florida Gators play (and defeat) the Ohio State Buckeyes. Contestants were asked to create a video stating why they should win and upload it to YouTube to share with fans. (See “Web links.”)

Use it or lose it

This year we are going to see an acceleration of the convergence of television and the Internet. It will occur on two fronts:

  • Watch more TV on your computerThis includes additional content that cannot be seen when the show is broadcast. And let's not forget about the ability to build communities of interest around a program via the program's Web site.
  • Use your TV like a computerMore devices will connect to new big screen TVs, making them more akin to computer monitors than the old analog TV receivers.

When using a Web browser, you probably do not notice that modern Web sites pull content from multiple servers to create the page you are viewing. The ads may come from a company that specializes in selling and inserting ads in the Web sites of its customers. The search engine is probably linked to Google or Yahoo. If you play a media file, it may come from Google, YouTube or the hosting services of Akamai or Digital Island.

The Internet is a network-of-networks, and there is no reason that your TV station cannot become part of the information superhighway. With your digital transmitter, you can broadcast all kinds of bits, not just TV. And with a set-top box that is connected to the Internet, you can close the loop with your customers. The same applies for PCs and notebook computers that incorporate a DTV tuner and a broadband connection.

My son got a Nintendo Wii for Christmas. It has built-in WiFi, and when connected, it has several information services, including a weather channel that you can watch on the TV. Microsoft and Sony are trying to go a step further with the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, adding HD-DVD playback capabilities. (See “Lean back media redefined.”)

The time has come for local broadcasters to connect to modern realities. You are in the communications business and have the unique competency to create content and connect advertisers and potential customers in your market in compelling new ways.

Traveling down the fork in the road that leads to the future won't be easy, and it may not be profitable for years. But for broadcasters who are trying to eke the most out of their markets, the time is coming to an end. Wouldn't you rather know who's watching, rather than who's not?

Craig Birkmaier is a technology consultant at Pcube Labs, and he hosts and moderates the OpenDTV forum.

Send questions and comments to:craig.birkmaier@penton.com

Web links

Lean back media redefined

“We are shifting content experience from a lean-forward PC exercise to the comfort of the big screen TV in your living room.”

If you think that this is a quote from Steve Jobs' Macworld announcement of Apple TV, think again. It was delivered by Randy Waynick, senior vice president of the home products division for Sony Electronics. He went on to say: “Internet video will clearly be the next step in the evolution of high-definition television, giving users more control over the content they view.”

Welcome to the world of Internet video, Sony style. At the 2007 International CES show in Las Vegas, Sony announced the BRAVIA Internet Video Link, which will allow most of its new televisions to access free Internet video content, even in HD, from providers including AOL, Grouper and Yahoo, as well as Sony Pictures Entertainment and Sony BMG Music.

The product is a module that will attach to the rear of Sony Internet video-ready televisions. It will link the television set directly to a user's broadband Internet service provider via an Ethernet connection. Viewers will use Sony's Xross Media Bar icon-based interface to access content via their remote control.

The notion that the Internet and the big screen TV in the family room are on a collision course was echoed across the expansive halls of the CES exhibits, even as the press and analysts kept an eye on Apple's Macworld announcements. Microsoft's Bill Gates took things a step further, announcing the Windows Home Server, which is intended to store both computer data and media that can be shared by computers and a Media Center PC attached to the big screen.

Once again, Jobs stole some of the thunder from CES. The expected announcement of Apple TV, which Jobs previewed last fall, seemed almost anticlimactic, just a warm-up act for the main event — the announcement of Apple's iPhone. (See “Web links” on page 16.) The iPhone combines the functionality of a cellular phone, widescreen video iPod, e-mail and text messaging center, and a full-functioned Web browser that fits in the palm of your hand.

Powered by Apple's OS X and an innovative touch-screen interface, Jobs claimed that the iPhone is five years ahead of the competition. His optimism is well founded, and we will likely see many of the core technologies developed for the iPhone appear in a wide range of consumer electronics products. One can easily imagine the touch-screen interface being used as a remote control for TV users to surf the Web and navigate through the media stored on an Apple TV, PCs, iPods and other devices with wireless interfaces.